Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I've read that it's not the quality of your camera, but the quality of the lighting that make pictures really good. That is probably not always true, though - there are many crappy cameras out there. ;-)

However, on my search to take better photos, I've read that one should invest in a good flash, and a flash bracket. In other words, the flash should not just sit on top of the camera.

Why is it so important to move the flash away from the camera?

There are also brackets (like the Stroboframe Quick Flip 350), which keeps the flash over the lens. Most seem to position the flash on the side - is it better to keep it over the lens? And in this case, what is the difference between this and mounting it on the camera?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Position of the flash (or light) in general is critical for the final look of your shots. If you you on-axis flash directly on camera, it usually creates dark shadows just behind the people or below their chins, which rarely looks flattering.

direct flash
This is a photo taken with on-camera flash. From the shadow you can see that the camera was vertical, and you can also see there are some nasty shadows on the right side of crocodile's body. This would look even worse with integrated camera flash.

bracket-like
This was taken with the flash raised to the top and bit to the left, to a position where flash bracket would probably put it. You can see that the shadow is now a bit lower and looks less distracting.

bounced
This final shot has flash back on the camera, but tilted upwards, so the light is bounced from the ceiling. Therefore this photo has the softest light fromt he three, and I belive it also looks the best (shadows are below the crocodile, much like how they'd look it you lit this just ceiling-mounted lights we're all used to in our homes).

Therefore, my advice is to get a good flash you can tilt and swivel and use the ceilings and walls around you to create the best lighting. In my opinion flash bracket is only useful when you want to shoot a lot in places where this is not an option (ball rooms with high ceilings, for example).

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1  
Couldn't possibly agree more, the flash bracket makes direct shots look a little better, but nowhere near as good as bounced flash. –  Matt Grum Nov 28 '10 at 14:02
    
I agree, bounced or softened will be better than a bracket that is still close to the lens for a single strobe. –  John Cavan Nov 28 '10 at 16:30
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Note I believe brackets will look even better than pictured above (but still nowhere near as good as flash with a bounce card) in most situations because the wall and floor will be further from the subject (taller subject) than this case, resulting in the shadow being cast on the floor, which will make it even less visible. In addition, subjects are typically more reflective (skin) and will benefit even more from non-axis as the specular and shadow transition will be more apparent and pleasantly displaced. –  Eruditass Nov 28 '10 at 18:24

Short answer:

This is because the flash on the camera lights the subject from the same direction as the direction you are shooting from. This results in a lightning without shadows, which makes the subject appear flat. A lightning from the side or from above is better.

This doesn't mean that a bracket is the only answer. If you get a good flash unit, it will be quite strong. So you can point it at a wall and the reflected light will illuminate the subject much better. (You can do this with a weak flash too, but it probably won't illuminate enough).

The long answer: Wise people have explained it better than I ever could. You can read a good tutorial about flash, bouncing, brackets, etc. here. And their other tutorials might interest you too, I find them both comprehensive and useful.

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Great explanation. 3D objects are revealed through their shadows. –  Eruditass Nov 29 '10 at 20:52

One of the biggest problems with on-camera flash is reflection from the retina of your subject's eyes. On humans, especially kids, you'll get red-eye. On animals you'll get glowing eyes. So, beyond controlling shadows, you have to control eye reflection.

Camera makers try to help out by various "red-eye reduction" techniques, such as shining a light in their eyes, or firing a series of pre-flashes, hoping to trick the subject's pupils into closing down, but the tactic usually doesn't fix the problem entirely simply because the light is at almost the same angle as the lens, causing the maximum light from the flash to reflect back to the camera.

I've used flashes on the camera, flashes on a good flash mount which raise the light about two feet above the lens, and then there's my set of six strobes on poles, which can light a football-field sized rodeo arena. I almost never get reflection with the big strobes because the angle between them and the lens is so great. The tall flash mount works great for people at weddings and parties but still has problems with animals.

So, what does that all mean? If you can get the flash off the body you improve your chances of NOT having reflection. Get an off-camera cord, or use some remote-releases and experiment with the flash on-axis with the lens, a foot away, two feet away, and at arm's length.

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