A failed flash photograph has an exposure in which the subject is too light or too dark. In addition, the foreground is too light—in fact, it’s lighter than the subject—and therefore distracting. In some circumstances, very dark or black backgrounds behind a subject are not desirable, and this can be considered a failure as well.
On-camera flash is convenient and very fast to use, but it’s not a flattering type of light. It’s a flat type of lighting with seemingly no depth, it creates unattractive shadows, and any surface that has sheen to it will reflect the light back into the lens.
To fully understand your flash, there are some basic principles and definitions I need to explain. When I start discussing how to be creative with your flash, you will know what I’m talking about with this information under your belt. Flash is not difficult once you understand some fundamental principles. I will start from the beginning and take you step by step to the point where it will seem like no big deal to get excellent flash pictures.
I have made the point that on-camera flash is not the most attractive artificial light for photography. In fact, I’d say it’s at or near the bottom of my list for choosing artificial light sources to illuminate the subjects I photograph. If I can’t take the flash off the camera and I’m forced to use on-camera flash, then the best approach is to diffuse the light. There are various ways to do this. Some diffusion techniques require a modest expenditure while others don’t cost anything.
Many people think that professional looking portraits of either people or animals require a multiple light setup in a studio. The traditional configuration consists of a main light, a fill light, sometimes a hair light depending on the hair—or lack of hair—of the subject, and two lights on the background. You can see what this type of lighting looks like in where I used a 4-light setup. The background was black paper and the two subtle background lights made it look gray. I set the studio strobes to provide a 3:1 lighting ratio on the model’s face.
This story is oriented to photographers who are serious about their photography, and who want to learn to use flash creatively. However, I know there are a lot of people who are very happy with their camera and who aren’t interested in buying sophisticated flash units. Admittedly, there is a lot to be said for being able to use one unit for both exposure and illumination. In this section I will address the issue of pop-up flash units and tell you how to get the most out of these small and convenient types of flash.
After I had been taking pictures seriously for two or three years, I realized that photography taught me to see things I had never noticed before I picked up a camera. I had been fairly oblivious to contrast, the shapes of shadows, details, texture, light, color, and graphic design. The camera helped me finally pay attention to all of these things. It is truly remarkable how much you can miss. For example, BP (Before Photography) I would have walked right past the overturned cart in a rural area of Missouri and not given it a second thought. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that this had any artistry or beauty. Similarly, BP I would have missed the bold graphic design, warm color, and rich texture in the detail of a cathedral door in Strasbourg, France.
Multicolored neon lights turning and spinning at night are irresistible to a photographer. Even though I have photographed amusement parks at night for years, it’s still exciting to do it again because the pictures I take are never the same. The colors are always dazzling, and the abstracts are captivating. Sometimes I am happy with these images as I shoot them, like (#1 and #2), and other times I use them as composites as in (#3, #4 and #5). When I took the latter image I immediately thought of a black hole, so I added “stars” to complete the concept. The star field is actually a picture of glitter sprinkled on black velvet.
Underwater photography is a specialty that most of us don’t delve into, but I think it’s fair to say that most nature photographers are intrigued with the creatures seen in public and private aquariums. They are beautiful, bizarre, mysterious and often ethereal. Photographing them can be challenging because there are technical issues to deal with in order to get the best possible images.
I have always found tree bark intriguing. It comes in myriad colors, patterns, designs and textures, and it reminds me of photographing abstract art. I am always looking at tree trunks and branches when I travel, and at home when I visit a botanical garden I know there will be a lot of photographic material. The abstract images you can photograph run the gamut from brilliant and saturated “works of art” to those that are much more subtle. The two images (#1 and #2) illustrate the tremendous range of subject matter available to you.