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Flash Photography Crash Course
February 25, 2014 8:28 AM   Subscribe


 
Step 1: turn off on-camera flash
Step 2: get a prime lens that can do f/2.0
Step 3: set ISO to AUTO or turn it up as needed
posted by w0mbat at 8:44 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


That's not fair w0mbat. I prefer natural light but being smart about how/when to use flash really can be the difference between a good and great picture.
posted by mazola at 8:50 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Which is to say, I need to be smarter with my flash. Thanks for posting this OP!
posted by mazola at 8:51 AM on February 25


I solved my flash photography issues a while back by convincing myself never to take photos where flash is needed. Turns out I'm tons happier this way.
posted by komara at 9:07 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Love that site; thanks for sharing it! This is the only time I actually followed a link suggesting some Weird Tricks and it was quite good.
posted by TedW at 9:09 AM on February 25


Step 1: turn off on-camera flash
Step 2: get a prime lens that can do f/2.0
Step 3: set ISO to AUTO or turn it up as needed


And if you need DOF that's wider than a crepe?

Seriously though, it's nice that there are resources like this and strobist. I love available light photography but it's really fun to create your own light and be pleased with the results and I encourage more people to try it.
posted by selfnoise at 9:15 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]


I feel like there's a progression you go through, in beginning to learn about photography. First you discover how your iPhone's flash has been ruining your photos, and you swear a blood oath never to use flash again. Then you look around and realize every professional photographer uses staged lighting and every photo you really admire required staged lighting. And it dawns on you there's a way to use flash, and hey, maybe you should learn.

Many photographers balk there. It's too hard, it's too expensive. High ISO noise doesn't bother you that much because you never print. "Natural light" sounds très chic. Et cetera. But you keep looking around, and it becomes an exercise in denial. Unless you are only viewing street photography and landscapes, most of the great photos you'll find used some sort of staged light.

When you stopped using auto flash and learned how to use natural light, your photos improved. The next step is learning how to use supplemental light. The improvement is even bigger.
posted by cribcage at 9:30 AM on February 25 [12 favorites]


In re-reading my quote above: "I solved my flash photography issues a while back by convincing myself never to take photos where flash is needed." I realized I stole that mentality from Mitch Hedberg, who said:
"I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that's funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen's too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain't funny."
posted by komara at 9:31 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


We picked up a high-end point-and-shoot with accessible manual controls right before our honeymoon, and it was well worth it. Pocket-sized, but we could dial in fill flash and slow-sync for some pretty good shots we couldn't have otherwise gotten. More expensive and with a smaller sensor than an entry-level DSLR, but you can't shoot if you're not willing to lug the thing around.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:54 AM on February 25


This guy uses many words when one word will do, but by about page 8 and page 9 he starts to actually impart information -- the samples shot with different lighting setups are a useful reference.
posted by ook at 10:10 AM on February 25


I teach photography. My first semester students often don't like that I won't let them use a flash. I tell them they need to learn how to see the light that's there before they start making their own. That and most on camera flash just hurts my fragile soul.

That said, I am blown away at how cheap, and how much fun, radio slaves can be ($30 for several? Amazing!). Matched with some old manual flash units I had gathering dust I've been having a ball. Being able to check exposures digitally makes it a lot more fun than it ever was shooting transparencies.
posted by cccorlew at 10:31 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Being able to check exposures digitally makes it a lot more fun than it ever was shooting transparencies.

Yeah, totally this. Flash photography used to be a dark dark art that is more accessible now not only because stuff is cheaper but because it doesn't require so much experience with visualization.
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:01 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


The grand point which is apparent here is that regardless of what camera, flash, etc. you own happens to be, you can improve your photography far more by learning its capabilities thoroughly than by upgrading it.

It never ceases to amaze me what a foreign concept this seems to be.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:04 PM on February 25


It never ceases to amaze me what a foreign concept this seems to be.

You should try browsing a [insert literally any hobby here] forum sometime. It's certainly not limited to photography.
posted by uncleozzy at 3:38 PM on February 25


My jihad is purely against on-camera flash, which should be at least a misdemeanor if not a felony. A separate light through a one-meter softbox is a wonderful thing.

The tiny slave flashes everywhere thing is nice but it's a bit Brian Griffin for me (the UK photographer who used to shoot Depeche Mode covers, not the talking dog in Family Guy).

And if you need DOF that's wider than a crepe?

Good point. Luckily I like my DOF crepe-ish (not wider than f/2.0 though) but I understand there is a 3 legged device you can buy that will hold the camera for you should you require a longer exposure.

