After spending a few years of living strictly by the rule “built-in flash must be used at no cost” I felt I’d got a reasonable grasp of how to make the most of any naturally available light.
As I’d made up the rule myself, I thought it was probably a safe bet that I could break it without anything too dreadful happening.
With that in mind I started to investigate ways that a flash (either built-in or with a flash gun) could open up new opportunities in situations that the available light would never be sufficient to make a decent exposure no matter how many tricks I used involving doors or windows, apertures or shutter speeds and even my trusty reflectors.
It became apparent that other photographers were still able to take shots in those situations and I realised they probably weren’t using any special magic tricks to summon up light where none existed, although the actual answer wasn’t a million miles away from that. They were in fact, quite obviously, using a flash.
This caused me a bit of a quandary, was it really the case that flash was OK to use after all?
The answer was really yes and no (well probably more yes and yes but I didn’t want to feel like I’d wasted three years by refusing to use my built-in flash!).
As I investigated more about flash, something that I’d simply ignored previously like a large white elephant in the room, I discovered that it wasn’t simply a tool for illuminating dark places, but one for bringing additional light to all situations. And what’s more, whilst the results would vary, this could be achieved using anything from the built-in flash right up to incredibly complex lighting setups that I am still struggling to fathom.
This excellent post by Richard Adenot expertly demonstrates how far you can take something as simple as a portrait of an man in a chair if you fully understand how to use flash http://goo.gl/DYbU0o
The other end of the spectrum (which is the end I am very much closer to at present) is to make more effective use of the in-built flash. An immediate improvement can be made by discovering how to reduce the intensity of the flash. By default my camera was set to fire at full power but a few clicks through the menu and I found that this could be reduced to a much less intense blast. Even at its new slightly less over powering setting it still didn’t escape the fact that the flash was always pointed directly at the subject, which really minimises the creative options available to you.
I found a simple fix for this was to use a small piece of white card placed at 45 degrees in front of the flash. By using lighter weight card, right down to thin paper, you can create a diffused light that hopefully bounces off the ceiling instead of just firing straight forward. When I’d forgotten my trusty card, or if it wasn’t practical to hold that in one hand whilst holding the camera in the other I had another trick up my sleeve.
Sometimes balancing baby on my legs as I wrangled with bits of paper and my DSLR would cause a concerned frown from Mum, so for this situation, I made sure I always had a tissue available. By folding this to whatever thickness is appropriate and wedging it in front of the in-built flash provides a light weight compact diffuser that you can carry around with you in your pocket.
By bringing in even a little splash of flash to a portrait that I’d taken a hundred times before, I was treated to a new photo that stood out from the others. Whilst you might not get the most perfectly exposed image (largely because the camera didn’t know that I’d stuck in my make shift diffuser), the addition of catch lights in the beautifully bright eyes and the smoothing over of any shadows under the eyes from several late nights really lifts this photo for me.
I wouldn’t want every one of my photos to look like this, but as with many things, the more tools you have available to you in your box, the more variety you can bring to your photos. And after all, as they say, variety is the spice of life.