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by Philip Greenspun, June 1999 (updated January 2007)

One can define photography as "the recording of light rays". That's why taking a good picture depends so much on choosing the lighting carefully.


Sunset.  Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

"He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it."
-- Joseph Romm

You can get plenty of light out of the sun, that's for sure. However, you might have to wait a bit if you want the light to have the quality that you need for your picture.

At high noon on a clear day, the sun is extremely strong. It generates a hard light with deep crisp shadows. It also is coming from directly overhead.

On the deck of an Alaska Marine Highway ferry.

Portraits in Sunlight

Halibut caught by tourists in Homer, Alaska.

The hardness of the light will generate dark shadows. The direction of the light will place those shadows in unattractive positions underneath the subject's eyes and nose. One solution is to move the subject into the shade where he will be lit by skylight rather than sunlight. Skylight comes from a large source and is therefore diffuse. Diffuse light does not cast strong shadows. Skylight is also rather blue and, if you are using color slide film, you might have to place a warming filter (e.g., 81D) over the lens to get natural skin tone.

If your goal is to record a subject in front of a sunlit object then you can't move him into the shade. There is too great a difference in illumination between shaded and sunlit objects. Photographic film and paper cannot handle the same range of contrast as your eyes. A picture that is correctly exposed for the sunlight object will render the shaded portrait subject as solid black. A picture that is correctly exposed for the shaded portrait subject will render the sunlit background object as solid white.

The best solution is to wait for the light to be coming from a different direction and/or for different weather. Near sunrise or sunset, you might be able to get flattering light on both the portrait subject and the background object. On an overcast day, light from the sun will be sufficiently diffused that the shadows become faint.

If they couldn't wait, professionals would most often deal with this situation by dragging out diffusers and reflectors. In the diffuser case, an assistant holds a huge plastic-framed white cloth between the sun and the subject. In the reflector case, an assistant holds a silver, gold, or white reflector underneath the subject to push sunlight back up into the subject's face, filling the shadows.

Finally, there is artificial light. If you stick a powerful flash on the camera, pointed at the subject, then the light from the flash will augment the light from the sun. Because the flash light is filling in the shadows, this is known as fill flash. Electronic flash is the same color as the sun around noontime. If you use electronic flash closer to sunset or sunrise, when sunlight is redder, objects illuminated by the flash will look unnaturally cold. Professionals deal with this by carting around assistants who cart around colored filters to paste over the flash tube.

cousin Douglas holding our 2nd cousin Julia

This picture illustrates the virtue of waiting for sunset. Note the warm tones and even illumination.

Nikon 8008, 80-200/2.8 AF zoom lens, Fuji Reala

Ali and Michelle, Australians visiting Glacier National Park

These two interesting women (from Travels with Samantha, Chapter V) would have been rendered as silhouettes if I hadn't used a touch of fill flash from my Nikon SB-24 (mounted on an 8008 body which was mounted on a tripod. Lens: 80-200/2.8; film Velvia.)

Landscape in Sunlight

It is difficult to see the shape of the landscape when the sun is directly overhead. Our eyes rely on shadows to recognize shapes. Nonetheless it is occasionally possible to get a good landscape photo at midday if the subject is reasonably compelling, especially if you are aiming at the kind of descriptive photos found in travel brochures.

Left: Great Sand Dune National Monument, rather boring in the flat light of 11 am.

Right: The same sand dunes but much more interesting earlier in the morning.

Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park

Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park

Taken around 3 pm, the light in this image is pretty bad and casts harsh shadows. The cloudless and therefore uninteresting blue sky might make a Chamber of Commerce calendar but doesn't make art. Of course, the rainbow makes it all worthwhile and it might not have been there at sunset. Or the light might not have been falling on the waterfall.

Nikon 8008, 28mm AF lens, Fujichrome Velvia

Bachalpsee, in the Bernese Oberland (near Grindelwald),


Because of the saturated colors rendered by the then-new Fuji Velvia slide film, I'm not sorry that I had my Nikon out in the mid-afternoon in the Bernese Oberland (Switzerland).

Nikon 8008, 20/2.8 AF lens, Fujichrome Velvia

Mojave Desert.  Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree Shadow, Joshua Tree National Park

One of the good things to do when the light is overhead and harsh is look for interesting shadows.

Canon EOS-5, 17-35L lens, Fujichrome Velvia

Red Rock Canyon, west of Las Vegas, Nevada

Red Rock Canyon, west of Las Vegas

The interest in this photo comes from the different colors of the landscape.

Rollei 6008 (6x6 format), 180mm lens, Fuji Astia

Overcast Skylight

A high overcast is perfect for a lot of photography. A studio photographer would think of this as "the mother of all softboxes". If you want to capture architectural details, an overcast day lets you do it without shadows obscuring anything. Overcast and/or rainy days are also the times to go into the forest and take pictures of trees. The one bad thing that you can say about an overcast day is that a big white sky makes a very bad photographic subject. Try to make sure that your photos have hardly any sky in them.

Overcast skies are slightly more blue (7000 degrees Kelvin) than the color temperature for which daylight film is designed (5500 K; a mixture of direct sun and skylight). Officially, the Kodak Professional Photoguide will tell you to use an 81C warming filter. I wouldn't bother unless you are photographing clothing for a catalog. [For comparison, open shade from a clear blue sky is 11,000 or 12,000 degrees Kelvin and requires an 85C filter.]

Handbills.  Manhattan 1995.

If you wait long enough in New York City ... someone will probably steal your camera. So maybe it is best to just shoot in whatever light you can find. Here I used the fill flash on my point & shoot camera.

Below the town of Bomarzo, Italy (1.5 hours north of Rome). This was the park of the 16th century Villa Orsini and is filled with grotesque sculptures. Rollei 6008, Fuji Velvia, Zeiss 50mm lens, tripod. Probably f/22 and 1 second. Note that part of the foreground is unsharp. There wasn't quite enough depth of field. Note that the composition completely excludes the uninteresting overcast sky.

