Using Natural Light to Your Advantage
Most cameras, whether it is a point-and-shoot or a single lens reflex (SLR), have a built-in flash. Also, that flash will likely be triggered automatically when the camera deems it necessary to obtain a proper exposure.
Automatic features are designed to optimize the likelihood of the camera capturing a bright, sharp image. But even though your camera’s auto mode decides the flash is needed, it doesn’t always mean your photo will be its best using artificial light.
Take the example included of the subject beside a window with light streaming through (Fig. 1). The camera in this situation called for a flash because the subject is not totally lit, however the photographer disabled the flash (most cameras will let you do this, consult the instruction manual).
The end result is a more dramatic photo: the soft natural light from the left has created contrast on the subject’s face. Contrast is one of the most important aspects of a photo, and can transform a ‘flat’ looking photo into something more three-dimensional.
Strong contrast is pleasing to the eye, which searches for changes in light and dark to identify objects.
Natural lighting is typically less harsh than a flash, unless a diffuser is used (see next section).
Keep in mind that when your camera is calling for a flash and you disable it, you may have a greater chance of a ‘shaky’ photo. Flashes ‘freeze’ a moment while the camera may need to keep its shutter open slightly longer to properly expose the same scene without the help of the flash.
If you find your photo is not clear with the flash disabled, try placing the camera on a tripod. If carrying around a tripod is unrealistic, try a flat surface such as a table. Using the camera’s self-timer can also be an advantage in this situation; sometimes the very act of pressing the shutter button can create shake.
Also, some cameras allow you to adjust the exposure compensation. This allows you to choose brighter or darker photos, and decreasing the exposure will speed up the shutter in most situations. This can be handy if you’re in a place (e.g. a museum) where flash is not permitted and you’re finding you’re getting some blur with the flash disabled.
When using a flash is a good idea
Not all situations are ideal for relying on natural light or the ambient light in a room. As the day gets darker, obviously there is less light to work with; most cameras will produce a grainy-looking image if you disable the flash in this situation.
Also, if you are shooting a formal event such as a wedding, it’s a good idea to use the flash. You’ll want to ‘freeze’ moments and reduce the chance of ending up with blurry photos. Also, some indoor lighting can create an orange-yellow tinge in your images – flashes are typically designed to simulate daylight to override this problem. Make sure your white balance is set properly (most cameras have auto white balance, but consult your instruction manual just to be sure).
Another situation when flash can be your friend is when shooting action or sports. See the example of the roller derby match (Fig. 2): a flash was used from some distance away. There was not much ambient light available and the skaters were moving at a high speed. Without a flash, the camera’s shutter would be forced to slow down to capture more light, resulting in a blur.
There are techniques to get around this without a flash, such as panning the camera along with the subject to keep it in focus while the background blurs (Fig. 3 and 4). But this particular technique takes much practice and there’s still a chance your subject will appear fuzzy.
Capturing people at a party is often better with a flash because subjects are constantly moving, dancing, etc., and there is often minimal useful light in the room.
Camera flashes can sometimes be harsh and cast strong shadows. If possible, use a diffuser on your camera to ‘dilute’ the light and create a more natural appearance.
Using natural light and flash together
You may think that because you have sufficient light outside, you have no use for a flash. That is not always the case. When shooting in strong sunlight try to keep the subject facing the sun, to light them evenly. If the sun is behind your subject, you risk only capturing a silhouette.
In the latter situation, your flash can help. If you are not able to place your subject in the desired position while shooting in harsh light, enable your flash (your camera’s flash set in auto mode will likely not trigger if the scene is well-lit overall).
The flash will ‘fill-in’ details of your subject against the strong backlight. But keep in mind most built in flashes have a range of only about five to seven feet, so try not to be too far away from the subject in this situation.
Using flash in daylight can also help your subject ‘pop’ from the background (Fig. 5).
Experimentation makes you better
Next time you are shooting a subject, try it with flash and then without. That way you can compare which you prefer.
As most cameras are digital these days, you can shoot as many photos as your memory card will allow and re-use it again and again. So unlike film photography, mistakes cost you nothing!
Have fun, and happy shooting.