Most people equate wedding photojournalism with ambient light, but the reality is that you can’t always get what you want. The light you need is often absent, is the wrong kind, or is in the wrong place. That’s why judicious use of on-camera flash plays a central role in assuring great shots and happy clients.
“It’s all about complementing the light that is there,” says WPJA award-winner Christopher Prinos, who with his wife MaryJo shoots with a 1DS Mark II, a Canon 5D and a pair of 10Ds, along with 550EX and 580EX Speedlites. “When you have a flash mounted at all times, you can pretty much address any kind of lighting situation.”
“Very often at a wedding it's a choice between using the flash and getting the picture or not getting the picture at all,” declares Singapore-based WPJA award-winning member Chi Kuang Hwang, whose equipment of choice includes a Canon 5D with a 580EX. “In today's world of wedding photography, shooting with ambient light is the current fad, but learning when to turn on the flash and buck the fad is just as important.”
That’s not to say there aren’t critical choices to be made when using on-camera flash. Aside from stylistic and philosophical issues, you must deal with such potential downsides as distracting the wedding party and guests, creating unsightly side shadows, fall off and more. Still, it’s an essential tool for any successful wedding photographer, since its characteristics — and even its eccentricities — can be put to advantage in fully capturing the story of the wedding day.
The golden rule of using on-camera flash indoors is “bounce it,” which may be the most important factor in fostering an ambient feel and creating atmosphere while reducing the evidence of flash. Bounce softens light by effectively making the source larger, eliminating hard shadows and allowing selective enhancement existing illumination.
Bounce also unleashes unlimited creative possibilities. Ceilings and walls work, of course, but so can tablecloths and wedding dresses. Anything with reflective capability is a candidate for bounce. “When using flash indoors, bounce at all times,” Prinos advises. “Bounce off ceilings, walls, people’s white shirts — whatever is available in order to increase the effective flash-to-subject distance, to reduce fall-off effects and soften the light source by spreading it out in every direction.”
"If you're bouncing but have nothing to bounce off, a little creativity can work wonders,” adds Hwang. “For example, a wedding invitation or a menu held above the flash can make for some nice light.” He notes that he sometimes will bounce a flash sideways to create side lighting in rooms with very flat illumination.
Wedding photographer Linda Wallace, who uses Nikon SB800 and SB28 flash systems with Nikon D200, S2s, D70s cameras, explains that side bouncing can be very effective for simple portraits. “Say the subject is about three feet away from the wall, which is on her left,” she says. “In that case I bounce the flash against that wall for a directional effect, as if light was coming in a window.”
Bounce from an on-camera unit also can be combined with other photo flash sources. “For my last two weddings I carried flash on a stick, and used that along with on-camera bounce,” says Wallace. “I use this type of off-camera light maybe 10% of the time. In instances where the ceilings are black, I’ll use it all the time.”
Success with on-camera flash often means going for a natural look, enhancing what ambient light is there, or at the very least creating a natural-looking result. Fortunately, the high ISO performance available in today’s digital SLRs has made it easier to use existing light while minimizing the evidence of flash. “You can use high ISO and drag the shutter a bit in combination to prevent that flash fallout from becoming very evident,” Prinos notes. “With the 1DS and 5D we go through the entire range up to 3200 ISO, and because of the high resolution you can really control noise, giving you a lot more flexibility by using more ambient light in the exposure.”
“Actually, Flash intensity is not as important anymore, because in today's cameras with super-high ISOs and fast lenses, almost any amount of flash provides some sort of lighting,” Hwang maintains. “In fact, with all these capabilities, I generally find my on-camera flash to be too strong at full power.”
Shooting in Raw also helps. “It gives you latitude without having to worry about color temperature, especially when you are switching between flash on and flash off between shots and there's no time to fuss with WB settings,” Prinos states. “When you drag the shutter a lot in combination with flash, sometimes you’ll get different color temps between the subject and the background, and Raw makes it easier to deal with that and color cast in post-production.”
But what about the noise that tends to result from high ISO? That’s also easier to deal with when you’re shooting in Raw, but different converters handle noise better than others. “Most of our conversion is with Canon's DPP because I like the color but it's not always best for high ISO images,” says Prinos. In those cases I will go to Photoshop CS's Camera Raw. And, if I'm really trying to clean up a noisy image, I will use a Noise Ninja on a converted TIFF or directly through Bibble.”
“Because I bounce I don't have a lot of problems with flash shadows,” says Wallace, “and the only shadows that I do find objectionable are those side shadows that appear when you turn the camera for a vertical shot and the flash is bouncing just to the right or left of the lens axis.” She recommends that you actually swivel your flash head so that it bounces to the upper far right or left of the subject, and then you get a shadow that is far enough away from the subject that it looks intentional. “I usually see and compose my shots horizontally, so it's not something I'm working through often,” she says.
Diffusers are also widely used to minimize shadows, but not everyone buys into their effectiveness. “I try not to use third party diffusers because they complicate things by adding additional variables to the equation.” Says Hwang. “In fact, adding a diffuser, in my experience seems to make the results less predictable mainly because the camera and flash is not aware that such a device is diffusing the light. However, I do occasionally use the wide-angle diffuser on the flash itself or the white card built into the flash head.”
