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If you stand at night on the Northern edge of San Francisco, just along from the Bay Bridge on the Embarcadero, and look towards the island that anchors one end of the suspension bridge, you will see a flicker of tiny flashes of light by the water line. This is not some strange atmospheric phenomena, but camera flashes from visitors taking pictures of the San Francisco skyline at night. The sad part about this is that it can be seen pretty much every night and all of those pictures are not going to come out as expected — but it does illustrate the trouble many have with controlling camera flash.

San Francisco embaradero night skyline from Treasure Island

At the other extreme, there are those who have sworn never to use flash, ever. While I don’t agree with that, you can take a first step to improving the quality of photos taken with a compact camera by turning off the flash function. If you don’t know how to do it (and boy, do some manufacturers make it hard to figure out) then now is the time to look up flash in the manual and start reading.

So, when to use flash? A full answer is very complicated — lighting is a whole topic in its own right. But I like to make things simple, so I am going to take a few liberties and boil flash usage down to two questions, in this order:

Question 1: Is the thing you’re photographing more than 15 feet from the camera? If so, turn off the flash. Built-in flashes have limited reach, so they won’t illuminate anything more than 15 feet or so away. This is where those folks trying to photo the San Francisco night skyline with the flash turned on are going to be disappointed: Yes, flash is for things in the dark — so long as they’re close.

When flash is turned on, the camera shutter speed is typically locked at 1/60th of a second. Even with the lens aperture as wide open as possible, this will not let nearly enough light enter the camera for dark subjects like the San Francisco night skyline, so not only does the flash not illuminate anything, but the picture will come out dark. By turning flash off, you give the camera a chance to pick a good exposure that lets in enough light. It will be far too long for you to hand-hold the camera, so you need to set it down on a wall or other stable surface to keep it still. Ideally, you should turn on the “self portrait” timer, press the button, then step back (hands off the camera so there’s no shake) and let the shutter fire automatically.

Question 2: Is the subject in the dark, or in strong light? The definition of “dark” is a bit wishy-washy: anything indoors qualifies as “dark”, really. The good news here is that your camera will likely tell you when it’s too dark and you need to turn on the flash. If only cameras told you when it was OK to turn flash off, too!

Flash is also good for subjects in very bright sunlight or other strong light, because that causes strong shadows on the subject. By turning on the flash you can “fill in” the shadows with light (again, for any subject that is close) and improve your pictures.

And that’s the basics of flash. Got any photo tips? Tell us all about them by commenting on this article.