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You’re Using Your Camera’s Flash Wrong

David Pogue
February 27, 2014

This week, I spoke at a conference in Las Vegas. Afterward, my wife and I went to a highly recommended show called “Absinthe.” (It’s an extremely raunchy, screamingly funny show that mixes comedy with acrobatics in a tiny tent.)

The surprising part was this: They welcomed us, the audience, to take photos and videos. They asked only that nobody use the camera’s flash.

They hadn’t even gotten past the opening announcements, and I already loved this show. Their reason for prohibiting flash photography is simple: They don’t want you to temporarily blind the acrobats.

But that unusual announcement got me thinking about you, your camera or phone, and your flash.

Truth is, you shouldn’t use the flash at a performance like that anyway. Not at a sports event, not at a school play, not on Broadway, not at fireworks, not at the Olympics — because your camera’s flash is useless beyond about eight feet.

All you succeed in doing is wasting your battery, distracting the performers and blinding your neighbors.

Let me pause to acknowledge that thousands of flashes going off in a stadium look pretty. OK, fine. But that’s not the reason those people are using their flashes; they’re using them out of ignorance.

Nobody’s fault, really. You don’t get a lesson when you buy a camera. Nobody explains the thing to you. When flashes go off at performances and sporting events, it’s either because those people didn’t know their flashes were going to go off or they didn’t know how to turn them off.

Look: Most pocket cameras are flash-happy. Left to their own judgment, they fire the flash in way too many situations.

So here, then, I offer a public service: The Ultimate Guide to Your Camera’s Flash and How to Stop Using It Wrong.

Rule 1: Know how to turn the flash off.
Every camera has a lightning-bolt icon. That’s your flash control. On small cameras, it’s usually on the dial on the back, at the 3 o’clock position.

When you press it, you’re offered a choice of flash modes. Most often, you’ll want to force the flash to stay off (below, right) or force it to stay on (below, left, sometimes labeled “Forced” or “Fill”).

Now then. Many pocket cameras don’t let you control the flash in Automatic mode. “If you want automatic, we’ll give you fully automatic — and we’ll make the decision,” the companies seem to say.

In that case, switch your camera’s mode dial to, for example, P mode (for Program). For our purposes, P mode is exactly the same as Auto — but you can control the flash.

On SLR cameras (the big, black interchangeable-lens cameras), the Flash control is usually a little button on the top, left, or top left. When you press it, the flash itself may pop up, meaning that it’s now going to fire no matter what.

Rule 2: Avoid the flash whenever possible.
The flash was invented, of course, to provide enough light to take a picture when the scene is dark.

Unfortunately, the light it provides is awful. It’s white, it’s direct, it’s harsh. It makes people look like they’re ghosts photographed during a nuclear test. And it turns the background pure black — the cave effect.

If you can possibly take the photo without the flash, do so. You improve your odds if (a) your camera has a big sensor inside, or (b) your camera is completely stationary, like on a tripod, on a wall or propped against a doorframe. (If the camera is bolted down like that, you’re less likely to get a blurry shot. Blurriness happens when there’s not much light — so the camera’s shutter stays open a long time to let in more. During that time, if either your hand or your subject moves, you get blur.)

(Christy Giordano, Flickr)

If in doubt, take two shots: one with the flash, one without.

Rule 3: Use the flash in sunlight.
Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m telling you to turn off the flash when it’s dark out, but to turn on the flash when it’s sunny?


When you take a picture of someone against a bright background—sunny landscape, a window, a doorway — you’re going to get a useless silhouette. That’s because the camera “reads” the scene and measures how much light is available. It concludes, because of that window, doorway, or bright sunny background, that there’s tons of light. So it darkens up the shot overall to make sure that that background is correctly exposed. Unfortunately, faces get proportionally darker in the process, and boom — silhouette city.

The solution is to force the flash on. Use the control shown above to choose the lightning bolt by itself. That’s called a fill flash. Its purpose is to supply a little additional light for the subject to compensate for the overly bright background. The web is filled with before-and-after examples that show you what a difference the fill flash makes — like this one, from Mike Baird’s Flickr set:

Once again, though, this trick doesn’t work if you’re farther away than about eight feet.

Rule 4: Tame the flash.
Sometimes, OK, you need the flash, especially on little cameras (because their tiny lenses don’t let enough light hit their small sensors). Outdoors at night. Indoors when people are moving.

But you don’t have to accept your camera’s idea of the nuclear-blast flash. You can tame it, dial it down, finesse it.

On an SLR, of course, that’s no big deal. There’s a Flash Compensation setting right in the menus; it lets you adjust the strength of the flash.

If you have a pocket camera, though, or a phone, you probably can’t control the flash intensity. So get creative: Hold a piece of Kleenex in front of the flash. The tissue softens the light and evens it out, for a more flattering shot. Experiment with the number of tissue layers.

If your camera has a facial-recognition feature — if it displays a yellow rectangle around each face as you’re framing up the shot — that’s good news. It means that the camera will try to dial back the intensity of the flash just enough to make the person’s skin look right. But you’ll still blind your subject, you may still get unnatural colors, and you’ll still get a cavelike darkness in the background.

Rule 5: Find more light.
The world offers many more sources of light than the obnoxious LED on your camera or phone.

Move your model to a spot where there’s better light. Turn the person to face the light (in those window-behind-her situations, for example).

Or try this, my new favorite trick: Use your smartphone’s flashlight feature to provide some light from the side. (As any pro photographer can tell you, soft light from the side of a face is more flattering than a direct blast from the front, any day.)

In this Flickr example, photographer Manatari had no illumination except two phones—one off to the left and one in the model’s hand:

So there you have it: Five quick tricks for controlling your flash, instead of letting the flash control you. If you remember nothing else, remember this:

The camera’s judgment is frequently wrong. You’ll get better photos by turning off the flash in many situations where the camera wants it on — and by turning on the flash to provide fill light when the camera would keep it off.

By following that simple advice, you’ll transform yourself from someone who comes across as a bit flash-happy — to someone who’s happy with the flash.

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