The Mystery of the Backwards Flash

Harsh flash pHarsh flash photo for an article on camera flash tipshoto for an article on camera flash lessons

If you have ever watched me at work, you might have noticed that the flash on my camera points backwards.  Why?  Simple answer: I am using the wall and ceiling behind me to bounce off light for maximum depth and softness.

NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams, at work for an article on camera flash tips

NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams, at work for an article on camera flash Harsh flash photo for an article on camera flash tips

Everyone has seen photos that look like this:

Harsh flash photo for an article on camera flash Harsh flash photo for an article on camera flash tips

Harsh light flooding the subject with a dark background always translates into ugly, overexposed images.  The problem is that the flash is too close and directly pointed at the subject.  With no filter on the flash, you get too strong a highlight, no light to expose the background, and often red, glowing eyes.  Per Wikipedia, “In flash photography the light of the flash occurs too fast for the pupil to close, so much of the very bright light from the flash passes into the eye through the pupil, reflects off the fundus at the back of the eyeball and out through the pupil. The camera records this reflected light. The main cause of the red color is the ample amount of blood in the choroid which nourishes the back of the eye and is located behind the retina.”

Unless you especially like the vampire look, the better bet is to have your light source filtered and at an angle.  Some photographers have an assistant to hold their light in the perfect spot.  But if you work alone, as I do, then your best bet is to make your environment work for you.  By pointing my flash opposite to where I want it to go, I am making the beam of light both softer (since there is more distance between my subject and my light) and more interesting because it is at a more pleasing angle.

Photo for an article on camera flash lessons

Even better is to use what I officially call a ‘black thingie.’  This idea is from photographer Neil van Niekerk, whose beautiful work has been influential in helping me master my flash.  Made simply with stiff, black felt and some velcro glued to my flash, my black thingie acts as a snoot (i.e. tube-like light modifier) to direct the light into a more focused angle so that it doesn’t spill all over.

Flash detail photo for an article on camera flash lessons

Flash detail photo for an article on camera flash lessons

Flash detail photo for an article on camera flash lessons

Flash detail photo for an article on camera flash lessons
I used super glue to affix the velcro to my flash.
Flash detail photo for an article on camera flash lessons
‘Black thingie’ with velcro attached via staples…very DIY chic

Flash detail photo for an article on camera flash lessons

When I started as a photographer, I was scared of my flash because I couldn’t get the light to go exactly where I needed it.  It was pretty much hit or miss.  But Neil’s contraption hammered home the idea that you want to bounce the light in the exact opposite of where you need it so that it ultimately ends up in the right place.

For maximum light-bouncing effect, low, white ceilings and walls are your friends.  In cases where you have a black room or your ceiling is too high, however, I use my trusty flash bounce card (found on the flash itself) or enhance the bounce card with my own larger white bounce card made of white felt.  In scenarios like this, make sure to have plenty of batteries for your flash, as it will be working overtime.  Also, keep in mind that wooden paneling and uplighting are your enemy because these backgrounds deposit too much color cast on the images.  Light bounced off of wood paneling adds a red or brown tint to the image.  Thankfully, most of this can be fixed in post production.

Flash detail photo for an article on camera flash lessons
Canon flash bounce card exposed

Flash detail photo for an article on camera flash lessons

Flash detail photo for an article on camera flash lessons

Photo for an article on camera flash lessons

Photo for an article on camera flash lessons

NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams, at work for an article on camera flash lessons
Me at work

Flash detail photo for an article on camera flash lessons


If you would like to see more examples of work from my portfolio, please visit my website — www.KellyWilliamsPhotographer.com

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