Using flash helps

Many photographers think the only time to use a flash is in a darkened room and there are even those that are so uncomfortable using flash that they totally depend on high ISO camera settings to take pictures in low light interiors. ISO stands for International Standards Organization and determines the sensitivity to light for which the sensor is set.

I think relying on high ISO settings instead of adding light from a flash is ok for long shots inside the gym during basketball games, or auditorium photos of children’s concerts, but close-ups of people with mixed lighting coming from overhead light leaves unflattering shadows and colours crossing their face.

I have fitted my camera with a bracket that lifts the flash about six inches above the lens or can be quickly removed for off camera lighting. Most camera hotshoes place the flash close and directly over the lens and that close proximity usually causes an effect called “red eye” which is the appearance of red pupils in the eyes. Moving the flash some distance from the lens using a bracket or off camera flash cord helps to reduce that effect.

Many people leave their camera’s setting on “program” or “auto mode” and hope for good results. Many of those same people are unaware how important a good quality flash is. However, photographers that are concerned with their images and want their photographs of people to be enduring, and more than just unattractive snapshots, are using a flash, and not the tiny popup flash that many cameras have, but a controllable flash with the power to illuminate spaces larger than a family dining room or be placed pleasingly for appealing portraits.

In last weeks column “Using a Flash in the Midday Sun” I wrote that I prefer to leave my camera set to manual exposure mode which allows me, and not the camera, to choose the overall ambient exposure, and to add flash to those areas that are underexposed by shadows. Although my discussion was about daylight photography, I approach my photography in much the same way indoors or out. I meter the existing light, set the exposure, turn on the flash, and make tests using the flash, and increase or decrease the output level. Then I look at the camera LCD, check the histogram and look to see if there are blinking borders around any white areas indicating over exposure. If I observe them I dial the flash down, or change my aperture, testing again till the flashing borders disappear. (That highlight-warning feature is usually found in the camera’s menu). And when I move in close for photographs I always place a diffuser over my flash head to spread and soften the light.

Using my flash like that gives me broad, even lighting on people and when out of doors I sometimes even set my camera and flash output so those individuals are slightly brighter than the surrounding area and the background. As I just wrote, I can remove the flash from the bracket which allows it to be pointed it in any direction I want; bouncing the light off building walls, concrete sidewalks and, if I want, hold it higher than people sitting in front of me.

When I learned to use a flash many years ago it changed the quality of my photography. I no longer had to rely on inconsistent, and, in many cases, unappealing ambient light, and I began to notice that my subjects had more “pop” and dimension than those without the flash. Just like the control I gained by using different focal length lenses, using the flash allowed me to add light when I needed it, improving the quality of my photographs and separating my photography from those who do not to use flash. My advice for those interested in portrait photography is to get a flash and start using it every time a person is in front of their cameras.

These are my thoughts this week. Contact me at

Using your flash under the midday sun.

Using a hot shoe or auxiliary flash is confusing for many photographers, and when I casually remark that I like adding flash to all my portraits whether inside or outside, overcast or bright sunny days, I often get quizzical and disbelieving looks.

This was the case while I was photographing last weekend’s Walk for Life Relay in Kamloops. The day was sunny and bright with participants’ faces constantly affected by strong shadows. Another photographer inquired about my bracket-mounted flash, politely listened when I said I always used flash, and even put flashes onto her camera for a time. When I later viewed images on her camera’s LCD screen I could see she removed or turned the flash off resulting in unflattering shadows across subject’s faces.

Coincidentally, later that evening I read the following query in an online photographer’s forum, “I’ve been shooting headshots recently and it got me thinking a lot about metering. How do I meter for flash portrait photography on location? I know that without a flash, I would just spot meter their face, zero the meter, and snap. What happens when I have an off camera flash? Do I just meter normally then shoot? Because when I do this, once the flash goes off, the exposure would be completely different than what I’ve just metered, which would usually mean overexposed. This is so very confusing. Please shed some light on this (no pun intended).”

I recall an assignment from a photography class taken early in the 1970s. That assignment, given by our sometimes-flamboyant instructor, was to photograph someone wearing a wide brimmed hat under the midday sun. (My apologies to those that adhere to the words from Noel Coward’s words that “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”).

