A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

Camera Flash: When Not To Use It

March 19 2007

by Philip Northeast

Your digital camera flash has a limited range and may not be suitable for photography at floodlight events. Explore how to take a better picture on these big occasions.

Interior night shot without flash

Interior night shot taken using avaiable light

Do you go to major events at night and watch the grandstands erupt in sea of camera flashes. Ever wonder how they turned out?  What many people end up with is a great photo of the head of the person in front of them, set against the background of a dark and grainy suggestion of the event. What went wrong? The digital camera decided there was not enough light, so the camera flash fired automatically.

There are two things wrong here. One is that all flash units have a limited range. The expected maximum usable distance for inbuilt camera flashes is not much more than two to three metres. Therefore, you need to get close to the action to make a digital camera flash effective. They are perfect for snapshots of friends and lovers, but not really designed for capturing the drama of a night football game.

There is a contradiction at work here, as using the flash actually makes your photograph worse. Low light photography requires a slower shutter speed and a wide aperture setting. However, when the digital camera is relying on the camera flash unit it knows there will be plenty of light up to ten feet away, so it selects a smaller aperture, and faster shutter speed. These settings are optimized for the target area of the flash, but are unsuitable for the areas outside the range of the flash.

Turning the flash off allows the digital camera to select more suitable settings for a floodlight arena or stage. This event lighting should be enough to get some sort of image without the assistance of flash. Let the camera’s inbuilt meter automatically select a slow shutter speed and a wide lens aperture, to make the most of the limited light. Because the shutter will be open longer than normal, you need to hold the camera steady. While this may sound obvious, with slow shutter speeds it is not simple; this is why serious photographers commonly use tripods and monopods.

Harness racing from the grandstand

A night harness racing event photgraphed from the grandstand without flash

Often it is not practical to use tripods and monopods in a crowded grandstand. There are techniques that help minimize the inevitable digital camera shake when slow shutter speeds are used. First, balance your body and, if possible, brace yourself against something solid, such as a wall or seat. Then bring your elbows in firmly against your chest, and using the viewfinder hold your camera firmly against your head. Finally breathe, not too deep, and then hold it while you squeeze the shutter release.

This approach will produce better images than using the camera flash so next time try a few shots with the flash and a few without and decide for yourself.


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One response to “Camera Flash: When Not To Use It”

  1. Anguyo Biko Simon says:

    Simple but very important technique in photography…..thanks a lot.

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