Flash Photography

Success with flash photography is sometimes a bit of a hit and miss affair but with a little bit of knowledge you can improve your flash photography skills instantly. There's a few basic principles to understand and you should expect to do a bit of trial and error before you get good results. Here's some tips to get you started.

In-built flash

Most cameras come with a built-in pop-up flash and the camera will usually automatically sense when flash is required. Unfortunately, this is not fail-proof and often the pop-up flash is not sufficiently strong enough for your needs – it will only work at short subject distances. Here's some basic flash tips:

  • Stay within flash range. Check your camera manual for the recommended range, usually 1 - 3m. Keep the whole subject (for instance, all the people in the shot) at a similar distance from the flash.

  • A higher-speed film (or higher ISO setting) may extend your flash by a few feet, so it does pay to use higher-speed film (or ISO settings) even indoors for flash pictures.

  • Batteries that are approaching exhaustion will not give full flash power even if the camera is still working – be sure to wait for the flash to recharge.

  • Prevent red-eye by asking your subjects to look slighty away from the camera, and turn on all the room lights to shrink their pupils.

  • Avoid use of the "red-eye reduction" flash setting - too many people find it's distracting and confusing, and results in people blinking or moving as they don't know when the actual photo has been taken – you can fix any “red-eye” problems when editing or printing your image.

Fill Flash

Fill Flash is a technique to fill in areas of a picture that would otherwise be too dark. Fill flash balances the scene so that the subject is properly exposed and the background (beyond the flash range) is left alone.

Use fill flash for sunny day portraits to fill in the dark shadows under eyes, nose, chin, hat etc. It can also help to balance highly contrasting colours such as a portrait of a dark skinned complexion on a bright beach background. Fill flash is also useful for side-lit and back-lit pictures that still require a balance of front lighting.

The in-built flash in your camera is best used for fill-flash situations.

No Flash

There are occasions when your camera thinks the flash is needed but in fact it isn't.
  • When you are too far away from your subject for the flash to be effective

  • When the flash would create annoying reflections from mirrors etc

  • At sunset or in other low-light situations where you'd like a foreground subject to be silhouetted

  • Where the quality of the existing light is beautiful and creates a mood that you'd like to capture

  • Where flash is not allowed (prop yourself on a rail, or wall, or use a tripod)

  • Where you want to use a slow shutter speed for motion blur, or panning.

To "know better" than your camera in these situations, turn the dial off the fully automatic program and keep the pop-up flash closed. Check your camera's user manual - most digital SLRs have 2 automatic program modes, one is semi-automatic and allows you to override the auto-flash.


Using the in-built flash in your camera has some limitations. A few things you will find are:
  • light is often too harsh for subject
  • can create harsh shadows & reflections
  • picture can appear too "cool"
  • light intensity is too low for distances over 3 metres
  • red-eye effect is more prevalent

The use of a flash where you can control the angle and intensity of light is more preferable. A shoe mounted flash, usually called a speedlight, is the ideal solution and you don't need to be a professional photographer to get immediate improvement to your flash photography. Once you have a speedlight, the first thing to experiment with is angling the light from the flash away from the subject - this technique is called "bounce". Bouncing light off white ceilings is often very successful as the light will be diffused and scattered more evenly over the subject.

Speedlights have their own power source (batteries) and are often graded in quality by the strength of the light power that can be emitted. These types of flash units are therefore better for penetrating dark areas over longer distances than with your in-built flash.

Useful features on a speedlight are:
  • diffuser - usually a piece of textured perspex that is integrated to flip over the flash globe when needed to soften the light emitted
  • intensity control switch
  • TTL metering
  • slave sensor
  • swivel head used for bounce

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Created: December 2011
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