Flash and burn

I’ve been working hard this past couple of weeks to master flash photography for fun and profit. I’ve invested in light stands, a shoot-through umbrella, and what is unflatteringly referred to in the business as a slave unit (a flash on a stand that is remotely triggered by the camera). Putting all these pieces into play effectively to do what I want them to do has proved to be a challenge with a nearly vertical learning curve.

I admit that I don’t have much of a mind for mathematics and physics, which would come in really handy to figure out how to use one’s available strobes to effectively fill a given space with even, diffused light that both illuminates and flatters the subject without creating any harsh shadows. I also admit that I’ve become quite soft from using a digital camera that calculates all that stuff for me and is supposed to return beautifully lit shots every time without my having to do anything more to it than aim it at my subject and press the shutter-release button.


My Nikon D3100 is considered an entry-level DSLR, but I tell you what, it is essentially an entire photo processing lab all by itself, and there are hundreds of setting combinations one might use to achieve nearly any effect desired before the shot is even taken. It’s quite remarkable and incredibly sophisticated compared to, say, the first SLR I ever used. I have spent hundreds of hours studying and experimenting with this camera, and still don’t know all that it can do. And oftentimes I struggle to make it take the photo I want it to take because even the finest, most sophisticated equipment can only do as much as the person operating it knows to tell it to do.

One small example is adjusting white balance in the camera to suit the available light in the scene. Different light sources have different color temperatures—fluorescent light is on the cooler end of the spectrum and more on the blue side, whereas incandescent light is warmer and more yellow/orange. These hues will tend to be most noticeable in the lighter or white areas of your photographs. And it’s not always obvious which white balance setting you should use, nor which will give the best result, and you can’t rely on the camera to choose the right setting.

Case in point: I wanted to photograph my freshly groomed dogs sitting on a white blanket on the couch in my living room. The room was lit by a 150-watt incandescent light, and in the auto mode, the camera also determined that flash was needed. Here is the first shot of my very, very reluctant models.


The camera managed to capture both light sources to rather poor effect, as you can see the cooler/bluish flash light just behind and to the right of the dogs clashing with the warmer/yellowish incandescent lamp light coming from the left.

So, since I’m shooting under incandescent light, I should select the incandescent (or “indoor”) white balance setting, right?


Oops, no. Talk about overcompensating! The dogs no longer care about me or my stupid white balance issues, thanks ever so, and collapsed in resignation the moment I pulled the camera away from my eye.

Well then, perhaps the flash setting for white balance is what I need. I goosed my nearly boneless dogs up one last time and tried to get them to smile, to no avail. Rudy is wearing his “all freaked out” face (you can tell by the way his ears are levered out in the R for Rudy semaphore signal).


Ta-dah! Flash it is! At least I have now determined what setting to use in my living room at night, as this is exactly how the scene appeared to my eye through the viewfinder.

I tried to take one more shot just for good measure, but the dogs had lost all interest in the photo shoot and, apparently, in life as well by this time. There was no moving them to pose for me any further.


Now, I know what you’re thinking: the second and fourth photos above are actually the same image, but one was just tweaked in Photoshop to illustrate my point. No, they are actually two separate, unmanipulated images straight out of the camera.

This sort of flash performance (and initial disappointment, and tinkering, and losing the shot I really wanted because I had to adjust the camera three times) is why I am kind of starting to dislike it. Great flash-lit pictures are possible, of course, but my heavens, I don’t know if I have the patience to learn how to take them because it seems to me that as soon as I master the tricks for one type of situation, the next one in which I need to use flash requires some other solution entirely. It’s time-consuming and frustrating.

Rudy knows what I mean.


“oh god, please, no more pictures, even if I am perfectly coiffed”



6 thoughts on “Flash and burn

  1. I feel your pain! No, really I do. And that is why our photo safaris are always outside. Which has it’s own set of challenges. And you really have a D3100? I’m jealous. I’m still operating on my D90. And the flash that came with the camera. The only things I splurged on are a good telephoto lens – up to 300 – and a good tripod.

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