Monday, May 31, 2010

The catch 22 scenario of flash photography

Flashes are used in a sunroom to balance the light to the outdoors. You must be very careful in your flash placement or the glass will become a mirror and reflect the flash. Here the angle of the flash and the power match so well you almost don't notice the glass separating the indoors to outdoors.

You are at a wedding under a tent and there appears to be enough light, but why does the subject keep coming out so dark? Ah if I turn on the flash now it looks so much better. Now it gets closer to dusk, now the background is too dark and I can’t tell where we are anymore, what can I do? The problem is that when you use the flash it lights up subjects close to you and the background goes dark or even black.


If you have one of the newer digital cameras with ISO setting of 1600, 3200 or 6400 then you are in luck. These high ISO settings let you take photos with very little light. You can get photos in many situations where flash was required before.

The issue many of us face is not the amount of light available, but the direction and quality of that light. If you are under a tent it is difficult to make a photograph where the outside isn’t in the background. This is where almost every subject has more light on the background than on their faces. If you a shooting in daytime, it is very simple to just turn on your flash and make photos. In this situation you most likely will not only get a well exposed photograph of the subject, but the background will be properly exposed.

Another situation we will find ourselves shooting in is those wonderful sunrooms. You get to experience some of the outdoors in not only cool air conditioned environment, for many of us we experience it allergy free. In this situation if you turn the flash on to compensate for your subject’s being back lighted, you may have to move a little not to get glare in the glass. The simplest way to do this is be sure you are not perpendicular to the window, but on a slight angle.

Flashes help light up under the tent to match the outside light. To do this you must match the f/stop and ISO to the outside by being sure your flash puts out the same amount. The easiest way to do this is using a TTL flash.

Once you have used a flash in these scenarios you quickly discover the joy of photography that you not only have a well exposed subject, you have a background that is well exposed and helps you capture the environment.


Even at the beach where there is sunlight practically everywhere a flash can improve your photos. Often we light to have the sun behind the subject at the beach for a very obvious reason—less squinting. But now the subject is backlit and due to this you have a similar effect of under a tent, just not as drastic of a light difference. Turn your flash on and open up those shadows.

Two flashes are used on TTL mode to fill in the shadows under their eyes as well as help with the color balance.

During the middle of the day when the sun is directly overhead you end up with people having raccoon eyes. This is where the sun casts a shadow on folks eyes, especially if they have deep set eyes and/or they are wearing a hat.


Just the other day I was photographing at a friend’s wedding. The wedding started at 6 p.m. and as we moved into the reception the light was dropping pretty quickly until it was dark. Now if you have your camera set to automatically do it all for you and you read the manual on how to force the flash on rather than just automatic mode, then you could take the photos like I described above. The reason I didn’t tell you how to do this with your camera is every camera manufacturer has a different way to do this not only for their brand, but often their own different models do it differently—so read your manual.

Fill flash on the couple and another flash is helping light up the background.

No if you just turn your flash on under the tent as the light is dropping off you most likely will get a dark or even black background. The reason for this is your camera if in an automatic mode will drop to the lowest ISO setting when your flash is turned on. Even if your camera has an ISO as high as 6400, you most likely will be shooting at an ISO of 100 or 200 the minute you turn the flash on. Why is this default? Well, the main reason is the lower the ISO the better the quality of the image. You have a greater dynamic range and the photos have less contrast and the colors are more accurate.

Up until just a couple of years ago, shooting anything above an ISO of 400 rendered pretty awful quality. Only in the last couple of years did the camera manufacturers improve the quality of the high ISO. Today the quality of many cameras shooting at an ISO of 6400 looks as good as ISO 400 of just a few years ago. Now you can shoot at ISO 6400 and get wonderful results.

With the lighting taken care of by the high ISO and flash balancing the background, you can concentrate on the important things—the moments.

I would say in most situations today with these new cameras with ISO of 6400 for example, you can make great photos without flash in normally lit rooms inside.

For the wedding I was at they had candles on the table and one chandelier in the middle of the tent and the amount of light even at 6400 at 10 p.m. that night wasn’t enough to even make the photos. But when we first were under the tent at 6:30 p.m. there was enough light outside I could have had my camera set on auto everything and forced the flash on and had good exposure on the faces and background looking wonderful. This is what I was basically doing then, but as the night fell the background started to go very dark. So, what I did was change my ISO to 800 and a little later I raised it again to 1200 and by the end of the night I was up to 6400 ISO.

