My flash photos suck. Please help.
May 7, 2010 10:48 AM   Subscribe

Help me with tips on better flash photography, please?

My stuff:
Canon 7D
Speedlite 430EX

I've started freelancing for my local newspaper, and last night I shot an event that required the use of my flash. I got some acceptable pictures, but most of them looked like crap because of the super-duper strong light. I was shooting with ETTL mode and Shutter Speed Priority, because the dancing action was fast. I even had a flash diffuser on. But the flash was so bright that it was casting shadows on walls 100 feet behind the dancers!

Here's an example:

What should I be doing differently? I don't have a flash bracket yet, but I'd like to get one if it will help, I just don't know which one.

Should I be using Manual mode on the flash and turning the power way down?

Any tips would be greatly appreciated. I've been reading a lot of material, but it just seems like it shouldn't be this complicated to get acceptable flash shots. Am I wrong?
posted by chitlin to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
posted by lockestockbarrel at 10:58 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Strobist a lighting blog written by a former photojournalist, centered mostly around using small flashes like the 430EX.
posted by bradbane at 10:59 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

You need to get that flash off of the camera. Hold it out to the side by hand if you have to. This will throw more natural shadows.

Bounce and diffuse the flash with a bounce head diffuser. This will provide a much softer, less glaring light.
posted by caddis at 10:59 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Manual mode will help, but can be tough to get right. In that specific setting, I'd use bounce flash - aim the 430 straight up at the ceiling (if you're close) or at an angle between the subject and the ceiling if they're further away. The ceiling will act as a BIG diffuser, and you'll get much softer light. You can also put a bounce card in the flash to get a little more light on your subject. Note that this can cause color-cast issues if the ceiling is not-white, but it's pretty standard practice.
posted by um_maverick at 11:03 AM on May 7, 2010

Best answer: Should I be using Manual mode on the flash and turning the power way down?

You probably do need to turn the flash power down, yeah, but you don't have to resort to manual flash control. Manual flash control is a giant pain if your distance to subject keeps changing.

Instead, use flash exposure compensation and dial in -1/2 or -1 stop of flash exposure. The flash is still automatically controlled, you're just telling the camera to aim for a less bright exposure. My Canon DSLRs all like to overdo it with the flash, so this is pretty much my standard setting whenever I use it pointed directly at a subject.

You may also want to try having the camera in manual mode when shooting with flash indoors. When using either aperture or shutter priority mode, the camera tries to adjust the other setting to properly expose the background, which is really dark. So you tend to get really wide apertures or really slow shutter speeds in Tv or Av mode, which may not be what you want. At least that is how it works with my Canon DSLR cameras.

Whereas with the camera in manual mode but the flash still on ETTL, the camera is still using the flash in automatic mode to control exposure of the subject. You can pretty much just set the aperture manually as desired for depth of field, and set the shutter speed to something reasonable like 1/60 or even 1/200 (whatever the fastest flash sync speed is) depending on how much or little ambient light you want to have affecting the picture.

The other thing that will help a lot is using bounce flash. Not just a diffuser, but aim the flash at the ceiling between you and your subject. This will light up the room in a much softer way and look a whole lot better. The difference between direct flash and bounce flash is enormous, a much bigger difference than fiddling with any settings will give. I don't find I need to dial in any negative flash exposure compensation when using bounce flash, either, so try this first.
posted by FishBike at 11:08 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been really pleased with my Lightscoop. Cheap, easy, and really improves indoor flash photos.
posted by platinum at 11:18 AM on May 7, 2010

Best answer: There are a few ways to do this.

Shutter drag. Set to ETTL, drop the power down by -1/3stop. Start shooting in manual and lower your shutter speed. I will usually get a meter of the ambient light, yes even if it is very dark, and then set it 'near' that, but not exact. You don't want the shutter speed to be in the seconds here, but you want some ambient light to fill in. Then shoot away. The flash will stop the action, but there will be a bit of a drag because of the shutter speed, so there will be some motion. I don't have my own example of this so linking to an image I just found: Shutter Drag

The effect is okay and has its place but soon everything will start to look the same.

Second is to get a faster lens. Do you have a 50 1.8 or 1.4? Shoot with that. Also you have a 7D. Those things can shoot at like 6400 iso and still look pretty good for news print. If it is really really that dark then do your best to search out any light sources and work with them. Is there a little overhead light that the dancers are passing through? Is there window light. I am usually more inclined to go this route.

Or you could go the strobist route. Which means you will need to by some wireless triggers and some light stands and set them up in the corner of the room and shoot away. Not exactly a friendly thing for a newspaper photographer working on deadline but certainly doable. And the photos will look much nicer. One caveat about this route though. As a freelancer no one is going to cover you if one of those light stands falls over and hits someone on the head. Silly to even think about but it is true. So be careful, and make sure those stands are weighted down and not going anywhere.

