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Getting Good Pictures – How to Use Your Flash

David Pogue, the NYTimes technology writer, has some good advice about using digital cameras. In fact, he wrote a book on the subject called David Pogue’s Digital Photography – The Missing Manual.

One big issue in getting good pictures with amateur camera equipment is controlling the flash.

Here’s what Pogue has to say on this subject:

Cameras love light. Light is everything to a photograph: It provides the color, sharpness, and shadow. And if there’s not enough light for a decent exposure, well, your camera stands ready to provide that light all by itself.

What most people don’t consider, though, is that the flash generally provides horrible light. It’s harsh, it’s white, it’s direct, and it comes from a single point: your camera.

If you’re close to the subject, the flash can blow out the picture, giving your best friend a ghost face that looks like it was photographed during a nuclear test. Worse, the flash illuminates only about the first 10 feet of the scene; everything beyond that comes out black.

In any case, most people make two mistakes with the flash: using it when they shouldn’t, and not using it when they should.

1. When to Avoid the Flash

Your camera’s flash probably has a range of about 10 feet. Beyond that distance, it does nothing at all–except waste battery power and annoy people.

You know when thousands of flashes go off at a rock concert, football game, or school play? Don’t be one of those clueless people. They’re all firing their flashes for nothing. Do they really think they’re going to illuminate a singer, football player, or actor from 200 yards away?

The second time to avoid using the flash is, well, whenever possible. A no-flash picture is almost always better-looking and more realistic than a flash picture.

Of course, small cameras, in particular, may not be able to take certain pictures at all without the flash, like nighttime pictures and indoor shots where people are moving. (Without the flash, you’d get blur.)

But there are dozens of edge cases: situations where your camera is convinced that it needs the flash but in fact could do without it; often, it’s just a matter of steadying the camera on something (a car, a wall, a doorway) to avoid blur. If you can learn to identify these situations, you’ll get much more realistic, attractive pictures.

2. When to Force the Flash

This may sound nuts. But there’s a very good reason to use the flash even on a bright, sunny day.

Suppose, for example, that you’re taking a picture of a person outdoors. (Hey–it could happen.)

You aim the camera and half press the shutter button; the camera “reads” the scene and concludes that there’s tons of sunlight. It would never dream of using the flash; it’s not smart enough to recognize that the subject’s face is in shadow.

The solution is to force the flash on–a very common photographer’s trick.

A fill flash like this makes outdoor portraits look a lot better. It eliminates the silhouette effect when your subject is in front of a bright background. Better yet, it provides very flattering front light. It softens smile lines and wrinkles, and it puts a nice twinkle in the eyes.

3. Flash Modes

All right: Now you know that you’re not a slave to the whims of your camera’s flash. So what are the steps to controlling it?

Press the flash mode button. It’s a dedicated physical button, marked by the universal lightning-bolt-with-an-arrow-on-one-end. Use it to open a menu of the camera’s flash modes. (On some cameras, press it repeatedly to cycle through the different flash modes.)

Here’s what you’ll probably have to choose from:

* Auto. The camera chooses when to fire the flash. (It’s wrong about half the time.) Usually denoted by “Auto” or the letter A.

* Redeye reduction. A mostly ineffectual and highly annoying double flash, intended to minimize that spawn-of-the-dead look. Marked by an eyeball.

* No flash. Usually represented by a circle with a slash through it. Great for whenever you can get away with it.

* Forced flash. This is the mode for outdoor portraits. It’s usually marked by a lightning bolt or the words “Flash on,” “Force flash on,” or “Fill flash.”

* Slow-synchro flash. This mode, also known as front curtain sync, isn’t as common as the previous four, but it’s available on most of the nicer cameras. (On pocket cams, it may be called Nighttime mode, and its icon usually looks like a star or a moon over someone’s shoulder.)

The idea here is to flash once, illuminating your companion nicely–but then to leave the shutter open for a moment while it drinks in some light from the surrounding background. If it didn’t do that, you’d get just a totally inky black background. This way, though, you can see the city lights, the campfire, the dusky street, or whatever’s beyond your subject.

As you can imagine, however, slow-synchro flash requires a steady camera.

* Second-curtain flash. This one, also called rear curtain sync, is probably the least-used flash effect, chiefly because (a) it’s hard to understand what it does and (b) it’s hard to understand when it might be useful.

In essence, it’s the same thing as the slow-synchro flash, but in the reverse sequence. That is, the shutter opens up to soak up the background first–and then the flash fires at the end of that interval.

The usual example people give for second-curtain flash is reversing the direction of moving lights (car taillight trails, for example). With slow-synchro flash, the trails seem to extend forward from the cars; with second-curtain flash, they seem to trail from behind the cars.

You can read more David Pogue on his site and check out his videos at the NY Times website.

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