A Splash of Flash / by Graham Dew

Almost by definition, the one thing you can’t do without in photography is light. You could conceivably make a drawing, compose a story or record a tune in complete darkness, but you would not be able to take a photograph. Light gives modelling, shape and vitality to a picture, and yet it so often it is not given the attention it deserves. There would appear to be tendency to fix poor lighting in post processing, using Photoshop. I have often heard photographers claim that they don’t like artificial lighting, that they much prefer natural light. Well, yes, natural light can be very beautiful. For many people, the first and last experience they have of flash lighting are the unflattering family snapshots complete with shiny foreheads and red eyes that come from on-camera flash units. But what if the available lighting is dull and flat, or does not help the subject? For subjects reasonably close to the camera, adding just a small amount of additional light can really help lift a picture and direct the viewer’s eye. Virtually every film & television programme, even on location, will use some form of additional lighting to enhance and control the image.

In the days of film, using flash lighting was often the domain of those who specialised in studio lighting – professionals and serious amateurs. Fill-in flash on location required a lot of experience, judgement and specialist equipment such as flash meters. But that was then. Today, the little preview monitor on the back of a digital camera changes everything. Now we can just experiment to our hearts content, whether we are using simple manual flashguns or taking advantage of the sophisticated units that are available today. The flashguns themselves have become more sophisticated, using TTL metering, and size for size more powerful. In addition, digital cameras have much better low light performance, and so more can be achieved with the power output from battery powered flashguns. There are many manufacturers such as Lastolite & Lumiquest now producing specific small flash equipment, such as diffusers and stands, for virtually every need.

Not only is the equipment better today, but the sources of information are better too. Once I started using flash creatively, it did not take me too long to discover the superb Strobist site run by David Hobby. Joe McNally, often featured in National Geographic, has made a career using small flashes and has written a couple of good books about the subject (Hot Shoe Diaries is my favourite), and there are many other good sources to be found on the web.

Inevitably, using flash outdoors involves fill-in or balanced lighting, mixing the flash light with the ambient exposure. Many, many years ago I had an Olympus AF-1 film compact, and in the right conditions you could make perform fill-in flash on bright days if the main subject was heavily underexposed. This would give really nice deep saturated skies and well lit subjects, but it was a bit hit and miss. But the idea stuck with me and I started to use this technique several years ago when I wanted to produce saturated, underexposed skies and at the same time have well exposed foreground subjects on landscape subjects. Since then, I often carry a small flash with me. When I’m out taking pictures I want to be able to create a picture, rather than take what’s in front of me; controlling the lighting is one method of achieving this.

My flashguns are valuable tools that extend the range and scope of my photography. With my wide aperture lenses I can control the depth of focus between foreground and background. With my flash units I can control the balance of exposure, and even the colour palette between the two.