Chapter 9 – Flash – Learning to Love it!

Take a minute to add up all the money you’ve spent on photography equipment
so far. Are you up to a thousand dollars yet? Two thousand? What if I told you
that I know a secret that could DOUBLE your satisfaction with over half of your
shots? How much would that be worth to you? Well, here it is at no charge: If
you don’t already own one, make it a point to buy a detachable flash unit that’s
either made by your camera’s manufacturer, or at least that’s compatible with
your camera. It has to have a swivel-head that can be turned to point left and
right–and importantly–UP toward a ceiling. Once you have one, put the same
effort into learning how to use it as you are learning how to use your camera

Sadly, there’s very real bias against the use of flash throughout much of the
photographic community, but that’s changing quickly! It’s easy to understand
why so many prefer to shoot without a flash: The flashes that have been built
into point-and shoot cameras for the past fifty years have trained us to expect
some pretty terrible pictures, with their red-eye, blown out faces and pitch black
backgrounds. But before we throw out flashes altogether, let’s have a look at
the reasons that built-in popup flashes give such poor results: One is the tiny
size of the lights… and the other is their location on the top of our cameras. It’s
important to understand why both of those are a problem:

The size of a light source matters a great deal in photo lighting. Take the sun,
for example. The sun is a powerful light of course, but on a clear day when
there are no clouds in the sky at all, the sun itself is a very small light because it’s
so very far away. All of the rays of light that come from a small source come
from the same direction. They travel more or less parallel with each other, and
any shadows they cast as they pass a solid object have sharp edges, as anyone
who’s ever seen a child tracing her shadow on a sidewalk knows. In portrait
work, hard shadows accentuate wrinkles and blemishes – and are almost always

Now consider the sun again, but this time on an overcast day when clouds cover
the entire sky. The same sun now illuminates the entire cloud canopy, which in
turn lights the child standing on the sidewalk from many directions at once! What
happened to the child’s shadow? It softened to the point where the shadow
might not be discernable at all! Professional portrait photographers use studio
lighting setups that include umbrellas, soft-box modifiers and reflectors to
accomplish the same softening effect. Small electric lamps that by themselves
would cast hard, unflattering shadows are instead converted into LARGER light
sources that in turn produce softer and more flattering shadows on their human

The other limitation of your camera’s built-in flash unit is the fact that it’s
permanently located “on-axis”, or directly in line with the camera’s view of the
scene that it’s illuminating. That means that it will light every part of your subject
that your camera can see. Why is that a problem? Despite what we’ve already
seen about how unflattering HARD shadows can be, SOME shadowing is
important in our pictures in order to convey DEPTH first of all, but also in the
case of people to provide hints of mood, personality and character. If our
subject is lit primarily from the top of our cameras, those shadows will be lost,
and the resulting images are said to be “flat”. If your light source can instead be
removed from the top of your camera and positioned even a short distance “offcamera”,
you’ll see the difference immediately — especially when shooting

Professional studio lighting is the ultimate off-camera lighting setup, but
detachable hot-shoe flashes can produce results that rival studio lighting – either
by bouncing their light off white ceilings or walls, or by removing them from the
camera altogether! Depending on the features built into the cameras and flashes
by the manufacturer, they can be activated off-camera by a cable, by a radio
trigger that includes a transmitter and receiver, or optically using the light from a
special flash unit on your camera–or in some camera models even from the popup
flash itself!

Flashes are decidedly a short-range light source. In some ways that’s a
limitation, but in other ways it’s actually an advantage! What if the background
light could be adjusted by one control, and the foreground light on our nearby
subject by an entirely separate and independent light source? Imagine
photographing your friend who’s standing in front of a beautiful mountain range in
the distance. Let’s say that the mountains are brightly lit by the sun, but the face
of your nearby friend is lost in shadow. Your flash is the perfect tool to illuminate
your friend’s face without having any effect at all on the mountain scene beyond.
In this example, you’d meter your camera to correctly expose the background as
usual, and then depend on your camera’s flash to illuminate your nearby friend.
Earlier we said that popup flashes produce some pretty terrible results, but there
is one exception to that: The next time you’re photographing a nearby person
outdoors in bright sunlight, reach around and push the button to lift your camera’s
popup flash. Sure, it sounds like a contradiction, but the one thing that your
popup can do pretty well, is to provide FILL FLASH to some of those dark
shadows. No, you shouldn’t have anything to do at all. Your camera should
recognize the fact that there’s enough light without the flash when you meter, and
it will automatically turn the flash’s intensity down to provide just a gentle “pop” to
fill those dark shadowed areas.

