Flash Photography (or NOT)

My photography tutorials, generally speaking, come from my observations of other photographers. I have found that people have certain consistencies of habit, photographers bearing no exception to this rule. It seems what one photographer does soon spreads like a virus into the mind of another. Suddenly, everyone's "doing it," no matter that "it" is wrong. At the heart of the issue usually is decision-making from an incorrect, or lack of, knowledge.

Take flash photography, for instance. Flash photography in one crowd is spoken of as hard to do with poor results. Another group insists you MUST have the latest, greatest technology or you cannot "pull it off." Yet another simply slaps the camera into auto and snaps away. However, I am here to tell you it is possible to take successful flash photographs. Your equipment works only as far as you know what you are doing! I have seen photographs of poor quality taken with a nice camera and an expensive flash. (These were what sparked in me the need for this article.) A knowledgeable photographer makes quality decisions and achieves better results than one relying on guesswork, no matter how much equipment he or she owns.

It is time, friends, to return to the basics of photography. Until you understand what happens when you DO or DO NOT choose your flash, you will be unable to control your results. You will become frustrated and further disperse the idea that flash photography is difficult.

ISO 200, Slow Sync Flash, F4, 1/20 second

What is happening?

What happens when you pop up that flash? Most digital cameras come with a choice of flash settings: AUTO, RED EYE, FILL flash, and various SLOW SYNC flash settings. This brings me to my next point - shutter speed.

The biggest difference with flash photography is how it affects your camera's shutter speed. FILL flash shortens your shutter speed; it becomes your primary source of light. SLOW SYNC flash allows the camera to use the same shutter speed it would use without a flash. The flash is, in effect, a side element to what else the camera is doing; it is there to provide additional light and that's all. In some cameras, there are then choices of SLOW SYNC flash, what are essentially before and after flashes. One sets the flash off at the start of your shutter, as it opens, and the other holds it until the end when the shutter closes. In either case, the shutter speed is determined independent of the flash.


ISO 800, Slow Sync Flash, F4.8, 1/40 second

Your other two choices are self-explanatory. RED EYE flash eliminates "red eye" syndrome. AUTO flash allows the camera to choose all the settings. I am not fond of using AUTO flash for one reason, its lack of control. In all the cameras I have owned, from the simplest point-and-shoot to my current DSLR, AUTO flash continually chooses settings that are not optimal to the photo, so I select either FILL flash or SLOW SYNC flash based on whatever results I am trying to achieve.

Another factor that comes into play with flash photography is white balance. Flash introduces additional light and since light comes in various colors, ultimately the final look of a scene is altered. Usually, flash photographs taken without any white balance adjustment appear too red , too yellow, or too blue. I am, therefore, careful to adjust my white balance beforehand.

To flash or not?

When do you need to use a flash? Conversely, when do you NOT need to use a flash?

Here are my greatest reasons FOR:

    1. It is simply too dark.
    2. You want to eliminate camera shake in low lighting.
    3. You have good light, but need to lighten heavily shadowed areas.
    4. There is a strong conflict between background and foreground lighting.


    1. There is good ambient light.
    2. You have a stable camera support.
    3. You want to feature a more dramatic lighting effect.
    4. To avoid frightening wildlife.

The primary reason for using a flash is that it is too dark. Whenever there isn't any other way to light a scene and you lack stable support for your camera, FILL flash will shorten your shutter speed and allow you to capture the scene. FILL flash does not always provide the optimal results, but given you would otherwise lose the shot, it is an option.

Camera shake is THE BIGGEST error in low light photography. At some point, photographers of all levels forget, do not take into account slower shutter speeds, and therefore, lose the shot. No one wants to say afterward, "Oh, I should have used the flash." After all, blurry people remain blurry people.

Water Lily.jpg

ISO 200, Slow Sync Flash, F9, 1/200 second

I also like to use SLOW SYNC flash in scenes where there is a huge difference in lighting (a strong background with a dark foreground, for instance). I can expose for the brighter area and allow the flash to light the darker one. In the above photo, the angle of the light created beautiful backlighting to the water lily's petals. However, it also left the focus of the flower, the yellow center, in heavy shadow. Using SLOW SYNC flash, I lightened the shadows and yet preserved the existing ambient light.

SLOW SYNC flash, specifically "rear curtain" flash, is a great choice in low light people photography. "Rear curtain" fires the flash at the end of the capture. Because people are naturally fidgety, rear curtain flash allows more success at longer shutter speeds because when the flash fires, the capture is over, and it then doesn't matter who moves.


ISO 800, Slow Sync Flash, F5, 1/125 second

Don't forget ISO.

Often, ISO is forgotten in flash photography. ISO makes the camera more light sensitive thus shortening the needed exposure time. Shorter shutter speeds always increase your ability to handhold your camera. I encourage you to find the longest shutter speed you can effectively hold the camera without support. For me it is 1/20th second. This knowledge works as a good guide in deciding when to adjust my camera settings. Anything longer and I will need more ISO, some flash lighting, or proper bracing.

Don't let flash photography scare you away. The flash is an amazing tool to increase your chances of capturing photos with the right exposure. With knowledge of how to use it correctly and some experimentation of your own, it becomes an effective and useful photography option.

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Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.