Sunday, April 12, 2009

It's not the size that matters...Using a compact camera creatively - Part 4: Flash

A free online photography course for people wanting to improve their photos
(or "how to keep you friends and family from falling asleep when showing them your holiday photos!")

In the first part of this free online photography course geared towards compact camera users, we covered selective focusing, filling the frame with the subject and getting in closer to isolate or emphasize the main subject.

The second part of the course covered the various techniques that you can use to create lively, dynamic and most importantly interesting compositions.

In the third part of this course we discussed using light more effectively to enhance photos, fake sunsets and techniques for taking low light photos with no flash or tripod.

Just a quick recap:

  • the main aim of this course is to highlight that you don't need a 'BIG' camera to take good photos
  • the main reason I'm doing this due to the frequency I hear people blame their equipment for the bad photos they took - from experience, though, bad photos are dues to being taken quickly with very little thought and almost no adherence to any excepted standard guidelines for taking good photos.
  • lastly my goal for everyone who participates in this course is that their families and friends which start to accept their invitations again to look at their holiday photos :-)

One thing about the compact camera is that I find it is too easy to take shots without thinking about the image. This is good in certain circumstances, but I think that the ease of use for these kind of cameras is a main, if not the root cause, of bad or average images (snap shots).

It seems that the name “Point and Shoot” reveals the problem behind the mentality of using this kind of camera. The name really should be “Look, Point, Think & Shoot”. This online course aims to help become people who look for and see images and then, before actually taking the picture, think about a few guidelines that they could apply to increase the quality of the image.

I have found that if we take a bit of time and put some thought into taking a shot, it is possible to get some really good shots from these “cheaper” cameras. This is what this free online photography course is all about - learning a few basic guidelines and hints and tips for people who want to take better pictures with their existing camera.

My aim for everyone is to take the tips and learnings over this series of articles and go out and shoot better images which people will proudly hang on their walls - physical or virtual :-)

At the end of each section there is a "go out and get your hands dirty" assignment. As part of this assignment you can email me your images and I'll give you feedback to help you improve. All of this is FREE, no strings attached and I won't sell your email address to anyone - that's a promise.

The topics covered in this free online photography course are:

Guidelines for taking better shots

Ideas for creating better memories

This lesson will focus on using flash effectively:
  • Using Fill-in Flash
  • Cross lighting with compact!

Guidelines for taking better shots

Using Flash Effectively

This section will not cover using external flashes as most point and shoots do not have this capability. Good Sources of external flash information are:
If there was one universal truth about compact cameras, it’s that their owners take notoriously bad flash photos. People in photos taken with flash are often too bright, making the subjects in the photo look sickly white and as if they have just suffered a severe electric shot.

Other problems that occur when using flash on compact are that pictures of people look very flat and boring and often people have the typical red eye effect. In fact this happens so often that almost all major photo editing software have a special feature to remove red-eye!

Why are flash photos normally so bad? Is there anything that we can do to avoid some of the normal pitfalls?

I believe that there is something that we can do to improve our photos which use flash and that the above problems and caused by three main reasons:

1. Point & Shoot thinking
Have you ever why photos in the instruction manuals, which come with the camera, have great looking photos which have been taken with the flash? Most of the photos I have been shown with a compact camera using a flash never look like the photos in the manuals! The underlying reason behind this is because the people creating the manuals thought about the picture that they were about to take and did not randomly point the camera in a direction with the flash set to automatic.
The whole idea behind this series of lessons is that most compact camera users use their cameras in “Point and Shoot” mode – i.e. without thinking. As I have stressed throughout the lessons here, pointing and shooting with these cameras is the root cause of nearly every single bad photo.

Using a flash on a compact camera in this mindless “point and shoot” mode, exacerbates the problem of bad photography. Not only is the photographer taking a picture without thinking, but using a flash without thinking only compounds the number of things that can go wrong.
2. Small flash on camera
Technically the three reasons why these problems occur are (1) placement of the flash, (2) small size of the flash, (3) lack of output power of the flash.

The placement of the flash is very close to the lens of the camera, which is the main cause of flat images and contributes to the problem of red-eye. Having the main light source of a photo from a position very close to the lens causes the image to look flat due to a lack of shadows in the picture. Shadows create form and shape, without them images with look flat.

Red-eye is caused by the light bouncing off the back of the eyeball and shining back into the camera. Flashes are normally used when the surrounding light is darker than normal. The darker conditions causes the retina of the eye to get wider which allows more light to bounce back into the lens.

The best way to avoid this for bigger cameras is to move the flash away from the lens so that the angle of the flash doesn’t cause the light to bounce back from the back of the eye to the lens.

With compact cameras moving the flash of camera isn’t possible as the flash is built into the body of the camera. So the other method to reduce red-eye to shine a bright light into the eye causing the retina narrow before taking the picture. This is exactly what cameras do when you use red-eye reduction method – using a torch light also works (but is as equally annoying to the subject).

The small size of the flash means that the light is very hard which causes harsh shadows. This is one of the few things which we can’t change about the flash. There are products out there which can help diffuse the light but these reduce the power of the flash which effects the last issue - being the lack of output power.

3. Lack of balancing flash with ambient
This problem relates to the two item mentioned above. Most compact camera users don’t think about the shot and have the flash set to automatic mode which is far from perfect.

Because the flash is small and lacks power using it as the main source of light will always make the background of the photo dark and as a consequence also makes the subject look too bright.

