Let there be Light

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Last month we explored how fill flash accentuates existing light.  As you’ll recall, fill flash is about improving the quality of light in any situation, and when you use it, aperture and shutter speed are the same as if you hadn’t used any flash at all. 

But sometimes you’re using flash because there isn’t enough existing light.  We’ve all experienced making a photo in low light and getting blurry results.  This happens because the camera has to keep the sensor or film exposed to the light for a long period of time (slower shutter speed) in order to get a proper exposure.  With long exposure time, even the tiniest motion, whether by your subject or the camera, will result in blur. 

A common solution is to use a flash in its normal mode.  This makes the flash your primary light source — for an instant being basically the brightest light in the room.  You likely have experience with this, as most cameras default to this mode when the flash is on.  This mode combats blur by providing enough light to use a faster shutter speed.  The trouble is there are significant tradeoffs with using an on-camera flash, especially as a primary light source.

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The first is that just about the worst place for your primary light source to be is right next to your lens.  The dreaded red/pet eye is one result.  Also, the light is very flat and even, which eliminates shadows and shading — which the brain uses to see a three-dimensional form in a two-dimensional image — so your subject ends up looking flat.  Further, having a bright light flashing on top of your camera tends to discourage your subject from looking at the camera.  Some cats and dogs with sensitive eyes will even run from it.  Some pets are bothered so much they come to fear cameras.

If you must use a flash, the ideal is to move it away from the lens.  High-end flashes are usually tall enough to put some distance between the lens and the flash, which helps — especially with red/pet eye.  Even better, some high-end flashes allow you to rotate the head, enabling you to bounce the light off walls or the ceiling.  There are many advantages to this technique — far more than we have space to discuss here.  But if you’re buying a flash really consider one with a rotating head.  If you already have one, try bouncing the light off walls and ceilings.  With some practice you’ll find this gives you much more control over your lighting and thus a much more professional effect.  Bounced flash also tends to be less annoying to your subjects.  Be aware though: when bouncing light off a surface it picks up the color of that surface, so white or neutral walls are best.

This Month’s Assignment

One of the best ways to learn about lighting is to study the light in photos.  So this month I’d like you to do just that.  Pay attention to the light in any photos you see and consider where the lighting seems to come from and how it impacts the feel of the photo.  Would you have lit it differently?

Do this for a while and you’ll discover you’re seeing light in a whole new way . . .  and you’ll discover new approaches to try.  Then create a photo in which you really like how the light looks.  It could be a portrait where the light really accentuates form or even emotion.  Or, it could be a new approach to lighting that you just discovered.  Then please help us all learn from your experience by submitting your photo, and if you’re up for it, a note about the photo and/or your experience in creating it. 

Class Recap

  • Try the exercise
  • Send your photos from the assignment to: David@DavidChildsPhotography.com. Please put “Spot Photo Class” in the subject line
  • Go to Photography 101 on Spot's website to see your photos and those of your fellow students
  • Share your great work with your friends!
  • Check out David’s tips and comments
  • Meet David here in April for your next session!
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David Childs is a professional photographer, photo journalist, instructor, and animal advocate. You can see his work or contact him at www.DavidChildsPhotography.com

Study with David live! His pet photography classes are offered at Oregon Humane Society. See his website for details.