We’ve tried to stay with just the most important skills that you need to know to
build a core competence in this program. Knowing flash’s role is one of those
skills, but when it comes to using detachable hot-shoe flashes you need to hear
that we’ve only scratched the surface. Concentrate on your camera skills first,
but be sure to make this one of your top priorities in the weeks and months
ahead. If you don’t own one already, purchase – and then learn how to USE – a
detachable hot-shoe flash as soon as you can.

Chapter 10 – Closing – The Road to Mastery

Well, we’re almost finished for this time. Before we leave you though, we need to
cover a few miscellaneous points that can make a big difference in your overall
experience with cameras as the years go by.

Nothing can put an end to a favorite activity quicker than a catastrophic event.
Losing your entire photograph collection because of a crashed computer, theft,
fire or flood is NOT impossible! If you haven’t got a good backup plan now, you
need to put one in effect right away. And don’t forget that if your plan includes
storing your backup in the same building as your computer, you’re not really
backed up. My system uses an automatic backup function on my computer and
TWO external backup hard drives: One connected to the computer, and the
other stored in another building somewhere away from my computer altogether.
I swap the two drives every couple of weeks or so.

Another thing that can become a traumatic experience for new photographers is
contracting to shoot EVENTS – especially WEDDINGS – before you know what
you’re doing. There’s a lot that can go wrong on a wedding shoot, and they won’t
reschedule because your only camera broke, or because you didn’t bring enough
batteries or memory cards. Wedding photography is a specialized field, and the
stakes can be very high. Stay away from them unless and until you’ve done your
homework, and ideally worked with an experienced wedding photographer long
enough to learn that particular trade!

Damaged equipment can also ruin an otherwise good day. Keep your cameras
and lenses away from beach sand, smoke, dust and water. Never let a camera
strap dangle off the edge of a table. If you MUST put your camera bag ON a car,
put it ONLY on the driver’s windshield wiper. Inside the car, anticipate quick
stops by placing the bag on the floor AND as far forward as possible. All of my
cameras are permanently equipped with wrist straps, and I slip my hand through
the strap each time BEFORE picking up the camera. It’s important to develop
good camera handling HABITS as soon as possible, because often your mind
will be busy with other things – framing, composition, watching for the right
moment to squeeze off the shot. Good driving habits help us to be safe on the
highways, and good camera handling habits can make the difference between a
successful shoot and painful disaster.

And speaking of habits, don’t forget that reading instructional material like this,
and listening to our audio version of the same information is a great way to build
head-knowledge, but that only PRACTICE can turn that knowledge into skill.
You can practice camera skills almost anywhere – even in your own living room
while watching television if necessary – but without practice it’s all nothing but
head knowledge. Also, expect to ruin a lot of pictures when you first leave the
automatic settings! Don’t be discouraged though: Each failed attempt is an
opportunity to grow, and don’t forget that with digital, every deleted picture is

That’ll have to be it for this time. Thanks for using our program, and be sure to
drop by our website at, where you’ll be able to purchase a
downloadable MP3 version of the material you’ve just read. Repetition can be
the key to learning photography’s difficult concepts, and for some, playing an
audio program over and over might be the easiest way to experience that kind of

We’ll end with one last thought that can have a profound effect on how much
enjoyment you’ll get out of your photography: Try to find a PURPOSE for your
pictures. Creating pictures skillfully for the sake of having quality images is fine,
but how much better when they’re being taken for the benefit of a worthy group,
church, or for a book project or website that’s important to you? Does your
family have a family history in pictures that your grandchildren will appreciate
some day? How about a photo-story of some senior whose life stands out
somehow? Consider participating in photo contests. Look into joining or even
starting an active camera club in your community!  Thanks again for buying our eBook! Participate with your reviews and comments if you can, and good shooting!

Stephen Drew