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Getting Acquainted: Using In Camera Flash

Last updated on 07/10/2013

Think all there is to know about using the in camera flash is how light or dark it is? Think again. Get acquainted with the basics of your camera's flash to improve your shots both indoors and outdoors.
By Hillary Grigonis

At first, using a camera flash seems pretty simple, just turn the flash on if it's dark, leave it off if it's bright or just use the auto. But treating flash simply will result in simple (and sometimes even awful) photos. Even basic point and shoot cameras offer a few adjustments for the in camera flash. Learning how to use flash properly is essential to obtaining above average images. Getting acquainted with the way your camera flash works can lead to better photos—both in the dark and in the sunshine.

In Camera Flash: Modes and When to Use Them

Chances are, you are already familiar with the auto flash function—if you've never changed your flash settings, it's probably the option your camera is set on now. The camera senses the amount of available light and decides whether or not to fire the flash. It's simple, and in many cases results in good pictures.










An automatic flash would have fired on this shot, taken at dusk. The flash, however, would have eliminated the nice orange glow from the sunset.




Digital cameras also have an on/off option for the flash. Why not just leave the camera on auto? There are plenty of reasons. A flash will ruin any effects from the ambient lighting (i.e. the light that's already there) like candlelight or a spotlight. Even more importantly, leaving the camera flash set to fire every time is an essential technique called fill flash. Shooting a portrait outdoors in bright sunlight means there's enough light that the auto flash won't fire, but adding a flash will eliminate any shadows on the subject's face. Fill flash is also necessary for shots where the light source is behind the subject, unless of course you want to snap a silhouette.

Most cameras also have a red eye reduction flash, which actually fires the flash twice, once to get the pupils constricted and a second time to snap the picture. But if a camera doesn't have a red eye reduction feature, try having the subject look off to the side (not directly at the camera), or move in (not zoom in) a little closer.










Fill flash in this outdoor portrait brightens the subject and eliminates odd shadows.




A slow sync flash makes a tremendous difference in low-light portraits. This flash setting offers enough light for the main subject, but steps down the shutter speed a bit so that the background is correctly exposed. If you wouldn't use a flash to take a picture of just the background, like a cityscape at night, but need a flash for the subject, then switch to slow synch flash mode.

Cameras with manual modes are also often equipped with a flash mode called rear curtain or slow rear. Rear curtain flash is used in time exposures. A normal flash on a time exposure would create trails of light that appear in front of the moving object. The rear curtain flash fires at the end of the exposure instead, which allows the trails of light to appear behind the moving subject, where we expect them to be.

In Camera Flash: Flash Compensation

Advanced compacts, mirrorless models and DSLRs all allow the user to adjust the brightness of the in camera flash through flash compensation. Adjusting the flash compensation allows the photographer to find the perfect balance between the flash, distance to the subject and ambient lighting.

Often, flash compensation is adjusted for distance. If you are standing close to the subject and the images appear washed out, dial down the flash compensation. Similarly, if the flash isn't lighting up a distant object or person well, dial up the flash compensation.

The flash compensation can also be useful for balancing the flash with the existing light so the lighting blends evenly, often making it appear as if no flash was used at all. Many professional photographers automatically adjust their flash down by .3 or .7 to eliminate the look of harsh light. If you are unsure, take a few test photos, preview them and adjust accordingly.

Built-in flash is a nice tool for getting the lighting right, even with a basic point and shoot. But choosing the right flash mode and adjusting the flash compensation is essential to capturing excellent flash photography results.

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