Lessons from the Shot: How to Improve Your Flash Photography by Stanley Leary


by Stanley Leary

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Most cameras that come with a built-in flash give straight, harsh light, which is subject to red eye. This is due to how close the flash is to the lens. There are times this is the only option you may have for a situation. In this case getting the photo is more important than no photo.
Almost every point and shoot has a built-in flash and most people’s photos have this harsh look. The other place we see this straight on flash is in crime scene photography, which has been made more famous through TV shows like the CSI series.
What we do know is when we use the flash on the camera pointed straight at the subject it will look like most all amateurs’ photos and crime scene investigation photos. In other words anyone can get this type of photo and it is almost the norm when it comes to flash photography.
When creative directors, art directors and editors hire professional photographers, there is an assumption that is expected and not always stated. The professional is hired to get something different than what they would do with their camera. While picking a unique angle with a different lens may give the client something different, the minute the straight on flash is introduced it immediately looks like something they would or could have done very easily themselves.
Lighting has more impact on a photograph than any other aspect in photography.
Without light there are no photos and what kind of light determines much more than if you can see the subject. It actually helps shape the subject and creates a mood more so than camera angle or lens choice.
When shooting in black and white the direction of the light helps shape the object and can make a photo have more pop for example. In color the color of the light as well as the direction will help establish the mood. Theater type lighting makes your subject look dramatic for example. White light can make something look clinical or even used to simulate the feel of being in heaven.
To avoid red eye try bouncing your flash off a ceiling or wall. What I consider one of the most dramatic types of lighting requires your flash to be off the camera.
There are two angles that I prefer. First, having the light 45 degrees to the either side of the subject relative to the camera give a lighting affect used by the great artist.
Rembrandt liked to have the light 45 degrees to the side of subject relative to his perspective and about 45 degrees up above his perspective as well. If the subject is looking straight at you will get a small triangle on the cheek, which is on the opposite side of the light. The shape of the nose and brow help create this triangle. You may have to ask the subject to move their head just slightly to make this work just right.
Second, I think side lighting the subject works really well for people. This is where the light is 90 degrees from the camera on the left or right side of the subject.
There are basically two ways to achieve this technique. You can use a cable to go between your camera and flash. The second way is to use a remote to fire the flash.
When using a cable (check your manual for the flash and camera to get the one for your camera) you will need to be very close physically to the subject. The reason is the further back you are from the subject the angle between the lens and the flash relative to the subject will diminish and you will have photos that look more like on camera flash. One simple solution is to buy a longer cable. There is usually a limit as to how long this cable can be and still work with your flash.
A little more expensive solution is to use a remote. There are two kinds of remotes for flashes: a generic radio remote and a wireless one designed to work with your flash. Both of these will let you place your flash away from the camera and each one has its advantage and disadvantage.
The advantage of the radio remote is its effectiveness up to 400 feet— depending on the unit. It works around walls and even through them. The disadvantage is if you need to adjust the power of the flash you must go to the flash and adjust it manually. Your TTL function—where the camera pretty much figures out the correct exposure is lost.
The advantage of the wireless system, like the SU-800 for Nikons, is individual control for each flash unit. Your camera will fire the units.  Since it is working in TTL mode, it will properly adjust the exposure. 
While both systems will let you use numerous flashes together, the TTL wireless system lets you ratio the lights from the unit and therefore you can look at your LCD and make an adjustment and never have to move. One more major advantage of the wireless system, you can use a shutter speed greater than the sync speed of say 1/250. This opens up many possibilities — especially outside on sunny days.
Using off camera flash requires a lot of practice to master the technique.
Will your photos be better because you use this technique? Maybe, but most importantly they will look different and sometimes this is enough to get the attention of your audience.