Using flash indoors or out for portraits


Many photographers think the only time to use a flash is in a darkened room, and there are even those that are so uncomfortable using flash that they totally depend on high ISO camera settings to take pictures in low light interiors.  ISO stands for International Standards Organization and determines the sensitivity to light for which the sensor is set.

I think relying on high ISO settings instead of adding light from a flash is okay for long shots inside the gym during basketball games, or auditorium photos of children’s concerts, but close-ups of people with mixed lighting coming from overhead light leaves unflattering shadows and colours crossing their face.

I have fitted my camera with a bracket that lifts the flash about six inches above the lens or can be quickly removed for off camera lighting. Most camera hotshoes place the flash close and directly over the lens and that close proximity usually causes an effect called “red eye” which is the appearance of red pupils in the eyes.  Moving the flash some distance from the lens using a bracket or off camera flash cord helps to reduce that effect.

Many people leave their camera’s setting on “program” or “auto mode” and hope for good results.  Many of those same people are unaware how important a good quality flash is.

However, photographers that are concerned with their images and want their photographs of people to be enduring, and more than just unattractive snapshots, are using a flash, not the tiny popup flash that many cameras have, but a controllable flash with the power to illuminate spaces larger than a family dining room or be placed pleasingly for appealing portraits.

In last weeks column “Using a Flash in the Midday Sun” I wrote that I prefer to leave my camera set to manual exposure mode which allows me, and not the camera, to choose the overall ambient exposure, and to add flash to those areas that are underexposed by shadows.

Although my discussion was about daylight photography, I approach my photography in much the same way indoors or out. I meter the existing light, set the exposure, turn on the flash, and make tests using the flash, and increase or decrease the output level.

Then I look at the camera LCD, check the histogram and look to see if there are blinking borders around any white areas indicating over exposure.  If I observe them I dial the flash down, or change my aperture, testing again till the flashing borders disappear. (That highlight-warning feature is usually found in the camera’s menu). And when I move in close for photographs I always place a diffuser over my flash head to spread and soften the light.

Using my flash like that gives me broad, even lighting on people and when out of doors I sometimes even set my camera and flash output so those individuals are slightly brighter than the surrounding area and the background. As I just wrote, I can remove the flash from the bracket which allows it to be pointed in any direction I want; bouncing the light off building walls, concrete sidewalks and, if I want, hold it higher than people sitting in front of me.

When I learned to use a flash many years ago it changed the quality of my photography.  I no longer had to rely on inconsistent, and, in many cases, unappealing ambient light, and I began to notice that my subjects had more “pop” and dimension than those without the flash.  Just like the control I gained by using different focal length lenses, using the flash allowed me to add light when I needed it, improving the quality of my photographs and separating my photography from those who do not use flash.  My advice for those interested in portrait photography is to get a flash and start using it every time a person is in front of their cameras.

For those that are uncomfortable using flash, or would like to learn more about portraiture, on Sunday, July 10th I will be offering a workshop in Kamloops on flash photography for portrait lighting indoors and outdoors; and I urge DSLR photographers to enroll and overcome their hesitancy to use flash. Participants will gain the skill and confidence to create great images using wireless lighting techniques for portraits in virtually any situation by augmenting existing light with flash. I will limit participation so please contact me if you are interested.

These are my thoughts this week.

Contact me at or Stop by Enman’s Camera at 423 Tranquille Road in Kamloops. And if you want an experienced professional wedding or event photographer please call me. I also sell an interesting selection of used photographic equipment.