And there is no substitute for fast lenses, which bring in more ambient light, allowing the photographer more of a balance between that and the flash. Wallace remembers the time she was covering a reception in a dark, dimly lit barn, and she wanted to show the cake being served as well as the dancing guests in the background. She bounced her flash at an angle to give the foreground some directional lighting, and exposed the image at 800 ISO, 1/15th of a second, and f2.8. “If I had exposed the background at the same shutter speed and ISO, but at f4, it would be much more dark and shadowy,” she notes. “Plus, the large aperture gave me focus where I wanted it, on the cake, while the background was blurred.”
Flash is obtrusive. Blinding, high-intensity strobes are certainly not conducive to capturing intimacy and candid moments, or documenting the unadulterated story of the wedding day. Yet the reality remains that some flash is necessary, and whenever you use it, you’re going to create a degree of distraction. So where do you draw the line, and how do you minimize distraction wherever possible?
“We never use it during the ceremonies and rarely during the getting ready period because we don’t want to distract, “ says Prinos. “But the worst time to use flash is when we’re in close quarters with people,” he notes. “We like to reduce the number of flashes going off in those situations.”
Wallace says that she usually avoids flash even during getting ready shots, unless the room is very dark or lacks any ambient light aside from overhead fluorescents, whereas she uses it almost the whole time during receptions. “However, even then I prefer to dial down my bounced flash and mix it with a lot of ambient light,” she notes. “That’s generally less distracting to guests than heavy doses of direct flash.”
The enhanced control afforded by on-camera flash is often extended from merely correcting poor light situations to actually enhancing the atmosphere of the image, all while remaining faithful to documenting reality. For example, most pros make regular use of shutter drag, lengthening the time of exposure just enough so that available light registers on the image while using the flash to fill out the scene. This technique works well for perfectly exposing the main subject while better illuminating background details, especially in dim light situations. And, you can let your creativity go from there.
“We often will drag the shutter or zoom with the flash so that the main subject is sharp but the background is maybe a little streaked,” says Prinos. “With a shutter speed of …say, a fifth of a second or slower, I’ll start zooming, and I’ll get a nice effect there. You need to be careful not to overdue it, but it can be fun to experiment.”
Hwang likes to use second shutter sync and a slow shutter speed to create a sense of motion. I’ll set the shutter speed and the aperture to about 1.5 to 2 stops under the ambient light, and set the flash to expose for ambient light,” he explains. “ I’ll then pan the camera and zoom my lens to create a blurry background while the subject is frozen by the flash. “
Prinos observes that unflattering backlighting seems to be frequent when taking pictures of best man/maid of honor toasts, as venues love to set up the head tables directly in front of a wall of windows. “In this kind of a situation, it’s not always possible to take a side angle, so you really need the fill,” he says. “We recently had a couple that was toasted from a sweetheart table at the edge of a tent in shadow, but directly behind them was a very bright background flooded with mid-day sun. Without fill, you'd never see their faces.”
“Of course, many lighting deficiencies can be fixed in post-production, but it’s generally not worthwhile since tweaking images in Photoshop can take a great deal of time, and time is money,” says Hwang. “The furthest I normally go in post-production is when the lighting is flat and I want to introduce some depth to the image. I might then aggressively dodge and burn, but this is fairly rare.”
Outdoors, direct flash rules — no diffusers or modifiers, no bounce. Here it’s used as either a slight fill to get rid of harsh shadows, or with greater power to bring the subject in balance with the ambient light — usually for backlit formals. It can be especially useful for keeping eye sockets from getting too dark or to lower the contrast ratio of shadows and highlights in direct sun.
“For slight fills, I use my Nikon strobes at about -1 to -2 power, since the Nikon TTL system is quite accurate,” says Wallace. “ Balancing with sunlight is a lot tougher, as you must meter for the ambient light, and then dial up the strobe (usually to maximum power) to properly expose the subject. I find myself “chimping” (glancing at the LCD display) and adjusting until it's right.“
Adds Prinos, “Sometimes we will take the flash off the hot-shoe outdoors and use it to mimic highlights from direct sun on otherwise overcast days that would lead to very flat lighting.”
And Prinos suggests another nice look: “When the subject is close, and the sky is clear or partly cloudy, we take advantage of high-speed sync and use a fast shutter along with dialing in some negative exposure compensation to darken the background, saturate the blue in the sky and add a little drama to any clouds,” he explains. “By leaving the flash exposure compensation neutral, the subject will be properly exposed and 'pop' a bit more from the darker ambient background. On bright days, this requires a lot of flash power to counter daylight, so staying close to the subject, using larger apertures, and having a battery pack helps with the recycle times of the speedlights.”
“In the past, I used to simply think of my on-camera flash as a source of light to fill in shadows or provide lighting when there is none,” says Hwang. “However, as I matured as a photographer, I started to realize that the flash light, depending on which direction it is falling upon the subject, can create whatever mood I wanted to convey in the images I was shooting.”
“I think the main thing is that on-camera flash gives you freedom,” states Prinos. “Freedom from fixed room lights and their corresponding stands and cords, radio triggers, and pre-set locations to shoot within, or freedom from having an assistant follow you around with a light stick. In very dynamic situations, you need that freedom and flexibility. With a little creativity you can direct and bounce the light, and work with ambient sources to add back some dimension that on-camera can lack and is sometimes criticized for. And, since our flashes can all act as wireless master/slaves, there's always the option of pulling a flash off one camera to use as a quick off-camera light, so you can give yourself a lot of options.”
— by Michael Roney for The Wedding Photojournalist Association