Most cameras with a built-in flash deliver harsh, straight-on light that produces red-eye because of how close the flash is to the lens. Sometimes, a built-in flash is the only option you have, and in these cases, getting an imperfect photo is better than no photo at all. But it’s a big reason so many people’s photos have an amateurish look.
You also see a straight-on flash in crime scene photography, which has been made more famous through TV shows like CSI. But if you don’t want your photos to look like family albums or crime scene images, you’ll need to use a different kind of lighting.
When creative directors, art directors and editors hire you, they expect you to be able to take photos they wouldn’t be able to take themselves. While picking a unique angle with a different lens may give the client something different, the minute the straight-on flash is introduced, it immediately looks like something they would or could have done themselves.
Control Your Lighting
Lighting has more impact on an image than any other aspect of photography. When shooting in black and white, the direction of the light helps shape the object and can make a photo have more pop or appear more subdued, for example. In color, both the color and direction of the light help establish the mood. Theater-type lighting makes your subject look dramatic. And lot of white light can make something look clinical — or even simulate the feel of being in heaven.
You can better control the lighting of your subject with an off-camera flash. When using an off-camera flash, there are two angles I like best.
First, having the light 45 degrees to either side of the subject creates a lighting effect used by the great artist Rembrandt. Rembrandt liked to have the light 45 degrees to the side of the subject relative to his perspective and about 45 degrees up above his perspective as well. If the subject is looking straight at you, you will get a small triangle on the cheek which is on the opposite side of the light. The shape of the nose and brow help create this triangle. You may have to ask the subject to move their head just slightly to make this work just right.
Second, I think side-lighting the subject works really well for people. This is where the light is 90 degrees from the camera on the left or right side of the subject. There are basically two ways to achieve this technique. You can use a cable to go between your camera and flash, or you can use a remote to fire the flash.
Cables vs. Remotes
When using a cable (check your manual for the flash and camera to get the one for your camera) you will need to be very close physically to the subject. The reason is the further back you are from the subject, the more the angle between the lens and the flash relative to the subject will diminish, and you will have photos that look more like a built-in flash. One simple solution is to buy a longer cable. There is usually a limit as to how long this cable can be and still work with your flash.
A slightly more expensive solution is to use a remote. There are two kinds of remotes for flashes: a generic radio remote and a wireless one designed to work with your flash. Both of these will let you place your flash away from the camera and each one has its advantages and disadvantages.
The advantage of the radio remote is it works up to a distance of 400 feet, depending on the unit. It works around walls and even through them. The disadvantage is if you need to adjust the power of the flash, you must go to the flash and adjust it manually.
The advantage of the wireless system, like the SU-800 for Nikons, is you can control each flash unit separately through the unit. Your camera will fire the units and, since it is working in TTL mode, will properly adjust the exposure. While both systems will let you use numerous flashes together, the TTL wireless system lets you ratio the lights from the unit and therefore you can look at your LCD and make an adjustment and never have to move.
One more major advantage of the wireless system is that you can use a shutter speed greater than the sync speed of, say, 1/250. This opens up many possibilities — especially outside on sunny days.