Our assignment was to light the shadowed face under the hat and still have properly exposed surroundings. At that time flash technology produced constant light and photographers didn’t have TTL (through the lens) flash, digital cameras, or PhotoShop. The solution to the assignment was to diffuse and reduce the light in stages by placing a white handkerchief folded twice, folded once, or not at all, over the flash head until the correct amount of light “filled or opened up the deep shadow”.

Fortunately, modern cameras with TTL flash are almost foolproof, and the days of calculating restricting flash power are long gone, and only a modicum of thought is required on the photographer’s part as to how much light should be added for the subject’s exposure.

I leave my camera set to manual exposure mode. That allows me, not the camera, to choose the overall ambient exposure and to add flash to those areas that are underexposed by shadows. Given the choice of subject placement I photograph the subject with the sun at their back. I meter the existing light, set the exposure, turn on the flash, and make tests using the flash’s exposure compensation feature to increase or decrease the output level. Then I look at the camera LCD, check the histogram and look to see if there are blinking borders around any white areas indicating over exposure. If I observe them I dial the exposure compensation down, testing again till the flashing borders disappear. (That highlight-warning feature is usually found in the camera’s menu). All one needs to do is take the time to experiment, as the subject is getting ready.

My photographs from that day are evenly exposed with attractive, open shadows, and using a flash really didn’t take much more time than if I didn’t use one.

Because many readers have indicated they are uncomfortable using flash, on Sunday, July 10th I will be offering a workshop in Kamloops on flash photography for portrait lighting indoors and outdoors, and I urge DSLR photographers to enrol and overcome their hesitancy to use flash. Participants will gain the skill and confidence to create great images using wireless lighting techniques for portraits in virtually any situation by augmenting existing light with flash. I will limit participation so please contact me if you are interested.
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What is the best lens for scenics?

With all its colours spring has blossomed in the interior of British Columbia and photographers are grabbing their cameras and tripods and heading out to record that beauty.

Visitors to my Kamloops shop ask what is the best lens to take along on their excursion to photograph those inspiring landscapes? That’s a good question, especially from those new to photography that are spending hard earned money on pricy modern lenses. There are great zoom lenses available giving us excellent versatility. I prefer lenses like 16-85mm, 18-70mm, or 18-200mm, and there are many more in that range that are light weight and easy to carry that give lots of focal length choices. But, instead of just recommending a particular lens for scenic photography, I want to begin by thinking about perspective.

A wide-angle lens has a curved front surface allowing for a wider view. The distance between the foreground and background subjects will seem extended; objects closer to the lens will look much bigger in relation to all other objects.

For example, using a 18mm focal length lens photographing along a fence will make the first post big and the succeeding posts smaller and smaller. Whereas, a 200mm focal length will give a tightly compressed view, and distances between the first fence post in the foreground and those further back will not look as distant as with the wider 18mm focal length.

In a more practical example, I’m photographing a lake with mountains in the background and a boat on the shore in the foreground. If I use a long focal length like the 200mm all the elements will be compressed in the final image with no subject gaining significance over another. However, if I fitted my camera with a 18mm lens the boat will be large, and those features in the background small and distant. Both are good photographs of that scene, just different interpretations.

The most appropriate lens depends on the perspective the photographer wants to interpret in the final image, and because the focal length adjusts the visual relationships of the objects within the picture, one must think about the image front to back and how much of the scenic is important as a wide, or narrow, aspect. It comes down to the personal vision of the photographer and what he or she wants to say about the landscape being captured. Famous photographer, Ansel Adams said, “problem solve for the final photograph”.

Like Adams states, photographers should be thinking about how the final photograph will be used and how to accomplish that. If one thinks of a photograph as a series of problems to be solved there will be a smooth transition from initial idea to final print. For example one could begin by thinking about the subject and its environment. What is the background and how will that affect the subject? What is in the foreground that will interfere with that subject? If one considers depth of field a decision must be made as to how much is to be “in focus”. In a landscape photograph, photographers might want everything from the foreground to the far off distance to be crystal clear.

There is no one lens that can be termed a “scenic or landscape” lens. Any lens might be used as long as it meets the photographer’s vision. That might be to include a wide vista with a wide-angle lens, or on the other hand, a tighter cropped image created with a telephoto lens might be visually more powerful. The choice of lens for scenics comes down to what the photographer wants the viewer to feel and see.