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Using your on-camera flash

Posted by Eric Bauer, Boston.com Staff  July 31, 2008 12:20 PM

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williams.jpg
John Tlumacki shot this classic photo of Red Sox great Ted Williams and his son John Henry in Ted's business office in Florida in 1995.

By John Tlumacki
Globe Staff photographer

Taking flash photos can be a frustrating experience with any camera. Even professional photographers are perplexed by inconsistent results.

When that happens to me, I go back and try to recreate the situation that caused the problem. The way I see it, there can be one of two issues: too much flash, or too little.

How many times have you photographed people indoors and their faces have been overexposed -- blown out by the flash? Believe it or not, sometimes the problem is the clothes they wore. I will explain.

Most photographers use their camera's automatic setting for exposure. They also set the flash automatically. The camera stops the flash when it senses enough is light reflecting off the subject and bouncing back into the lens. If your subjects are wearing black, however, you're in trouble. The camera will expose for the dark clothing and increase the amount of light from the flash. The end result will be a nicely exposed photo of the clothes, but washed-out, over-exposed faces. How do I deal with this common problem?

Most cameras, including point and shoot models, allow for some adjustments to camera and flash exposure. If you're not familiar with your camera's settings, the instruction manual will be your best friend. You need to power down the flash output. The power can be set in increments of plus and minus. I always power down the flash by 1/3 of a stop on both my pro cameras and my point and shoot. I just prefer this look for most situations. If I am photographing a couple wearing black, I power my flash down by 1 full stop. After the shot, take a look at the photo in the LCD monitor on the back of the camera. If the faces look fine, and not blown out, this is the setting to use in all similar situations in the future.

The other adjustment to make for flash photos is the camera exposure. I prefer to set my camera on manual exposure when taking flash photos indoors. I set my shutter speed depending on the situation. If I'm taking photos of people standing or sitting I usually set the shutter speed at 1/30th or 1/60th of a second. If the camera is set to auto-exposure it may pick too slow a shutter speed, causing the photo to blur.

If I am shooting outside I sometimes use the flash to lighten-up faces, but I don't want the flash to overpower the natural light. Most times automatic settings for both camera and flash exposures work well outdoors.

Most point and shoots cameras have three flash settings that people often overlook: flash-on, red-eye, and automatic. I use all the three settings, depending on what's appropriate. Many people just leave the flash on the automatic setting. That's why at sporting events like the Super Bowl you see thousands of flashes go off at the kickoff even though the light is bright enough to shoot without a flash. In this situation, it's better to increase the ISO to 400 or 800 and turn the flash off. Shooting with auto-exposure in program mode would give you enough shutter speed, around 1/250th to 1/500th of a second, to freeze the action. The flash in this situation serves no purpose since it has a range of only 20-25 feet.

As I said before, keep your instruction manual handy, preferably in your camera bag.

More John Tlumacki photos

Want to keep improving, or have some tips to share? Check out all of our tipsheets or submit your own.

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