When You Should and Should NOT use a Flash

Camera Flash

I used to think of myself as someone who didn’t use the flash on the camera; I was completely unaware of the difference an off camera flash can make.
When I go out, I almost always carry one with me, even in the day time, as there are tons of uses for it.
We’re going to start by looking at possible uses of the flash, then at when you wouldn’t want to use it.

When you Should use Flash Indoors

A portrait of a female model posing indoors, shot using a flash

This is the most obvious time to use a flash. I recommend using an external flash unit bounced off the ceiling or a wall for a more natural look.
Firing the flash at the same angle as the lens results in a very dull and flattened image. It’s much better to take the flash off the camera and shoot from the side.
The first tutorial I ever wrote, back when my blog was on my personal site, explains exactly how to take better photos indoors: Here it is.

Daytime Outdoors

A photo of snow covered berries shot outdoors with a flash

Less obvious than indoors but still very important.
We’ve all been there; you’re shooting into the sun, your subject is just a silhouette and you can’t work out how to fix it.
I’ve written a very good article with lots of photo examples. You can view this by clicking on the link above if you want to know more.
The flash acts as a second light source, filling in areas where the image is underexposed due to the camera’s metering mode prioritising a different part of the frame, such as the sun in the photo below:

Cool Night Photo Effects

Atmospheric photo of a church at night - when to use a flash

I love night photography; it allows you work with a blank canvas upon which you can make up your own colours and light using, among other things, your flash.
Long exposures allow you to move around the scene without leaving a trail and an external flash fired manually will freeze certain sections of light around the frame. Have a look at the photo below to see what I mean.
If you want to know more about this, check out my tutorial on light painting.

Freeze Motion

Creative water drop photography with colord bokeh lights in the background - when to use a flash

The cool thing about flash is that it allows you to freeze the motion in a photo with a short burst of light.
This works especially well if you’re shooting in low light, as shown in the photo below. I couldn’t set the shutter speed too high or it would have been too dark so, instead, I used a flash and it caught the droplet of water at it’s peak with ease.

Light Trails

A blurry portrait of a photographer shooting with a DSLR outdoors

Flash has the ability to freeze the motion in a photo, allowing you to play around with the light trails.
This is especially handy if you’re working in a low light situation with just a nasty on-camera flash, as it allows you to produce something cool and creative from very little.
Have a look at my example below taken at f/11, for 0.8 seconds, at ISO 250.

When you Should NOT use Flash

Big Events

A large crowd at an outdoor event at night - flash photography tips

I see this way too often and I’m sure you have too: people 100 feet away from a stage trying to use their on-camera flash to take a photo in low light.
This is utterly pointless and the flash will probably only reach about 10-15 feet before maxing out. You’re much better off putting your camera into manual or a priority mode and doing it properly.
Have a look at my low light photography tutorial to learn more.

Candid Photography

A candid photo of friends chilling at a garden party - when not to use a flash

Nothing says ‘look at me’ like a big flash attached to an even bigger camera going off in the corner of your eye.
If you want to go unnoticed, widen your aperture and raise your ISO. This allows you to take well exposed photos in low light conditions, such as indoors.
I recommend an ISO of about 400 and you can widen the aperture as much as you want; it’ll give your photos a nice shallow depth of field so the focus will be on the subject rather than the surroundings.
If you want to learn more about candid photography, check out  ‘10 Ways to Take Better Candid Photos’.

Night Time

A serene landscape scene at night - when not to use a flash

Unless you’re planning on creating cool effects like the ones mentioned above, I recommend turning your flash off.
You’ll have to take your camera out of full auto mode for this to prevent the flash firing automatically. The differences is clear: instead of getting a bright overexposed foreground, you end up will a well exposed photo like the one below.

Concert Photography

A concert photography shot of a female singer onstage - when not to use a flash

I’d say that about 95% of gigs don’t allow you to use a flash as it annoys the band, distracts the fans and ruins the lighting designers’ hard work.
Instead, widen your aperture and lower your shutter speed so that the camera picks up more light.
Flash casts ugly shadows when shooting at gigs as you’re on the ground and the artist is on the stage, producing an unnatural, unflattering angle for the light.
If you want to learn more about gig photography, click here.

Daytime Outdoors

An outdoor portrait of a young man - flash photography tips

I know I mentioned using a flash in the daytime above but there are only certain situations where you would want to use it.
The majority of the time, shooting outdoors doesn’t require firing a flash, even in the shade, as the sun does most of the hard work for you.
If you have a subject that you can move, try to get them to change their positioning so that the sun hits them from the side rather than from behind. If you’re having trouble getting the lighting right, try using a polarising filter.

Article on Expert Photography