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.
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.
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.
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.