Fundamentals of Flash Lighting
So, what is great light? Well, it really depends on what you are trying to do. Do you want sharp shadows? Do you want strong contrast? Do you want your colors to be vibrant or subdued? Do you want light to be stronger on one part of your subject and weaker on another? Do you want to bounce a blue light off a red object to make it look purple? The variation of light sources and their resulting effects is nearly infinite, but there are 2 main types of light that I look for and use as a photographer:
- Hard Light: I call it this because it casts hard shadows. This is produced by lights with a very small relative surface area such as a bare light bulb, a camera’s built in flash, or the sun.
- Soft Light: So named because it casts very soft shadows and provides very even light. This is produced by lights with a very large surface area such as an overcast sky, a picture window in a living room, or the popular “softbox” studio lights.
Now, to produce really flattering images of people (or pets, or products, or whatever you want to shoot) you generally need VERY soft light… not necessarily dim – but SOFT. This means you need your light to come from as large a surface area as possible. The flash on your camera is not large at all. In fact, on most SLR cameras it is only about a square centimeter or so. Using this flash as your main source of light is a great way to shoot horrible pictures.
A “SpeedLite” or detachable larger flash for your SLR camera will provide better results, but shooting it directly at your subject will still produce unflattering lighting similar to the pop-up flash. If you have a lightly colored wall or low white ceiling available, bouncing your flash off them can produce much better results because the whole wall winds up acting as your light source. But what do you do if there are no great options for bouncing? Well, you’ll need a diffuser.
A diffuser accomplishes 2 different goals: Spreading the light and making the light source surface area larger. When looking for a diffuser for my flash, I quickly found a popular diffuser and was impressed with the quality of the photos it produced – and decided to buy one.
Then I looked in my wallet. Not to mention the fact that flash diffusers often cost $60 and accomplish something that a peice of tupperware can do just as well.
Now, let’s be honest: the diffuser I was considering is not all that expensive. But if you are at all like me, you’ll try to come up with something similar for much cheaper. After a brief poking around on Google to see if others had also tried, I decided to see if I could come up with something similar…so I started with a visit to my local home improvement store: Lowes.
I picked up 2 items at a total cost of $14.21. The items are pictured below:
Now for an example that uses the above effect for better results than a typical bounce flash:
Based on my experiments with this diffuser, I’d say that it can definitely improve some shots, but can also make some worse. Learning to anticipate what it will do with the light from your flash is an exercise left for the reader.
Oh, as an extra bonus, this thing rolls up nice and small and fits easily into my already cramped camera bag.