Maple trees near Peacham, Vermont

Left: Vermont, where a little white sky pokes through.

Right: California where the weather is often too sunny for good forest photography.

Redwood.  King's Canyon National Park, California.


Ruby Beach after sunset.  Olympic National Park (Washington State).

There is no reason to put the camera away after the sun goes down. In fact, you can usually get your best pictures then. You'll often need exposures of 30 seconds or longer, however. Here are some photos from Chapter XV of Travels with Samantha as examples...

Canyonlands National Park from Dead Horse Point (Moab, Utah)

Canyonlands (Utah). At left, note the unpleasant contrast shortly before sunset. I could have driven 200 miles to get to a better spot relative to the sun. But instead I just waited until the sun had set and got the image at right.

Canyonlands National Park from Dead Horse Point (Moab, Utah)
Near sunset in Arches National Park (Moab, Utah)

Arches National Park (Utah). At left, before dark. At right, after dark.

After sunset in Arches National Park (Moab, Utah)

Strictly after dark...

Canyonlands National Park from Dead Horse Point (Moab, Utah) Independence Pass (elevation 12,095), east of Aspen, Colorado


There isn't much to say here except make sure you have a tripod.

Inn at Otter Crest. Oregon Coast A pastel view from Florence's Boboli Gardens A misty morning a little bit north of Woodstock, Vermont

Street Lights

Niagara Falls, American Side.

Street lights are not blackbody radiators so you can't even talk about their color temperature. They discharge in various narrow spectral bands and the color that this produces on a digital sensor or film isn't very predictable or controllable. Usually you get an eerie green light, which I personally find kind of interesting.

The Kodak Professional Photoguide has a page devoted to filtration suggestions for street lights, but you have to know the brand of bulb in use!

Indoors -- Fluorescent Lights

Seldovia Cafe, Seldovia, Alaska (Kenai Peninsula).

Long-tube fluorescent fixtures are designed to offer diffuse unobtrusive light. As such, they make for reasonably good black and white photography. In a typical office, start out at f/1.4 and 1/60th of a second at ISO 400 (note that this means you will need a high-speed lenses, such as a 50/1.4 for a full-frame camera or a 30/1.4 for a small-sensor camera).

For color photography, fluorescent lights have some of the same properties as street lights, i.e., they discharge in narrow spectral bands. In the old film days you would have to place a "fluorescent -> daylight" (FL-D) filter over the lens in an attempt to compensate. With a digital camera, set the white balance to "fluorescent" and/or capture in RAW format and adjust the white balance on the computer back home.

Indoors -- Incandescent Lights

Playing blackjack in Atlantic City (New Jersey)

Standard light bulbs are much warmer than daylight, only about 2900 K for a 100-watt light bulb. In the film days, you would get a very pronounced yellow cast without a blue filter over the lens (Kodak says 80A + 82B). With a digital camera, set the white balance to the little light bulb icon and/or capture in RAW format and adjust post-exposure.

Electronic Flash

The electronic strobe, invented by Doc Edgerton in 1931 at MIT, was a great scientific instrument, helped win the war against Germany by facilitating night aerial reconnaissance photography, and contributed to the 1970s disco craze. Sadly, however, the electronic flash has done more to ruin the average photograph than any other new technology.

In the good old days, even amateur photographers were reasonably careful about light. You took your subject out on a high overcast day. You placed your subject next to a large window. You stuck your camera on a tripod.

What do we do now? Point and shoot without thinking. The camera will automatically blast the subject with light from the built-in strobe if there isn't enough ambient light. Thus, 90% of our subjects come out with that "deer in the headlights" look.

Remember the sentence above: "Our eyes rely on shadows to recognize shapes." There are no useful shadow cues if all the light comes from the same angle as the lens. You can't establish a mood with on-camera flash. You can't emphasize a feature with on-camera flash. You can't narrow a fat face. You can't really do anything except capture a scene that never existed (unless you are a coal miner and walk around with a headlamp all day).

Does that mean that you should throw out your electronic flash? No. A built-in flash that fires straight ahead is useful for filling harsh shadows in bright sunlight. An accessory flash designed to slide on top of the camera can be a great tool when used properly.

Door at the State Capitol.  Lincoln, Nebraska

Accessory Flash Strategy 1: Get the flash off the camera. Most modern digital SLRs let you control an off-camera flash wirelessly, usually with an accessory that slides into the hot shoe on top of the camera. A more bomb-proof alternative is to use an "off camera" cord that has a bundle of wires to repeat all of the little contacts on the hot shoe. These cord cost roughly $50. Separating the light from the lens by just an arm's length makes a huge difference. If you can't afford to devote one hand to holding the flash and don't have an assistant, use a flash bracket, e.g., those made by Stroboframe. These are what wedding photographers use.

Eve in Aer Lingus Business Class (thank you, Andersen Consulting). Accessory Flash Strategy 2: Bounce the light off the ceiling. We expect light to come from above, either because that's where the sun is or because a lot of buildings and houses have overhead lights. If you are in a room with a reasonably low, reasonably white ceiling, then you need only tilt the flash head up and direct the light towards the ceiling. The problem with this approach is that it sometimes mimics noon sunlight too well. You get harsh shadows under the eyes and pronounced shadows. Metz makes a couple of handheld flashes that have two tubes, one that always fires straight ahead and one that can tilt up. This is probably the best technology, but most people are stuck with a one-tube flash. See Strategy 3 below.

