Photo Basics 3
Making the switch from a point-and-click camera to a DSLR will do wonders for the quality of your photos, but it will only take you so far. Eventually, you’ll either find yourself in a situation where the natural environment you’re shooting does not accommodate your needs, or you’ll simply want more control over your photos. If you’ve found yourself in either of these situations, its time to provide your photos with an additional source of light (or two).
There are all sorts of tools and techniques to utilize when it comes to adding an additional source of light for your photos. Even watching an episode of America’s Next Top Model (not that I do. seriously) can be super intimidating when you see how much equipment is utilized just to get one shot. While all that equipment is great and serves a purpose, you needn’t feel intimidated by it. Not yet anyway. In order to understand how light works, you need to start small and experiment. The first piece of equipment you need is an external flash. This is not to be confused with the flash that comes attached to the top of your camera. That flash allows for very little control and really isn’t all that powerful. An external flash, however, is much more powerful and allows for a lot more versatility. In-fact, many professional photographers rely solely on external flashes as their light source(s). They just use a lot of them (when necessary), and in very creative ways. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. All you need to know at this point is: though an external flash is only one, seemingly small, piece of equipment, it is very powerful and can achieve great results, especially when added to a fleet of multiple flashes. But before you master it, you need to understand how light works.
If you pay attention to one thing in this article, let it be this. The bigger your light source, the better your results. This isn’t necessarily referring to the strength of your flash, but rather, how much you can diffuse and spread your flash. Let me explain. If you were to take your brand new external flash, strap it in the hot shoe atop your camera, aim at your subject, then fire â€“ you’re going to get terrible results. You image will appear flat, blown out, and filled with harsh cast shadows. No good. What you need to do is take your flash and make it broader. When your flash is filtered through another surface it becomes diffused (softer), which spreads your light and minimizes harsh shadows. Spreading your light, also takes your one direct light path and broadens it; essentially multiplying the source. Your success in accomplishing this will depend on your creativity as well as your surroundings.
Depending on your location, creating a broad light source from your flash can be either really easy, or very difficult. If you’re shooting indoors and you have a standard 8 foot high white ceiling, you’re golden. All you need to do is aim your flash directly at the ceiling, then fire. You’ll be amazed at how bouncing your flash off the ceiling will not only fill your room with light, but create soft, even shadows on your subject.
However, if you live in a loft like Jen and I, and have wooden ceilings that are a bazillion feet high, things will become a bit more of a challenge for you. Even more complicated is if you’re shooting outside and have no means of bouncing your light. This is where your creativity or possibly some additional equipment can come in handy.
As I just mentioned, my personal indoor shooting situation is extremely difficult. But that’s not to say it’s impossible. Though I can’t bounce my light off the ceiling, I can bounce it off a door or a wall (*note: When bouncing light off a wall or ceiling, your wall/ceiling color must be white, or at least a shade of white. It must also be drywall or plaster. Drop ceiling tiles can completely absorb your light and leave you with no reflection. Similarly, colored walls and ceilings will not only poorly reflect light, but could also tint your photo with it’s respective color). Bouncing your light off a wall, to the side of your subject, may not fill the room as evenly as the ceiling, but can create some really nice dramatic effects.
In some situations, this can actually be ideal. If you take a close look at some professionally lit studio portraits, you’ll notice that one side of the subject always has a bit more light than the other. This just creates a more dynamic image and should certainly be something to strive for. Be careful though, lighting your subject from the side (by bouncing your flash off a wall) can put you at the risk of really deep, long shadows.
This will be completely dependent on the angle your shooting, as well as the proximity of your background. Experimenting is essential here.
Unless you find yourself really wanting to take your photography to the next level, you may not see the use in adding an additional light source to your outdoor photos. The sun typically provides more than enough light, so why complicate things, right? While the sun is a great light source, it’s not always reliable, or even predictable, for that matter. You never know what kind of curve ball the sun might throw at you. So it’s nice to be prepared. Even so, using your flash in tandem with the sun can create some amazingly stunning images. Once you take the leap, and conquer the combination of flash and sun, you’ll never go back. Once you do, compare some of your old outdoor images with your new, properly lit images. You’ll notice that your old images look very flat and lifeless. (*side note: This may go without saying, but I’m specifically referring to portrait type photos here; as I am with this entire photo series. Not all out door photography will be improved by adding a flash to the mix. Using your flash while shooting some scenic landscape won’t do anything but make you look silly).
The challenge with lighting your outdoor portraits is that there will be no walls or ceilings for you to bounce your light off of. In some cases you might be ok aiming your flash directly at your subject as I warned you against four paragraphs above. Since you’re outside, your light will have a bit more freedom to wander, which will cause a bit of a natural diffusion. More importantly, you can work with the sun to backlight your subject, which will help off-set any cast shadows. Besides, your outside, you really shouldn’t need to pump too much light through your flash. Don’t get me wrong though. This is a worst case scenario. Though aiming your flash directly at your subject is slightly more acceptable outside, it still won’t provide optimal results. In order to get really great results, you have to remove the flash from the top of your camera and recreate the wall that you would bounce light off indoors.
There’s a few ways to do this, but both involve making another purchase. Covering these techniques will also take us into a bit more of an advanced topic. So for the sake of not over doing it, we’ll save that article for another time. In the meantime, it’s important that you get a good understanding of using light by practicing the techniques mentioned above.
I hope I didn’t disappoint anybody by not reviewing the actual flash unit itself, and going over all of it’s settings. The manual should be able to help you with that though. The technical stuff is easy, as it’s written in black and white. Its the creative side that can be tricky and takes practice. Learn to adapt to your surroundings using the equipment you have. If you find yourself stuck in a certain scenario and you just can’t create your desired results, it may be possible that you’re in need of, yet another light source. For now, get comfortable with a situation that works. Once you’ve mastered that, you should consider adding to your arsenal, and changing your status from novice, to amateur.