Snapshots to Photographs - Lighting your Shots

April 21, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Does your camera have an internal flash?  Do you let the camera decide when to fire that flash?  And do your pictures come back with harsh shadows or dark areas behind your subject? Do people in your snapshots have red eyes?  Your flash may be hurting your pictures more than helping.  Here are some hints about artificial lighting that may help turn your snapshots into photographs, with lighting that enhances your subject.

Your point-n-shoot camera flash is capable of filling in shadows within about 12 feet – don’t think it will light up a gym or stadium for sports or a show. An internal flash will always be pointed directly at your subject, so use it sparingly to do just that (fill in shadows) or to highlight a close subject.  When you do use it, it will become a beacon that will splash both light and shadows all over your photograph. Here is an example - the shadow is a subtle distraction that you can avoid.

There are a couple of techniques you can consider that will allow you to avoid those shadows. First, position your subject so she is not close to a wall or furniture and then get relatively close so any shadow falls below your shot. Position yourself and your camera no higher than your subject’s head and shoulders – so if they are sitting then you should kneel or sit down too. In the shot below, I turned the camera to a vertical orientation and moved the flash so the shadow fell completely behind Leatha's left shoulder.  The contrast helps highlight her smiling features.


If there is light in the room, don’t even bother with your flash.  One reason for using it is because your subject’s face may be in a shadow – well have them turn to the light if you can.  Does your camera have an “auto ISO” mode?  That actually works very well and adjusts the camera to available light.  Just watch to be sure it does not go over about ISO 800, because that will introduce graininess (noise) in your pictures so that’s the time to use a flash. 

Assuming you do need a flash in some situations, do you use an external flash that attaches to your camera or do you use the internal flash?  Lining up a light source beside your lens for peoples to look at is going to create that red reflection from the back of their eyes and produce a huge black shadow behind them.  One of the primary contributors to red eyes and shadows is the proximity of the flash to your lens. The more you can do to move your flash far from your camera lens, the better.  If you don’t have an external flash, then try to keep your subject away from the walls where a shadow will be thrown.

With an external flash there are a couple of things you can do.  First, try bouncing the light off the ceiling above your subject.  If the ceiling is a light color and relatively low, you can turn it into a huge light source and the shadows will be very low on the floor.  Of course, this won’t work if the person is wearing a hat, as the lady in my first example did, because the hat will create a shadow over her face.  If the ceiling is too high for the power of your flash or has lots of interruptions (eg fans, vents, etc.) then it may not be very effective.  That’s when you are forced to direct the flash at the person herself, so use some the techniques in the last couple of paragraphs.

There are a couple of accessories available that can make your flash less harsh (mimize shadows). You may have seen pros at weddings with white colored bulb “diffusers” on their flash units.  Those basically blast the light all over the room in hopes of having it bounce back off the ceiling and walls.  Personally, I think that weakens your flash unnecessarily and only works in a relatively low ceilinged and “close walled” room.  I like the ProMax System from  It attaches to your flash unit with Velcro and adds height to your flash unit to change the angle of the light while broadening the light source from the size of your flash head (about 1x3 inches) to something around 6x9 inches.  It bounces 80% of the light off the ceiling and puts 20% directly on your subject to suppress shadows from above. The system comes with a variety of reflector attachments that allow you to bounce and diffuse the light directly onto your subject so it is very flexible for different environments. 

Finally, you should be aware that all light fixtures and flashes create light in a limited color spectrum that your eyes will adjust and so you think it is “natural”. Film cameras are able to adapt and even blend light sources. In that sense, it is analogous to analog recording rather than digital.  Digitizing anything from sound to images is necessarily based on sampling small bits of the light. Your digital camera will try to balance the color of the light samples in your photo but the internal sensor sometimes over analyzes the situation and may get confused with different types of light sources.  The primary color spectrums of the basic light sources are:

  1. Sunlight = white
  2. Incandescent light bulbs and camera flash = yellow
  3. CFL and fluorescent = green
  4. Tungsten = blue

The consequence of all this is that colors in your photos, especially skin tones, will likely be wrong if your subject is lit by sunlight from a window and a table lamp with a CFL bulb. If you add a flash in that situation, you’ve got white, green, and yellow light sources and flesh tones look sickly and green.  The more you can do to avoid blending light sources when you click the shutter, the better. In the situation I described, you may get better results if you turn off the lamp and rely on the sunlit window and your flash.  If you have some software that came with your camera, Adobe Photoshop or some other photo editing software, you can correct this color balance problem with your computer but you have to spend some time on it. 

So, now you know a little about flash photography and artificial lighting.  This is one of the most difficult areas to master because each camera brand handles light in a little different way so you have to experiment with it yourself.  For most people, that doesn’t happen until they are trying to get a picture of the young couple going out for the Homecoming dance. So do a little homework and try a few of these tricks for yourself.  You don’t have to pay for the shots and you can even delete them from your computer after you figure out how you need to set up your camera.

Happy shooting.


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