Students often ask me what accessories they should get for their camera. There are so many things to choose from and your budget is the limit. So I ask you, do you love to photograph friends and family? Do you do a lot of shooting indoors? If so I highly recommend an off camera flash. One that sits in the hot shoe on top of the camera. The hot shoe is present on all SLR type cameras and some Point and Shoots. The skinny little ‘fit in your pocket’ point and shoots do not have them.
So what will an off camera flash do for you? It will greatly improve the quality of the flash light on your subjects. The on camera flash is poorly placed for good photography. It is right over the lens and results in flat frontal light and red eye. When you create a portrait, it is preferable to have the light coming from an angle to create soft contouring shadows on the subjects face. Straight on light flattens out the subject and reduces depth in the final image.
Red eye is caused by light reflecting off the back of our eyes. Pets have yellow and green eyes, except Siamese cats that also have red eyes, (this is your useless fun fact from the veterinarian side of me). So using a flash directly in someone’s face usually results in red eye. Yes, you can try to correct this on the computer later, but turning red eyes of doom into black eyes of doom often isn’t any better.An off camera flash can help eliminate this.
Off camera flash units have a head that swivels. You can mount it to the top of the camera and then point it at a white wall or ceiling to bounce the light (beware of the color of the wall or ceiling as this is the color you will reflect if you bounce light). This creates a diffused soft light and changes the direction to give more pleasing results than the direct on flash.
If you are outdoors you will have to point the flash at the subject since there is nothing to bounce off of. However, many of the newer flash units have a wireless feature that communicates with the camera, so you can take it off the camera and hold it at a different angle than the camera. This allows you to move the angle of the light around your subject to get the best effect on the face and eliminate red eye. This requires you to use a tripod to hold the camera or have an assistant to hold/position the flash if you are hand holding the camera. You can use this technique indoors as well.
The other option is to use a diffuser over the flash to soften and diffuse the light so it is not so harsh. I highly recommend the diffusers made by Gary Fong. They work great, are collapsible and affordable. They create a warm diffuse light on the subject. I’ve used one for years! I use it all the time, whether I am bouncing the light or using it directly on the subject.
Which flash to get? Make sure to get one that is compatible with your camera. I suggest the same brand as your camera and make sure it has a movable head to point up or sideways. The wireless feature is nice but you can also get a cord to use if off of the hot shoe. Regardless your use of the flash will improve greatly by using an off camera unit and bouncing the light with a Fong diffuser. If you want to move your flash/portrait photography forward this is a great start and there is lots of room to grow!