Posted Friday, December 01, 2006
Kill your flash. Smash your flash. Embrace existing light.
They're phrases I've always used and believed in fervently. I've written them in my books, I've preached them at seminars, I've scrawled them on bathroom walls.
And with good reason: there isn't a less-flattering light source than a camera's built-in strobe. It's directly adjacent to the lens, all but guaranteeing red-eye and other ugly eye reflections. Its position on the camera means your subjects will be illuminated straight-on, giving their faces a flat, unflattering look—and they'll probably have hideous shadows behind them.
Simply put, if you want a photo to look like it was shot during a 1950s atomic bomb test, use your flash.
That was before. That was then. I've gone from a flash hater to a flash lover. From a flash smasher to a strobist.
What changed? I got a real flash.
I shot this photo of Sophie at point-blank range—about 18 inches away from her sweet silvery face. Try that with your camera's built-in flash, and you'll get an awful picture. You might even blind your dog.
What's the secret? I recently took delivery (I love the archaic sound of that phrase) of Nikon's top of the line speedlight (another delightfully archaic-sounding term), the roughly $300US SB-800.
There's more computing power in this speedlight than there was on the Apollo moon rockets. The speedlight and the camera (in my case, a Nikon D200) are in constant communication. Adjust the camera's zoom lens, and a motor in the speedlight moves the strobe element back and forth to cast an appropriate-sized beam. An LCD on the back of the flash reads out the current aperture, zoom setting, and shutter speed. Turn on the backlight of the camera, and the flash backlight comes on, too. The speedlight even has a multi-fire mode that lets you get those "frozen golf swing"-style multiple exposures in a single shot (more resources for the SB-800).
And the little touches are there, too. When the flash is in bounce position—pointed upwards at the ceiling, so its light is softened—there's a little white "fill card" that you can pull out of the top to toss a bit of direct light on the subject.
What excites me the most about the SB-800 and D200 combination, though, is wireless. The camera and flash can communicate with each other using infrared signals, and by tweaking some menu settings on both, you can set up what's called commander mode. (Wasn't he a Star Trek character?) In commander mode, the flash can be anywhere in the room—or even just around a corner—and the camera will trigger it. With this kind of flexibility, you can position the flash in ways that turn its brilliant strobe into soft, flattering pools of delicious light.
It's all part of what Nikon calls the Creative Lighting System, and it and similar wireless technologies are all the rage among wedding, event, news, and commercial photographers.
Don't shoot Nikon? There are similar options for other camera systems, and the best place I've found to learn about the entire world of off-camera lighting, as it's sometimes called, is a blog called Strobist. Published by a David Hobby, a newspaper photographer, it's an incredibly informative, utterly inspiring place to learn about light. And, of course, it has a companion Flickr group.
Smash your flash? Not anymore. My new bathroom wall scrawl is "Get a real flash, then take it off the camera and learn how to use it." It isn't quite as pithy, but it reflects reality. It isn't flash that's evil. It's poorly used flash that's evil.
I love discovering a new avenue to explore.