To Flash or Not To Flash…

…That is the question that faces wedding photographers the world over. There are certainly pros and cons to each choice, and I’ve been reviewing my practices lately. I’m talking specifically about on-camera flash today. Be it bounced or direct, the source of light is essentially coming from the area of the photographer.

Certainly a flash can be a distraction. Here you are, getting ready before the ceremony, fixing your hair, putting on makeup… and lightning is going off in the room! Flash! Flash! Flash! Just imagine what it would be like during the ceremony (which is why most venues and officiants don’t allow photographers to use flash during that part of the day).

Another disadvantage of using flash indiscriminately is that it can lead to somewhat flat images. When light hits the subject from the side it helps model and shape an image. It creates a depth. A flash can be turned so it bounces off a wall or ceiling creating a much softer directional light. But what about when we’re outside and there’s nothing to bounce the light off? Now all can do is point it straight ahead, creating a much flatter light.

For all the photographers out there who are reading this… yes, I know I can pull the flash from the camera and hold it/have it held from the side. Remember, we’re talking about on-camera flash today. Wedding days can be hectic and there is a lot of pressure to get a lot of photos in a short period of time. Sometimes the need for speed trumps fancy setups.

Finally, I want to mention the most heinous of all flash atrocities. The one unforgivable act of flash abuse… the dreaded side shadow! You’ve seen it. Washed out subjects, inky black background, and just to the left or right a dark silhouette of a shadow cast by the aforementioned washed-out subject. It’s ugly and it’s amateur. But mostly it’s ugly. This is caused by pointing the flash directly at the subject, usually with the camera turned sideways, and blasting away without thought or care.

So, now that I’ve totally trashed the flash, what possible good could come from it? Well, when used correctly it can make a pretty good photo truly great. The cardinal rule is to make the photo look as though no flash was used at all. When it is used to add just a little kiss of light to fill in deep shadows, it can bring out details without destroying depth. Most of the light is still coming from the environment to shape the image.

No flash – nice, but a little dark

With flash – adds some fill light to brighten the subjects

Here Felecia and David graciously demonstrate how flash can open up a photo. These are straight out of the camera with absolutely no enhancement or processing at all. The only difference between these two photos is that the first is by natural light only while the second adds a touch of flash. Notice how both of their skin tones are brightened and detailed in the second photo where the flash fired. Yet, the overall look doesn’t scream “hey, a flash went off!”

Bounced flash is my standard operating procedure for receptions where it starts dark and gets even darker once the DJ gets to the lights. By bouncing the flash up and slightly backward I create a soft overhead light that’s just enough to actually take a photograph without nightvision goggles strapped to the front of the camera.

Ultimately, there is no “set it and forget it” solution for flash photography. It has to be used with thought and care on an image-by-image basis. Just as there are times when flash is absolutely the wrong choice, there will be just as many times when it is the best option. Too many event photographers just set the flash at the beginning of the day and blast away without giving it another thought beyond changing the batteries. And just as many choose not to use flash at all in the quest for natural light, even when a touch of extra light will make for a better photograph. The trick is to know when to use it and when to stow it in the bag.

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