Using the flash as the main light source also means that the light will be hard and flat which makes for boring (read “bad”) images

Balancing flash with ambient light gives you two advantages (1) it gives you two light sources to work with to create depth and life and (2) it creates a much more balanced and pleasant image to look at.

The one camera accessory that you will need to balance the flash with ambient light is a tripod (but not always).
The main point of these lessons is to take control of your camera and make it work for you rather that letting it control everything. This is the same for the flash. By taking control of the flash and learning how manually make adjustments to the flash, you will greatly improve your images and as a consequence hear less snoring during the holiday photo show and tells J

To start with here are a few guidelines to remember about using the flash:
  • On camera flash by itself will make pictures look flat and boring – only use it as a single source of light as a last resort
  • Learn how to adjust the flash output – it’s much easier than you think
  • Cross lighting with available light creates added depth and interest
  • Low ambient light with flash can create interesting images – if balanced properly
  • Fill-in flash can help add more punch to a photo – but it has it’s limitations
Below are a few photos to help illustrate some ideas about what you should be thinking about when taking a photo with a compact camera using a flash.

  • Using Fill-in Flash
The first two images below were taken of a friend of mine on a mid-afternoon summer’s day in Brighton, England. I wanted to take a “fashion model” like photo but without the flash the image would have been to dark.

The first shot I took reminded me that the power of the flash in compact cameras is limited. As I also use a DSLR with external flashes, I am used to having more power, which is why I went back as far as I did.
Image 1: Fill-in flash on compact cameras have their limitations. You can’t get too far away.

I then decided to move closed to my friend and also have him look into the sun, rather than have the sun in the background. To make sure I captured the deep blue background I dropped the exposure of the image by 1.5 stops (see lesson 3 – faking sunsets) and adjusted the power of my flash output to fill-in correctly.
Image 2: A balanced “fashion style” shot taken with a compact camera using manual adjustments to the output power of the flash to fill-in accordingly.

The next image of my youngest daughter was also taken in Brighton, England, at roughly the same time as the above two images. I used the flash to fill-in the face while under exposing the background to capture the texture of the pebbles.

The sun was actually behind me when taking this photo, but I wanted to capture the colour of the pebbles and also correctly expose my daughters face. By under exposing the image for the pebbles (lit by the sun) and using the flash to expose my daughters face the picture ends up being nicely balanced for both fore and background.
Image 3: Notice the two lights in the reflection of the sunglasses. The one on the left is the flash and the one on the right is the sun.

The next image below was taken on a late afternoon in the middle of the city of Leiden in the Netherlands. The shadows of the surrounding buildings meant that without a flash either the shy would have been blown out or my family would have been too dark.

By adjusting the exposure by -1 stop and using a fill-in flash the over all image become much more balanced and richer in colour.
Image 4: thinking about fill in flash can make a big difference to the end result

The final photograph below is by no means a master piece, but was taken as a memory of a good time, drinking coffee outside in the streets of Leiden watching the world go by as the sun set.

As the white cup is so large in the image the exposure had to be adjusted slightly and the flash turned nearly all the way down. You can just about see the flash light reflected in the cup and handle.

Image 5: Even memory shots can be made better by putting a bit of thought into it

  • Cross lighting with compact!
Cross lighting is using two or more lights which are set across from each other to give more depth to an image. As the flash on compact can only come from one direction, I include lighting coming from any other direction other than that of the flash as cross lighting.

In this first image I have used the sun as a highlight to the contour of the subject’s face and used the flash as the main light of the subject. To retain the blue sky I stopped down the exposure and then adjusted the flash to properly expose the subject.
Image 6: cross lighting on the contour of the face adds depth to the subject

In the next two images I used the sun as a hair light by putting the sun directly behind the subjects and then lighting their faces with the flash.

In the first image, the sun is too close to the girls head on the right causing a bright light (halo) to appear. I should have moved or asked the subject to move to batter position the sun behind the head.
Image 7: wrongly positioned sun causes a bright spot above the head

In the second image the sun is positioned behind the head of the girl on the left creating a nice rim light and a hair light for the subject on the left.
Image 8: correctly positioned sun

The last image was made to fake a sunset. Again I stopped down the exposure by -2 stops and used the flash to light the subjects. Unfortunately the flash was not bright enough and I had to run to catch the bus to go home :-)

Image 8: manual adjusting the exposure and using the flash to expose the subjects is an easy way to create a fake sunset

One Thing: The main problem with cross lighting is that the flash is generally not strong enough when used directly opposite the sun. I would have tried to move in closer to the subjects to make their faces lighter.

In summary light is the single most important component for making photographs and by taking control of the light you can produce richer and more exciting photographs. By using a flash creatively and mixed with a bit of thought you can easily turn flash horror pictures into works of art.

Get your hands dirty
1. To understand fill-in light take a set of three pictures:
  • One picture exposed correctly for a bright background and a subject in the shadows with no flash
  • One picture exposed correctly for the subject with a bright background
  • One picture exposed correctly for a bright background and the subject lit with a flash.
2. Shoot a subject exposed so that the sun side lights the subject as a highlight and adjust the flash to make it the main light source without over powering the image

3. Shoot a subject wearing a hat with a brim at noon time and use the flash to fill in the shadows on the face

4. Put the camera on a tripod and take a picture indoors at night using the lights of the house to light the room and use the flash to light the subject by adjusting the power appropriately.

Send the images to emmett.photography@gmail.com with a subject title "Flash Light" and a brief description about each image and let me know if and what difficulties you encountered. Give me a few days to get back to you with my feedback.

In the final part of this free online photography course we will be looking at some creative techniques and ideas for making holiday pictures more interesting.

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