Getting started with flash

Off cameraw360_6415757_tutorialbannerfordotmailerSo how do you get on with using flash? If you’re like 90% of the world’s photographers the answer to that will be ‘pretty badly’. You’re never quite sure what it’s up to, never feel fully in control of what’s going on and are never completely happy with the results you get. And that’s a shame because, when you come to think about it, flash is the most controllable light source you have at your disposal. You can fire it when you want, put out lots of power (or very little) and you can even shape or colour the light. Just imagine what brilliant landscape photographers we’d all be if we had the same amount of control over daylight! So, flash isn’t the bad news that many photographers consider it to be, it’s simply a question of learning the functions you have at your disposal and how to bend them to your creative will.  

No doubt, after the rousing words of my opening paragraph you’ll be wanting to get to grips with multiple flash set ups right from the off. But that’s a little like competing in the 100m at the Olympics before you can walk. Let’s ease you in more gently by giving you an overview of the flash features you have at your disposal on a Fujifilm X-series camera and when you might press them into service. In this particular case, I’m heading to the Flash Set-Up menu on an X-T10.

Within that menu you’ll find the Flash Mode option, which gives you five choices: Forced Flash, Slow Synchro, 2nd Curtain Sync, Commander and Suppressed Flash. The last option is perhaps the most obvious; selecting Suppressed Flash means the flash won’t fire even if it’s popped up ready for action, nor will a hot-shoe flash fire if it’s attached to the camera and switched on. But seeing as this a guide to firing the flash, we best move on.

Forced Flash is the polar opposite of Suppressed Flash. As long as the integral unit is flipped up or a hot-shoe flash is attached and switched on, the flash will fire on every shot, irrespective of how bright the light in the scene is. This may sound a little odd, but you’re actually most likely to use this mode in bright daylight for a technique called fill-in flash. This is where you ‘fill-in’ shadows – typically in a portrait – with a low powered burst of flash, which is achieved by combining Forced Flash and the Flash Compensation mode. Take a look at the two shots above. The one on the left is taken without flash. It’s OK, but the subject’s face is in shadow. By using Forced Flash and -1 Flash Compensation, we got a lower powered burst of flash that filled in the shadowy area and put a nice catchlight in our subject’s eyes.

Slow sync

Next on the menu is Slow Synchro, which is used to add a touch of dynamism to action images or to shoot portraits in low light conditions. Selecting this function and a slower shutter speed produces the sort of image you see above on action shots. Panning the camera during the exposure introduces the blur, but then the burst of flash momentarily freezes the subject so you get this look. The shutter speed doesn’t have to be too slow – the shot above was taken at 1/8sec, but it adds an extra dimension to your shots.

Equally, using Slow Synchro can help capture more ambient light in low light conditions. Take a straight shot with flash at night and you’ll end up with a shot like the one below left – rather dull. Use Slow Synchro and the longer exposure ensures the background appears while the flash illuminates your subject perfectly. In this case you’ll need to keep both the camera and the subject still – we’d recommend a tripod and a head brace. Ok, maybe just the tripod.

Note: It’s worth noting that Slow Synchro is only available on the menu in aperture-priority and program exposure modes. If you want to combine a slow shutter speed in shutter-priority or manual modes you still can – just switch to Forced Flash and select the shutter speed you require.

2nd Curtain Sync is another one for those who want to make movement look natural and, much like Slow Synchro is a question of combining a burst of flash with a longer shutter speed. The ‘curtain’ part of the equation refers to the camera’s shutter curtain. In any given exposure, the first curtain begins the exposure, the second curtain ends it. Typically, when you’re using flash, the flash is fired at the start of the exposure – when the first curtain moves. But switching to 2nd Curtain Sync, the flash fires at the end of the exposure. This is largely irrelevant if the exposure is a fraction of a second. But it’s important with a longer exposure. Take a look at the two shots below. For the shot on the left, the flash has fired at the start of the exposure and then the car has moved to create the blurred light effect. The trouble is, it looks as though the car has reversed. It didn’t, it moved forwards. By selecting 2nd Curtain Sync, the flash fires at the end of the exposure after the car has moved, so you get a more natural-looking effect with the blurred lights.

Note: When using 2nd Curtain Sync with a built in or hot-shoe flashgun, two bursts of flash will fire. The first at the beginning of the exposure, is purely designed for the camera to get an exposure assessment and does not effect the actual exposure. The second flash, at the end of the exposure, is the one that actually illuminates the subject.

Finally, we have the Commander mode, where you can use the camera’s integral flash to fire a second flash away from the camera. This is used for more creative on-location effects, like the one below. It’s simple enough to do and produces professional looking results.

Off camera

So that’s the top line when it comes to shooting flash. Hopefully, this top-line introduction has armed you with enough information to start getting to grips with the flash modes you have available. But we’ll be going into more detail on each of these techniques in subsequent blogs over the next few weeks.

