Quick Tips For Flash

The single most important accessory that allows me to expand my time in the field is my flash
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The single most important accessory that allows me to expand my time in the field is my flash. Not only does this enable me to capture a good photo in mid- day, it provides auxiliary light when it's cloudy, it acts as a main source indoors, and depending on the proximity to my subject, it can even be my main light in bright sun. I can mount my flash directly to my hot shoe for convenience, I can use it wirelessly off-camera as a side or backlight kicker, or I can bounce it off a ceiling to soften its look. Depending on its features, I can dial down its power and use it to fill in shadows, I can set it to act as a stroboscopic source to capture a sequence of movements as in a golf stroke, or I can use the slow/rear curtain synch feature at night to create streaks of light behind my subject. As you can see, a flash is an extremely versatile accessory, if you exploit its virtues. Below are three features I most often use.

Slow Synch: Most cameras' synch speeds range from 1/60 of a second to 1/250. In low light levels when the flash would fire automatically, the shutter may need to stay open for a much longer duration to produce a proper ambient light exposure. With the camera synched to 1/60 of a second, the background goes black. The shutter is not open long enough to record low light detail. Luckily, most modern cameras allow the photographer to set the shutter to a slower than "normal synch" range. This allows the ambient light to build up on the sensor and prevent the "floating in a sea of black" look that's so often produced when using flash in low light. Set your camera to slow synch and the exposure for the ambient light will be determined by the camera meter and keep the shutter open for as long as it takes for it to build up on the sensor. It's essential you use a tripod or other means of support. In the image of the framed Mittens, I actually had the shutter open for 52 seconds, as it was quite dark when I made the photo. I used flash so the juniper trunk that frames the Mittens showed detail.

Flash in Daylight: During the middle of the day, the sun is directly overhead and not conducive to getting good photos. Shadows are harsh and the light is very contrasty. Highlights gets blown out, losing all detail and shadows become dark voids of black. But there is a way to overcome this ugly effect, providing the subject is close enough and the flash is powerful enough. The technique is known as fill flash. It fills in the shadows so the viewer can see detail where it otherwise wouldn't exist. Additionally, in that the contrast range is now compressed, the highlights are toned down and reveal more detail—this is huge! In the image of the scarlet macaw shot in the late morning, the sun was high and to the right of the bird. In looking at it perched on the branch, there was little detail on the entire left side of the bird. To create a successful image, I attached my flash to the hot shoe and dialed the fill to minus one stop. This provided a perfect balance between the ambient light and the light emitted from the flash. Different situations dictate varying amounts of fill. Experiment using fill flash and adjust the ratio based on the results seen on the LCD.

Outdoors as Main Light: Photography is all about the quality, amount and direction of light. The more efficiently these factors interact, the better the photo. All three are part of the picture-making equation. For the shot of the African Gray parrot, I used flash as my main light. The bird was deeply immersed in the trees and the spotty sunlight that fell upon him did not provide nice light. To remedy the horrendous effect, I used flash to overpower the spotty light produced by the sun. I experimented with different apertures, as each provided a different amount of flash output. The one that worked best was f/9. It's essential to use an auxiliary flash for this purpose, as built-in pop-up flashes don't produce enough output to overpower the sun.

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