Easy Photo Tip: Add A Little Flash — Literally

You bought your DSLR or high-end compact camera to shoot by available light without flash. The latest digital cameras, for the most part, are capable of producing exceptional results at high ISO settings under very dim conditions. But there are times when a little flash makes all the difference in the world.

Shoe-mounted bounce flash units are a bit like portable sunshine and nearly as versatile. You won’t use one when you shoot your food in a nice restaurant, but you might when you shoot your friends at the pizza joint.

With a bounce flash you can create outstanding portraits without introducing red-eye. When the flashtube is aimed toward the ceiling or a convenient wall, the light falls evenly over the subject with a natural look. The flash that’s built into your camera cannot be used this way. It’s pointed in the same direction as the lens and right into the subject’s eyes.

Outdoors in normal daylight, flash units can be used straight-on to fill in shadows, brighten colors and to counteract strong backlighting. The example above was shot with a Canon D30 and a Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 zoom. (Yes, I mean the 3-megapixel D30, not the 8-megapixel 30D.)

Big flash units have their place and are sometimes indispensible. But carrying around a flash that’s larger than your camera is no fun. And if it’s too cumbersome, it’ll probably be left at home.

Lucky for you, just about every camera manufacturer offers a small bounce flash solution. All will fit inside even the smallest Starbucks cup and they are all reasonably priced.

The Sony HVL-F20M, Nikon SB-300 and Olympus FL-300R fit the bill and cost less than $150 in most shops. Canon’s 270 EXII costs a bit more, and Fujifilm’s offering, the EF-20, generally sells for around $99. Other camera brands, including Pentax, have small flash units but without bounce capability. Panasonic has a terrific bounce unit but it’s just too big to be called small.

What else do you need? If it’s been awhile since you’ve wrestled with buying AA batteries, skip the single-use and go straight for the rechargeable NiMH. The Sanyo Eneloop brand is popular, particularly among occasional flash users, because Eneloop cells can retain up to 70% of their charge after five years in storage. Charge them once and be confident that they’ll be ready to go when you need them, even if it’s a long time later. And they can be recharged and reused more than 2,000 times.

—Jon Sienkiewicz