Accessory Flash Strategy 3: Attach a Diffuser. There are a variety of diffusers that will send some of the light up to the ceiling and some straight out toward the subject. My personal favorite is the Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce. This is a translucent plastic cube that snaps on to the front of the flash in about 2 seconds. It costs less than $20 and is made in different sizes to fit many brands of flashes. Usually, I stick it over a big Canon flash and tilt the flash head up 45 degrees. This seems to send about one-quarter of the light forward, one-half up to the ceiling, and one-quarter off in various other directions. LumiQuest makes a bunch of similar products but I have found them a bit too cumbersome. Finally, you can get small softboxes (see the studio flash section) to cover your flash. The disadvantage of any diffuser is that it wastes a lot of light, thus reducing your flash range and increasing recycle time.

Accessory Flash Strategy 4: Get Another Flash. If you are willing to invest in a second flash and a rat's nest of custom cables (Canon and Nikon) or some air (Minolta with its brilliant wireless system), then you can light the background and the subject separately, fill shadows, and otherwise play most of the tricks available to studio photographers. The custom cables will ensure that your camera body shuts off the flashes when there is sufficient exposure, but it would probably be better to use manual flashes and a flashmeter if you are very concerned about lighting ratios. The cabling doesn't solve the problem of supporting the second or third flash. You might need light stands in which case it would have been almost as easy to drag along a couple of studio monolights.

For color photography, the electronic flash has one nice feature: it is designed to have roughly the same color temperature as daylight. So you don't need any filters to work with standard daylight-balanced film.

Electronic Flash Examples

Philip and Alex in bed using PowerBook (photo: Rob Silvers)

Canon EOS-5, 20-35/2.8L, 540EZ flash tilted up 45 degrees, +2/3 stop flash exposure compensation, Stofen Omni-bounce, Kodak E100 slide film

We wanted a boring flat illustrative light and we got it. This photo would have been ruined by standard on-camera flash. Standard bounce flash off the white ceiling would have been better, but probably it would have left unpleasant shadows under eyes and chin. The Omni-bounce worked beautifully here, casting light all around the room. Canon's auto flash exposure worked great too, though because of all the white in the image, it was a good thing that we dialed in +2/3 stop compensation.

(see my Narcissism page for details)

Amy, Philip, Paula, at Aspects of Love in Minneapolis

On-camera flash at its most horrifying: as the primary light. But if you've got a standard point and shoot camera in your pocket and you are in a dark theater, this might be the best you can do. Note how the background has become 100% black, due in part to the ISO 50 film used, Fuji Velvia, which also contributed the ruddy flesh tones. (from Travels with Samantha, Chapter III)

Canon EOS-5, 70-200/2.8, 540EZ flash, Sto-Fen diffuser, Fuji ISO 400 color negative film

Another success for the Sto-Fen diffuser. Note that this was done in a bathroom with white tile and white walls.

Canon EOS-5, 70-200/2.8L lens, 540EZ flash

Studio Flash

Please see our studio photography primer.

Studio Hot Lights

Please see our studio photography primer.

Final thought

"Contrast" by Emily Dickinson:

A door just opened on a street--
  I, lost, was passing by--
An instant's width of warmth disclosed,
  And wealth, and company.

The door as sudden shut, and I,
  I, lost, was passing by,--
Lost doubly, but by contrast most,
  Enlightening misery.


Next: Lens.

Readers' Comments

Add a comment

Glen Johnson , May 01, 1997; 07:55 A.M.

You can have wireless TTL flash with Canon and Nikon too. Ikelite has a product (sold by B&H and others) that will "watch" the main flash (hard wired to the camera), and both fire AND quench TTL compatible remote flashes. The cost is high, but if you want to avoid the rat's nest, and you already have Canon or Nikon, it is cheaper than buying a complete Minolta system.

David Spellman , June 25, 1997; 12:38 A.M.

The Ikelite works well enough, and while the unit itself is specific for Canon or Nikon, it doesn't much seem to care what you set it off with. So you can have a Nikon SB-24 on the Ikelite and it will be controlled by your Minolta, Rollei, etc, or by any other strobe in the room. In some cases, of course, such as at a wedding, that's the bad news. The Metz 40-MZ2 and MZ3 and the 50-MZ5 have an accessory available that takes this one step further. Both strobes must be one of the above -- non-Metz strobes will not work and other Metz strobes will not work. If, for example, you have two Metz 40-series strobes, one of which was on-camera, you simply put the other (with the TTL slave accessory) on a stand or table top, positioned to aim at your subject. Then fire the on-camera strobe once. This "ID's" the on camera strobe and registers the oncamera strobe as the only one which will set the slave off from then on, until you turn off the slave. That way, you can set up your slave wherever you like and only your oncamera Metz will set it off. Otherwise, this system quenches the slave at exactly the same time as the on-camera flash.

David Spellman , June 25, 1997; 12:55 A.M.

The Metz 40-series strobes and several of their other handle-mount and on-camera strobes either have or can be ordered with a small secondary strobe reflector. The 40-MZ2, for example, has a large reflector that swivels and tilts and a tiny secondary reflector for filling in shadows under bounce conditions. It also includes a pair of neutral density filters for the small reflector to adjust the light output. The Nikon SB-16 also has a small secondary reflector, but there are no filters included to cut its light output. I prefer to use a small, vertical "bounce card" behind the large reflector. This is NOT angled forward, by the way, but still manages to catch just enough light to fill in eyesocket, under-nose and under-chin shadows in bounce situations under about 10 feet. I'll also frequently aim the strobe at a wall to the right or left of the subject and keep the fill card behind the strobe beam. This gives the subject soft, directional lighting and fills in some of the darker shadows on the sides away from the wall. Please note that sticking a small diffuser over the light, even one of those tiny softboxes, doesn't really do much to soften the light. Your shadows will usually be very sharp. What it MAY do is waste enough light bouncing around the room that some of those hard-edged shadows are filled, slightly, and that will usually be a bit more pleasing. My favorite wedding strobe remains the bulky Norman 200C, with its big old 5" reflector. It's certainly not as efficient as the smaller polished reflectors on most manufacturer strobes, but in spreading so much light around the room, it gives a lot more pleasing on-camera (or on-bracket) look, thanks to the spill coming back off the walls and ceiling of the room.

