Most amateur photographers have a very simple approach to using flash -- you just press the button on your point and shoot camera and, if the ambient light is not sufficient, the flash will fire. That's all! Well, that is true, but can one get good, artistic photographs that way? Even if you don't know much about photography you will probably guess that the answer is no -- to get nice looking photos one has to put in a little more effort and try to be more creative in every respect, including how to use flash.
Consumer class cameras have a built in direct flash (i.e., flash pointing directly at the subject).But even those who have a DSLR camera and a cool expensive flash installed on it often use it the same way -- pointing directly at their subject. So, what is there not good about this? Photographers call this type of light hard, in such light the subject looks very flat, without any shadows. Or, if the subject is not facing the camera directly, on the contrary, there may be very hard shadows on the face, for example from the nose. Especially for portrait photography, that looks not flattering at all. In addition to that, hard light will produce very sharp shadows on the walls behind the person being portrayed. This is definitely not what we want. If we want to make a good portrait, there should be shadows on the face to highlight its shape but they should be soft and we should try to avoid any shadows behind the person.
Is there a solution? Yes, of course. The simplest solution, available for every camera and every type of flash, is to use a flash modifier, like a diffuser, a reflector or a softbox. Diffusers are probably the easiest to use. Generally they have a dome-like shape, that's why they scatter the light in every direction. As a result, while a part of the light still hits the subject directly, the other part goes to the ceiling or to the walls, bounces and then reaches the subject from a different angle. The resulting light is called soft. Such light creates nice soft shadows on the face, so that the photos look much better. Diffusers are available in many photography stores and are very cheap. One can also easily make a diffuser from a piece of white plastic or paper or something like that. Then you can easily adopt such a diffuser to your camera, even a point and shoot one. But have in mind that diffusers will not always work as expected. In order for them to work, there must be something for the diffused light to reflect from, like the ceiling or white walls. When shooting outside, or in a room with a very high ceiling, the light will not reflect back. The result will then be the same as with direct flash but the flash power will be partly lost. Just try to experiment with a diffuser, compare the photos taken in various conditions and you will find how to use it properly and also when it works and when it does not.
Reflectors can be used similar to diffusers but let us first talk about bouncing. What photographers call bouncing, is actually reflection of light from various surfaces, like the ceiling, the walls or could be even from the white dress of someone standing nearby. More expensive flashes produced for DSLR cameras have a tilt and swivel head. With such a flash head you can direct the light wherever you like. When directed to the ceiling, it will illuminate a large area there. Then the whole that area will work as a light source for your subject, which will result in a very nice soft light. But try not to direct the flash light right above the subject's head because that will result in deep shadows under the nose and around the eyes (they call it raccoon eyes). Choose a spot on the ceiling further away from the subject in the direction where he or she is looking. Or one can use a reflector card, so that a part of the light hits the face directly and lightens those shadows. The same way bouncing can be done from the walls, that can be even much better because the bounced light will not come from above the subject. But if the walls are colored that will result in unnatural colors in the photo.
So, coming back to reflectors, whatever I have just said about bouncing can be achieved using a reflector. Just put a piece of white paper at 45 degrees right in front of the flash and the light will be directed up to the ceiling. If the paper is not too thick, it will work as a diffuser at the same time because the light will partly pass through the paper. Thus you will get a combination of direct and bounced light, which is even better. Such an improvised reflector can be a good solution for point and shoot cameras, which do not allow connecting an external flash. But, as the built-in flash power is very low, that can be done only in small rooms with low ceiling.
So far, what we have been talking about is all about using flash in low light conditions. You may say that this is what photo flash was designed for, what other conditions can there be where one would need to use a flash? Well, it appears that flash can be very helpful in bright daylight also. The thing is that direct sunlight is very hard and, as we have seen so far, this kind of light is not the best for photography. That's why, whenever possible, one should avoid photographing people in direct sunlight. But if that is not possible then one can use flash to soften the shadows created on people's faces by the hard light. Another situation is when the background is too bright, for example the bright sky. In that case one could use the flash as an additional light source to highlight the people to make them pop from the background. When flash is used like this, it is called a fill flash because it creates additional light that fills she shadows or darker objects -- a fill light.
Depending on the situation, the flash power required for best fill may vary very much. It may be adjusted using the Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) function available almost in every camera. When one needs to highlight a subject in the shadow, a negative FEC of about -1 stop is the best. But for shots in the bright sunlight or directly into the sun, a positive FEC will be needed. For such shots a powerful external flash is required, the power of a small flash in a point and shoot camera will not be sufficient.
So, these are the most common situations where proper use of flash will help you to get much nicer photos. I hope, you found this reading useful. Now you can just go out and experiment, play with your flash. Try to make simple diffusers and reflectors or buy some. Experiment with various lighting conditions and soon you will notice that your photos will become much better.
Levent Toprak is an Istanbul based wedding photographer with a 40 years' experience in photography. Turkish readers can visit Dügün fotografçisi Istanbul for information in Turkish.