Changing The Flash Output - Why and How :: Digital Photo Secrets

Changing The Flash Output - Why and How

by David Peterson 1 comment

Flash is a very powerful tool in photography, but it only works as well as the person behind the camera. Great pictures are destroyed with flash as easily as they are created. Most of time, I advise you to avoid flash altogether. This time, I’m going to show you an alternative that might just allow you to have your cake and eat it too. We’re going to learn how to change your camera’s flash output and why it’s important.

Flashes don’t always fire at the same intensity for every shot. You may not see it happening, but your camera is always gauging the amount of light available in the scene before it takes a picture. When you press the shutter button, your camera sends this information to the flash, and you get a brighter or dimmer flash depending on what’s around you.

Most of the time, you camera does a pretty good job. It’s not perfect at gauging the light, and it doesn’t always know what you’re trying to achieve as a photographer. Sometimes the effect your looking for doesn’t quite match what the camera “thinks” you’re trying to photograph. The camera picks a flash intensity that’s either too strong or too weak for your purposes, and it ruins the shot.

I see this one happening all the time at parties. The photographer gets up nice and close to the people she is photographing (something I advise you to do), and their faces end up completely white in the resulting photo. What happened? Put simply, the camera gauged the brightness of the room, found it to be very dark, and it bumped up the flash settings. The bright flash then caused the camera to overexpose the faces, giving the whitewashed appearance.

What not to do. When you get too close to someone, and you’re using your flash, this is usually what happens.
Photo By Davide DeHetre

Adjust Flash Compensation

The solution is simple. Tell the camera to reduce the intensity of the flash. By adjusting the flash compensation, you’re telling the camera to use a little more or less flash than it “thinks” you need. This is the quickest and easiest way to do it without having to learn a lot more about how flashes work and which specific setting is the best for your situation.

You can adjust your flash compensation from every camera mode except automatic mode. If you don’t want to learn anything about manual photography, you can just pick programmed automatic mode, and you’ll be set. Programmed automatic mode is one step down from straight automatic mode. It gives you a few more choices, and one of them is flash compensation.

Flash compensation settings typically appear next to the flash settings themselves. On Nikon cameras, you’ll find them on the back panel. If you press “i”, you can navigate the settings. Flash compensation is located on the right of the flash type setting.

This is assuming you’re using a digital SLR. If you’re using a point-and-shoot, it will be a bit different. You’ll probably find the setting under your main menu.

You can never know exactly how much flash compensation you’ll need for any given image. I always experiment with it, taking a few photos and checking to see the difference it’s made. If I think I need more or less flash compensation, I adjust up or down, take some more photos, and look at my LCD again. It’s actually pretty easy once you get the hang of it.

To Alternatives to Flash Compensation

Flash compensation can definitely help when you aren’t quite getting what you want from your indoor photography. But it shouldn’t be used as a crutch. There are better ways to get a more balanced and colorful exposure, and you should try them out before you start messing around with your flash output.

Remember those ghastly party pictures? How about stepping back a bit to take them? If you need to fill the frame up with the faces of your guests, you can always zoom in more. I know it doesn’t really need to be said, but backing away from something has the effect of dampening the flash. If you can still zoom in, try that out before you adjust your flash compensation.

Why bother with flash compensation when you can take a picture like this one using nothing more than natural light?

Here’s another one. Turn on as many lights in the room as you can. Part of the reason your camera is using a very bright flash has to do with the amount of available light. When there isn’t as much light nearby, your camera assumes the most dire of circumstances and picks a flash that will light everything up. When you have more light, the camera picks a tamer flash brightness, and you can actually see the rest of the room in the photo.

I really do advise you to try all of these options before you use flash compensation. If they still don’t work, and your subjects are either too bright or too dark, then it’s time to adjust your flash output. This is a handy tool, but it’s only something you should use when you absolutely need it.

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  1. Carr says:

    Cool info.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.