Mike West , February 05, 1999; 02:39 P.M.

Nikon now sells a wireless TTL slave unit (similar to the Ike-Lite product). It's called the SU-4 and sells for about $70US.

Akh Baj , June 07, 1999; 11:41 A.M.

"Photography is the recording of light rays"...hmmm..what about artistic merit huh?? Things like composition, finding the moment, perspective, what about all that?....how about changing the definition to be: the capturing of images for an artistic or informative purpose...(screw the "light rays" part it sounds too pseudo technical)...? :-) my 2 cents worth....akhilesh bajaj

Timothy Breihan , June 12, 1999; 09:26 A.M.

Regarding flash photography...I generally hate it and try to avoid it whenever possible. However, my amateur photojournalistic tendencies sometimes preclude me from using a slow shutter speed to capture ambient light. So, to reduce harsh shadows, I take one of two approaches.

The Diffuser: I have a LumiQuest Pocket Bouncer which appreciate immeasurably. It is the most compact way to achieve a pleasant softness of light. If you've never seen one of these, it is a trapezoidal hood that attaches to the flash with Velcro. The flash head is pointed straight up and light is bounced off the hood. It is, in effect, a portable of the perfect color and reflective property. I find it immensely useful outdoors and in rooms with very high ceilings. The only drawback is light loss, which limits the distance you can stand from your subject.

The Bracket: I've used two, a Sunpack and a Stroboframe. I think that the Stroboframe is probably a bit better, as it gives two positions, directly above the prism housing, a approximately ten inches from the lens, or to the side of the camera, upside down. Limitations include the the rather large nature of the accessory, which makes it a bit difficult to toss into a Domke F2. The Sunpack is a handle grip with a hot shoe on top. It is marginally more comfortable to hold that the Stroboframe in addition to being smaller and lighter. (Weight is an important consideration; a Nikon FE2 with motor drive, 180/2.8, flash bracket and Vivitar 283 is not only heavy but awkwardly shaped.) Both of the brackets run about $70. They are certainly nice, but the diffuser is what stays in the camera bag.

Edwyn Schuchhard , August 05, 1999; 09:45 A.M.

Abound using electronic flash units.

I am a caver, and member of a cavephoto group. Caves are realy dark! We can't use P&S techniques much, you realy have to think ahead when making a picture.

The equipment we use are Firefly II slave units attached to flash units. They are waterproof, infared and extremly sensetive. The cost about $100 and you can order them from Engeland at http://www.dragon-speleo.co.uk, a big cave equipment store.

What we use to light the flash is a normal (small) flash unit at the camera. If we don't want direct flashlight at all, we tape a piece of old slide/film in front of the flash. Only the infrared light will pass the flash now, thas enough for the Firefly slave.

A bible for cave photography is Images Below from Chris Howes, It has many, many tips and trics on lighting the subject well. Also for non-cavers a must. You can order it at http://www.albany.net/~oldbat/ and probably amazon.com

Greetings Edwyn

J.R. Neumiller , October 24, 1999; 05:56 P.M.

If you're like me, you take the vast majority of your pictures of people in social settings, indoors, with color-negative film, and WITH a flash. And also if you're like me, many (most) of the results are just plain bad. So, when Phil writes:

"We wanted a boring flat illustrative light and we got it."

it makes it sounds as though the effect in this picture is boring or even somewhat passi. True, there may be more interesting flash techniques in terms of artistic potential, but there are few that are as effective!

Like many, I was annoyed at the harsh, straight-on shadow effects of a single, bare flash. I had tried many different pocket gadgets, (the Lumiquest, an index card, a mini-softbox, etc.) but none does the trick like the Omnibounce.

Look at the picture again: note the even, well illuminated quality, with no hotspots or dark areas. (This is using slide film as well.) Try to get that with a single flash; whether on camera or not. In most cases, either the subject (Phil) will be correctly lit and the room will look dark, or the room will look fine with Phil ready to ignite! There is no light falloff at the edges either (another typical flash bug-a-boo,) and there are no real harsh shadows. The effect, (though "boring") is excellent; done so well that it escapes attention - the TRUE mark of impeccable technique.

I'm just sorry Phil makes it sound common and plain. Anyone who uses a flashhead knows how difficult it is to get a good effect with it. The Omnibounce works great better than 90% of the time, and is a great assist for anyone wanting some help with an on-camera flash.

Rolf Rosing , November 07, 1999; 11:47 A.M.

About your comments on flashlight: I do agree with you, up to a certain level, please see Martin Parr's wonderful photography! His use of a (medical ring)flash doesn't create shadows, but does create very hefty moods! I'm not sure if his artwork is available on the internet, but he's a member of Magnum Photos, so you might find something on him. He's based in Bristol, UK.

John Simmons , December 22, 1999; 11:42 P.M.

An old Hollywood device for shooting street scenes at night is to wet the pavement, very liberally. It fills up vast dark areas with streaks of colored light. Just carry a wrench and open up the nearest fire hydrant...

Michael Chick , January 13, 2000; 09:09 A.M.

great to see many eyes around the world through the looking glass.

I shoot for a living. Actually, all I do is orchestrate my staff to do the "dirty work" for me, and all I need to do is to press the shutter. Flash work woes? Ever tried bouncing?

