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Avoiding The Flash for Better Looking Pictures…

A couple weeks ago, I decided to go back to school and learn how to take better pictures with my Nikon DSLRs. I’ve always been from the train of thought that the biggest upgrade that you can make aside from equipment is learning how to use that equipment properly. I mean, if everyone that drove a high end vehicle learned how to drive, we wouldn’t see them all involved in accidents or in the ditch during a snowstorm. As I’ve discovered, it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks.

One of the things that has been emphasized strongly in my photography class is how to use a combination of ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture to get the exposures that I need. Flashes aren’t always needed to get great shots. In fact, the instructor hasn’t once mentioned the use of a flash during our in class exercises. However, in a lot of cases, dragging a superior (but much larger) DSLR around is not practical and you sort of have to compromise with a point and shoot. Although most point and shoots are basically automatic, they don’t always take the best possible pictures, often firing the flash automatically and blowing them out or guessing the wrong white balance, causing them to be either really red or really blue…or just…wrong. Taking your camera into manual mode, if available can provide some extra adjustments to get that shot.

During my last outing with my point and shoot Canon SD850is, I took some pictures that I wasn’t quite happy with. They were underexposed and cranking up the ISO caused other problems such as noise, exposing one of the limitations of compact point and shoot cameras and their tiny sensors. After looking at my pictures again and checking the histograms, I realized that there was one thing that I didn’t take advantage of when the lighting conditions get tough: Exposure compensation.

To demonstrate how exposure compensation can help you get the shot you need without cranking the ISO, or using the flash, I’ve taken a few pictures with my SD850is in rather crappy lighting to give you an idea of how you can get the shot when flash use isn’t an option.

Using The Flash

 To Flash or Not To Flash…

This shot was taken using the automatic settings of the SD850is. I used Macro Mode and let the camera figure out ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed. As you can see, the flash has blown out the center of the picture. The information in this area is now lost and cannot be recovered. Although the rest of the picture is clear, it lacks warmth and realism. The “Green” button is definitely not a go in this situation.

Manual Mode Without Flash

 To Flash or Not To Flash…

Switching to manual mode, I am now able to work the ISO. I’ve set ISO to 400 which allows the sensor to soak up more light while the flash has been turned off. I’ve also set the camera to Macro mode which allows me to focus close to the subject. Without the flash, the shot is underexposed. However, there isn’t the noise that showed up at ISO 800 with the pictures I took last time, but instead of blowing out the picture with the flash, I’ve underexposed parts of the picture that is just as bad. This takes me to the next step…

Using Exposure Compensation…

 To Flash or Not To Flash…

Now this is more like it! The thing I missed that was right at my fingertips was taking advantage of the exposure compensation on the camera. In manual mode, I am able to not only manipulate ISO, but I’m also able to bump the exposure compensation up to +2 to let the sensor soak up more light. I used +1 of compensation in this case and the results are quite good.  On the flip side, you can also reduce the exposure compensation to allow you to take pictures in really bright light.

With exposure compensation tweaked up and the ISO increased to a reasonable amount that doesn’t cause high noise levels, I was able to take a picture that not only looked way better than what the camera could do on its own with flash, but I was also able to produce a shot that looked much more realistic and presents with a bit more warmth. Since there are situations where flash use may not be ideal, being able to get the shot without it opens up a whole new range of possibilities. My days of crutching on that flash are over and I’ll definitely be looking for ways to avoid the flash to get warmer and more realistic shots in available light. There is still so much to learn and I’m really looking forward to my night photography session coming up.



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