A Guide to Advanced Flash Techniques
Taking photographs using a flash has become a lot easier with modern cameras. With advances in technology most simple cameras will advise when flash photography is required but there are techniques to improve the quality of your photographs once you have mastered the basics of shooting in dark surroundings, be that indoors or out.
Flash Techniques – Indoors
With standard flashes try experimenting with the following. If you are in a white room try bouncing the flash off the wall or the ceiling. The effect produced gives better pictures that are much more flattering. This technique improves the quality of the light by making it softer and more even. It is best to have a strobe flash that has a swivel mechanism, or bounce, so you can adjust and have light reflect off the surface and back towards the subject of your photograph. If you buy a good dedicated strobe then the power output will be adjusted for correct exposure. You do need something non-coloured to bounce off as other colours may result in the light giving the image a strange hue.
A diffuser spreads light over a wider area enriching and softening the image. Diffusers are quite an affordable addition to your photography arsenal. Most camera manufactures have a suitable diffuser to attach but shop around for the best deals.
Flash Techniques – Outdoors
Even if the light is good when you are using your camera outdoors, by using the flash in association with natural light you can improve your pictures. For example, sunlight can be very harsh and cast shadows on your subject. A ‘Fill-in flash’ is a method by which the flash gives a weak burst and thereby softens the shadows. This will add what is called ‘catch lights’ to eyes if you are taking a portrait photograph. You will have to have a ratio of 1:4 flash to daylight but experiment with this as it really depends on the amount of light available. If the natural light is very bright, adjust to 1.2. It will take a little time to get the settings right but convert a ratio to a fraction. For example for a ratio of 1:4 set the variable power to a quarter and for 1:2 to a half. With exposure compensation set 2 stops for a ratio of 1:4.
Having experimented with the above you can now try ‘Slow-sync’ flash, which is a combination of using your flash and a slower shutter speed. You can use this method to create a sense of movement. The flash produces the image at the time of the flash and the slow shutter speed produces the inevitable blurred image creating that sense of movement. The second result is especially useful if you are taking evening or night shots where there is little or low light. The long exposure records the ambient light and the flash is there to illuminate anything in the foreground. This technique is ideal where the background is floodlit and you want to take an image of your subject standing or leaning against that structure. The effects can be quite dramatic as the main subject of the photograph becomes frozen but is seen with a ghostly background.
There are rules for ‘slow-sync’ that should be followed. The main one is when the flash should be fired. Just think about movement when you are going to take this type of shot. Your subject moves from point A to point B. What you want to achieve is the movement from point A up to the subject being at point B, so the flash should take place at the end of the exposure, not at the beginning. You will then get the blur effect behind your actual subject rather than in front of it and this is much more realistic. Set your strobe to second/rear curtain sync to produce this effect. Increasing or reducing the shutter speed produces various effects so experiment with things such as a person walking, jogging and running. One effect you have probably seen on television is where they film a sequence with numerous car headlights and taillights racing along road and motorways. Why not try to capture the same result using slow-sync flash?
Be Creative with your Flash Photography
I mentioned avoiding taking flash photography indoors where the surroundings should be white but you could achieve different effects by using coloured filters both indoors and out. Create different moods of the same subject by using different filters. Take this to the next stage and try using filters with ‘fill-in’ and ‘slow-sync flash’.
When you have mastered the above you can progress even further with use of such items as a cable release where you, or your subject, can carry out an activity, such as getting in and out of a car and with the shutter set to bulb you can trigger numerous shots whilst the shutter is open. The overlapping effect achieved by this method can be quite amazing.
I have given you some ideas above using a single strobe but try investing in multiple strobes and connecting them to your camera. You may need to purchase a flash system that is wireless operated although most manufacturers produce accessories that will produce the same effect. With multiple connectors you can plug several sync leads into the camera or use ‘slave units’ that are attached to additional strobes. When the main flash is fired the other strobes are fired at the same time. You could use this to light up various parts of your subject. For example if you are photographic an ancient oak tree, one flash could light up the roots, the second the trunk and the third the branches and canopy.
Photography is an art form and like all art forms the only way to develop is to experiment with different lighting effects. The above are just some ideas you can take forward but the results of your work are only limited by your imagination.