Understanding Advanced Flash Options for Digital Photography

By Julie Adair King

Advanced flash options are helpful in digital photography. Basic cameras — even most cellphone cameras — usually offer built-in flash and red-eye reduction, a feature that’s designed to lessen the chances of red-eye in flash photos. But that’s about it in terms of flash features.

Higher-end cameras offer options that enable you to control flash behavior, which is a critical part of getting the best results when photographing scenes that require artificial light. Here are the most common flash-related features, listed order of importance:

  • Control over whether the flash fires: On some point-and-shoot models, you can use flash only when the camera thinks additional light is needed. At first blush, that restriction sounds sensible: Flash on when needed and flash off when the ambient light is sufficient. But when you’re outdoors on a sunny day, you often can get a better picture by using flash, especially when shooting portraits. On the flip side, when you want to emphasize the natural light hitting your subject, you don’t want flash, because it would eliminate the shadows that enhance the scene. So being able to say yea or nay to flash is essential.
  • Flash exposure compensation (Flash EV): This feature adjusts the output of the flash, which is otherwise controlled by the camera’s autoexposure system.
  • Connection for external flash: The built-in flash on most cameras produces harsh, direct lighting that often overpowers a subject. Especially for portrait work, you can get much better results by connecting a separate flash head to the camera. The most common method is via hot shoe, which is a connection on top of a camera. As an alternative, some models can connect to a flash via a cable known as flash sync cord. You can then attach the flash head to a bracket that positions the flash to the side of the camera or simply hold up the flash by hand, depending on how you want to angle the light. (You often see wedding photographers using this type of setup.)
  • High-speed flash: This feature enables you to use a faster shutter speed than is normally possible for flash photos, which is the key to outdoor portraits that feature a soft, dreamy background. To achieve that blurry background, you need a wide aperture, which lets in too much light to permit a slow shutter speed in bright sun. If your goal is outdoor portrait work, high-speed flash is essential. You also need a flash unit that supports the feature.
  • Commander mode: Some flash units can be set to commander mode, which lets you use them to wirelessly trigger off-camera flashes. If your camera’s flash can’t perform this function, you can buy a separate commander unit that you attach to the camera’s hot shoe. The benefit is that you can light your subject from any angle and with as many lights as you think necessary — you’re no longer restricted to aiming a single flash directly at your subject.
disable-flash
If you want to be able to capture interesting patterns of light, as here, make sure the camera allows you to disable flash.