Five tips for better flash photography

Getting good pictures with your camera's flash can be a challenge--here's how.

In theory, using your camera's flash is simple. You use it when there isn't enough light to take a picture with natural light alone. And when you consider that most cameras have an automatic flash mode, taking low-light photos should be a snap. But it isn't. It's been a while since I've discussed how to make the most of your camera flash; today, let's look at five things you can do to take great photos with your flash.

1. Know When to Use the Flash

Some people leave their flash on all the time, which can result in it firing when it's totally unnecessary. Others turn it off completely and never use it. I land somewhere in the middle. I do tend to leave the flash turned off most of the time, but I switch it on when the occasion warrants.

Your camera probably warns you with an icon in the viewfinder when the light is too low for a good photo without the flash--check your camera's user guide to see how to interpret those messages. You can also check what shutter speed the camera is trying to use; anything under 1/60 second is probably too slow. Either increase the ISO (which will increase the sensitivity of the sensor), or turn on the flash.

2. Know Your Camera's Flash Modes

Your camera flash probably has more settings beyond just on and off. Check out "Master Your Camera's Flash Modes" for a primer on how to use your camera flash. You should know when to switch to fill flash (it's great for taking pictures of people outdoors in direct sunlight to avoid harsh shadows) and use red eye reduction (indoors in low light, when shooting pictures of people).

3. Use an External Flash

Your camera's built-in flash has a very limited range. In most cases, it'll illuminate subjects only up to about 10 feet away from your camera. If you need to shoot across longer distances--like a school auditorium, for example--consider adding an external flash to your camera if it has a hot shoe attachment. Even some point-and-shoot cameras can accommodate external flashes, and that'll extend your range to 30, 40, or even 50 feet. You can also do stuff with an external flash you can't do with the built in flash--like bouncing the light, which I mention next.

4. Bounce the Light

If you're using an external flash, try to bounce the light. Direct flash illumination is harsh and cold. But bouncing it can soften and humanize your photos. You can bounce the light off the ceiling or use a bounce card, which diffuses and redirects the light from your flash. You can buy a bounce card--but why bother, when the Web is filled with instructions for free ones you can make yourself. Try, for example, a DIY bounce card at Make. Print the PDF, cut it out, and attach it to your flash with a rubber band. It works great.

5. Illuminate a Large Scene

Want to take a picture of a large room but the camera's flash can only throw light on a small piece of it at once? You'll need an external flash. Don't mount it on the camera--just turn it on and hold it in your hand. In fact, it doesn't even need to be compatible with the camera; it can be a flash you borrowed from a friend that works with a different camera.

Set the camera on a tripod and configure it for a long exposure, such as 30 seconds. Then walk around, manually firing the flash at different sections of the room. For best results, don't allow the flash itself to appear in the scene, and never fire it directly at the camera--keep it pointed away from the camera, at the scene you want to illuminate. With a little experimentation, you can get some great results. And while you're experimenting with your flash, try painting with light.

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Dave Johnson

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