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It’s common for many hobbyists and enthusiasts to think of a single flash as the only light source; however, it is actually one of two that are available in most shots, the other being ambient light. Depending on the photograph being composed, its location and other factors either light source could be utilized as either the main light or fill light.
When a single flash serves as the main light, its primary creative use is to control highlights and shadows, integrating and balancing them. The ability to do so is a major difference between the work of amateurs and professionals. You take maximum control of highlights and shadows when you understand what effects are caused, based on different positions of a single flash as a main light. For example, place it where the camera is located or close to the “line” between the camera and the subject and the surface of the subject (such as skin) assumes a soft, even look. Move the single flash to one of many angles to either side of the subject and the light will tend to glide across the subject, which emphasizes texture. The best position is typically above and to one side of the subject because this is similar to how natural light illuminates an individual. From that angle, the subject will have more dimensionality, particularly showing the roundness of the face.
A single flash is often used as a fill light, or secondary to the ambient light, when shooting individuals or groups outside on a sunny day, especially during the brightest time of the day. These types of photos are also typical of many beginners and hobbyists. The ambient light of the sun illuminates the subjects well, but their faces, especially eye sockets, are often in deep shadow. By using a single flash as a fill light and placed at the camera, all those deep shadows disappear, making it easy to recognize the subjects. A balanced is achieved between the ambient light, especially a brilliantly lit background, and the flash’s reflection off the subject’s faces. Any shadows the direct flash creates falls behind and below the subject.
Another important concept to understand to achieve this single flash/ambient light balance is that each light source has a different exposure for the part of the image each primarily affects. The exposure for the ambient light relates to the background and subject, while the exposure setting for the flash only relates to the subject.
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One of the biggest challenges for photographers at many levels is using a single flash light source to give the scene and subjects in a flat image more three-dimensionality. All too often, inexperienced photographers place the flash on or from the camera’s relative position and project the light directly at the subject(s), which causes a very flat look and typically terrible shadows. What the professional knows and is relatively easy for the beginner or hobbyist to learn is how to use a single flash creatively, so it reveals the fullness of a subject, the fact that he, she or it has depth.
With a better understanding of the following concepts and then practicing the accompanying tips, you’ll soon see much improvement in your photography when using a single flash.
It stands to reasons, therefore, that when you want the single flash to act as the main light, its exposure value must be greater than the value of the ambient light’s exposure on the subject. This is typically done by controlling the output of light from the flash, also known as the flash-to-subject distance. Keep the greater exposure value of the single flash, or main light, to 2 f-stops or less relative to the ambient light’s exposure value.
Image credit: sitiman30 / 123RF Stock Photo
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