by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Several readers asked for more of my photo lessons recently. I won’t shower you with them; but after looking at some firearm and airgun websites, I see this is needed.

Today, I want to discuss the one thing that trips people up more than any other aspect of photography — the use of a flash. I always laugh when I watch the Super Bowl, seeing tens of thousands of fans way up in the stands shooting pictures on the field with their flash strobes going! Someone once told me they do it because it is impossible to turn off the flash on some cameras, so I think there’s also some misinformation floating around out there.

I’m talking about modern digital cameras, including the ones that come on smart phones these days. There are some circumstances when the use of a flash is mandatory, but if you do it right the results can be surprisingly good.

Watch your angle of incidence!
In other words, do not hover your camera directly over the subject, thus allowing the light from the flash to bounce straight back into the lens. If you do, what you get is a burned-out bright spot in the center of the image that drops rapidly to very dark toward the edges. It’s especially noticeable when you’re photographing a long gun.

flash directly over subject
Here’s the whole image taken with the flash directly over the subject. You can see the light fall-off easily here. Of course, the subject is also less well-lit at the extreme edges.

flash directly over subject enlargement
Here is the same image cropped. It looks better; but now that you know the light is falling off at the edges, you know there’s less detail than there should be.

When the flash is angled on the subject, the darker subjects will show less detail. What’s really happening is that the background is also not as exposed. The raw image may not look as good, but there’s more detail in the subject to be pulled out by software.

flash angled on subject
Here, the picture was taken from beneath the subject. The light from the flash reflected away from the camera lens, allowing more of the dark subject image to show. It doesn’t seem to have as much detail in this view.

flash angled on subject enlargement
This is the unretouched enlargement of the last picture. More detail is seen, but there’s a lot more that can be pulled out.

In Photoshop, I can take the image…which has more light on the subject…and bring up many more details because they’re actually in the image. Other photo processing software may not have the same features, but often there are ways of pulling up more detail, as long as they’re in the original image.

flash angled on subject enlargement photoshopped
This is what a simple Photoshop adjustment of light can do for the image. See how much more detail is visible?

But that’s not all you can do. You can also shoot this picture from the top, rather than the bottom of the gun. Shoot it angled and see what happens. You might see even more details when the image is put right-side up.

flash angled from above the subject
Here is the entire image shot from an angle above the subject.

flash angled from above the subject enlargement
This is the same image enlarged and cropped.

flash angled from above the subject enlargement photoshopped
And here the light has been adjusted and the image flipped around in Photoshop. I know the center of the gun looks too light, but by doing that I can also bring out many details at the extreme ends that would otherwise be hidden.

Don’t shoot a dark gun on a light background!
Nothing wipes out the image of a dark gun faster than using flash with the gun against a light background. Your digital camera does not possess all the image processing software that’s in your brain. It thinks you want to see the light background instead of the dark gun, so it underexposes the image.

flash angled from above the subject light background
The light background told the camera to underexpose this image.

The trick is to push the flash to as bright and long-lasting as it will go. The camera may argue with you that you’re losing detail on the background, but the dark subject will show more detail. Most cameras do allow the control of the flash to some extent. You just have to learn how to use it. It’s probably in one of your software screens.

flash angled from above the subject light background flash pushed to the max
In this image, I’ve manually set my flash to 2 full stops above the normal range, which is as high as the camera will go. The viewfinder warned me the image wasn’t right, but I got more detail from the subject, which is all I wanted.

Better still, shoot dark guns against a medium or darker background. Then, the camera won’t underexpose the image and more detail will be seen.

Flash on bright subjects
If flash is difficult with dark subjects, is it easier when the subjects are very bright? Not really. However, things do change and you need to be aware of what happens.

Just as you don’t want to shoot directly overhead on a dark subject, you also don’t want to do it with a bright subject. It overexposes the bright subject and washes out all the detail.

flash directly from above a bright subject
Don’t shoot from directly above a bright subject.

flash angled above a bright subject
On the other hand, an angled shot isn’t the answer either.

flash angled above a bright subject and flash decreased
The answer is to make a slight angle and also decrease the flash. Then, process the image better.

flash angled above a bright subject and flash decreased photoshopped
Once the light is adjusted in Photoshop, there’s plenty of detail on the bright subject as well as the dark one.

Of course, you never use flash when you don’t have to. A tripod and long exposure is always better, if you can do it.

Say — what about those phone camera shots I promised you? Well, I’m out of time, but here’s one just for thought. It was taken without flash outdoors and is large enough and sharp enough to be published in print.

S&W Frontier
I took this photo of a S&W .44-40 Frontier at the gun range with my iPhone. It’s actually 300 dpi and 9 inches wide!