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Nikon Flash Use

On-camera Flash Recipes
by Gisle Hannemyr

1. Introduction

Some people approach flash photography by setting their camera to fully automatic green Auto mode and their flash to TTL. Then, pointing the flash head straight forward, they blast away, hoping for the best.

This approach (sometimes called “direct flash”) usually lead to less than pleasing results. It tends to produce flatly lit faces, unflattering highlights on noses and foreheads, menacing red pupils caused by flash light reflected back from fundus at the back of the subject's eyeball, burned out foreground detail, and looming shadows behind the subject.

However, by knowing just a little bit about flash photography, you can make flash work for you, making your flash photographs natural looking with better colours and sharpness than photographs taken under similar conditions without flash.

In this note I'm going to introduce you to two basic recipes for using a single dedicated Speedlight in the hot-shoe of a Nikon DSLR. They are usually referred to as “bounce flash” and “fill flash”.

Mastering them requires little effort, and the theory behind the settings I've picked has been left out deliberately to keep things simple.

Learning how and when to use just these two techniques will probably improve your flash photography in many situations. I hasten to add that these two techniques will not be usable in every possible situation were you need flash. But at least for me, between them they cover around 95 % of the situations were I use a single on-camera Speedlight.

2. Bounce Flash

“Bounce flash” is my preferred way of using a single on-camera Speedlight indoors in a room with normal height ceiling that is painted white or off-white. It is a simple technique to master, and usually works very well. Here is what you do:

  1. Mount the flash in the hot-shoe and select TTL (or Auto) mode.
  2. Tilt the flash head 45° upwards, so that the flash strikes your subject indirectly, via the ceiling. Make sure you tilt the flash sufficiently to prevent the subject or the background immediately behind the subject from receiving any portion of direct light from the flash.
  3. Zoom the flash zoom head to its widest setting. Some people also add a diffuser or other modifiers to spread the light even further, but I haven't seen any noticeable improvement in the quality of light when I do this.
  4. Set ISO 400.
  5. Select manual exposure control (M) on the camera.
  6. Select a suitable shutter speed for flash (e.g. 1/160) and set the aperture to f/8 if you are taking a photograph of a single person or small group. Open up to f/5.6 if you are capturing a larger area.
  7. When you half-press the shutter release to focus, the light-meter in the viewfinder may indicate underexposure. Don't worry – the flash will probably provide the light necessary for correct exposure.
  8. Shoot.
  9. Pay attention to the monitor light on the flash. If it signals that the flash has maxed out (a Nikon Speedlight do this by blinking for about 3 seconds), you may need to use a larger aperture or to increase the ISO. Re-shoot, review and if necessary open up the aperture or increase the ISO more. Repeat until you are happy with the result.

If the ceiling is too high, you may consider bouncing the flash off a white wall behind you or beside the subject. In many cases, using a wall will make more of the light reach the subject since the light does not have to travel as far.

When using bounce flash, some report that they get more accurate exposure with the flash in Auto mode than when using TTL. I've found both to work well.

Wrong Right
Don't stand too close to your subject while bouncing.
Standing too close may prevent light from reaching the lower half of the frame. Also, the light may be reflected downward at an angle so acute that dark shadows will appear under the subject's eyes, nose and chin.

When bouncing, the reflected light falling on the subject will be coloured by the colour of the surfaces from which it reflects. If these are not white or neutral grey, this may introduce a colour cast. As the colour temperature of the scene will be determined by the various surfaces in the room, great care must be taken with white balance. Turning the camera a few degrees may bring another surface into play which could influence the colour of the scene. Shoot RAW (NEF) so you can fine-tune the white balance in post-processing, and it is also recommended that you make use of a WhiBal or similar white balance card for setting accurate white balance.

Note: It is not always possible to use bounce flash. If there are surfaces that gives images an undesirable colour cast; or if the ceiling is too high or the room too large, you may not have access a large enough aperture or a high enough ISO to resolve step 8 in the procedure above. In such cases case, you may need to use direct flash.

3. Fill Flash

Many people think of flash as a light source that may be used in an emergency, when the scene is too dark to otherwise take a picture. However, modern flashes are actually designed to be primarily used as a auxiliary or supplementary light source. That is, you may use flash to soften the shadows in a portrait taken outside at noon, with a bright sun overhead, or to lighten the foreground in a landscape at sunset.

