I always thought flash was for indoor photography. The only time I remember seeing my Dad use it was at Christmas photographing three generations of the family sitting down to Christmas dinner. We look so miserable staring back at the camera, probably the prospect of playing Monopoly. It wasn’t something he was used to using so every year he had to learn how to open the fan-like reflector, push a flash bulb into the housing, plug in the sync lead and calculate exposure. I doubt there was ever very much spontaneity to capture but it would certainly have drained away by the time my Dad lifted the camera to his eye.
What’s a flash bulb?
Oh yes, you might not be as old as me. Before electronic flash guns were invented photographers had a little glass bulb containing magnesium wire in oxygen. The glass was coated in blue plastic in case it shattered, they could only be used once. They had a cost so my Dad wouldn’t dream of using a flash outside in the sun. Sunshine has always been free!
Push the ISO and turn off the flash
Modern digital cameras are getting better and better in low light. In-doors I’d much rather turn on the lights, turn up the ISO and turn off the flash. Camera-mounted flash is so harsh – it produces flat pictures with no subtlety or nuance of character. It’s often adopted as a style for fashion or music photography. I think it’s horrid.
Sun out – flash on
On the other hand, outdoors I almost always use flash. It improves so many pictures by lifting the shadows, especially those thrown across a face by the sunshine. It’s often called fill-in flash, but it shouldn’t fill the shadows completely, they’re vital to give a picture tonal depth. Blasting a shot with flash out doors produces the same harshness as it does in doors.
The right amount of additional light to throw on an outdoor subject is an amount that is just enough to make it look right. That’s maybe not the most profound thing you’ve read in a photography blog! The thing is, while I’m advocating lifting the shadows by using flash in outdoor photography, there are often times when you want a nice deep shadow. Well that’s a good aesthetic choice for you to make, but you only have a choice about how dark to make the shadows if you capture some shadow detail in the first place. At the risk of stating the obvious, a well-exposed picture has nothing too bright and nothing too dark so you can then choose to burn out the bright parts or turn shadows into pools of darkness.
It demanded a lot of skill in the days of film to apply flash outdoors with any subtlety. Digital cameras make it possible and practice will make it quicker. When you’re out in the sun, turn on the flash, take the picture, find some shade and have a look at what you’ve got. Look at the shadows; you should be able to see some detail but it shouldn’t be anywhere near as bright as the sunlit areas. If it is, lower the power of the flashgun and take it again. If you can’t manually control the power of the flash then try putting pieces of opaque tape over the flashgun. Professional level flashguns can be set to balance the flash output with the ambient light, in my experience of the Nikon’s they work really well.
Throwing light into darkness doesn’t necessarily demand a flashgun. A reflector is just as effective for portraiture, it’s much cheaper than a flashgun but does need either an adjustable mount and stand or someone to hold it. Reflectors can be white, silver or gold. The white versions give a softer light than the silver and the gold produces a ‘sunset’ colour cast. I’ve asked someone in a white shirt to stand-in for a reflector or propped up pieces of white card. Mirrors can also work, but they give a very hard light, are often heavy and present a real danger if they’re dropped!
Sunshine means sun-glasses
What are eyes if not windows on the soul? So make people take off their cool shades, and remember to allow time for the little red marks either side of the nose to fade. That should also allow enough time for their eyes to adjust to the brighter light, you don’t want your subject to be squinting in the sun!