Getting the best results with a flash

If you’re going to use flash when taking photos inside, there are some decisions you’ll have to make. If you’ve decided that shooting available light is not going to work, here are some considerations for getting the best results with flash.

Bounced flash off the ceiling, Photo by James Jordan

Will the flash blend with room lights?

Your camera’s flash is balanced to approximate daylight. For best results, your flash should be in sync with the other lights in the room. This means that if the other room lights are soft white, you’ll have areas of orangish light in an otherwise correctly colored shot.

You can either try your best to avoid taking pictures near lamps, which is hard to do. Or place a colored gel over your flash to match color of the soft white bulbs and set your white balance to incandescent. Another option is to make sure all your lamp bulbs are daylight balanced.

How soft can you go?

Direct light from your camera’s onboard flash can be harsh with a rapid fall off (meaning that your subject is lit, but the background is dark). For more natural looking lighting, consider these options:

  • Diffuse and drag it. A wide variety of diffusers that attach to your onboard flash are available to soften the light produced. These, when used in combination with a slower shutter speed, help balance the flash exposure with the ambient light in a room.
  • Bounce it. For even softer and more balanced lighting, bounce the flash off the ceiling. If your flash unit has a tilting/rotating head, you’re golden. If your flash is immobile, consider using a bounce card to direct light upward. You can even make a simple flash diffuser using a 3×5″ card.
  • Slave it. If you have access to one, a second flash unit with an optical slave (a mechanism that fires the flash when it detects another flash firing) can be an option. Set the unit in a corner of the room aimed at the ceiling and you’ll bathe the room in soft light every time you fire your camera’s flash. Potential drawback: The slave will also fire anytime anybody else’s flash goes off. Some higher end dSLRs offer a commander mode for their onboard flash, meaning only that camera can trigger a second flash unit, but usually only a flash made by that particular camera’s company. Check your camera’s manual for details.

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