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With some easily applied methods of artificial lighting you can expand your skill set by developing your flash photography technique. Some of what I’ll cover in this post can be done with your existing equipment or with a minimal (less than $20) investment in an accessory or two.
Use your camera’s built-in flash for fill
In situations where you have strong sunlight its best to have any people in your photograph avoid looking into the sun. Having subjects with strong light behind them will make for deep shadows on the subject. Using flash fill overcomes this problem and in some cases can even help focus attention on your subject. The built-in flash on your camera can easily be used for this. Here’s an example of recent photos of my daughter among a field of sunflowers with and without fill:
The photo on the right is without any fill light and has excessive lens flare from the evening sun. I wanted to use the back lighting because the sunlight looked so beautiful coming through the sunflowers. I shot these with my Nikon D300, and in the frame on the left I flipped up the built-in flash to open up the shadows on (my daughter) Olivia’s face. There’s still some lens flare but it is much improved from the previous frame.
The built-in flash is handy for situations like this where shadows need to be filled. Having said that …
Don’t rely on the camera’s built-in flash
Using any on-camera flash gives a very flat lighting effect, often casts undesirable shadows behind your subject (e.g. when taking photos of people indoors and up against a wall). Its much better to use off-camera flash so that you can introduce some directional light that is not parallel to the lens. This can be as simple as holding a flash unit with your left hand to the left and a foot or so above the lens axis while you aim and shoot with your right hand. Your shoe mounted flash may have come with a PC sync cord, and if not you will need one to do this.
If you find yourself being asked to photograph people at parties or perhaps even venture into wedding photography, a flash bracket may be an accessory you want to add to your gear bag. This is just a metal frame that attaches to the bottom of your camera threaded socket, and extends to the side and above your camera to offset the flash mount from the camera body.
Reflector umbrellas and light stands
Should your photography interests include taking family photos and portraits, for a minimal investment consider adding a light stand and reflector umbrella. Again you will need a sync cord that attaches your camera to your flash unit, and in this arrangement it should be at least 6 feet long, and longer is better for more lighting adjustment flexibility and to avoid trip hazards. You will also need some small hardware that attaches to the light stand – a bracket to mount both the reflector umbrella and flash unit to the stand.
All of this can be purchased for about $75 or less. It gives you the ability to mount your flash unit, aimed at the inside of the umbrella, so that soft diffused light is bounced from the umbrella toward your subject. Set at approximately 45 degrees from your shooting position (left or right, as you choose) the diffuse light that falls upon your subjects face(s) will be very pleasant and natural looking as if light were coming in from a large window. This is a very basic portrait lighting setup that you can experiment with for a small investment in equipment using your battery powered, shoe mounted flash unit.
For a more professional lighting arrangement for portraiture, at a price range of about $200-$300, two and three strobe light kits are available to give you a main light (at the previously mentioned 45 degrees offset from the shooting position), a fill light (above and behind the camera position, and a background (or highlight) illumination light. This relatively inexpensive portraiture lighting can take your photography to new heights. You will have the means to light an individual, small groups, and even try product photography with such a lighting setup
Getting involved with flash photography can open up many possibilities for you. As you have seen from what I’ve presented here you can do a lot with what you already have and just a few extra dollars worth of accessories. As your photographic skills increase you can look to investing in more gear, like the starter lighting arrangements discussed above. And if you really find your passion in flash photography the sky is the limit – portraiture, corporate photography, perhaps even fashion photography. Pursue your passion. And as always,
Already a flash photographer? Please add your comments below to let me know what gear your use and let others know what works for you!