Getting Started With Flash

I’m not sure exactly why, but I have always avoided using flash – my Sony doesn’t even have one built in – and until recently I’ve never really missed it. But lately I’ve started to get this creeping doubt that I’m missing out by never using it. Luckily my trusty Fuji has a built in flash, and this last winter, I’ve been out every evening already to walk the dog, so it’s been the perfect time to take some tentative steps into using the flash.

Previously if I wanted to shoot at night, I would use a tripod + long exposure. But I started to realise (this actually took me a while) without artificial light, all a long exposure does is allow the camera to compensate for the darkness, and the final picture looks like it could have been taken in the daytime. But with the flash, you get this great contrast between the light and dark, and outside the illumination of the flash, everything is pretty much black.

My first hurdle was metering. When it came to metering with the flash I had no idea, so I stayed in aperture priority, turned on the flash, and let the camera do it’s thing.

This was broadly fine at first, but I soon wanted to start tweaking the exposure manually to control how the image looked, but changing the shutter speed didn’t seem to make a difference.

I couldn’t understand why the exposure wouldn’t change, even after adjusting the shutter speed. After having a little read online, I learnt the following, which really helped:

  • Aperture controls flash
  • Shutter speed controls ambient light

In my case the small onboard flash illuminates the scene, and the only difference the shutter speed makes is to any ambient light, which falls outside of the flash illumination. I found this video explains it in a really clear and concise way.

In these two pictures, the shutter speed determines how the sky is exposed, but the leaves in the foreground will stay the same no matter what shutter speed is used.

Eventually I settled on the following combo of: f/2.8 / 1/30s / ISO 1600. Which seemed to work pretty well, as I was mostly shooting in similar light at dusk and night time. It also allowed me some wriggle room to switch the ISO up and down, so I could adjust the exposure as needed.

These images are a mixture of b&w jpegs and raw images. With the flash, I quite like the punchier high contrast look of the jpegs, they wouldn’t need too much tweaking straight out of the camera. But for times when I underexposed and really needed to pull the shadows, it was nice to have the raw images to fall back on.

Shooting in the wet is great fun with the flash, I really how the light reflects from the rain drops, and you are left random glowing orbs across the photo. I can’t wait for it to snow, so I can try this out during snowfall.

I’ve definitely been inspired by other photographers, who use flash in their work. But I am also a bit worried about biting their style. I would never want to go out and deliberately copy other peoples work, I find it tricky, because if you are aren’t careful you end up making a poor imitation of their work. Hopefully with more practice and development of technique, I’ll start really developing my own ‘look’. Plus I don’t think anyone else can claim to take as many pictures of abandoned trolleys as I have, I really struggled to keep it down to just 2 for this blog post.

I’m looking forward to having the extra power provided by larger external flash, at times I right on the limit of what is possible with the in-built flash of the Fuji. For this photo of the tree, I wanted to get the whole tree in the frame, which meant I was pretty far away, so had to push the ISO up all the way to 3200 (which is asking a lot when it comes to noise considering this is a 10 year camera) and cropped in, you can really see that noise.

In the meantime, if you want to see how it’s done, then some photographers that are definitely worth checking out: Andy Feltham, Jamie Hladky and Lawrence Hardy to name a few.

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