The secrets of taking good pictures: Flash

Expert Tom Langford explains how the correct use of flash can greatly improve the quality of photographs.

Camera 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Camera 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Equipment won’t help take good pictures if you don’t already understand and practice the basics of good photography. There is one piece of kit, however, that’s essential to get better results in difficult and fast-changing situations – the flashgun.
Event photographers, in particular, depend on flashguns to create decent pictures in a great diversity of conditions. Whether shooting weddings in large halls at night, or portraits outdoors in sunshine, the flashgun helps to quickly obtain results that would be impossible any other way. The use of the flashgun depends on the situation.
Diffusing and bouncing
Most modern flashguns are “dedicated” for use with a specific make of SLR camera. They attach to the hot shoe at the top of the camera and synchronize with the camera’s exposure system. The default setting is usually called “through the lens fill flash” which will automatically brighten up a subject in difficult lighting conditions.
This first picture was taken without flash. The strong light behind the chair has caused some underexposure – the subject does not stand out and looks a bit lost in the shadows:
No flash (Tom Langford)No flash (Tom Langford)
There is a lot that could have been done to improve this portrait if time was not an issue, but to quickly capture action or expression the flashgun is the easiest solution.
The simple option is to point and shoot, leaving the flash head pointing forwards. This creates harsh shadows, similar to snaps taken with the camera’s pop-up flash, as shown below:
Direct flash (Tom Langford)Direct flash (Tom Langford)
To give a softer look, use a simple white plastic diffuser that fits over that head of the flash. Raise the flash head to a 45 degree angle to spread the light over a wide area: Light reflected back onto the subject gives a less harsh effect as shown below:
Diffused flash (Tom Langford)Diffused flash (Tom Langford)
The softest and most natural results can be created if the subject is close to a wall. You can quickly rotate the bare flash head towards the wall: Bouncing light off a convenient surface gives very soft, natural lighting. It’s best if the wall is a light neutral color. In the shot below the flash has been bounced off the wall to the right of the subject:
Bounced flash (Tom Langford)Bounced flash (Tom Langford)
Try bouncing the flash off a wall behind you, or even off the ceiling (if it is not too high). These examples have only scratched the surface of what can be achieved with SLR flashguns.
Modern, dedicated flashguns have LCD screens and menus just as complex as a digital camera. When shooting event photography use them in the most straightforward fashion – there simply isn’t enough time to fiddle about with all of their sophisticated features.
Even the simple techniques used in these examples require lots of practice in different situations until they become second nature.
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Tom Langford is an Event and Commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and improvers. Details at: and