Accepting the Realities of Flash Photography

It’s been a long, sometimes painful, oftentimes disappointing, journey, but I wasn’t expecting to be an expert overnight.

Not all that long ago, when someone would ask me what I shoot, I’d always respond the same.  “Anything without people in it.”  To some degree that is still true.  I will always love shooting travel and landscape photography.  To me, capturing the beauty of the places I’m lucky enough to visit makes the memories more tangible and lasting.  Don’t tell my loved ones, but shooting pictures where people are the main subject used to seem like something I kind of had to do.  It’s not that I didn’t want to see friends and family in my pictures; it’s just that, well, I was a little unsure of my abilities to capture them in a good, shall we say, light.

Since light is everything in photography (which literally means drawing with light), I needed to harness all the light at my disposal.  This meant crossing into that mysterious and somewhat frightening world of flash photography.  Mysterious (you don’t see the light until the flash fires)?  Frightening (keep reading)?  Let’s take a look at a picture of Tommy out in my backyard.  The sunset light was good, so I wanted some of the ambient light in the scene.  I also wanted Tom to be properly exposed, so I knew I’d have to use a flash.  Here’s what happened:


The ambient light is still visible.  There’s a foreground, a middle ground and a background.  You can see that flowers exist.  The horizon could be a little straighter, and Tommy needs a haircut, but all the elements are present for a good image, right?  I don’t think so.  That deer-in-the-headlights look is courtesy of putting the speedlight right on top of the camera and then blasting my subject (poor little guy) with it.  The hard shadows and light falloff did not add to the look I was hoping for.  This was the first of what would end up being many disappointments in my adventure with flash photography.

Just 10 days later, I had the flash off the camera, raised up and over to the side.  Tom was kind enough to give me another shot at it, and we were able to come up with this:

Serious Tom

Whoa, catchlights!  Better, no?  I put myself back into school-mode and read books and blogs.  I watched countless videos and poured over images I liked.  I studied the giants like Joe McNally and David Hobby.  This is the point at which I could show you all of the many disheartening mistakes I made along the way, but this isn’t that kind of a post.  You’ll just have to trust me – I didn’t just read a book, follow instructions and then, bang!, everything was awesome.  Remember when I implied my family would like me to take more pictures of them?  Well, I think I used up my goodwill with them standing in front of my camera.

It took practice, practice and more practice.  Here are some of my favorites so far of Sue, Amber and Gabbie:

Look, no glare in those glasses.  I still have plenty of learning to do and practice to put in, but these are far better than all those mistakes I’m not showing you.  Remember that David Hobby I mentioned earlier.  If you’ve read his Strobist 101 series, then you’ll probably recognize this “dramatic” lighting and pose of my most-patient model Gabbie:

Dramatic Gabbie

The addition of a reflector on the shadow side might have helped a little, but I think that triangle made by the shadows under her left eye legitimately qualifies this as Rembrandt Lighting. She’s patient alright. That Strobist post had us moving around our subject, getting the light at different angles.  Here’s her profile in case you want to pretend she’s looking at something.

Profile Gabbie

There’ve been more, a lot more.  I think I’m having more successes now that failures, but everything is a learning opportunity.  Being willing to incorporate flash into my photography has opened up a whole new world of possibilities.  I never thought of natural light as limiting, but it really was when that was all I had.  Unfortunately for my family, now no time of the day is outside shooting time.  Day or night, I can make good images if I’m willing to experiment.  Still, I’ve got to come out from behind the camera sometimes because I wouldn’t want to neglect this guy.

Big Blue Eyes


This entry was posted in Portraits and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.