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Digital Photography Tips

The do's and dont's of photography with a flashgun

Flashgun at the ready!

Without any doubt, the worst, most horrible, ugliest way to light any subject is with the little flashgun that now comes built into every camera. The in-camera flash produces lighting that is flat, giving the impression that your subject has been run over by a steam-roller, such shadows as there are are very harsh and look more like an outline than a shadow and, if you are using flash to photograph someone looking straight back at the camera, they will probably have red eyes.

All these problems are caused by one thing, the flash is too close to the camera lens, the closer the flash is to the lens the bigger the problems. In the 'good old days' the flash was a separate item which clipped onto the top of the camera and, more importantly, could be detached from the camera.

Even holding the flash at arm's length from the camera will improve the photo in all three respects. Also, with the separate flash guns, it was possible to bounce the light off a wall or ceiling giving a much more natural, softer light. If you can stand carrying a bit more kit around with you, I urge you to get a separate flash gun, they are still made for most of the more serious cameras.

There will, of course, be times when you must either use the built-in flash or go without the photo, so what can you do to make things a little better? If there is any light at all, then use as much of it as you can. Modern auto focus cameras tend to do this automatically, they use the widest aperture to let as much natural light in as possible and add the flash to bring the exposure up to what is necessary. They might, however, be a little stingy with the shutter speed. The camera, after all, cannot be expected to know whether your subject is moving or not and whether you have a steady hand.

Try changing the exposure mode to shutter priority and set a shutter speed of about 1/30th of a second, if you have a steady hand and there is not too much movement in the scene, this may well give you a sharp enough photo.


One of the ugly things that I mentioned at the top of the page is the 'outline' effect you get when the flash light casts a shadow on the wall behind the subject.

This can be minimized or eliminated by either posing your subject against a dark colored wall or, better still, getting them as far away from any walls as possible.

The drop off in the intensity of your flash light is such that a white wall ten meters away will be quite dark if you are taking a close-up shot.

Hard shadow from the flash Flash shadow hidden by dark wall color
The picture above shows the dreaded 'outline shadow', a result of using the in-camera flash. Although the contrast of the shadow has been softened by the available light, it is still, annoyingly, there. The picture above was taken on the same day, with the same camera and flash. If you look really closely at the side of the head you can see the shadow but, because the wall behind is dark, it hardly shows at all. Once again the shadows have been greatly softened by making the most of the available light.

Get serious with your flashgun

Other tutorials in this section


Introduction page.

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Available Light

Getting the best out of the sun.

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Using Reflectors

Filling in the shadows.

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Break away from the in-camera flash.

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Fill-in Flash

Soften those shadows.

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Red Eye Removal

A quick remedy in Photoshop.

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Studio Lighting

An introduction to indoor lighting.

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Inverse Square Law

A bit of Physics for those who feel the need.

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