How it works, when to use it

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Most Nikon D-SLRs have a built-in flash for pro­vid­ing light in dim con­di­tions, and all Nikons can use ex­ter­nal flash­guns

for more cre­ative light­ing. But the qual­ity of the re­sults you get from flash can be dis­ap­point­ing, and it can be dif­fi­cult to get the strength right and bal­ance it with the am­bi­ent light.

Flash is also sur­rounded by jar­gon – the more you get into it, the more there is to know and the more daunt­ing it be­comes! So here’s our be­gin­ners’ guide to how flash works and how to get the most from it.

How flash works

Flash­guns fire a very brief, in­tense burst of light. Its du­ra­tion varies ac­cord­ing to the flash type, but it might typ­i­cally be in the re­gion of 1/500-1/1000 sec – though it will be a lot shorter at lower power set­tings.

This burst of light comes from an elec­tri­cal charge stored in the flash head and then re­leased in an in­stant. One the flash has fired, it typ­i­cally takes a cou­ple of sec­onds for the bat­ter­ies to power up the head again. This is the ‘re­cy­cle time’.

Why is flash harsh?

On-cam­era flash rarely pro­duces good re­sults on its own. The light is com­ing from a small source, and this pro­duces harsh shad­ows. Also, the in­ten­sity falls off with dis­tance, so the fur­ther away your sub­ject, the dim­mer the flash. If you shoot a per­son against a dis­tant back­ground, they may be cor­rectly ex­posed but the back­ground will be dark.

This does give flash a bad rep­u­ta­tion. How­ever, there are ways you can use flash to get much nicer re­sults and, us­ing ex­ter­nal flash, you’re able to get light­ing ef­fects you couldn’t achieve any other way. We’ll look at these tech­niques next month, but this time we’ll dis­cuss how flash works and what makes it dif­fer­ent to am­bi­ent light.

On-cam­era flash has a bad rep­u­ta­tion, but there are ways to avoid the harsh shad­ows and get per­fectly-lit shots

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