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Flash Modes Made Easy

Havin’ Fun Flashin’

Nope, this isn’t an article explaining how to go out on the street and flash unsuspecting victims, but I couldn’t resist the title :-)

OK, over the last three weeks or so, we’ve been poking around in some of the more intermediate and advanced areas of digital photography, so I thought we’d go with something easier this week—Flash Modes.

Most digital cameras have a variety of different flash modes—and most people aren’t sure what to use when. Normally, you change from mode to mode by pressing the “Flash” button repeatedly, or by holding the “Flash” button down and rotating a dial. Check with your owner’s manual to be sure. At any rate, here are some of the more common modes you’ll run across:

1. Auto : This is what it sounds like—automatic flash mode. It’s usually represented by just the word “Auto” or the word “Auto” and a flash symbol next to it. Now that I think about it, sometimes it’s just a “flash” symbol too with no mention of “Auto” anywhere to be seen.

When this is on, the camera will shoot off the flash if it thinks the scene is too dark. If there’s enough light, the flash won’t fire. Easy enough.

2. Red Eye : This mode is usually represented with an “eye” symbol. This is your red-eye reduction mode. Note I said “reduction” and not “elimination”. This mode will help decrease both the amount of red-eye and the chances of getting it. This is usually accomplished by a rapidly blinking light, a bright light that lingers a few second before the flash fires, or a couple of pre-flashes.

Note that red eye reduction works best when you have your subjects looking at the camera. It’s designed to constrict the pupils, and if your pupils are otherwise engaged, they won’t restrict (they’re stubborn that way).

Finally, be sure to warn your subjects that you’re about to use red-eye reduction on ’em. People see all that flashing and blinking going on and look away—under the assumption the photo has already been taken (or they just can’t stand having their red-eyes reduced). A warning beforehand will eliminate a lot of the confused looks red-eye reduction systems can create.

3. Fill Flash : This is usually represented by just a flash symbol, or sometimes a flash symbol that’s smaller then the “regular” size flash symbol. I think I’ve seen it as a flash with an outdoor scene too (like a tree or something). Anyhow, this is used for situations where the automatic flash normally wouldn’t fire, but you want to fill in some shadows.

It’s great for outdoor photos—put your subject under the shade of a tree and turn on the fill flash – it’ll make your subjects stand out against the background and eliminate the shadows on their face (to a point).

You can also use it when the sun is harsh. Turn your subject’s back to the sun, so their face is shadowed. Turn on the fill flash, shoot the photo, and kiss excessive squinting goodbye. Oh, and watch for lens flare when you do it :-)

4. Slow Sync : Sorry, this mode won’t slow down the kids for a picture, although that type of feature would make any camera a huge seller! It’s normally represented by the word “Slow” and a flash symbol, but I’ve also seen it represented by a mountain in the “dark” with a star. Might need to check your owners manual on this one.

This is a little more “advanced” flash mode that allows you to shoot longer exposures with your flash.

See, normally when your camera is using flash, it keeps the shutter speed high. The flash is the main light in the photo, and it overpowers most of the other lights.

Slow mode allows you to place your camera on a tripod so you can shoot a longer exposure and still use the flash.

For example, let’s say you want to take a photo of the kids in front of a lit Christmas tree. Using regular flash usually won’t cut it—you won’t see the sparkling little lights. If you put the camera on a tripod and use Slow mode, you should get the lights from the tree and the flash will give the kids a proper exposure (can’t promise proper expressions though :-).

Oh, be sure to tell any of your “Slow” flash subjects to hold VERY STILL.

5. Cancel : This mode simple shuts off your flash. If you’ve ever heard, “No flash photography is permitted during the blah, blah, blah“, then you know what this mode is for. Remember to keep the camera as stable as possible when you shut the flash off—you may have a long exposure and those are difficult to hand-hold.

Finally, note that some cameras will also combine these modes. Like Slow flash and Red-Eye Reduction, or more commonly, Auto and Red-Eye Reduction.

Oh, and be sure to check with your owner’s manual to verify the all the different symbols you encounter so you’re 100% sure what they are. Some manufactures come up with some pretty bizarre stuff. 

That it, now go out and “flash” someone!

~ Steve