Nearest wall 50 feet away? try faster film, or a more powerful flash. maybe even slower shutter speeds? or how about multiple exposures with different light sources? I had to shoot a commercial building once mind you, it was a huge shopping mall. We linked 6 guys with walkie talkie sets. each one had access to a different light switch located on different parts of the building. ie. roof lights, internal lights, foyer lights etc. 8 exposures to create the blooming image. The image was used in the annual report of my client.

remember guys, you are in control. and if you are NOT in control, then you will find it very difficult to acheive the EXACT image you set out to shoot. In commercial shooting, you DO NOT have the luxury of saying this line,"I'm sorry, I cannot shoot it like your scam" transalated to the client, it simply means... "Sorry, I'm stupid, please find someone else.BYE"

more to ask? e-mail me @ second_jedi@yahoo.com

I'm outta here.

Michael Chick

Conrad Weiser , April 27, 2000; 09:29 P.M.

Regarding using flash with P&S cameras, here's a little trick I do. I take a light-activated slave trigger, one with 180 degree coverage, and attach it the the shoe of an inexpensive tilt-head flash. Then, when I take a flash picture, I hold the flash and trigger at about arms length overhead and slightly forward of the camera and tilt the head to either fire down onto the subject or fire up at the ceiling. In an advanced P&S, the light sensor doubles as the flash sensor and adjusts exposure. Thus automatically compensating for the additional light.

I and a friend of mine have used this trick with our Elph Jr's. Works out very nicely. However, if you're in an area where a lot of other people are using flashes, don't turn the bounce flash on until needed. Also, a trigger with a narrower field of view would also help here.

BTW, I also use and love Lumiquest's Pocket Bouncer. While it is a little ungainly, it completely avoids problems with color casts from bouncing off a non-white ceiling and can give the same room filling effect as the Sto-Fen OmniBounce. With the Sto-Fen, color casts from the ceiling can still be a problem.

Conrad Weiser

Alan Little , May 16, 2000; 08:28 A.M.

Much as I like David Hartman's idea of pointing the flash up with an index card to send some fill light forward, I don't have to do it - being the proud owner of a Nikon SB16 which has a small secondary light that fires directly forward whether I want it to or not.

Great. That means I can use my whole packet of index cards, plus some Blu-tack and a handy pocket stepladder, to ensure a reliable supply of white ceilings!

David H. Hartman , July 30, 2000; 06:38 P.M.

A Flash Accessory No Photographer Should Ever Be Without!

(1) One 3x5" Card (white). (2) Two Large Rubber Bands (From Asparagus Bunches).

This is a bounce technique and requires a suitable white ceiling, Home, Office, etc.

Take your typical "Cobra Style" speedlight, 283, SB-24, SB-28, 550EX, etc. Turn the head upwards at a 90 degree angle. Attach a 3x5" (or 4x6") card to your flash with a pair of large rubber bands so that the card is on the back side, away from your subject. About 3/5ths of the card should extend above your speedlight. Fire at will.

The cost is almost nothing. In a pinch you can use the address side of a magazine subscription card (normally printed black on white) but you will still need two rubber bands. This system folds flat when not in use so you can store it anywhere.

You forgot yours? Drop by any grocery store and grab a pack of 3x5" cards and a bunch of asparagus. Don't like raw asparagus? Not to worry, your dog loves asparagus!

The 90 degree bounce flash will provide soft, even, top lighting. The card will fill the soft but sometimes deep shadows from the "main light" like eye sockets and under the nose & chin and provide catch lights in the eyes.

Cheap for you, flattering to your subject, delightful for your dog!

-- David Hartman.

Morgan Whaley , August 19, 2000; 06:31 P.M.

Would putting transparent tape(MAGIC TAPE) or a handkerchief over the flash cut down or minimize "the deer in the headlights" effect for on camera flash? Several years ago I read an artical saying that 1 thickness of the above cut the flash output by one f stop. Any feedback? Thanks.

John Travassos , January 24, 2001; 10:47 P.M.

Thanks to all for the recommendations on the different types of diffusers. I think I'm going to try the Sto-Fen Omni Bounce. I also like the quick idea of the 3X5 card. Great for in a pinch.

I recently tried my new Minolta Maxxum 7 with 5600HD flash. Pictures were shot in a small church with all white/cream walls. I didn't compensate and the photos came out awful. Long shadows cast on the back walls (despite their distance of more than 10-15' away and the people were underexposed! Next time I'll compensate +2/3 and try the new diffuser pointed about 45 degrees up. Hopefully, I'll lose the long black shadows in the background and the photos won't be underexposed.

Anybody have any other recommendations it would be most appreciated.

John Travassos , February 24, 2001; 06:35 P.M.

I just want you to know that I did follow up on the problem of flash shots indoors at a small church with mostly white walls and ceiling. I did use and OmniBounce diffuser directed up at 45 degrees. I also used a flash compensation of +1. It worked beautifully.

Patrick Lavin , December 04, 2001; 06:37 P.M.

John, just out of curiosity, what type of film were you using in that church?

Ans Beaulieu , December 26, 2001; 01:35 A.M.

I also use a plastified white cardboard with 2 rubberbands to bounce my flash like David said previously; I strap the carboard at the back of the flash with a slight (variable) angle. It is cheap and easy to do, it also can be replaced on short notice in almost any part of the word if you loose it... If the cardboard you use is stiff enough, you will be able to get almost any bouncing setup (1/3 front - 2/3 ceilling per example) with a pivoting flash head. I tested it extensively and I prefer the cardboard result to the omnibounce clear plastic cap, that is by the way a real rip off (it cost about 0.05$ to manufacture labor and packaging included and they sell it for more than 20$!!!). Experiment with different sizes and shapes you can even use colored cardboard for some nice effects (like the expensive pro bouncers).

ms gill , January 11, 2003; 11:03 A.M.