This is known as “fill flash” and it is a very simple technique that works best in daylight out of doors. Here is a step-by-step recipe:

  1. Mount the flash in the hot-shoe and select TTL BL (or just TTL) mode .
  2. Point the flash straight ahead. Do not use a diffuser or other modifiers.
  3. If possible, use a D- or G-type lens.

  4. Make sure the camera's metering mode is set to matrix.
  5. Enable Auto FP so that you can use the full range of shutter speeds.
  6. Set ISO 200.
  7. Select Programmed auto (P) exposure mode on the camera.
  8. Shoot.
  9. Review the shot. If you think the flash is too obvious and gives the photo an artificial look, dial in -1/3 EV flash output level compensation (FOLC). Re-shoot, review and if necessary add more negative FOLC. Repeat until you are happy with the result.

I usually end up using -2/3 EV for fill-flash. But you should experiment with different values until you find the “look” that suits you and your subject best.

Note 1: If you are using a Nikon Speedlight, make sure you use the TTL BL mode for fill flash. If you are using a third party dedicated flash that doesn't have a TTL BL mode, use TTL instead.

Note 2: It is not always possible to use fill flash. If the main subject already is brighter than the surroundings, you shall not be able to use fill flash.

4. Direct Flash

“Direct flash” flash is when the flash is positioned in the camera's hot-shoe or on a flash bracket directly above the camera, with the flash head pointing straight ahead along the same axis as the lens, when the flash is used as the main or sole light for the scene.

Direct flash does not flatter a subject, and should be avoided. It is, however, the type of on-camera flash that makes the most of the light from the Speedlight. In some situations, direct flash may be the only way to get enough light on a dark subject to get a correct exposure.

Some people claim you can improve the quality of light by putting a light modifier in the shape of a diffuser dome or Gary Fong light-sphere on the Speedlight when using it for direct flash. This is nonsense. The quality of flash light is determined by surface. Bouncing improves the quality of light because the subject is lit by light reflected by the walls and the ceiling, which have a huge surface. Fitting a diffuser dome or a Gary Fong light-sphere on a Speedlight increases the surface area just a tiny amount, and in my experience it makes very little difference. These devices work by spreading the light wider. This makes sense only when there are white surfaces around that the light can bounce off. Bouncing without fitting such a contraption to the flash also seems to work equally well.

The bottom line is that direct flash is almost never nice. But sometimes you need all the power a single flash can deliver. Then, direct flash is your only option.

5. Usage Notes

Some people has fast enough reflexes to blink when they are exposed to the pre-flash used to compute exposure in TTL mode (and other modes that uses pre-flash). Some possible remedies are listed below:

Method 1: You can avoid blinking by using FV (flash value) lock. Use the FV-button on the camera to fire the pre-flash so long ahead of the flash that any blinking has ceased when you take the actual image.

You activate the FV lock by pushing a button on the camera. Only Nikon's higher end DSLRs (D200 and better) comes with a dedicated FV lock button. Some lesser models let you use custom functions to reassign buttons. For instance, on the D80, you can reassign FV lock to the generic Func-button.

Method 2: The 0.4 second shutter delay that you can set on some Nikon DSLRs to allow mirror-slap induced vibrations to dampen before the shutter opens also work well on most “blinkers”. On bodies without a FV lock function, I often use this delay instead of method 1.

Method 3: Some flash modes does not use a pre-flash. This is the case with Manual (M) mode on all flashes, the Aperture value (Av) mode on the Di866, and the Auto mode on the SB-800. On the SB-900, you can turn off the pre-flash in both the Auto (A) and Auto Aperture (AA) modes. Using a mode without pre-flash gets around the blinking caused by pre-flash.

Non-CPU Lenses and Flash

If you use a lens without CPU, like an old Nikkor AI-S lens, you can not use any of the TTL-modes. but the modes where there are no pre-flash, or where you can toggle pre-flash off (e.g. Auto and Manual) will work fine.

6. Read More

The article you are reading is part of a series about dedicated flash for Nikon cameras. Here is an overview of the series:

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