Built-in Flash: Poor Lighting or Great Photographs?

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Most cameras these days, even the SLR cameras, come with some sort of built-in flash. One is inclined to think that since the manufacturer added it, it must be a great source of light. I wish I could tell you that the built-in flash is dependable, but I would be stating an untruth. There are many situations where you have no other option: In order to get the shot, you need to use a flash. But in many cases, the built-in flash can ruin your photo. Here’s a few suggestions when it comes to using (or not using) your on-camera flash.

Is Flash Really Necessary?
Your camera does its best to determine when and when you shouldn’t use flash. But keep in mind that your camera is making an assumption based on available light. The goal of your camera is to come up with a great photo as often as possible and without post-processing. If you’re willing to spend some time in the post-processing phase, you may want to ditch the flash for reasons to follow. Use a tripod, use other sources of lighting, do whatever it takes to try and avoid using your on-camera flash.

Red Eye
Especially if you’re using a point-and-shoot camera, you may notice that your subjects in portraits have some red eyes. You already know that this is caused by your flash. What you may not know is that the reason this happens s because your flash is mounted very close to your lens. Red Eye is caused by light (from your flash) bouncing off the back of the eye. There are two ways to prevent this: 1) Mount the flash farther from the camera’s lens so that the angle formed between your lens, flash and the eye is so wide that your camera never sees the reflected light. Unless you have an add-on or external flash, this may not be an option. 2) Don’t use a flash. No flash means no red eye. If it’s too dark, read on.

Dark Shadows
Any bright light source is going to be the cause of shadows cast by your subject. The brighter the source of light, the darker the shadow. [singlepic=142,320,240,,left][singlepic=143,320,240,,right] Unfortunately, your flash is an incredibly bright source. To make matters worse, it’s from a very small, single source; which means that the edges of said shadow will be incredibly sharp. That will ruin your photograph. Portrait photographers resolve this by placing lighting behind the subject which cuts a lot of the shadow. But you may not have this luxury, especially with candids. The bad news is that if it’s too dark, the shadow is unavoidable. The good news is that if you have some light, you can salvage a dark shot in post processing (levels, hue, contrast and curves). The shots on either side of the page are two examples: The picture at left is taken with a flash, the other to the right is taken without. In the shot taken without the flash, I have included an inset photograph showing what the shot looked like prior to post-processing. Note that you will have much more control of the levels if you start with RAW images.

When You’re Too Close
The closer your subject is to the flash, the greater the chance of ‘washing out’ your subject. The best way to give your loved one a pale complexion is to take a photograph of them using flash within a meter (or a yard) of their face. The flash will illuminate whatever is close to the camera, but everything else will look relatively dark. Apply white balancing, and you make matters worse and the surrounding areas may appear increidbly dark. Which leads me to my next scenario…

Controlling Focus With Flash
As I mentioned in the earlier paragraph, the flash makes your subject (or anything near the camera) appear brighter. In turn, everything else will appear much darker. Sometimes, this is a desirable effect. Here’s a scenario; You want to take pictures of a few friends, but you’re in a crowded place near dusk. Using flash will give the appearance of night, masking most of the distractions in the background. Some post processing may be necessary, but the desired effect will be there. Use RAW, and you’ll have more control.

When Absolutely Necessary
Sometimes, a flash is absolutely necessary. If you can’t get enough light to focus, or if you just cannot get a good quality image without it, you may need to use the flash. I want you to try and get by without your on-camera flash. But don’t be ashamed if you must use it. At least you tried. And knowing some of these tips will help you to better understand when (or when not) to use your on-camera flash.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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