Flash in the hand

One of the last disciplines that photographers learn to master is how to use a flash properly. Many don’t like how the effects of a flash looks in their photos and quickly give it up for natural lighting.

Much of it has to do with how a flash is mounted on the camera. Accessory flashes, often called “speedlights” or “speedlites” depending on manufacturer, are mounted to DSLRs via the hot shoe attachment at the top of the camera (hence another moniker “hot shoe” flash). This position can provide plenty of even light but it’s also flat, boring and unflattering light. It also contributes to the dreaded “red-eye” effect.

Red–eye occurs in low-light situations because the eye’s iris is dilated to let more light in. Since the flash is near the camera’s lens, light from the flash reflects off of the blood vessels at the back of the eye and then almost straight back into the lens. This is the same in DSLRs, point-and-shoots, and smartphone cameras. Some cameras try to alleviate this by firing off a series of pre-flashes before the main exposure. The is temporarily makes the iris smaller and lessening or eliminating red-eye, but often by the time that happens sometimes your subject has moved on to other things.

Another way to avoid red eye, and solve other flash problems as well, is to use and off-camera flash. Off-camera flash is just what is sounds like, the flash is held or mounted off of the camera. Studio photographers do this all the time. They do it mostly to avoid the harsh flat light of an on-camera flash. They’ll mount big studio strobe on stands and modify the light with large reflective umbrellas or softboxes. But all this can be thousands of dollars-worth of an investment.

You too can do this with your own speedlight. Radio or infrared transmitters can be purchased to fire your flashes. Some high-end flashes even have them built in. This can still be pretty pricey, costing you several hundreds of dollars. Is there something even more basic (lest costly).

There is something called an off-camera cord that you can use and only costs around $70 to $80 for a reliable one (less for an off-brand one). It’s one of the most essential pieces of equipment in my camera bag. One end of the cord attaches to the hot-shoe at the top of the camera while the other end attaches to the flash. This will allow you to hold the flash at arms length or a little farther if you have an assistant able to hold it for you. This will allow you to avoid red-eye and give you a little more sculpted and flattering light making it look like it comes from another direction other than just straight on. The biggest down side is that you have to make sure that you’re aiming the flash in the right direction. There have been plenty of times where I thought I was pointing the flash where I wanted to but I was actually illuminating some obscure portion of the sky.

Perhaps even an off-camera cord is beyond your means, what do you do? Most speedlights have a head that will tilt and swivel. You can tilt the head upwards to bounce the light off of the ceiling. This will not only eliminate red-eye but also spread out and soften the light as well. You can also swivel the head to bounce it off a nearby wall of a similar effect. The limitation being that if the ceiling or walls are too far away the flash won’t likely be powerful enough to illuminate your subject.

What if you don’t have a speedlight, just a built-in pop-up flash at the top of your camera? Your options are more limited but there are still a few things you can do. There are attachments that you can get that fit over the flash to either soften the light or bounce it upwards, most at a reasonable cost (there are even DIY videos online showing you how to make your own).

The point is that you don’t have to stick with the harsh and unimaginative light and the red-eye effects of an on-camera flash when an off-camera solution is just an arm’s length away.

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