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Flash Distance

Flash Distance

A reader asks, “I was at an outdoor concert and tried to take some photos. It was at night so I tried to use my flash. All I got was the back of people’s heads! You could see a little of what was on stage, but it didn’t look very good. What went wrong?”

Ah, flash distance. You don’t have enough of it. Most people think that all they do is turn the flash on and it’ll light up anything at any range. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, but it will give you a permanent record of the dandruff problems the guy in front of you has.

See, most flash units—especially those built into cameras—only reach 15 or 20 feet. After that, the light they produce falls off quickly. You can get larger, more powerful units, but even those will only go 50-100 feet (if your ISO is set high enough).

The little bit of image you did get from the concert was from the ambient light on the performers. Yup, all those thousands of flashes going off at an event like that are just little flickers of disappointment.

So, how do you get photos under these circumstances? It isn’t easy. I used to photograph plays for a couple of local theaters and flash was out of the question. So, I set the camera on a tripod, loaded some high-speed film (800 ISO) and captured what I could. As long as the scene wasn’t too dark, this worked great.

However, the likelihood of your being allowed to set up a tripod when you’re at a concert isn’t real high. Tripods are just too big and bulky. Besides, that’s probably a sure way to get yourself kicked out (or at least kicked from the people behind you).

So, my advice is to shut off the flash, crank your ISO up to 400 or 800 (depending on how much “noise” you can handle – see this tip) and brace yourself as best you can. Also, favor the parts of the show where the lights are brightest, that helps a lot.

Sure, chances are you’ll get a lot of bad shots—but at the same time you’ll probably get some really good stuff too. In any event, it should be better than trying to use your flash. Give it a try next time you sneak your camera into a concert :-)

~ Steve