Flash is dreaded word among new photographers, and even some with more experience. The flash creates harsh shadows, blows out the highlights, ruins ambient lighting and makes it obvious that you used a flash in the first place.
But, that’s just flash used incorrectly. In fact, flash is one of the least understood tools among new photographers, to the point where many don’t use one at all. And that’s a shame, because the flash is a really important tool, and one that comes in handy for more than just lighting up a dark scene. Fill flash can even eliminate shadows by adding more light into a brightly lit scene. Flash is also essential for shooting a backlit subject without blowing out the background or rendering the subject as a silhouette.
If you use the flash and see harsh shadows or overblown highlights, you’re doing it wrong. But how do you take a picture with the flash that doesn’t look like a flash was used at all? There’s actually more than one way to do just that, and you can even combine multiple techniques. To master the use of your flash, you’ll need to understand what makes a light hard and soft, and have a few techniques in your arsenal of photography knowledge.
What is hard light and soft light?
Hard light is light that produces lots of dark shadows. Soft light, on the other hand, produces minimal shadows. Lights that are small produce hard light with lots of shadows. Remember, holding a flashlight up to your face to make scary faces around a campfire? Distance plays a role too though, the closer the light source is, the softer it appears. That’s why the sun is a hard light source.
Flash traditionally produces hard light. After all, it is a very small light source. Many of the techniques involved in blending a flash involve making it appear like a larger light source by diffusing or bouncing. Both techniques spread the light out more, and since a larger light source is softer, you end up with fewer harsh shadows.
Technique #1: Diffuse it
A diffuser will spread light over a larger area, creating a softer light than the original, smaller light source, in this case, the flash. Diffusers are types of flash modifiers (LINK). A diffusion dome is a small plastic cap that snaps onto the flash. It has a milky white but semi-translucent texture that helps to spread and soften the light. A softbox is also a type of diffuser, but as the name implies, as a box-like design and spreads the light out a bit further than a simple dome diffuser.
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Technique #2: Bounce it.
One of the biggest benefits to using a hot shoe flash instead of the built-in pop-up flash is the ability to bounce it. Light will easily bounce off walls and ceilings, which spreads the light out of a larger area, creating fewer shadows. Hot shoe flashes allow the photographer to change the direction of the light. The flash can be bounced off walls and ceilings, just keep in mind any colour on where the light is bouncing from will also impact the colour of the light, so white or light coloured walls are best.
Sometimes, there isn’t a wall or ceiling to bounce off, either because you’re outside, or because the ceilings are too high or are painted a dark color. The flash can also be bounced off a photography reflector, either clipped on to a light stand or held by anyone willing to help you out. There are also flash modifiers that will bounce light. These bouncers are made from a thin, reflective material that attach to the backside of a hot shoe flash.