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Softening the harsh light from a flash


Direct flash gives harsh illumination (bright highlights and strong shadows), an effect you do not always want.
Direct flash gives harsh illumination (bright highlights and strong shadows), an effect you do not always want.

The harsh lighting from direct flash can be managed.

The problems created by direct flash can be compared to the effects on a subject of a bright spotlight. If its light hits the subject straight-on, the subject will appear somewhat featureless, since there is little shadow to define texture and three-dimensionality.

To get around this, you can remove the flash unit from the camera and hold it off to the side so its light strikes the subject at an angle. But, this causes one side of the subject to be brightly lit while the other side is in dark shadow, with no transitional shading. The shadow cast by this kind of high contrast lighting is dark and sharply-defined, particularly noticeable if a subject is in front of a wall, which is often the case when using flash indoors.


Almost all flash pictures, particularly portraits (especially of women), can be improved by brightening up shadow areas so there is a graduated softening between the lightest and darkest parts of a scene. This means the spotlight type of illumination created by a flash must be altered so that it comes from more than just one point source, and “wraps around” the subject. Using a single flash unit, this can be achieved in a number of ways.

With both camera-mounted and off-camera flash, diffusion of the light is a remedy, achieved by placing a semi-transparent object such as tracing paper or white nylon material between the flash and the subject, or by bouncing the flash off of another surface. Either method spreads the light out more, softening its harshness. Be careful not to allow the paper, if that is what you use, to come in contact with the flash head to avoid its igniting. See our section entitled Flash diffusion for further tips.

Diffused flash gives much softer illumination that tends to
Diffused flash gives much softer illumination that tends to "wrap around" the subject.

Fill flash (using your flash as a supplementary light source) brightens up shadow areas, as shown in this image that is backlit by the sun.
Fill flash (using your flash as a supplementary light source) brightens up shadow areas, as shown in this image that is backlit by the sun.

The problem can also be dealt with by using another light source in addition to flash. The sun, for example, can provide back lighting while using your flash as a fill light. An ordinary household lamp can be used to provide fill in light, however its color temperature is different from the flash’s and will result in warm (yellow to orange) tones that may or may not be complimentary to your subject.

Multiple-flash can also be employed to bring light into shadow areas. Placing three flash units of equal power at varying distances from your subject will provide graduated illumination that gives the proper three-dimensional look. The exposure reading is based on the light from the closest flash unit.

The bounce-flash method of overcoming the harshness of flash requires a flash head that swivels so you can direct the light to bounce off of ceilings, walls or reflective materials. The flash head must be angled so the reflected light bounces back onto the subject, lightening shadow areas. (See our section on Bounce flash for more information on this light-softening technique.)


DIRECT FLASH DOES NOT ALWAYS NEED TO BE SOFTENED

Although people pictures usually benefit from diffusing electronic flash, fine portraits can also be made using direct flash. The technique, which results in strong, dramatic lighting, almost always requires the flash head to be fired at a distance away from the camera - more specifically, away from the lens. The trick is to watch where the shadow areas fall. Shadows will be quite dark, and their placement will make or break the picture.

Images that are strongly sidelit are generally not complimentary to women, unless their skin is flawless, since side-lighting from direct flash tends to reveal the smallest wrinkles or creases. Pictures of men, however, often benefit from this strong lighting treatment. Facial features are emphasized, which can help in adding character to the image.

Direct flash can produce dramatic portraits when properly angled to control the placement of shadow areas
Direct flash can produce dramatic portraits when properly angled to control the placement of shadow areas


Further information...

Flash diffusion

Bounce flash

Light tent