Keep your flash in your pants

Colourful metal dots

The other day, I attended some live music at the Umi Cafe on Somerset. Throughout the multi-hour performance, there was a cadre of amateur photographers – some with point and shoot cameras, some with dSLRs – happily snapping away. Almost without exception, every shot was accompanied by a bright white flash. There are two major reasons why photographers should avoid this pattern of behaviour.

Firstly, it produces ugly and unnatural pictures. Using a flash is akin to looking at a scene with a bright white miner’s lamp on your head. This is problematic for several reasons: (a) it lights close things much more than far ones, leading to blinding white foreground objects and black backgrounds; (b) it throws very harsh shadows, leaving a person’s nose looking like a mountain on the moon; (c) the light from the flash is a different colour from incandescent or fluorescent lighting, making the scene look oddly discordant in colour.

Secondly, it really annoys people. While the ‘stadium full of flashes’ effect is a Hollywood cliché, the actual impact of using lots of flashes – especially in a small and intimate environment – is to impose your weird lighting preferences on an entire room full of people, many times a night. Flashes are distracting and rude, and should only be deployed when really necessary.

There are easy ways to avoid using the flash. First and foremost, don’t use your camera in full auto mode. With no guidance, it will usually decide that the pop-up flash is the safest way to get a usable photo. With just a bit of thinking, you can usually do better.

The first way is to increase the ISO setting on your camera. This basically makes it more sensitive to light. While doing so will make your pictures grainier, they will look a lot more natural than ‘headlamp effect’ flash shots. If you don’t know how to do this, check your manual or search online. With most point and shoot cameras, and all dSLRs, it is a fairly simple procedure. Many cameras even have a dedicated button for it. On a point and shoot camera, try cranking it up to 400 or so. On a dSLR, don’t feel shy about using 1600 ISO, or even faster. Here is an example of a high ISO photo taken with a cheap P&S camera. A flash photo of the same scene would have been infinitely worse.

The second way is to brace your camera somehow. If you have a two-second timer, this can be easily achived. Just frame the shot, with the camera sitting on the edge of a table, wall, or solid object. Then, press the shutter and then leave the camera still to take a photo. Anything moving will probably show some motion blur, but you are once again likely to produce a nicer and more natural image than you would with a flash. Tripods are also an excellent idea, and there are tiny little tabletop ones that can be easily carried around and used with a point and shoot camera. I used the combination of a $180 Canon P&S camera and a $5 tripod to take these photos: Montreal, Ottawa, Morocco, Paris, Istanbul. A great trick for churches and other buildings with interesting ceilings is to put your camera flat on the ground with a timer set, press the shutter, and step back. I used that trick to take these: Oxford, Istanbul.

People think about photographs as something you ‘take’ by pointing a camera at something and pressing the shutter. In fact, it makes more sense to think about photos as something you ‘make’ using a combination of light, gear, and intelligence. By putting some thought and effort into things, you can produce more natural photos in intimate settings, without temporarily blinding and annoying everyone around you.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

18 thoughts on “Keep your flash in your pants”

  1. This was a great post for me, Milan. I really dislike using the flash on my camera but I’m very new to the whole photography concept and had no idea which setting I should be messing with. I’m going to give it a try…and search your archives for more photography basics posts.

  2. It can be a real drag when you’re in an intimate setting like a cafe, listening to a band, and there’s an ambitious photographer flashing away at their knees the whole time.

    This seems to be a good guide for those hopefuls.

    Though, I think there are some times when we should just live in the moment, not re-live it through photos, or youtube videos, or recorded audio.

    I often feel a bit ridiculous when I spend an evening with friends and I have spent the whole time in front of a lens, re-living moments seconds after they happen, grabbing the camera to see whether I had parsley in my teeth – or guessing which ones will end up on Facebook, and trying to delete the parsley ones before that happens.

    Though, I think we are always partially present at social gatherings. I always have someone in my pocket texting me, while trying to keep a conversation going with someone in real-time, as they field calls from friends on their cell.

    This post is a nice addendum to this clever piece on techiquette:

  3. It would be pretty easy to rig up a system of flash countermeasures for these shows.

    Just get some flashes with optical slaves built in, and put them on stage pointing at the audience. The flash on the camera would trigger the flash on stage, basically blanking out the photo.

    People using digital cameras would get the idea quick, though film people (how many of those are there?) might keep on shooting.

  4. That would work in some cases, though perhaps not with cameras that use a pre-flash. I know that’s how Canon’s flash exposure system works. It would be interesting to test whether the off-camera flash would fire during the time when the shutter was open.

    I could test that with my Rebel XS and A570IS.

    Another problem with this approach is that it depends on high power flashes pointed directly at the audience. It might only need to go off once or twice before the photographers got the picture, but it would be a lot more annoying than a standard flash when it did.

  5. I tested this and it doesn’t usually work, because of the pre-flash:

    Rebel XS, pop-up flash
    Result: Counterflash fires too soon, normal photo

    Rebel XS, manual flash on hot shoe
    Result: Counterflash effective, blank frame produced

    Result: Counterflash fires too soon, normal photo

    A custom setup that corrected for the delay associated with common brands might work.

  6. Why not shoot some video clips and take snapshots from the video clips that way you do not need any flash at all. I have done this and it works great being able to take snapshots from video clips.

  7. Shooting video instead of stills doesn’t magically make things brighter, though video cameras are more likely to automatically increase their ISO to compensate for darkness.

  8. Pingback: BOLO 2010 photos

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