Turn Off Your Flash

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The flash built into your camera is there for a reason and can get you out of a low light level jam, but I want you to turn it off almost all of the time. Here’s why:

It’s a mood killer. The light from a flash can be cold and heartless. It’s not just the color that’s a problem here. Notice the nasty shadow behind his ear. Notice how his ear is lit up for no good reason. The mood is gone.

If you’re one of those people who uses the flash on your camera every time you take a picture because you think you should, this is THE photo tip for you. (You may want to write today’s date down as the day your photography changed forever.)

The success of most photographs relies on mood. And the mood of a photograph has everything to do with the lighting. The flash on your camera is as subtle, sensitive, and mood-enhancing as the headlights on your car. The headlights on your car serve a valuable function—don’t get me wrong. They do not, however, make the world more beautiful to look at. Safer, yes. More beautiful? No.

The mood of a photograph and the lighting walk hand-in-hand. The most commonplace, mundane situation can be transformed into a work of art if the lighting is right. And if the lighting is wrong— let’s say with the flash on your camera—a picture takes on the look of an amateur snapshot. Snapshots are beautiful things. People grab them on their way out of burning buildings and for good reason. But if you want to move up the photographic food chain you need to understand what a flash does and why you want to turn it off—most of the time.
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This picture was taken with a flash and for good reason…it was dark outside. There is a time and place for everything.


If you wanted to pick a really bad place to put a light source for beautiful photography you would put it next to the lens—right where your flash is. Beautiful light, like the light that Rembrandt painted by, generally comes from the side. But the light of your flash is coming straight from your point-of-view— straight from the camera. It lacks subtlety. It lacks finesse.

The flash is there for good reason, however. It allows you to take pictures in dim light without straining your photographic skills. So you should use your flash at a kids slumber party or Halloween night when you’re out trick-or-treating with the kids. There are practical applications.

But be forewarned. When you turn the flash OFF, taking pictures becomes more challenging. If you turn it off in a dark living room, for example, and try to photograph squirmy kids, you are going to become frustrated with the blurry results. You are likely going to blame me. (You’re going to need to turn up your ISO and learn to hold your camera still.) I can live with that. For now, I want you to experiment with turning off the flash and noticing how the mood of your photographic world changes.

Someplace on your camera is a little button that turns the flash off. You should become very friendly with this button, because when the flash is ON the odds are stacked against you that you’re going to take a photograph the world will love.

That button is often prominently placed on your camera. There’s a good reason for that. It’s an IMPORTANT button.
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Look at the Christmas tree in the picture with the flash. You can’t even tell the lights are on. The flash has completely overwhelmed the mood.

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