A Photographer’s Guide to Light and Flash

Light and Lighting
Professional photographers look for interesting lighting before searching for interesting subjects.  Why is this?  Put simply, good photography is about good lighting.  To improve your lighting technique, read this essential guide.

Flash Photography
Take everything you thought you knew about flash photography and throw it out of the window, because beginning photographers inevitably get it wrong.  Let’s start from square one…

Flash photography is used for two basic reasons: to provide more light in dark environments and to create visual interest to dull scenes.  Most beginning photographers only use a flash because the area is too dark to take a picture.  So, they put a flash on the camera and it blasts harsh light over a beautiful subject–resulting in a horrible image.

Professional photographers use flash for both of these reasons, but never in the way described above.  Professional photographers are always concerned with the quality of light.  The light produced from a flash is unusually harsh (meaning it leaves heavy shadows or is uneven).  For this reason, professional photographers always use diffusers over a flash.  There are many different methods to diffusing, or softening, light.  For example, a studio photographer often uses an umbrella or a soft box.  By bouncing the light off of an umbrella or shooting it through a soft box, the light becomes more even and soft.  You can get a similar look for an accessory flash unit by purchasing a diffuser for your accessory flash.  If you don’t have an accessory flash and must use the pop-up flash on your camera, use something–anything–to soften the light.  I have even seen photographers put a Kleenex over the pop-up flash on their cameras to soften the light.  You might look silly, but the quality of light changes drastically.

One aspect of lighting may seem counter-intuitive.  When placing a light next to a subject, you might think that the light will be softer if you are further away from the subject, but the opposite is true.  The farther the distance between the light and the subject, the harsher the light becomes.  There is a good scientific explanation for this, but all you really need to know is the consequence of changing the distance.

Aside from softening the light, pro photographers are also concerned with the direction of the light.  A professional photographer never, and I mean never, uses a flash mounted on the camera to shoot directly on the subject.  If the light sources hits the subject directly, the light will be flat, uninteresting, and unflattering.  This is why the pop-up flash on a camera is simply unusable in most situations.  The proper way to use a flash is to either bounce the light off another surface (such as aiming the light at a wall or the ceiling, so it bounces off that surface and then illuminates the subject) or to place the flash to the side of the camera.  Lighting which comes slightly from one side of the camera is much more flattering to any subject than straight-on lighting.

For some reason which I’ll never understand, camera manufacturers don’t turn on a feature called “Rear-curtain sync” by default.  Rear-curtain sync makes the flash fire at the end of the exposure rather than at the start.  This has a number of benefits.  First, when flash is on rear-curtain sync, the lighting looks more natural because more ambient light is allowed.  Second, when creative blur is used in conjunction with a flash to freeze the action, the picture will appear properly–blur behind the frozen subject instead of vice-versa.  Consult your camera’s manual, turn on rear-curtain sync, and never think about it again.

Quick Tip
Flash is not just for dark environments.  When you’re outside and the sunlight creates harsh shadows, consider using your flash to fill in the shadows.  This will create a more evenly-lit image.

Eliminating Red-Eye
If you’ve ever used the flash on a point-and-shoot camera, you’ve seen red-eye.  Red-eye occurs because the flash is too close to the lens.  This is another reason why side-lighting is better, because if the light comes from a few feet to the side of the camera, the reflection in the eye will not be captured in the picture.



  1. Peter V. Farrelly

    I used to do a lot of photography years ago. In 1970, I built my own flash umbrellas using a child’s white umbrella bought from a specialist umbrella store for the first one. Australia has very harsh sunlight and outdoors photography and I used the umbrellas to soften the lighting within the contrast ranges of the films at that time. It gave me a very good living in fashion photography in the early 70s. I gave up such photography a long time ago. I did use direct flash as well with small shoe-flash units (Panasonic or Metz were the only rapid recycling units at the time) and the big Metz units into the umbrella. I also had a Toshiba 510V battery flash,the most powerful unit. Use direct flash but gently, just to light up the shadows.

  2. David Tise

    Jim, I don’t understand your comment about rear curtain sync. I agree with using it for motion blur, but don’t see how it makes any difference – “First, when flash is on rear-curtain sync, the lighting looks more natural because more ambient light is allowed. I you are shooting at 1/30 of a second, or 10 seconds or 1/250th, the general exposure time is the same whether the flash goes off at the beginning or the end. Your comment makes no sense to me.

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