To Flash or Not to Flash?

To Flash Or Not to Flash?

Originally published in the Korea Herald on October 22, 2009

No, I’m not talking about what you do from under a trench coat in the mall parking lot. I’m talking about that oft-ignored practice of lighting up the night – or day! – with flash photography.

In recent years, flash photography has gained an undeserved reputation as a last resort, a tool exclusive to the snapshooter. Something we use to blind our friends in dimly lit nightclubs, the resultant photos blanketing Facebook, portraits begging to be untagged. These photos are often characterized by blown-out (all white) facial features and deep, shadowed backgrounds. Not cool.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The flash, even the built-in version that comes with 99% of consumer cameras, can be a very powerful tool and can indeed help you craft moving images. The trick is understating your light. That’s the light that’s coming out of your little flash and the light that’s already present in a scene (aka ambient light) – be it sunshine, the light of the moon or the hot fluorescent stage lighting at a Wonder Girls concert. What you most often want to achieve with flash is good balance within the scene. Blasting one element of the frame with flash and leaving the rest in darkness isn’t cool unless you’re shooting Levis ads for GQ. Avoiding this is simpler than you might think.


A little on-camera fill flash never hurt anyone. Except for this cosmos flower. RIP.

Understand that there’s nothing you’re going to be able to do to a dark background with a single, on-board flash. You can control the light you send out to your subject, but in a cavernous club, a church or a Buddhist temple you simply don’t have enough power to bring the whole scene up to proper exposure levels. This is where a dedicated flash unit (or five) becomes invaluable. Using a dedicated unit (often called a strobe), you can bounce light into the ceiling or off of a wall so that it cascades down over your scene evenly, dropping soft, even light on your subject and carving out shadows that will give everything a 3D look. You want to light up the entire room, from front to back? Put two strobes on light stands and place them in opposite corners of the room, trigger them with a radio slave system (Flashwaves and Rembrandt triggers are affordable Korean makes) and delight at the studio-level quality of your light. You’ll be doing celebrity weddings in no time.


Strobes are doing all the heavy lifting here, bouncing around inside the stairwell and dropping light all over the model.

It’s a myth that flash is best served in the dark. The next time you’re out shooting under the sun and you find the shadows and the contrast too much to deal with, don’t ask your model to rush into the shade so you can fire away in the even light. Your on-board flash unit is plenty strong enough to cut through the hard shadows and you’ll come to realize a facet of photography often ignored by the casual shooter: the beauty of the fill flash. Try it out for yourself. Underexpose your scene by 1-2 stops and hit your foreground subject with fill flash. The resulting scene will showcase an evenly lit subject and dramatic, textured background. Perfect for those ubiquitous temple and mountain shots we all know too well.  Without even realizing it, you’ll have become a strobist yourself.



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