But really, on-camera flash doesn't provide good lighting for a scene that requires high DOF. The far away parts of the room will be too dark to see, the near things will be over-exposed and glaring, and the subject in the middle will look like a color photocopy of Bob Costas.
posted by w0mbat at 3:51 PM on February 25


Flash is a perfectly valid tool in photography, but it's also possibly the most abused tool of all time; specifically, on-camera flash. The flash that comes built into your camera, whether that's an iPhone or a $2500 full-frame DSLR with another $2000 worth of glass on the front, is complete shit. It's too dim to evenly light a scene, is a point source that casts harsh shadows, and is positioned in the worst possible place: close enough to the lens that it flattens out portrait shots, but far enough away that it casts weird shadows on macro shots. The only use for it is for times when you have absolutely no other way to take the picture and are OK with the picture looking like crap.

Those big flashes that people mount to the hotshoe and which stick like 10" up over the top of the camera are only slightly better. They are more powerful, but that's about it. For a good flash-lit picture you need a diffuse light source (a little milky plastic cover on the flashbulb doesn't count) and you need it to be able to control the angle. If you're shooting portraits you probably want them to be somewhat side-lit (powerful flash pointed at a reflector or through a large diffuser). If you're shooting product photos you want even, all-over lighting with no shadows (subject inside of a light tent with flashes pointing inward from either side). If you're doing macro photos then you might want a ring flash that puts the light right out on the end of the lens where it can light up your subject without casting any noticeable shadow.

It's not very complicated once you accept that the flash on your camera is basically worthless and that if you're going to take good photos with flash lighting you're going to have to invest in some specialized gear. Otherwise, stick to available-light photography if you want your photos to look good.
posted by Scientist at 4:44 PM on February 25


The above screed comes with come corollaries and caveats of course, which folks above have also mentioned. One, available-light photography is really fun. Many people including myself (not that I'm much of a photographer, mind you) find it more enjoyable than flash photography because it is generally more spontaneous and feels subjectively more connected to reality. Also, you can do great available-light photography with almost any camera, though what constitutes sufficient available light will vary based on the camera and the intended effect.

Regarding that last point, this is an area where more expensive cameras (and more expensive lenses) often thrash cheaper ones. A larger, higher-quality sensor mated to a wide-aperture lens is able to gather and use much more light than the lesser arrangements that you find on lesser cameras. That means that things can get a lot dimmer before one has to resort to staged lighting.

Finally, flash photography is not necessarily particularly expensive or arcane, if it's something that you want to get into – it's just that doing it properly is not such a casual endeavor as the ubiquitous presence of on-camera flashes would lead one to believe. You can build a perfectly good flash setup for almost any given task for $50 or less (if you're willing to DIY a bit, anyway) that'll let you take photos that you could never have taken before. Heck, if you're willing to do a little jury-rigging and repurposing you might even be able to do it for free. Do you have one of those yellow 500-watt halogen work lamps lying around your house? An old white sheet? A cardboard box, some blank printer paper, and a couple of desk lamps? Even just a bright flashlight? You can do perfectly good staged-lighting photography with stuff like that, if you're moderately handy and a little creative. You just have to know what it is that you're trying to do.
posted by Scientist at 5:04 PM on February 25


My jihad is purely against on-camera flash

I think it's worth having a distinction between on-camera, and in-camera.


Those big flashes that people mount to the hotshoe and which stick like 10" up over the top of the camera are only slightly better.


I disagree, vehemently, to the point where I think an decent on-camera flash is one of the very best bang-for-buck upgrades people can make to a camera kit (for people taking photos of people at social events, which is what most people take most of) - much better return than most lenses. Yes I'm calling it; I don't think everyone needs a fast prime straight away.

If you don't believe me, have a read through Neil Van Niekerk's excellent tutorials at his blog, Tangents. This guy is one of the best portrait photogs working, and his flash work - whether on or off camera - is superb. I've learnt a lot from his site.
posted by smoke at 5:33 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


"once you accept that the flash on your camera is basically worthless"

Never been happier than with my last two camera bodies that literally did not have flash units built in. Can't argue with that. It's a great statement from the manufacturer, in my opinion: we know you're not going to use it so why spend money to put it in there?

"an decent on-camera flash is one of the very best bang-for-buck upgrades people can make to a camera kit (for people taking photos of people at social events, which is what most people take most of)"

I'm going to disagree with you, just in the statement that social events are "what most people take most [pictures] of" just like I'm going to disagree with cribcage's statement above about "[t]hen you look around and realize every professional photographer uses staged lighting and every photo you really admire required staged lighting."