Ref.Glen Johnbson comments. i have Metz flashes 40 MZ2 and 32 MZ3 with Nikon/Pentax AF modules. Will Ikelite perform similarily as working with Nikon SU4/Pentax AF flashes with TTL cords for remote control TTL if 40 MZ2 is fired with SCA 3402 from F4 and second gun 32 MZ3 with the same SCA (module) with ikelite fitted slave gun, will it control TTL light and same set up for PZ1 for TTL light?.Experience/comments will be appreciated.

James Holk , September 15, 2003; 05:36 P.M.

I'm not sure if anyone already covered this, but for off flash photography I both use and recomend investing the money to buy radio slaves. They work far better than light sensitive slave units and their range is much further! Go with either Quantum 4's, 4i's, or Pocket wizards.

Neil Blatnick , October 16, 2003; 11:32 A.M.

For soft lighting, I have used a large (12 - 15 inch) circular clamp (forget what they are called but they are used to help sew patterns onto stretched cloth) with a soft, white, fabric material placed in front of a flash unit (8 inches). This gave very nice fill and diffused background ligthing at the same time. Used it for weddings and portraits. As I recall I lost about 1-1/2 to 2 stops.

Andrew Kaiser , June 04, 2004; 05:42 P.M.

Just a little observation - please don't be upset by this.

The article author talked at length about light, shadow, exposure, the most important ingredient in your photographs and in my feeble snapshots. Most (not all) of the comments seem to have forgotten it all immediately and talked about mere gadgetry - the flash!

Magdalena B. , April 08, 2005; 04:47 P.M.

My daughter and a donkey in sunlight (1987)

Most of the times yes, but not always, does sunlight add unadvantageous shadows on a portrait. Half-lighted potraits are an example for this.

Cheri Perry , September 24, 2006; 02:30 P.M.

A Different View

I have a question more than a comment. I am a very new photographer and only photograph for pleasure. I am trying to extend my knowledge of photography to see where it might take me in life. I have read this article and I am assuming the best thing to do is put alot of expense into taking a normal picture. I have an Olympus C-60 Zoom camera. It is not a cheap camera but not the most expensive elaborate camera. I am still trying to learn more about it, but...with it, what is the best way to take photos. I use the flash all the time because I was told it will help with the lighting inside and or out. Is this true? Any assistance would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance...Cheri

This is a photo I took without thinking at all, I pointed the camera up and snapped, Ppl are telling me the flash is harsh, but it was candid.

Casey Hoch , September 24, 2006; 06:23 P.M.

Cheri, expensive cameras will only give you expensive photographs. Having said that, if you know what you're doing a "fancy" camera can give you more options, however in the right hands a wooden box with film in it can produce a picture better than any Nikon or Cannon.

Daniel Bruce , September 25, 2006; 10:01 P.M.

Cheri, I personally don't use flash very often. I prefer natural lighting inside as well as outdoors. One thing you'll want to learn about is apeture and shutter speed and how they relate to each other. It seems complex at first but, once you get the hang of it you'll start taking better photos. As for the tree, it looks like this shot was taken at night. It would have a more interesting effect if it was taken around sunset or sunrise, without flash.

Cheri Perry , September 26, 2006; 09:30 A.M.

Thank you so much or your advice...I will learn more of the aperature and shutter speed for sure. As for the tree, it was a fluke. I was out in our yard and had to stop and rest up against a tree (I am disabled) and just turned the camera up and snapped. It was on auto so of course it flashed. But thanks both of you for your advice and input....I guess I will just read and be patient. :)

Eric Lawson , October 05, 2006; 04:15 P.M.


Like the previous poster, I rarely use flash either. I use it indoors more often than not to prevent blur, but I don't shoot a lot indoors anyway. The only time I use it outside is when I have overhead light that causes a shadow over the face of a person; the concept is known as fill flash. The flash only works for anything within about 5-15 feet from you anyway. Go too far from the subject and the flash misses. It will also tend to hide your background, which is advantageous sometimes when the background is not pleasing, but probably more often you take someone's picture in front of something you like, so you want the background to be visible. The compromise is that you run a greater risk of blur in your photos when you don't use the flash. A good steady shooting surface solves this problem in most cases, unless the subject itself is moving. I would say that no photographer's inventory is complete without a tripod. Even a cheaply made one is worlds better than trying to shoot handheld in low light. Have fun!


Image Attachment: Picture 219.jpg

Art Meripol , October 17, 2006; 10:21 P.M.

As a working pro, I use flash on a large number of my shots. I love when someone says "oh, the light was so nice you didn't have to light it!" That's when I know my flash work was right, when it isn't obvious it was lit at all. I love 'rear' or'second-curtain' sync. That allows the shutter to stay open long enough to correctly expose the background and then the flash fires at the end of the exposure to balance the light/color/shadows on the subject. I use bounce cards and off camera flash and often use two or even three nikon SB or canon 580 units. The biggest step to raise your flash photos from amateurish to a polished pro looking is getting the flash off the camera. Flash is the trickiest and most intimidating part of photography and the number of comments here reflect that. My personal gear is nice, expensive and versatile. But you can do a lot with a lot less. Never fear trying things. It may or may not be the result you wanted but not only will you learn by it but you might find some cool things come from just trying things.

My favorite flash moment? I was backstage at a concert. I had a small flash but wasn't using it at the concert. I had the PR guy from a radio station ask if I could shoot the performer with a contest winner and, to be nice, said sure. My little bounce card would have been fine if they'd kept it as it was. But things quickly got out of hand with people wanting to be in the photo. Soon I had a dozen people in the frame. Needing to spread the light from my Vivitar 283 flash to cover the crowd, I looked into a trash can..."borrowed" a paper plate some roadie ate off of and curved it behind my flash. Worked like a charm, even with the mustard smear.

Oh, and it IS all about light. Photography is from the greek...photo=light and graph=write...so photography is light writing.

Adrienne Bennett , January 09, 2007; 02:38 P.M.

