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.

Dave's Favorites: Faster Transfers With a USB 2.0 Card Reader

To move files from a camera to my PC, I usually pop the memory card out of my camera, insert it in a desktop memory card reader, and then drag-and-drop the files from there. Until recently, I was plugging along with a USB 1.1 card reader (an old 6-in-1 model from Dazzle). I didn't know what I was missing by not switching to USB 2.0. I recently made the leap with Crucial Technology's 7-in-1 Hi-Speed USB card reader.

I can't believe the difference that USB 2.0's higher top speed limit makes: 480 megabits per second as opposed to USB 1.1's 12 mbps. Crucial's card reader is a compact device--about the size of a deck of cards--that uses USB 2.0. Of course, nobody has yet found a device that achieves transfers anywhere near the theoretical limit. But in the real world, using USB 2.0 means the memory card's transfer speed is the real limiting factor, not the USB pipe.

How fast is that? Here's one test: using the same collection of digital image and MP3 files (41MB in total), it took my old Dazzle USB 1.1 reader 59 seconds to make the transfer from memory card to desktop. The Crucial reader, on the other hand, copied the same files in 28 seconds--twice as fast. Those tests were performed with reboots in between sessions to erase any cached file advantages.

The Crucial reader is elegantly designed. It's small and portable. The card slots can be closed and protected by a small hinged door that, when open, acts like a leg to prop the front of the unit up a bit. The card reader is available from Crucial's for a surprisingly low $26. It's a steal--you should definitely grab one of these.

If you don't have a newer PC with USB 2.0 ports, you'll have to buy a USB 2.0 card and add it to an open PCI slot. (Make sure your PC has one available.) If your PC has only USB 1.1 ports, there's little point in upgrading to a USB 2.0 reader; the reader will work with USB 1.1 ports, but only at the slower speeds. I found a card for about $20 at the's Product Finder that would add two USB 2.0 ports; check out D-Link's USB 2.0 2-Port PCI Adapter.

Q&A: Transferring Hi8 to DVD

Dave, I need your advice. My Hitachi VM-H57A Hi8 camcorder isn't working properly. It is about ten years old and was great in its prime. I paid $1600 for it at the time, and the estimate for repair is now about $300. The owner of the shop suggested I not repair it, but instead buy a new camcorder. Here is the real problem: I have a ton of Hi8 cassettes. I would like to edit and transfer to CD or DVD. What should I do? Do I have to buy another Hi8 camcorder to play these tapes? Would you get the Hitachi repaired?

--Jay Mel, New York

I agree with the repair technician, Jay: I wouldn't spend that much money to repair a ten-year-old, obsolete camcorder.

It sounds to me like the ideal solution for you is a Digital8 camcorder from Sony. Digital8 video cameras record true digital video, like DV camcorders, but they also play old Hi8 tapes. You can connect your new Digital8 camcorder to your PC with a FireWire cable and transfer your old Hi8 tapes to the computer, then copy them to DVD. And when all of your old analog tapes are converted to DVD, you still have a new Digital8 camcorder at your disposal for shooting video in digital format.

I searched our Product Finder for Digital8 camcorders and found a few that are quite affordable--not much more than your repair cost, in fact. Check out Sony's $500 Digital8 Handycam DCRTRV140.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "A Bug's World," by Peter Jou, Westerville, Ohio

Not all nature photos are scenes captured from the natural world. Some, like this one, are staged. Peter says he arranged this shot. "I took a Giant Hibiscus from my garden and sprinkled water on it. Then I put a little bug on top. I took the picture using my Canon PowerShot G2 with natural light."

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