Without a flash the couple would be silhouetted, but now they balance the background.


Now another bonus of shooting with a flash when your camera is set at ISO 6400, is the flash doesn’t use as much light and your batteries will last longer.


Find your camera manual and read two sections—how to turn your flash on and how to change the ISO. Once you know how to override the auto everything on your camera you will not only get better photographs, you will finally get the photos this camera can do that you couldn’t do with the $8 disposable camera.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Shoot for a variety, not just the one shot.

The other night I watched a slide show of a friend’s trip. They showed a lot of stuff they came across; a building they saw, a person they met, a famous location they stumble upon. The subjects were dead center (and I mean dead) in every snapshot. I began to wonder if their camera had sights rather than a viewfinder. My friend kept us informed (not necessarily entertained) by telling us what each photo showed.

I have another friend, Joanna Pinneo. She shoots for National Geographic. When Joanna showed photos of some of her trips each photo was a story in itself. Her photos spoke volumes. Her pictures were worth a thousand words. There was no need for a running dialogue with her presentation.

The difference wasn’t subject matter. My “dead center” friend showed us a subject, but Joanna used verbs. She presented her subjects in a variety of angles, framing, lighting and mood.

What Joanna, and other photojournalists, do that many photographers do not is they offer an assortment, a mixture of images.

Jeff Raymond is director of photography for a Christian missionary agency. Jeff and I were training his student photographers in a workshop.

Jeff said, “A lot of these students have improved their coverage of stories, but mostly what they have done is just move their subjects from dead center and made nice portraits of them.” Jeff calls these “People Need The Lord” photographs. He called them that because every missionary was copying what Steve McCurry did when he made that iconic image of a young Afghan girl wearing the red scarf for the cover of National Geographic Magazine in 1985.

The problem Jeff Raymond was addressing is that there is so much more to photograph than just a nice portrait.

To move beyond just a nice portrait some photographers use the “Day In The Life” approach. Just follow a subject for a day and capture what they do. You could tell the story as if you were doing a major paper for a school project. Take photos systematically over a period of time and use these to help tell the story.

No matter the approach you take you will need a variety of photos. A classic way to accomplish this is to begin with an overall establishing shot. Then make some medium shots that show the environment. Follow this with close-up photos like a portrait or even some extreme close-ups to show those details.

Just like when you write that major paper for a class project, you will need to gather lots of material before you start writing or in this case editing the project. You will need a lot of variety for each type of photo so you can pick the best that work together as a package.

If you are covering an event look for the broad view that gives a sense of scale of the occasion. A wide-angle lens like a 28 mm from a birds-eye or worm-view will add drama and make the presentation more exciting.

Use those leading lines and graphics for impact. Study National Geographic or Sports Illustrated.

My friend Bob Rosato, staff photographer for Sports Illustrated, spoke to a professional photographers group not long ago. Bob talked about how important it is to capture the atmosphere and grandeur of an event. He showed many images we have seen in the magazine which were shot with a wide angle. Sure, he had photos made with those super behemoth telephoto lenses we typically think they always use, but to capture the splendor he used wide-angle lenses.

Capturing atmosphere is difficult. The sensations of an event are gathered from sounds, smells and all our senses. You must rely on visual cues to evoke these emotions with your audience.

Shoot wide, but extremely close also. Show details as close as your camera will focus. Find a fall leaf that brings to mind autumn rather than only showing the wide-angle view of the forest.

Now we see why photojournalists carry two or three cameras. You see something and shoot, no need to change lenses to capture the moment.

Ah yes, the moment. Don’t limit yourself to a predetermined list of shots. Be ready for the unexpected. These serendipitous moments are what will add a human touch to your photography.

You cannot sit in a chair at an event and capture it all. You must move around and look for unique perspective and a variety of images.

No matter how many shots you take of an event you usually wish you had taken more because as you tell your story with images you need transition images. You need photos to lead the audience to the next point or subject.

In television shows they use bumps to help break up the changes. The TV show Home Improvement used little detail graphics of a tool, a fence or something with a sound to let you know you were changing thoughts.

When you show your photos and you feel little need to explain what is on the screen, then you have done the job. A good job.