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Understanding On Camera Flash


First and foremost: Forget what other photographers tell you about fill flash. The effect is ugly. Why? Because your flash is not a full strobe. Well, it is, but it is not a studio strobe light that is large. You do not have a soft box that is 3 feet wide. The only way you can make your on-camera flash into something decent when out doors is to have your assistant carry around a white board to bounce it off of. I find this to be a little obtrusive when I am trying to shoot intimate portraits.

Off Topic Tip #1
Never use an on camera flash if you have natural daylight.
Ok, there is always the exception so here it is:

Exception: Sunset shots on the fly
How to: Camera set to Manual
Camera Mode: Manual
Flash Mode: Manual with High Sync on

  1. Position your subject so you can see South, South-East, or Eastern sky, or you can do this at sunset as seen to the left.
  2. Take ambient light reading and set your exposure.
  3. Stop down your aperture by 1-2 stops, speed up your shutter speed by 1-3 stops.
  4. Take a test shot and balance exposure on your subject with your flash power and/or your aperture.
  5. Adjust sky darkness with your shutter speed. (Usually at about 1/500 sec is normal.)

Tip to remember: You need to have lots of sky in the background for this effect to work nicely. The flash exposure will be adjusted by your aperture while the background sky exposure will be adjusted by your shutter speed. Also, try to keep your flash to the side. I had my assistant hold the flash about 3 feet to the right of me. It makes the light less flat.

If you are NOT shooting a sunset shot…

Tip #1
Diffuse your flash
The quickest, easiest way to diffuse your flash light, other than to get tricky with bouncing it off walls (which is preferable in many situations) is to put a swanky little omni bounce cap on and set your flash to 45 degrees. The very last part of that sentence is what is important: “set your flash to 45 degrees.” Many people do not understand that the way to properly use their cap is precisely that way. I see many pro shooters with the cap on their flash and the flash cocked straight at the people at a 90 degree angle. Light travels straight through and will still render the same look as with it off. By placing it at a 45 degree angle, the flash will light up the cap and glow in several directions creating a slightly softer light.

Tip #2
Camera and Flash Basic Settings
Set your Camera to Manual and your flash to TTL
The rest is history. You can decide what aperture you need and what shutter speed you need. FORGET YOUR LIGHT METER. Your flash will fire the correct power.

Tip #3
Camera Specific Settings
That being said, if you are a dumb dumb and have NO CLUE about exposure and you set your camera to Manual at f22 with your shutter at 1/125, then I doubt your flash will work property. Why? If it is dark out  your flash will not be able to handle pumping out that much power. Keep your settings at or around this: (THIS IS BIG! SO WRITE THIS DOWN!) f2.8-4.0 at 1/6-1/30
If you have a lens that goes down to 1.2 to 1.8 do not shoot wide open if you are shooting an event. Yes, your batteries will last forever, and yes, you will pick up more ambient light, but you WILL miss most of your shots. At an event people are moving. Use your head. If you are shooting something in low low light and no one is moving, by all means shoot wide open. I bet you money you will still miss several shots (meaning they will be out of focus.) Trust me on this one, just stop down a bit. I find that 2.8 – 4.0 works perfectly.
Your flash will pump out the brightness that is needed based on what aperture you set.
Your shutter however is picking up whatever ambient light there is. If you shoot too high (most people shoot flash shots at 1/125) your backgrounds will be dark and you will catch shots that look like everyone else’s point and shoot cameras.
Your job is to balance the light. If you have a newer camera (something purchased AND built in the last year) you can use your ISO to get better ambient light. You can shoot at higher shutter speeds to you do not get motion blur or shutter drag by upping your ISO. If you own an older model camera (first version 5D, first version 1D) you cannot use your ISO. For the best looking shots shoot at only ISO 100 (or 200 if that is the lowest your camera will go.) I have a newer camera and I still keep my ISO to 100. Occasionally I will raise it but I generally try to shoot at 100 as much as I can. I honestly think people who shoot entire events at high ISOs are LAME! Okay, you may think, that’s a little harsh. But honestly, I HATE any and all forms of digital noise in color images. Even if it is slight. HATE IT!!! So, if you want your images to look gritty and I am not talking beautiful film grain look, then by all means, crank up your ISO.

Tip #4
Shutter Drag (Tungsten Blur)
Camera Mode: Manual
Flash Mode: TTL (no need to use Slow Synch)

  1. Take ambient light reading and set your shutter exposure (Normally around 1/3 to 1/15 sec. with aperture wide open)
  2. Subject should have little to no light on them
  3. Adjust ambient exposure with shutter speed. The slower you get, the more “drag” you will get.

There you have it. Hopefully you can try some of these things but remember: practice practice practice. Understanding light takes a lot more looking at light than it does reading about it. Enjoy!

All of the above shots were taken using and Omni Bounce flash cap except where noted for the little girl.

Also, please get your terminology right. The circles are NOT Bokeh (Correct spelling is Boke, photographers added the “h” so people would say it correctly however people still mispronounce it. The correct pronunciation is like bouquet just without they yay at the end. BO KE with equal pronunciation on both syllables. The term is derived from the Japanese word boke that means fuzzy or hazy. Literally meaning someone who is senile or fuzzy in the head. I personally do not like lumping boke with Circles of Confusion. They are very different, however on many free online sites that describe boke, are lumping in Circles of Confusion in with boke. Photographers who are lovers of true boke will describe it to you like the smoothest buttery look of an out of focus area. It almost looks touchable. Like super soft suede. So, take it as you like, but to me, Circles of Confusion have nothing to do with truly GREAT boke. (Jen’s 2 cents!)

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Copyright © 2010 by Jen O’Sullivan

Beverly Hills Wedding Photographer, Jen O’Sullivan is a boutique wedding photographer who specializes in portrait journalism.

Jen O’Sullivan Boutique Wedding Photography | 357 South Robertson Boulevard, Beverly Hills, California, 90211 | 310-494-6547