Five tips for taking better flash photos

In theory, using your camera's flash is simple: You trigger it when there isn't enough light to take a picture with natural light alone. And when you consider that most cameras have an automatic flash mode, taking low-light photos should be a snap. But it isn't. Let's look at five things you can do to turn OK photos into great photos with your flash.

1. Choose when to use the flash

Some people leave their flash on all the time, which can result in it firing when it's totally unnecessary. Others turn it off completely and never use it. I land somewhere in the middle. I tend to leave the flash turned off most of the time, only switching it on when the occasion warrants.

Many cameras will warn when the light is too low for a good photo without the flash, perhaps with an icon in the viewfinder. You have a few options. First, you can turn on your flash. If that's not the look you want, you can check what shutter speed your camera is trying to use; anything under 1/60 second is probably too slow. Try increase your cameras ISO. This will increase the sensitivity of the sensor, but also create a grainier image.

2. Know your camera's flash modes

Your camera flash probably has more settings beyond just on and off. Check out "Take Control of the Flash" and your camera's manual for more information on how to use your camera's flash modes. Generally speaking, when you're taking pictures of people outdoors in direct sunlight, you should turn on your flash and switch it to fill flash to avoid harsh shadows. If your camera has a red eye reduction option, use it indoors in low light, when shooting pictures of people. Slow-synchro Flash settings will lower your shutter speed, capturing more natural light in addition to the flash.

3. Use an external flash

Your camera's built-in flash has a very limited range. In most cases, it will illuminate subjects only up to  10 feet away from your camera. If you need to shoot across longer distances—like a school auditorium, for example—consider adding an external flash to your camera if it has a hot shoe attachment. Even some point-and-shoot cameras can accommodate external flashes, and that will extend your range to 30, 40, or even 50 feet. You can also do things with an external flash you can't do with the built in flash—like bouncing the light.

4. Bounce the light

If you're using an external flash, try to bounce the light off of another surface onto your subject. Direct flash illumination can be harsh and cold. Bouncing it diffuses the light, and the effect can soften and humanize your photos. You can bounce the light off the ceiling or use a bounce card, which diffuses and redirects the light from your flash. You can buy a bounce card, but the Web is filled with instructions on how to make a free one yourself. Try, for example, this DIY bounce card at Make. Print the PDF, cut it out, and attach it to your flash with a rubber band. It works great.

5. Illuminate a large scene

Want to take a picture of a large room but the camera's flash can only throw light on a small piece of it at once? To get the shot you'll need an external flash, but don't mount it on the camera—just turn it on and hold it in your hand. In fact, it doesn't even need to be compatible with the camera.

Set the camera on a tripod and configure it for a long exposure, such as 30 seconds. Then walk around, manually firing the flash at different sections of the room. For best results, don't allow the flash itself to appear in the scene, and never fire it directly at the camera--keep it pointed away from the camera, at the scene you want to illuminate. With a little experimentation, you can get some great results. And while you're experimenting with your flash, try painting with light.

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