Plastic fantastic!

This colourful effect is known as cross polarisation and the good news is, it’s incredibly easy to do. In the days of film, this technique would have regularly required sheets of polarising film placed behind the subject and a polarising filter on the camera. Now, all you need is a polarising filter, a computer screen and a plastic geometry set. Here’s how it’s done:

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1 As mentioned, the pre-requisite parts are a geometry set (we pushed the Fujifilm budget to the limit spending £1.59 on this one), a polarising filter and a computer screen. It isn’t essential that the filter is the correct size for the lens you’re using – just as long as it covers the front element. I used the super-sharp XF60mm macro for these image, but didn’t have a 39mm filter, so I just used a 72mm one instead.

 2 All these shots were taken with the X-T1, which I set to aperture-priority, ISO 200 and spot metering. The camera was tripod mounted and positioned directly in front of the screen.

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 08.48.103 The computer background needs to be white. As I was using an Apple Mac, I did this through the System Preferences window. With the background white, I positioned the pieces from the geometry set directly on the computer screen in the order I wanted them.

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4 Here’s the magic bit! Put the polarising filter in front of the lens and slowly rotate it, as you do, you’ll see the screen turn grey, then black. As this happens, the vibrant colours in the plastic will appear. Make sure you spot meter from the plastic, not the black background and you’ll get a result like this.

 5 Once you’ve perfected the technique, you can start getting creative. Here are a couple of extra shots of individual pieces from the set where I cropped in in post-production.

Quick tips

There is a ‘sweet spot’ when you’re turning the polarising filter, make sure you experiment so you get a pure black background, otherwise you’ll end up with a less-appealing grey as you see here.

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Use the Velvia Film Simulation mode for really vibrant colours.

On some screens, when you find the optimum position for the polarising filter, small white dots will appear in the background. These may disappear when you spot meter accurately, but if they don’t you can get rid of them by boost the blacks in post production.

We’d advise you to buy a new geometry set rather than using an old one, which will almost certainly be covered in scratches and will dilute the effect. Besides, everyone needs a protractor, right?

Nice one, centurion

By Roger Payne

Is it just me, or have other people experienced a weird phenomenon when they start using Fujifilm X-series cameras? I’m not talking about aesthetics here, I’m talking more fundamental, cerebral kinda stuff.

Lately, thanks to the nice people at Fujifilm UK, I’ve been able to get my hands on some of the X-series models. I’ve tried the X100S (it’s very nice), the X-T1 (it’s very nice) and, most recently the X-E2 (it’s, erm, very nice). But when I’ve gone back and looked at some of the shots I’ve taken with this trio of models they all bear the hallmarks of me transforming into some wannabe reportage-come-street photographer. It’s really quite alarming.

To understand the full gravitas of this situation, it’s important for you to understand what sort of a photographer I was before I started using X-series cameras. The immediate word that springs to mind is ‘safe’. Technically adept, but safe. I photographed landscapes because they don’t move, buildings because they don’t talk back to you and my dog, because he’ll do pretty much anything with the promise of a treat. The idea of photographing a fellow human being filled me with fear while the very thought of photographing a fellow human being in a candid way would have me blowing into a paper bag to calm my nerves.

But Fujifilm cameras have changed all that.

I’d borrowed the X-E2 to go on a short city break to Rome. It was accompanied by an XF18-55mm and an XF10-24mm. Ordinarily on a trip of this type, I would have sought out the tourist hot-spots, documented them in my technically adept way and then gone home to bury them on an external hard drive, never to be seen again. But with the X-E2 in my hand, I became some kind of gung-ho street photographer, snapping pretty much anything that moved, and some things that didn’t. Within minutes, Rome went from a selection of photo locations carefully plotted on a tourist map to a photographer’s playground. My playground, to be precise.

The pictures I’ve brought home are unlike anything I’ve ever captured in a foreign city. They include people; people I’ve never met before, nor will I ever meet again. As you can see, they do also include a few shots where I lapsed into capturing subjects that didn’t have the ability to talk to me, but even these are a little different. They’re not hackneyed scenes photographed millions of times before by others, they’re my interpretations of the locations I visited; they communicate how I was feeling and how I viewed the area.

How was the X-E2? Well, it was excellent. Sure, it could do with an articulated rear screen, but I also enjoyed not having an optical viewfinder option to choose from; the finder in the X-T1 is fantastic, but I didn’t miss its functionality. In fact, I preferred the X-E2’s viewfinder simplicity (just don’t tell Fujifilm, OK?). The lenses were great, too – sharp, easy to use, no complaints.

So, am I alone, or have other experienced feeling of photographic invincibility with an X-series camera in their hands? Oh ok, just me then.

Couple. XF18-55mm, 1/80sec at f6/4, ISO 400.
Couple. XF18-55mm, 1/80sec at f6/4, ISO 400.