Monday, March 23, 2009

Tip Tuesday #6 - Harsh Shadows

A few people have asked me about shooting in low light, and are experiencing different problems, so this will be a three-parter, starting today with Amanda's request.

Amanda's photography is focused primarily on her gorgeous baby daughter, and photographing children changes the rules of low light a little bit. The reason for that is that you can't usually use the slow shutter speeds that you would if you had a stationary object or cooperative adult to shoot, because kids move, and you usually want to freeze the action with a shutter speed of about 1/100 of a second or faster.

If you haven't already done so, please read Tip #5 to understand how this decision about shutter speed will affect our range of other options.

I asked Amanda if she could share some photos with me that demonstrated the problems she was having, and she graciously obliged.

Low Light #1 - Harsh Shadows when Using Flash

Harsh shadows are caused by having the flash aimed directly at your subject, who casts a shadow on the background. For this tip, I'm going to assume that you've already decided to use flash, but be sure to also read the rest of the Indoor Shooting series here on Tip Tuesday to explore your other options.

The best way to get rid of harsh shadows without forfeiting the use of flash is to point the flash at the ceiling or wall, which bounces the light back onto the subject, but also spreads it out and softens it so that the shadows are softened, too. You can play around to find out the best points to aim your flash at in your house. Places that usually work for me are high on a wall or a part of the ceiling that is as far away as possible from the subject. Pay attention to where shadows are falling on the subject's face, and find a spot that makes for flattering shadows. Chances are good that your kids have a few favourite spots to sit and play, so with practice you'll become a pro at hitting the sweet-spot for bouncing.

Notice the difference in shadows between these two photos. The first used direct pop-up flash in auto mode. The second used a bounced flash. There are still shadows in the second one, but they are softer and fall more pleasingly downward. Moving the subject away from the wall a bit would have improved the shadows further. Special thanks to Bria for arranging this little studio set-up and coming up with her own poses.

Try to use a neutral coloured wall - white, whitish, gray work well. This helps to get an accurate white balance, and lighter colours reflect the light better, so you don't lose as much of it. However, I've bounced off of deep dark blue and other coloured walls with good success in lighting - just be prepared to adjust your white balance later. Glass windows and doors are pretty good bounce candidates too, but you do lose a lot of light power.

A flash hotshoeBUT I CAN'T MOVE MY FLASH
Bouncing the flash is only possible if you have something other than a pop-up or fixed flash. A lot of higher end point and shoots will allow you to mount an external flash. I know for sure that Canon, Nikon, Fuji, and Pentax all make point and shoot cameras that have what's called a hotshoe to mount a flash. (And for Amanda: if I'm correct, your Canon S5 IS does) These are more expensive than some other point and shoots, but if you want to continue to learn more about photography, they're a great option because they also allow you to control a lot of other things.

Purchase an external flash that allows you to move the flash head up and down and side to side to bounce it, and it will do wonders for your indoor photography. Look for a flash that supports TTL technology with your camera brand--this means that it will figure out how much light to put out all on it's own. Your flash should also let you make minor adjustments easily to get the light just right. I have used Canon flashes and Sigma for Canon flashes, and can recommend either for their ease of use. For other brands, sorry, but I've got nothing. Remember, the things to look for to help with your indoor photography are a good range of motion with the flash head for bouncing, and TTL capability so you can just click away without having to dial in settings too much.

A couple of options exist for you. One involves flash triggers and light stands and a partridge in a pear tree, and is not really a good option. Really not. For one thing, you'll lose the ease of grabbing your camera and taking a quick shot of your child, pet, or favourite plant doing something cute. For another, you now need to know a lot about balancing and positioning the lights.

Image linked from garyfonginc.comThe second option is to diffuse your light somehow. You might try the Gary Fong light diffuser for pop-up flashes, The Puffer, or something similar, if your camera is constructed in such a way that it will fit it. I've not heard great reviews about this item, but I'm sure that it will reduce the shadows significantly. It likely also reduces your light output, which your camera will likely not account for, and may occasionally result in underexposed photos. But I'm just guessing there as I've never used one.

Your third option is to get really clever about positioning, and finding ways to hide the shadow. Try to place your subject near a window so that natural light balances the flash and reduces the shadow.
.Dark or busily-patterned walls won't show it as much. A shadow that moves downward is less icky-looking, so shooting from above can help. Having your subject far away from the background will reduce the shadow, but may create black hole syndrome (to be discussed in one of the posts of this low-light series as well). Getting as far away from your subject as possible will also soften the shadow, but is probably not always possible unless your entire house is very open-concept.

Your final option is to not use a flash, and we'll cover that in the next Tip Tuesday, which will probably come before next Tuesday, but I like the name.

I'm sure that you can tell by how troublesome all of these options sound that point and shoots with on-board flash as the only option are simply not an ideal tool if you're serious about getting rid of these shadows. It may be time to invest in a higher end camera if you want to keep improving your photography. Or stay tuned for the "not using flash in low light" installment of Tip Tuesday and give your camera a whirl at that.

*As a disclaimer, I should say that I really don't know a lot about the capabilities of various point and shoots, having only ever owned two different ones. However, I will assume that if you have any interest in these posts at all, you have probably invested in a high end point and shoot or a consumer SLR, and that is who my advice will be directed to for the most part.

Coming Up in the Shooting Indoors Series:
Part 2 - Natural Light Indoors
Part 3 - Black Holes and Blurry Things
Part 4 - More Tips for Indoor Shooting

As always, let me know if you have any questions regarding this post, and remember that the best way to learn is to play! If you have a Tip Tuesday topic you'd like me to cover, shoot me an email at


Kristin said...

Nice tips!

And gorgeous model you have :)

Tami said...

Wow - you really do know your stuff! I am very proud of you.

Lisab said...

GREAT advice! I can't wait for the other sections of this post!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! I am off to buy a flash!.. well not right this second, but I can see the HUGE difference in having that control..

Thanks alot! I am looking forward to more on the subject :)

Carmen said...

Great stuff. I just got my flash in the mail. Have not yet tried it, don't even know if I know how to install it. This post came at the right time. Please don't stop doing this posts. I have learn something from every post. Thank you again.

Dodie said...

Great tips and so well explained!! I will need to get a flash for my camera now ...... and a zoom lens (so much fun to play with!)

Sheri said...

Great tip Amanda! I have been looking into buying a diffuser for my flash, as I can't afford an external flash just now. I own a Canon Digital Rebex XTi. I wasn't sure what would be best, now I know at least one to check out! Thanks! I rarely if ever use my flash indoors for this very reason, but there are days it is really needed :) Off to check out the rest of your was recommended by Amanda P.