Digital Focus: Master Your Camera's Flash Modes

Feature: Master Your Camera's Flash Modes

For some reason, the flash seems to be the most mysterious part of any digital camera. I've seen people use their flash in the most unusual and distinctly unhelpful of situations--like when shooting out an airplane window or in the middle of a huge football stadium. In either case, the flash has no chance of illuminating the subject, which is very, very far away. Using the flash, it seems, isn't particularly intuitive.

And in this digital age, simple controls like On and Off would be just too easy. Instead, your camera's flash probably has three or more modes, each intended for a specific photographic situation. Let's take a look at the modern digital camera flash and see how it works.

Common Flash Modes

Which mode is right for your shooting situation? Here are the major flash modes that you'll find in most cameras:

Automatic. Most of the time--especially for general-purpose snapshot photography--you can simply leave your camera's flash set to Auto. When set this way, the flash determines whether it needs to fire based on the amount of light in the scene. Most of the cameras I've used represent this mode by not displaying a flash icon in the LCD status display.

Fill Flash. Another mode, which goes by names like "Forced Flash" or "Fill Flash," forces the flash to fire regardless of how much light is available. Why would you want to use this mode? It's most useful when you're shooting outdoors in natural light. In that situation, Fill Flash can erase shadows that appear because of the way the sun hits your subject. This mode, often represented by a lightning bolt in the status display, is great for outdoor portraits.

Red-Eye Reduction. Then there's Red-Eye Reduction mode. By flashing the subject several times right before the picture is taken, the Red-Eye Reduction mode forces your subject's pupils to close down to a smaller size, thus decreasing the chances that their retinas will reflect the light of the flash. When you use this mode, remember that it will take a fraction of a second longer for the picture to be taken: Don't pull the camera away as soon as you press the shutter release, or you'll blur the picture. If you're photographing people in a dark room, it's probably worth the extra time. Of course, you don't need to use Red-Eye Reduction outdoors or in bright light. And remember: If Red-Eye Reduction isn't completely effective, or if you forget to turn it on, you can edit your photos to eliminate the red-eye effect.

Advanced Flash Modes

Some cameras throw in a few more goodies:

Low-Power Mode. This setting lets you control the output of the flash. Depending upon the camera, you might be able to reduce its intensity by 50 percent or more. You can use this mode when you need the flash to fill in shadows, or when you're taking a close-up and a full burst of light would overexpose your subject.

Slow Sync. This is one of my favorite flash modes. It's handy for night photography, when you might want a long exposure to capture background details, but also want to fire the flash to freeze foreground action. When you use Slow Sync, you get both: The shutter is slowed, but the flash also fires.

2nd Curtain. Many cameras give you the added choice of ordinary Slow Sync or something called "2nd Curtain Flash." What the heck is that? Well, when the flash fires in normal Slow Sync mode, it fires right away, then leaves the shutter open for a while to expose more of the background. In 2nd Curtain exposures, the shutter opens for a while, then the flash fires at the end, right before the shutter closes.

Slow Sync and 2nd Curtain give you very different effects. Imagine taking a picture of a car streaking down the street. In Slow Sync mode, you'd get a picture of a car with its tail lights streaking through the vehicle. A 2nd Curtain version of the picture would reveal tail lights leading up to the car itself at the leading edge of the image. If your camera offers this mode, try it. Just be sure to use a tripod like you would with any long-exposure photo. In the following two images, you can see my daughter wandering the backyard with a flashlight and one of those fancy "headlight" bands on her forehead:

Turn It Off

Finally, don't forget about the Off switch. There are occasions when you absolutely, positively must make sure the flash doesn't fire--like in museums, art galleries, and churches. That's when you should make sure that the lightning bolt with the X through it appears on your status display.

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