Steve's Photography Tips: To Flash, Or Not To Flash?


Most digital cameras these days have some sort of built-in flash. Even cell phones, which account for an ever-growing percentage of photos taken each year, have a flash. And there are also a variety of external flashes available for cameras as well. And that all leads to today’s photography question: To flash, or not to flash?

And here’s the answer:

To not to* * Except in special circumstances

But I’m sure you came here expecting a longer answer than that, so keep on reading.

Yes, at least for the type of photography that I do, a flash doesn’t really do much good at all. You can do much better using the available light in a space than to use a flash, even if it is a powerful one. But there are some circumstances where a flash is absolutely necessary and appropriate. The trick is to know when, how, and why to use your flash if you are going to do so. But first, let’s talk about…

When Not To Use a Flash

As I mentioned already, it really is best to not use a flash if you can at all help it. Sometimes that does take some adjusting of your camera’s settings to get the right exposure. Sometimes that involves a longer exposure, which requires the use of a tripod.

First, let’s talk about that built-in flash on your camera. Here’s the bottom line: it really isn’t good for much of anything, unless you are within 10 feet of your subject. And even then it doesn’t do all that well. It is fine for snapshots at times, but that’s about it. So in just about any circumstance, don’t use it.

If you are taking photos of a sports event or a concert, don’t use a flash. For sports, unless you have a really powerful flash, it won’t do much good except to light up the heads of the people who are sitting right in front of you. And the same goes for a concert. Most concerts don’t let you bring your professional-looking cameras in anyway, but even if you are just using your phone camera, the flash on that won’t do any good at all.

If you are in a theme park attraction, heed the warnings they give over and over again about not using flash photography. As with everything else, you probably aren’t close enough for your flash to do much good, except maybe to ruin some of the “magic” of how some things are done. And besides that, because it is dark inside most of those attractions (hence the temptation to use a flash), the bright flash is really annoying to everyone else in the attraction with you. Of course, camera flashes are annoying any time they are flashing in your eyes, but at least in most cases people expect it when they know they are having their picture taken. But they aren’t usually expecting it in a dark ride. So be a pal and don’t do it.

Also, if you are taking photos of fireworks, please don’t use your flash. Because that just doesn’t work. Really. Trust me. Or try it for yourself.

So the best thing to do in the above situations is not to use a flash, but instead use one of your camera’s shooting modes that doesn’t automatically activate the flash.

But then there are times when you just have to use a flash…

When To Use a Flash

Sometimes when things are dark (I’m talking about photo subjects and not life circumstances - that’s an entirely different discussion), a flash is necessary, especially if people are in your photo and there isn’t that much light around. But that can be a little tricky at times.

If you use your camera’s built-in flash, the subject that you are shooting will be illuminated (if you are close enough to it), but the background will be rather dark. Sometimes that works well if that is all you can do, such as this quick photo of us and our servers from our recent Disney cruise:

I was able to bring up the brightness of the background somewhat using the Raw file, and so the photo ended up being okay, but it wasn’t exactly ideal.

Your next option after the camera’s built-in flash is an external flash. For example, for my Canon 60D I have a Canon Speedlite 430EX II flash, and it “talks” to the camera so that the camera can adjust the intensity of the flash based on distance, camera settings, and whatever else. It does pretty well for many things, such as some portrait-type situations:

Because the flash isn’t right on the camera, but is instead a few inches above it, there is a little bit of an angle between the light leaving the flash and coming back into the camera, which gives a little better look.

But the Speedlite 430 is also adjustable, meaning you can angle it up at any angle all the way to straight up, or you can even turn it around so that it is flashing behind you. What is the advantage of that? When the flash is angled up, it can bounce light off of the ceiling, which gives your photos more of an “available light” look, as if your subjects are being lit from an overhead light.

By bouncing the flash off of the ceiling, the background is also lit somewhat, so that it doesn’t look nearly as dark. That way, the photo is more evenly illuminated than the previous photo, where it looks like the kids were in a spotlight.

But my favorite use of a flash is to have the flash completely off of the camera, so that you can position it anywhere that you want it. This allows you to be quite creative with your lighting, and you can create all sorts of interesting effects if you have a mind to do so.

I find that the off-camera flash is useful for photographing people, especially in formal settings. The light isn’t right on them, you don’t have any “red-eye” from the flash, and it creates a more interesting look, in my opinion.

However, this type of lighting does involve a bit more set-up, as well as some extra equipment. More professional-grade cameras have a cable connection to connect an external flash, which makes it relatively easy. However, my camera doesn’t have that. So instead, I use a wireless transmitter and receiver. The transmitter attaches to the camera’s hot-shoe (where the flash normally goes), and the receiver has a hot-shoe connection for the flash. That way, the flash is automatically triggered when you press the shutter button. The set that I have is the Cactus V2 set, which isn’t made any more. The current version is Cactus V5, and although I haven’t had any experience with them, if they work as well as the V2 then they should be just fine.

Also, I have a few other pieces of equipment to enhance things just a bit. To diffuse the light a bit, I point the flash into an umbrella, and then the umbrella points to the subject. The flash is actually pointing away from the subject and into the umbrella, which lights up the whole scene rather well. These probably aren’t the exact pieces that I have, but I would recommend a flash bracket, an umbrella, and a flash stand. And of course the flash and transmitters as well. Amazon has some packages that have several of those pieces bundled together, so if you are interested you might want to check those out as well.

When you use a setup such as that, the flash doesn’t talk to the camera any more, so you have to set everything manually. That takes some time to figure everything out and to get your light placed just right, so if you go that route make sure that you have enough time ahead of time to get things right. And maybe it just takes me a little longer because I don’t use this setup all the time, so with some practice you might get faster at it than I am.

2016 valentine banquet-burns-12

But as you can see, it is worth the extra effort to get that professional-style look for your portraits without necessarily having to pay professional-style prices. And if you want to get even more professional-looking, you can get another flash and the associated equipment and have cross lighting, or lighting coming from both sides instead of just one side as in the photos above. If I did this type of thing more, and charged money for it, I would definitely go that route. But for a thrifty hobbyist like me, one flash works just fine.

Oh, and if you came here to read about a different kind of flashing, you have by now probably realized that you are in the completely wrong place. But thanks for reading all the way to the end, anyway!

Watch for more soon from Steve’s Photography Tips!

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Burnsland is Steve Burns, with generous help from his lovely wife Laura. Steve is a husband, father, photographer, webmaster, writer, podcaster, artist, Christian. Steve enjoys sharing his photography, art, and stories through, from the Burnsland World Headquarters in Tennessee.