When not to use flash (flash basics 1)

This is the first post in a long series about flash photography, the series is starting with a few posts about how to use the camera’s built in flash and will continue to external flashes both on and off camera, I will publish the flash posts every few weeks between other topics because I don’t want to write just about flash for months.

I really like to use flash in my photos, it makes life easier and can give wonderful results with just a little bit of expertise and just a little bit of equipment – but flash is not useful in every situation, there are a few areas a flash is ineffective or downright harmful – so I’m starting this series with some situations you should never use flash in.

When your subject is not very close

This is probably the most common flash mistake people make,

Every flash has a maximum range, those ranges (especially for the camera’s built in flash) are very short, anything outside that range is not illuminated by the flash at all – here is a picture of my point and shoot camera firing the flash in the dark:

It’s easy to see that the light is very bright on the right close to the camera but drops off very fast and by the time we get to the left side of the image it’s very dim.

For that camera, according to the manual, the flash is only effective up to 3 meter (9.8 feet) so anything farther is effectively in complete darkness. My DSLR has a more powerful flash that can reach up to 5 meters (16.4 feet), still not much.

This means that if your subject is out of the flash’s range it’s not illuminated by the flash at all – in the past this would have resulted in a black frame but the modern camera compensate by taking the exact same picture you would have gotten with the flash completely off (except it fires your flash in full power and drains the batteries in the process).

If you are photographing a sporting event or a show and you are not in the first row all your flash is doing is bothering the other viewers and draining your batteries – turn it off.

If you are photographing landscape than this is silly, the mountain in the distance is so outside the flash’s range that all it’s doing is draining your batteries and making you look silly – turn it off.

Photographing through glass, fences,  nets, cages, etc.

Any time that you have something between you and the subject there is a chance that something will reflect the flash, let’s show an example:

I’ve positioned my lovely point and shoot on a tripod behind some bars, the camera lens is positioned between two bars and the camera is focused on a small tree in the distance.

And here is a picture without flash, the white thing on the right is a piece of furniture that is standing right next to the tree, on the left side you can see a dark out of focus part of one of the bars.

Turn on the flash and we get this:

First, the dark, out of focus, barely noticeable bar became the brightest and most prominent item in the photo – and as if this isn’t bad enough the light reflected of it totally washes out all the colors in the picture.

Now, let’s close the glass window and take a shoot trough the glass:

Yes, what you see it the light from the flash reflected in the window, everything else is gone.

Anything that is remotely reflective

For your enjoyment, from left to right, an iPhone, a closed laptop and a cake in the oven – all with a big ugly bright burst of light reflecting from the flash:

Another painful effect that you can’t see at this small size is that the light is reflected by every scratch, dirt or fingerprint on the reflective surface – so whatever you are photographing should be completely and totally clean.

This also applies to photographing people who wear glasses – there will be a whole post on photographing people with glasses in the future.


Direct flash, especially at close range, is a very unflattering light – it makes the face look flat and highlights every little bit of sweat, also, often in the dark the camera will use too much flash and make the skin look very white, sometime even bright.

And let’s not get started about red eye.

No example pictures here – I don’t want to make people who let me use their pictures look bad on my blog.

So, we shouldn’t use flash?

Flash is wonderful, I love flash (really) – but like any tool it has it’s limitations.

And of course, there are things we can do to overcome those limitations:

To increase the flash range you need… a more powerful flash – but every flash has a range (even the big studio ones) and if your subject is out of range turn the flash off.

To minimize reflections you need to find an angle that reflects the flash’s light away from your camera, there will be a whole post about it soon.

And just to finish on a more positive note I’ll tell you the next flash post will be about things you can do with your camera’s built in flash.

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