How to use a camera flash

Recently while we were on vacation in Smoky Mountains National Park, a black bear peeked out of the woods and hung out at the side of the road when we were driving the scenic loop around Cades Cove.  I don’t see many bears out in the wild, so this was an exciting unexpected encounter.  We were enjoying the moment when all of a sudden a person in the car in front of us takes a picture of the bear with the flash on.  It was raining outside and due to a canopy of trees overhead, it was fairly dark for the time of day it was, so when the camera flash went off, it was very noticeable.

Now even if you don’t know much about anything involving the way the universe works, a person of normal intelligence, plus or minus 2 standard deviations, should probably know that firing off an extremely bright, unexpected white light directly into the face of a wild adult black bear less than 10 feet away is not a good idea.

Which brings us to today’s topic.


Flash photography is one of the most improperly used techniques I see regularly, so I’m going to discuss a very simple guide on when and when not to use a camera flash so that hopefully at least a few people leave today’s article with some useful knowledge.

First of all, if you’re a professional photographer shooting portraits or events like weddings, you already know when & how to use the flash, so this article isn’t for you.  This writing is specifically for your average Joe using a cell phone or entry level DSLR/mirrorless camera to get some nice vacation snapshots.

Let’s discuss the most common situation:  the only camera you use is your smartphone.  In this case it’s very easy:  if you want a decent photo, leave the flash off all the time.  No smartphone I’ve ever used has a flash that I’d consider anything but dreadful, so if you’re using your phone as your primary camera, then avoid using the flash at all costs.

If you have a standalone camera that has a pop-up flash, whether it’s a point & shoot or a DSLR, then the only consistent time you should be using your flash is outdoors in the daytime or around sunrise/sunset, especially when the sun is behind your subject.  In this type of setting, a common scenario you’ve likely come across is a nicely exposed bright background but your subject’s face is a dark shadow.  The flash helps by providing a little bit of artificial light to the person’s face so that your foreground and background are at similar levels of brightness.

Here’s an example:

Photo without flash. The sun is behind the subject to the right causing the person to look like a silhouette.

 

Same photo but with the flash on. The flash brightens up the subject to match it with the background.

 

Now that we have that out of the way, here are situations where you do not want to use your flash:

  • Nighttime landscapes.  This is a common mistake I see all the time.  If you’re taking a photo of a landscape when it’s dark outside, turning the flash on will make your photo look so much worse by making the entire scene look darker.  Think about it logically:  there is no way that the tiny flash on top of your camera has enough light to adequately illuminate the miles and miles of scenery you’re trying to capture.  By keeping your flash off, the camera knows that it is attempting to take a picture of a low light setting and will crank up the ISO, open up the aperture as wide as it goes, and keep the shutter open longer in an effort to collect as much light as possible.
  • Nighttime portraits.  If your goal is to take a picture of some people in front of some cool scenery at night and you have the flash on, all you’re going to get is washed out bright people in front of a black background.  Same logic as above:  the flash is great for illuminating near targets but will do nothing to light up something a mile behind them.
  • Concerts.  If you were trying to perform in front of thousands of people, would you want a bunch of random douchebags shining their camera flashes directly into your eyes?  Yeah, me neither.  Even ignoring the jackassdom of using your flash at a concert, it won’t work.  Unless you’re standing in the pit 10 feet in front of the band, you’ll likely be too far away from the stage for the flash to do any good.
  • Situations where you’re trying not to be noticed.  My example above involving the bear applies here.  Please refrain from startling the wild animals and being a 9th page headline in tomorrow’s newspaper.

 

Inappropriate use of flash at a night time concert before I knew any better. A completely useless picture.

 

The common thread to all the above points is that the flash is only useful for lighting up things that are close to you.  Stuff that is really far away will appear dark even with the flash on, because imagine how much light would be required to brighten up everything that you’re attempting to photograph.  A lot more than what the dinky little flash can output, that’s for certain.  Just remember that logic, apply it appropriately, and your pictures will look much better.

 

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