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When should you use a flash in your photography?



A man takes a picture on a camera with a built-in flash.
Koldunov / Shutterstock.com

Flash has a bad reputation with photographers. Many articles for beginners ̵

1; and I’ve written a few – recommend avoiding it whenever possible. But while you will generally get better photos if you don’t use a flash, there are some situations where it is essential. Let’s dig in it.

How not to use Flash

typical bad flash photo
A pretty typical bad flash photo. Harry Guinness

The big problem with flash is that when you use it, you can easily take ugly photos. Things close to the camera are super brightly lit, the background is pitch black and everyone looks shocked. It’s all very “student night at the local bar.”

And yes, when you take pictures of people indoors at night with your smartphone, it is very difficult not to get those pictures. But you can use the flash more carefully, in different ways and in other situations where the results will be much better.

When should you use Flash?

Flash is one of the many tools available to a photographer. While your smartphone or camera may prompt you to use “Auto Flash” mode, it should be a conscious choice on your part. Some of the times you should consider using it are:

If you have no other option

I’ll be honest: outside a studio, using flash is usually a last resort for me. It’s where I turn when the other tools I prefer to use don’t work. Some of the other options to look at first are:

  • Night mode, Night vision or whatever your smartphone calls it. These AI-powered modes can achieve excellent results in low-light situations. In most cases, they give you better photos than the flash.
  • The exposure control of your camera. You can use a slower shutter speed, wider aperture, and higher ISO to take pictures at night. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but it’s worth trying first.
  • A tripod, so you can use a very slow shutter speed. When taking landscape photos in low light, this is the first thing to look at. A flash won’t light up the whole scene anyway.
  • Ambient lighting. It just looks more natural. If you’re indoors, try window lighting or other available lighting fixtures. Outside, street lighting and illuminated shop windows can work great.
good ambient light portrait
I was able to use a wide aperture, high ISO and a street light to take this photo without a flash. Harry Guinness

You also have the option not to shoot. If you know that you will not be satisfied with the results, you can put your camera away. But if you to have to take a photo, you must use the flash.

RELATED: How does “Night mode” work on smartphone cameras?

When you need a fast shutter speed

flash photo of a skier
Three flashes were used to take this photo. You can see one in the frame. Harry Guinness

To get the photo you want, you sometimes have to use a much faster shutter speed than the available light allows. This normally happens when you try to freeze an action or take a photo of something that is moving fast. It could be a skier (as in the photo above) or your dog running along the beach. In these situations, a flash can be very useful and, when done right, can take a very dramatic shot.

However, it’s important to note that this is also one of the trickiest times to use a flash. Autofocus doesn’t always work well with flash and can be especially tricky in low light. The best option is often to manually focus and frame the shot.

When it is really sunny outside

Sometimes you don’t need a flash because there is too little light, but because there is too much. On very bright, sunny days, the natural light can give you ugly, harsh shadows. That is why we recommend that you look for some overhanging shadow from a tree or building when taking portraits.

However, if no shadow is available, you can use a fill flash to add light and fill in the harshest shadows. It is a very popular technique in editorial and fashion photography. When done properly, it will look completely natural.

RELATED: How to radically enhance your photos with a flash diffuser

When taking group photos

group portrait
Flashes are very useful for group portraits. Harry Guinness

Taking pictures of groups of people is difficult in the best of circumstances. People don’t all look at the camera at the same time, they move as soon as you press the shutter button and they certainly don’t stay with you to take another photo. Unfortunately, if you are the designated photographer, you will often be asked to do so.

In group situations where you can’t control the lighting or get people to move or pose, and you just want the shot quickly and with as little hassle as possible, flash is your friend. Of course, the photos won’t be the prettiest, but they show that everyone is looking good and having fun.

Note: Note: Taking group photos at nightclubs, bars and events is one of the easiest ways to make money as a photographer.

Whenever you want it

As much as I belittled the harsh flash, heavy shadows look at the beginning of this article, it’s making a comeback. It is a feature of the disposable camera / polaroid photos that have become popular in recent years. If it’s something you like, go ahead and use a flash to get it.

Likewise, if there is another situation where you want to use the flash, either to make your life easier or just because you think it will look cool, do it. The absolute worst possible outcome is taking a bad photo that you don’t want to share. I do that every time I grab my camera.

Tips for using Flash

If you are going to use flash, there are a few things you can do to get better results.

flash boucning
Here I reflected the flash off the ceiling. It makes for a much better absorption. Harry Guinness

Direct flash on the camera is the most shocking. It’s what creates the really obvious flash photo look. If you can use an external flash outside the camera to change the angle of the light, you will get better results instantly.

Also, spreading the flash with a softbox, umbrella or other lighting modifier goes a long way.

When inside, you can “bounce” the flash off the ceiling or a nearby wall. It changes the angle of the light and spreads it.

Unfortunately, these tips only apply if you photograph with a special camera and have separate flash units. When you use your smartphone, you don’t have much control. Still, there are some things you can do.

Step back from your subjects. The flash is brighter closer to the camera, so having a little distance makes things look less dramatic.

Play with and practice using the flash occasionally. You don’t want to puzzle through how it works when you’re under pressure to take a picture. The more familiar you are with it, the better the results will be.

Edited flash photo
A little bit of editing can go a long way. Harry Guinness

Edit your photos after taking them. You can use an image editor to even out the exposure, reduce some of the contrast, and remove flash artifacts such as red eyes. The photos will probably still look like flash photos, but they won’t be that over the top.

It’s quite rare to find yourself in a situation where you only have one chance to have a shot. Try using the flash and, if that doesn’t work, see if you can take good pictures without it. Trying on both sides has no downside.

RELATED: How to radically enhance your photos with a flash diffuser




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