Saturday, July 10, 2010

Flash antics

I'm told that the most important things in photography (apart from talent and skill) are...

  1. The camera

  2. The lenses

  3. The lighting

At least that's what the counter monkey at a local camera shop told me when he was trying to get me to spend a voucher I had on a flash gun. I don't know that they necessarily go in that order but he was probably right although I'm sure I could think of a few other things that are more important like "Did I remember to bring a packed lunch with me?" and, "are there toilets near the shoot?"

Seriously though, flash guns are really worth looking into. They take a bit of getting used too and I'm still pretty poor at using mine. Have a look at the link to "The Strobist" on the side bar and see just how versatile and useful they can be.

What I suggest is the following --> Set up a wee studio like this...

One tripod is for the flash and the other is for the camera. On top of the table is some black paper and I've set up a little still life that contains some random coins and notes (which, alas, are now defunct thanks to the Euro!)

Have a bit of a think how you would like the ambient light to hit the scene. I've got this placed in such a way that the light from the window isn't really a factor in the picture. The reason for this is that I want the flash as the main source of light and I want control over that. If it was a ridiculously bright day outside I'd have it miles from the window, perhaps in another darker room for this experiment. Sadly, it's grey and raining outside.

So the next thing to do is start playing about with all the settings on both the camera and the flash and see what effects you can achieve. I also have a few attachments that I've built for the front of the flash like a diffuser (made from cardboard and a folded up opaque sandwich bag) and a grid-spot (made from cardboard and straws). There's plenty of websites that can show you how to make these for pennies.

Just a quick dig at the Canon users out there... Most of the Nikon DSLRs work as commander units for flash guns and can fire them remotely without the need for a cable - Canon can't unless you have the top end models. Just set the flash unit to "slave" and the camera's inbuilt flash to "commander" and you're laughing (although remember to also set the camera's own flash to the "--" position or you'll have 2 flashes going).

Here are a series of shots using various changes to the flash (although all taken at 1/16th power). The effects are subtle but if you were to translate these to shoot portraits etc then they can become quite dramatic.

This shot has no flash. The ambient light is diffuse and there are no harsh shadows but it lacks focus and makes the image quite poor. Also the wrinkles and folds in the black tissue paper I've used are very obvious and quite distracting especially in the background. You could probably rescue this by reducing the power of the flash but mine only goes down to 1/16th so I'm stuck. A bit of Photoshop work might also have helped here.

This shot has the flash pointing down from the left of camera at about 45 degrees. The flash has pretty much ruined the shot. The shadows are harsh and this is particularly noticeable on the tissue paper crinkles. Also the metallic nature of the coins means that they are reflecting a lot of the light in the form of glare.

Again the flash is pointing down from the left at about 45 degrees with the diffuser on. You can see that the shadows are less hard and also there is now less available light (due to the thickness of my sandwich bag) so the black paper is less "lit up" and now the focus of the picture is moving more to the money.

This shot is the same as the others but I've put the grid-spot on the flash. It makes a huge difference by narrowing the light that comes out of the flash and focusing it on the center of the picture. The black paper is almost completely black now and the eye is drawn to the object of interest instead of the rest of the frame.

Click here to see a great blog post by QH Photography on how the grid-spot works and the amazing affect it can have on your pictures.

So was the guy at the camera shop correct? Probably. However, flashes are really tough to get to grips with. I would suggest that you probably shouldn't be using a flash gun until you understand the "manual" setting of your camera. Having said that you can always put it on the horse shoe and set everything to TTL (through-the-lens). That means that the camera will make most of the lighting decisions for you and won't let the flash over expose the image. Pretty nifty.

Project: buy/borrow a flash gun and try some stuff on a little home made studio like the one in the first picture. Once you've done that, hang a black sheet on a wall and get a willing volunteer to pose for some shots and see if you can get anywhere near the impressive quality of QH Photography or The Strobist.

Good luck!

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