The photos you like, the photos you admire, and the photos you take most often are not going to have a perfect overlap with mine or anyone else's. I have experimented with hotshoe-mounted flash and found that, yes, bouncing it is great indoors in social situations but I rarely shoot those. I have experimented with off-camera flash and while it's complex and expansive and a whole new world it's also not necessarily what I want to do, and the photos I respect and want to grow enough to be able to emulate don't use it either.

cribcage is not wrong in suggesting that learning proper lighting is an incredibly useful step in a photographer's growth but it's not always a necessary step. I've tried it, it's not exactly what I want to spend money and brain cycles on gear for, and so I'm declaring it to be not for me. I have other friends who can't shoot without a flash, period, because they can't make things how they want to be without it.

Or hey maybe I'm just rationalizing my laziness and lack of desire to learn strobe lighting. I don't know. All I know is that when I go shoot I'm happy, and I come back and I'm satisfied with the result, and I'm really critical of my own work so I don't think I'm curating a pile of bullshit over here.
posted by komara at 6:02 PM on February 25


And if you need DOF that's wider than a crepe?

...then you use that fast lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor. Problem solved! =)
posted by Juffo-Wup at 6:20 PM on February 25


The photos you like, the photos you admire, and the photos you take most often are not going to have a perfect overlap with mine or anyone else's.

That goes without saying. My point is, take a look around the photography world. Note how many photographers are using some form of artificial and/or supplemental lighting. Notice how many different forms it takes, and how many different contexts they're using it in. Notwithstanding that you or I or anyone else will have different subjective preferences, I am comfortable making the objective blanket statement that many, if not most of the photos you, Joe, Wendy, or whoever admire used some form of staged lighting. There will be exceptions to every blanket statement, of course, but this one's just a matter of pure numbers. I'll stand behind it.

Now take the same inventory with the term, "natural light photography." Don't get me wrong: there are many situations where you can take fantastic photos without using even a reflector. Natural light rocks. But look who's using that term. It's people who are selling their services and who, if you spend an honest five minutes clicking through their portfolios, maybe shouldn't be.

I didn't make this analogy earlier because I didn't want to derail the thread into arguing about Photoshop, but you see the same thing when discussing that. (Or Lightroom, Aperture, etc.) Someone will say, often with a dismissive attitude, "I don't use Photoshop." And instantly a half-dozen serious photographers standing nearby will say, "Oh, so you mean you've never learned Photoshop." It's snarky but it's true. Like, okay I could learn, but wouldn't it be simpler to create this pretense of cachet to ignorance? Good is fine but it's so far away and easy is right there, so yawn.
posted by cribcage at 6:32 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


By the way, I'll throw into the thread that Jim Harmer's Improve Photography podcast is excellent and literally the only podcast I listen to. Very briefly a long time ago, I worked in radio with someone who was very skilled at it, and all podcasts just sound to me like bad radio. I don't know if Jim had a radio gig in college or what, but Improve Photography is a really well-produced show. There's no reason it couldn't be on Sirius or NPR.
posted by cribcage at 6:40 PM on February 25


"if not most of the photos you, Joe, Wendy, or whoever admire used some form of staged lighting. There will be exceptions to every blanket statement, of course, but this one's just a matter of pure numbers."

I must be a large exception, then. I went to my 'photo inspiration' folder and out of 37 images I saw seven where I was absolutely sure that strobes were involved, three that were questionable, and the rest I am pretty sure had no artificial lighting involved.

I realize that doesn't dispute your claim that most of everyone's favorites the world over may have staged lighting. I'm just trying to reinforce my statement that my photography - and the photography that is important to me and inspires me - is not being held back by a lack of strobes.

This sentiment, however:

"Someone will say, often with a dismissive attitude, "I don't use Photoshop." And instantly a half-dozen serious photographers standing nearby will say, "Oh, so you mean you've never learned Photoshop.""

I agree with wholesale. Not knowing Photoshop (or its equivalents) is the same as not having any darkroom skills back in the day of black and white. Absolutely inexcusable. I despise pre-arranged packs of filters or 'looks' or ... I don't know, whatever they're called. Learn for yourself how to bring out certain colors and tones and emotions.
posted by komara at 7:57 PM on February 25


And if you need DOF that's wider than a crepe?

...then you use that fast lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor. Problem solved! =)
posted by Juffo-Wup at 9:20 PM on February 25 [+] [!]


Not for most non-insect targets... for example, at F2.0 and 50mm with focus target at 5 feet, the depth of field will be about 3 inches. That's not much to work with. For example, I took a picture of my daughter and two cousins sitting on a wooden riding toy together at a birthday party last weekend. With bouncing the hotshoe flash off the ceiling I was able to shoot at around F5.6 (can't remember the exact setting) which gave an extra 8 or so inches so all three faces were in focus. Plus there was even, pleasing light across all three. Flashes are good.
posted by selfnoise at 9:09 AM on February 26


See also Strobist: Lighting 101 and Lighting 102. (mentioned above but I didn't see a link)
posted by caddis at 2:15 PM on February 26


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