Worst Lighting Ever

By , February 3, 2014 3:43 pm
Most digital cameras have a pop-up flash, like this one atop the viewfinder of a digital SLR. An important exception is that professional cameras don't have this feature.

Most digital cameras have a pop-up flash, like this one atop the viewfinder of a digital SLR. An important exception is that professional cameras don’t have this feature.

"Green Box," or full-auto, exposure mode takes over everything, including popping up the on-camera flash as it deems necessary.

“Green Box,” or full-auto, exposure mode takes over everything, including popping up the on-camera flash as it deems necessary.

“The difference between pornography and erotica is lighting.” ~Gloria Leonard

Wil C. Fry has recently discussed various flash options for his photography through some assignments he found on The Strobist, so I thought I’d weigh in on a point I try to make with my students over and over: there is really no way to light a subject worse than with direct flash.

Much of the time, beginner photographers don’t have any knowledge about their camera at all, and in particular they have no idea how to light something. Their cameras are usually set to “Green Box” (sometimes labeled “auto”) mode, which is fully automated. In addition to taking over most of the menu settings, this full-auto mode also pops up the on-camera flash when there isn’t, in the opinion of the camera, enough light.

I do this simple a vs b illustration in class. On the left, direct flash from the pop-up on the camera, and on the right, a single flash bounced onto a wall to my left. Of note are the unnatural, oily-looking facial features in the direct-flash example, and the natural, window-like look of the bounced flash.

I do this simple a vs b illustration in class. On the left, direct flash from the pop-up on the camera, and on the right, a single flash bounced onto a wall to my left. Of note are the unnatural, oily-looking facial features in the direct-flash example, and the natural, window-like look of the bounced flash.

This is my off-camera flash with its slave Velcroed on top, mounted on a bendy-legged tabletop tripod.

This is my off-camera flash with its slave Velcroed on top, mounted on a bendy-legged tabletop tripod.

I’ll grant you that the little flash that’s built into the top of many digital SLRs has probably made the difference between getting something and getting nothing, but I’ll also say that in my entire career, I’ve never seen an image I loved that was made with direct on-camera flash.

In my day-to-day news shooting, I carry two flashes. I typically put one on the hot shoe of my camera, which has a movable head so I can bounce the light off a wall or ceiling, and the other on a tiny tripod, which I can set somewhere or have someone (like a reporter) hold. The flash on the tripod has a small device called a slave, which fires the flash when it detects another flash, like the one from my camera. For as little effort and weight as this setup has, it can make a huge difference.

The game-changer recently is that the newest digital SLR camera have super-clean high ISOs available, such that you can almost shoot in total darkness. Thus, the pop-up flash is just about out of a job.

I shot this mother and daughter studying together for a story two years ago, using one flash on my camera and one with a slave unit on a small tripod.

I shot this mother and daughter studying together for a story two years ago, using one flash on my camera and one with a slave unit on a small tripod.

One Response to “Worst Lighting Ever”

  1. Wil C. Fry says:

    Well said, and brief.

    Other than those listed below, I can’t think of any reason to use the built-in flash:

    * To trigger a more powerful off-camera flash via its optical slave unit (if I had no radio triggers handy)

    * To make example photos for posts like this one

    * Out of curiosity — to see if it’s still there.

    (* In the case of Canon’s new flash-control feature, the popup flash is required as the master. Another reason I prefer all-manual flashes and radio triggers.)

    Personally, I’m surprised that that even the prosumer level cameras have these. Generally speaking, once somebody’s ready to spend a thousand bucks on a camera, you’d think they could spend $60 on a cheap flash gun.

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