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All posts for the month November, 2010


Welcome all, with Thanksgiving just around the corner and other many holidays not too far behind I thought we would spend some time talking about how to take some decent photos of your friends and family during these happy gatherings.

The first hurdle that we are faced with is all of these holidays occur during the Winter time, which means indoor photos, which also means FLASH.

Flash can sometimes be a dirty word amongst photographers. It can conjure up images of super bright blown out blown out faces with harsh unflattering lighting that can make even the most attractive person in the world look like Frankenstein. So let’s discover some ways that we can minimize the negative effects of flash lighting and still capture some awesome photos of your friends and family this holiday season.

Let’s discuss those of you using a point and shoot camera first. With these small compact cameras the flash is so tiny that the light it produces is always very harsh. In addition due to the small size of the flash it can only provide illumination for just a couple of feet in front of you.

Pretend you’re shooting a photo of some family members in a room at your house during Thanksgiving. Everyone has 5 foot tall mice in their family right? Although the room looks well-lit to you, to your camera it’s a very different story. Your camera decides that flash is needed. You snap your photo and your family members end up looking like a disjointed faces and torsos floating in a sea of dark murkiness.

 

Family Photo with regular flash

This is despite the fact that they were actually standing in what you would consider a well-lit room. Come on admit it, how many of you have photos that turned out this way, but you never knew what to do about it? It’s ok you can raise your hand, I’ll look away.

So how can we prevent this. The first and one of the simplest things you can do is increase your ISO. Even the most inexpensive digital cameras have a function to increase ISO.

As we learned in a previous article, ISO determines how sensitive your digital camera’s sensor is to light. The higher the ISO the more sensitive your camera will be to light, which means it can perform better in low-light situations such as when shooting inside your house. In fact you might even be able to raise the ISO high enough that you won’t even need to use the flash at all.

There is a side-effect to be aware of, however. As you increase your ISO setting you also increase the amount of noise or grain that will be captured in your photo. This is an undesired effect and something you need to keep in mind when increasing your ISO setting. Most recent digital cameras will perform reasonably noise-free to ISO levels of 800 or even 1000. Some of the newest digital SLR (DSLR) cameras will even peform well at ISO levels  of up to 6400.

You can learn more about ISO from this previous article on the Dengrove Studios blog.

Now that we have our ISO set properly; high enough to allow make our camera more sensitive to the low-lighting conditions in the room, but not high enough to cause excess noise, what else can we do to make our flash photos better?

We can also change the mode of our flash. Most cameras allow you to change the way that the built-in flash operates by changing it’s mode. There are usually several to choose from.

There’s Standard Flash Mode, which causes the flash to fire when the light meter in your camera determines it’s necessary. There’s Fill Flash Mode, which causes the flash to fire every time you take a photo. Red-Eye Reduction Mode which is supposed to prevent subjects in your photo from getting those nasty devil eyes. More often than not it simply just annoys the heck out of people because they get blinded  with 3-5  flash bursts before taking the photo.

But the one we want to look for  is Slow-Sync Flash Mode. Some point and shoot cameras refer to it as “Night Mode” or “Party Mode”.

Ordinarily, when shooting with flash the camera chooses a fast shutter speed in order to “freeze” the action in the scene. Slow-Sync Flash allows the camera to use a slow shutter speed when shooting with flash. As you may recall from a previous article, shutter speed controls the length of time that ambient light or the available light in the scene is allowed to enter your camera and hit your camera’s digital sensor or film.

By using Slow-Sync Flash more of the available light in the scene or ambient light will be allowed to hit your camera’s digital sensor or film. Allowing you to capture not only your main subject which is illuminated by flash but also the background of your scene which is being illuminated by ambient light.

Remember that floating head photo you shot of your family members earlier? When we take that same photo again using Slow-Sync Flash just look at how much better it comes out! Now, not only is your main subject visible from the flash light but we can now see the actual room they’re standing in versus the scary abyss of darkness from before.

 

Family photo with Slow-Sync Flash

For those of you shooting with Digital SLR cameras there are even more things you can do to make your indoor flash photos look better. One of the absolute best ways of improving flash photos is to get the flash off the camera. This is because the built-in flash of your camera is actually in the worst possible position it could be in for making people look their best in photos.

The built-in flash rests nearly at eye level and right in front of your subject. This causes a bright harsh burst of flash light to fall on your subject from directly in front of them. So how can DSLR cameras help with this situation? Because, when shooting with a DSLR camera you have the option to use an external flash unit instead of the built-in one.

Nikon SB-900 External Flash (photo courtesy of Nikon)

Using an external flash compared to the built-in one is the difference between night and day! External flash units, when used properly, can simulate overhead lighting, side lighting, and even help to improve your photos in natural daylight. Since all of these types of light are what you find in most everyday lighting situations your flash photos will come out looking very natural, almost like you never used a flash at all.

Even using an external flash unit in it’s simplest configuration, mounted directly on the camera, it is still a vast improvement over the built-in one because it adds 1-2 inches of height. This means that the flash is no longer at eye level of your subject which makes the light softer and more flattering. It also helps get rid of that nasty red-eye.

For  even better photos you can rotate the angle of your external flash which you can then use to “bounce” the light coming from the flash off of a wall or ceiling. When “bouncing” your flash off of a ceiling it simulates the look of your subject being lit from overhead lights. This is excellent, now we can light our subject using flash but have it look more natural.

 

Nikon SB-900 External Flash rotated for bouncing light off the ceiling (shown with diffuser) (Photo courtesy of Nikon)

For the ultimate in natural looking flash photos you’ll want to get the external flash completely off the camera. “Why is this” you ask? Moving the flash off the camera allows you unlimited possibilities in positioning and directing your flash when taking a photo. This even allows you to light your subject from above at a 45 degree side angle, simulating natural daylight from the sun.

In order to make this work you can purchase a sync cable for your external flash unit which allows you to connect the flash to your camera while still being able to move it around. Some external flashes will even communicate wirelessly with your DSLR camera allowing you to position the flash on the other side of the room and still be able to set it off.

So as you can see no matter what type of camera you’re shooting with there are a number of simple techniques that you can employ to get better indoor flash photos of your friends and family. Most only require the turn of a simple switch to activate. With the holidays just around the corner I’m sure you’ll find plenty of opportunities to use these new techniques. Feel free to post your results, we’d love to see them and get introduced to your families.

As always, please feel free to leave comments, ask questions, and share some of your results on this blog post.

Scott Dengrove is a professional photographer from the NYC area. Scott’s work has been featured in many national photography competitions and published in several nationally circulated magazines and publications. In addition, his work can currently be seen in 3 exhibits at Cosi® restaurants in New York and Connecticut. For more information, and to see more of Scott’s work visit his website at www.dengrovestudios.com and connect with him on his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/dengrovestudios