Taking better flash pictures

Week of May 21, 2006

Q: I think at times that I need to take a digital camera course. I have been digital for 6 years and recently purchased the Olympus E-500 SLR.

I have trouble with all my digital cameras (I also have an Olympus C-770 and SP-350) and most pics with any white table cloth, white sweater etc. in the picture making the rest of the picture and subjects darker. In Print Shop Pro’s one step photo fix, I can usually balance the picture. I use the dedicated FL-36 flash and experience this problem it seems mostly with flash pics. Olympus tech advised that I raise the brightness level. I can raise level to as high as a +3 and can still have the problem with dark subjects if white is in the pics. Another Olympus tech suggested spot metering freezing the levels on the darkest subjects and then reframing the shot to include all subjects.

Have you experienced this situation with digital?   I take a lot of banquet type shots at tables with white table cloths and stage shots with a white gown making other gowns darker. I just don’t get a balanced shot.

-Ed Sidwell, Bellefonte, PA

A: Your problem is not specific to Olympus cameras- it is a symptom of digital photography in general. Digital cameras have limited dynamic range compared to film. This means the amount of detail in light and dark subjects together that can be captured is limited. For example, if you take a picture of a couple at a wedding if you expose the image to get detail in the wedding dress, you may not get a clearly defined lapel on the groom’s tux.   Add the extra contrast of direct flash and you are going to have a hard time getting proper exposures.

Exposure also plays into this problem. You have been working with the exposure settings because your cameras are exposing for the whites in the image. What we are going to do to try and balance out your flash images is soften the light a bit and use manual exposure. The tips below will help anyone using a digital SLR with an external flash get much better flash pictures.

To soften the light from your flash, get a Sto-Fen Omni Bounce. It’s a plastic box that attaches to your flash and gives a natural, diffused light that looks much, much better than direct flash. I think everyone with an external flash should have one- the difference is that dramatic, and they are only $19.95 to boot. You can see and order them at www.stofen.com.

Next, adjusting the exposures. What we need to do is give control to the flash and not the camera. Your camera has an auto mode with an external sensor. These external sensors are often more accurate than using the camera’s flash sensors. To use the flash sensor, select “Auto” (not TTL).

Put your camera on manual mode so you can set both shutter speed and aperture. Set your shutter speed to 1/30 or 1/50. The slower speed will “burn in” the background and give you a more natural look and give you more detail in the blacks as well. Don’t worry about camera shake- the flash will give you the effect of a faster shutter speed.

Set your flash at 5.6 and the lens to match. Take a picture and if it is still too dark, use the flash’s exposure compensation to bring up the light. Experience tells me that you will be pretty close on the first try.

So remember- soften the light with the Omni-Bounce, set the shutter speed to 1/30 or 1/50, and use auto mode if you are not getting accurate exposures with the camera sensor. Three easy steps to better flash pictures!

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