I have taken pictures all across my hometown of NYC and I have never had my camera stolen. It's comments like these that make individuals who have never been here think twice about coming. To all photographers who are interested in shooting scenes from NYC please ignore the comment below from the tutorial.

"If you wait long enough in New York City ... someone will probably steal your camera. So maybe it is best to just shoot in whatever light you can find. Here I used the fill flash on my point & shoot camera. "

Jim Menkol , January 31, 2007; 10:17 P.M.

Very helpful! Thanks for putting in the time to create this.

chocolate jack , February 17, 2007; 05:08 A.M.

Thanks a lot for all the input - it's really helpful to understand how each person approaches flash and informing us of the off camera units that are available.... Oh and about Phillip's comments re "camera getting stolen in NYC"...gee, what a relief, for a moment I thought they would steal my wallet as well...:)

nigel french , May 08, 2007; 12:48 P.M.

Fantastic website. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

Amelia Koons , July 02, 2007; 11:30 A.M.

Okay, I have a question for all you advanced photographers. I'm a high school student and I'm in my second year of photography there. Now, I was given a summer assignment to continue a final theme project or to shoot whatever really interests me. Well to make a long story short, I want to do a photo shoot in complete darkness. The only light being several tea-candles and a medium sized paper latern. How would I go about making sure that the exposure is good enough or would I just be wasting my film trying? (I am using to use a 35mm/b+w) Any help would be greatly aprreciated!

Andrew Prokos , October 16, 2007; 09:08 A.M.

I'm always amazed at how many photographers seem to find shooting in direct sunlight difficult. A lot of my NYC location photography is shot only by sunlight, so I try to keep two things in mind: 1) where the camera and subject are in relation to the angle of the light and 2) how high the sun is in the sky. It's more work to get great shots at high noon than at the golden hour, but it's definitely possible. I personally use as little flash as possible, but a little fill flash helps tremendously to soften harsh noontime shadows. If you always keep in mind where you stand in relation to the sun shooting in daylight isn't so difficult.

Qadir Sherif , November 06, 2007; 10:29 P.M.

It is really an irony of fate with the art of photography that in most sites and forums the art of photography, under its own caption, is replaced by a debate on camera thus becomes a commercial for different brands of camera. Camera is a tool not the tale.   The man behind the camera and the skill that he/she creates the image with is basically ignored.   No doubt that a good tool is of paramount importance in delivery yet the person behind it is even more important.  When it comes to Mona Lisa it implies the skill and virtue of Leonardo nor the brush and the material he used.  When it comes to the camera, I understand, any camera that may have the mechanism to deliver more bit depth is the better.   The quality of image, I believe, depends upon the bit depth of the image that comes from a camera in-put that supports more than 8 bits (1 byte) in single channel and more than 24 bits (3 bytes) in three channels of RGB.   Even if we calculate 256 shade of different colours in three channels, it equals (256x256x256=16 777216 ) or say 16.77 million colours as normally we hear.   In resolution we normally get bigger dimension not depth.  Commonly we take the resolution as depth not dimension.   Is it not so? Which camera can deliver more than 8 bits in single channel and more than 24 bits in 3 channels (RGB) is the question deserving appropriate answer? It would be nice if some one add more information on it as the best tool.  

Nevertheless the art of photography, in my opinion, should be discussed in the perspective of art itself not the camera. The camera should be placed in its own forum especially under the Title of learning Photography. Hope it may make a sense. I would like to add a portrait which was taken with a common Camera in B/W but I added colour in post processing of changing the background alone as a demonstration of skill.

Qadir Sherif , November 07, 2007; 02:44 A.M.

What I observe as a flaw especially in this site is the focus on the film photography that, I think, is obsolete now and instead digital photography with a greater dimension is in place.  Almost the majority, if not all, of the learning articles on this site and as well as on the others are contemplating on the film camera and process thereon.  The question of true colour and 16.77 million colours were rare in the past especially in film photography while it is a prevailing reality at the present time. The quality of image, I believe, depends upon the bit depth of the image that comes from a camera in-put that supports more than 8 bits (1 byte) in single channel and more than 24 bits (3 bytes) in three channels of RGB.   Even if we calculate 256 shade of different colours in three channels, it equals (256x256x256=16 777216 ) or say 16.77 million colours as normally we hear.  Things are not staying here and are ascending beyond.  This is only practicable in digital photography alone.   Now it is the prime time that we should understand and learn the mechanism and technicalities of digital world of photography that leads this art in future.   I believe that the forum may focus on the new ways and step forward.  

I would like to add two images of film taken with a very famous Rollie and common digital Canon just to show the contrast/difference in between the most high class film camera of the time and a common digital camera.   Hope it may make a sense.  Any one who may like to discuss the topic can write to me in the address: qadirsh@brain.net.pk

The images above demonstrate a clear difference in between the film and digital photography

andrew hall , November 18, 2007; 03:03 A.M.

In my opinion film isn't obsolete it's just that it's now in the minority rather than being the norm for image capture. In some resects I think it's still superior than digital capture.

Chris Scott , January 04, 2008; 11:11 A.M.

As a new hobbyist, I appreciate the clear, concise writing on this article. Focusing on the content of the picture is obviously more important than what you shoot it with. Newbies, like myself, tend to focus too much on the equipment. It was nice to read text that was aimed at how to compose the image.

I just bought my first DSLR, an Olympus E-410 with the two lens kit. Reading the article and all the comments, I am concerned that I may be stuck with bad flash photography for a while. I think my lowest aperture between the two lenses I got is F3.5 - several stops higher than what you mention. Since I just blew as much as I can afford on the current kit, I will endeavor to find ways to take good shots indoors with the on-camera flash. If I find any interesting ways to diffuse the on-camera flash, I'll let you know. Luckily for me, I do happen to own a tripod, so maybe I can get around using the flash.

olivier lahaye , January 20, 2008; 10:25 A.M.

