Flash Photography Tips

Although I much prefer to use natural lighting, sometimes there's no getting away from using flash indoors at family or friends get-togethers, parties, evenings out etc... If you have an external flashgun, you'll get far better results if you swivel the flash head to bounce the light off a wall or ceiling, but that's a subject of another tip (see )

Most people will just put their camera in one of the auto modes and hope for the best. Generally speaking you'll get a good exposure whatever exposure mode you use as the auto mode of the flash will help to keep the flash output just right. But the settings used in any of the auto modes can be improved upon, so regardless of whether you bounce or not, what are the best camera settings for flash photography?

In this, the first of my flash photography tips, I'm going to assume you want to take a photo indoors when little or no daylight coming into the room, that's fairly typical for parties and get-togethers.

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Avoiding the 'taken in a cave' look
Quite often, these type of flash photos have a reasonable well exposed subject, but the backgrounds are typically quite dark, and that's because the camera sets the flash exposure to only light up your foreground subject. Here's a shot of my wife Jane, taken in a local pub the settings used are typical auto mode settings:-

Auto mode, 1/60th sec, f4, ISO 100, pop-up flash fired

Even if we use aperture or shutter speed priority, you wouldn't really get a better exposure than this because f4 and 1/60th are pretty good settings for this type of shot. Other than a very small amount of ambient light, the only light in the background is from the bottles and lamps reflecting some of the flash. Now consider what would happen if we turned the flash off using the exact same settings:-

Auto mode, 1/60th sec, f4, ISO 100, flash NOT fired

Well, no surprises there then! But what does this tell us?

It tells us that out settings are only allowing very little ambient light to enter the scene, and of course by trying to light up the whole scene with a teeny weeny little flash, the best we can hope for is a nice snapshot (no award winning images here!).

We can improve on this by increasing the amount of ambient light coming into the scene, and unless we're going for a special technique (known as dragging the shutter - tip coming soon), the best way to achieve this is to increase the ISO. Here's how it looks with an ISO of 800 (no flash, same aperture and shutter speed):-

Auto mode, 1/60th sec, f4, ISO 800, flash NOT fired

You can now see that the background looks much better, simply by raising the ISO we've got a much better looking background. Finally then we can switch the flash and now look at the final result:-

Manual exposure mode, 1/60th sec, f4, ISO 800, pop-up flash fired

Compare this image with the first one we took, you'll see that Jane looks pretty much the same (courtesy of the flash's TTL mode), but look at the difference in the background. 
In Summary, my favourite settings for flash are:-

  • Manual exposure mode
  • Aperture f4
  • Shutter speed 1/60th
  • ISO 800
  • Flash on TTL

Of course, if you have a horrible, cluttered background that you don't want to show, just stick to the standard ISO setting.