And sometimes there just isn't anything else you can do but blast away with the flash, red eye and all. An editor should be understanding of that because he or she has probably been there. We would all love more room for creativity but at the end of the day your job is to create a record of something. So you sometimes have to do just that.

If you feel like picking my brain some more on this or freelancing in general then feel free to send me a metafilter mail.
posted by WickedPissah at 11:18 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I use the Gary Fong Lightsphere. You'd have to experiment to get the right amount of light though.
posted by pyro979 at 11:19 AM on May 7, 2010

Neil van Niekerk wrote a book about on-camera wedding flash photography. His site has tons of info.
posted by dave*p at 2:56 PM on May 7, 2010

Before we get talking about new lenses, "bounce head diffusers", and wireless triggers, let's examine why you are getting a shadow on the back wall. Your subjects are (close to) properly exposed, so it's not because the flash power is too high. It's because your flash was to the left of your lens, and you were probably slightly crouching, pointing your camera and the light from the flash directly at the dancers. Try using a desk lamp to shine light directly at your hand... it projects a shadow onto the surface behind it.

So, to get rid of shadows like the one in this picture, the light source needs to be coming from a different direction. Like caddis said, bounce the flash off the ceiling by turning the head of your flash. First, this creates a light source for the subjects that is above them and will cast a shadow below them. Second, light coming from above is much more appealing than light shining horizontally at a subject. But, you lose power bouncing the flash, so have a few sets of extra Ni-MH batteries on hand.

A Lightsphere or Omnibounce or other diffuser combined with your flash still pointing straight ahead will NOT get rid of shadows behind them. These devices diffuse light, throwing it in all directions. This bounces light off walls/ceilings/people to create shadows with less contrast, but unless you change the direction and apparent size of the light source, your pictures won't be much different than what you already showed us. Just tilting the flash head towards the ceiling does most of the work, but if you want less contrast in your shadows (and even more power sucked from your flash), throw on one of those expensive plastic dinguses.

With regards to manual power control vs. E-TTL (automatic), your results will vary depending on the situation. The camera/flash can't really calclulate how much power to output when boucing off an unknown surface, but sometimes it does a decent job of guessing. So, if automatic isn't cutting it, try manually adjusting the power. But remember that you and your subjects (and distances between flash/ceiling/subject) are constantly moving, so get some practice before the big game.

Also, your 7D can wirelessly control your external flash using the camera's pop-up flash. No need for wireless triggers unless you are outside or far away from the flash to be fired.
posted by rrrico at 11:23 PM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Everyone else has given good advice, so just my $0.98 to help sum up: you're dealing with two issues here: light direction and light balance.

The shadows are caused by pointing the flash directly toward the subjects, which is then casting the shadows immediately behind them. The easiest and most effective way to fix this is to simply bounce the light off of something indirect, like the ceiling or the wall behind or beside you. (The bonus advantage of this is that the bounce surface enlarges your light source, which makes the light softer as well.) The biggest caveat, of course, is that the bounced light picks up the color of the bounce surface. So if you're bouncing off, say, wood paneling, you're gonna get yellowish light. Additionally, you'll have to bump the flash power up +1 or so depending on how far the bounce surface is just to make sure enough light is making the journey. I've spent god knows how many thousands of dollars on diffusers and flash tools, but 99% of the time that I'm forced to use on-camera flash, I simply bounce it.

When you're dealing with flash, it's important to understand the following relationships:

1. Your camera's aperture controls the foreground brightness (i.e. what's being flashed)
2. Your camera's shutter controls the background ambient brightness

It sounds simple, but it'll take a long time to *click* in your head. From day one you're trained that a fast shutter speed is required to stop motion. But when you get into flash, those rules get changed up. In flash photography, the flash is what stops the motion, and the shutter is what controls the amount of ambient lighting. So in your case, you'll probably have better results if you put your camera in manual (instead of the flash) and learn how to balance using the camera controls. It sounds tricky, but it makes more sense the more you play with it. The first thing I do is figure out how bright I want the background, and set my shutter to that. Then, it's just a matter of adjusting the aperture to control the foreground balance.

If you're interested in pursuing this further, I can't recommend Light: Science and Magic enough. Read it several times as you progress -- you'll find new stuff that makes sense every time.

One final note: unless you're using a battery pack, you'll find that the flash will eat the hell out of AA batteries -- especially if you're shooting at low ISOs. Your 7D handles low-light pretty well, so crank that sucker up to save power. Every camera handles low-light noise differently, so play around to find out what's acceptable for you. But fwiw, I'm at ISO 2000 pretty exclusively for wedding receptions. Have confidence in the technology and don't fear the higher ISOs.
posted by Hankins at 12:08 AM on June 1, 2010

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