I'm not a specialist, I just want to tell that your "lessons" are always accurate for me. Thanks a lot;

Popi Oso , February 07, 2008; 12:06 A.M.

Thanks for the tutorial Philip ! I'm new to photography,and really appreciate you guys sharing your knowlege with us. I purchased a Canon A540 a couple years ago,and I've been having loads of fun, especially shooting macros. For flash diffusion, I have been using various types of paper - lens cleaner,cigarette,writting, napkin,tissue & even colored paper - held over the flash. You can use a single layer or fold it into two or more layers,to desired results. I keep various small scraps in my camera bag. Find a type that works well in a given situation,and cut/fold it in thirds a little larger than your flash,and tape to the top edge of the flash.then you can easily use one,two,three,or no layers,as desired. Works very well to soften/cool indoor close-ups and even macros in low-light situations - and it's cheap,quick,& easy.A lot quicker than digging thru settings to meter the flash on a P/S camera.Next time you get a washed-out flash shot, just tear off a scrap of paper and give it a try.

Subhabrata Pal , March 29, 2008; 05:16 P.M.

i am a newbie,as they come.and your article helped me.thanks a lot.i never use the flash if i dont have to.but i learnt whats fill flash. and about day photography.thanks a lot again.

Magdalena Soszka , June 13, 2008; 08:59 A.M.


Very good information about lighting, but i just wanted to comment on photographing in New York City. You wrote:

"If you wait long enough in New York City ... someone will probably steal your camera"

I am always walking around in NYC with my large camera and even larger lenses, tripod and other expensive equipment. No one should think that NYC is full of thieves that steal cameras because that's just NOT true. Just like most cities in the world, there are those that make a living on stealing peoples cameras, but if you use your common sense, you will be okay. But this goes for EVERY city. Actually, NYC i feel probably the safest (most likely because i live here) but no one should automatically assume that "someone will probably steal your camera" if you are in NYC -that's just untrue.

Enjoy your summer everyone Happy shooting

Vanesa Simmarano , August 12, 2008; 12:43 P.M.

I found the information about landscapes incredibly interesting. I have been taking pictures with the Canon EOS between Noon and 3PM and have had not so great results. Can't wait to try snapping my photographs either at dusk or dawn. Glad I stumbled across this page!

Keith Aldrich , November 27, 2008; 12:56 P.M.

Guys..... I don't think he was really trashing on New York. I took the comment more as meaning "If you're in New York, don't waste any time, start taking photos."

Personally, if I was going to worry about theft, it would be in DC.

Ashley Pomeroy , July 19, 2009; 02:21 P.M.

"What I observe as a flaw especially in this site is the focus on the film photography etc"

To be fair, the article predates the widespread adoption of digital photography. Assuming it was published in 1996, it coexisted with the very first wave of portable digital SLRs, and even the site's owner would have baulked at paying $15,000, $30,000 for a 1.5mp or 6mp digital SLR of limited utility. The actual photographic information is still sound, although the stuff about warming filters is alien knowledge from a bygone era. Wireless flash is nowadays much more widespread. The bounce flash example taken inside a jet airliner is interesting, in the sense that if you tried taking bounce flash photographs inside an airliner nowadays you'd probably cause a scene. Perhaps you would get away with it, but you'd think twice about doing it.

Having said that, the film examples - which were presumably taken with top-flight gear - look very soft and uncontrasty by modern standards. Perhaps that is because the modern-high contrast look is unnatural, and the examples on this page are truer to life; in which case I prefer unnaturalness.

Jerry Leffel , September 02, 2009; 10:40 P.M.

Film and Digital photography both have their place. Each has its' strong and weak points. KNOWING AND UNDERSTANDING the basics of each and what you want to convey is the important point. Whether you shoot pictures with either of these medium or some other form of expression is determined by what you are trying to say visually. The derision that is expressed against film denotes ignorance and the same can be said regarding digital. Use the tool to do the job you want done; be it color or black and white, film or digital. To those who are not well versed in photography, especially film, I suggest that they CAREFULLY read the books by A. Adams, etc so that they can convey not what is there but what they want to convey and portray, effectively.

Photo Expert Guy , October 19, 2009; 05:03 A.M.

Learn how to create the lighting like this on www.photoexpertguy.com

I found this article interesting. Here's a great link to learn more about the quality of light. It talks about the difference between hard and soft light and also shows how to create this amazing portrait.


Dana Andrews , January 12, 2010; 12:39 P.M.

Cactus v4 remote flash triggers, about $40 out of Hong Kong (takes a week or so). Good to 100'.

Mohamed El Ashi , March 09, 2011; 10:08 A.M.

Thank you Phillip for the great article, it benefit me a lot. This article is full of information.

*** Update 9/26/2011 :  Opss.. thank you Ahmad Dahrouj  .. you are absolutely right. The slash confused me .

One note: you said 1/60 f1.4 for full frame and 1/30 f1.4 for cropped sensor. I am just beginner but I have done research on this specific subject (difference between FF and Sub-FF) .. The result my research was that both FF and Sub-FF will have the same exposure for same shutter speed and aperture. So if it was 1/60 sec on FF, it should be 1/60 sec on Sub-FF.

Thanks for accepting my comment.

Ahmad Dahrouj , May 05, 2011; 05:50 P.M.

Mohammad I believe he was referring to the lens used: 50mm lens for full frame or a 30mm lens (30*1.5=45) on smaller frame. Not the shutter speed! I hope this explains it for you and hope you're enjoying  photography.

Frank Tawiah , July 05, 2013; 03:09 P.M.

Great idea on how to manipulate light in photography.


Frank Tawiah , July 05, 2013; 04:46 P.M.

An informative website.


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