Canon PowerShot G12, Shooting with an External Flash

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One feature that sets the G12 apart from most point-and-shoots is also one that most G12 owners will likely never take advantage of: the hot shoe on top of the camera, which is used to mount an external flash (also known as a strobe light or Speedlight).

However, the built-in flash tends to be the light of last resort. For photographing people, it’s probably one of the most unflattering light sources. Not because the flash isn’t good—it’s actually very sophisticated for its size. The problem is that light should come from any direction besides the camera to best flatter a human subject. When the light emanates from directly above the lens, it gives the effect of becoming a photocopier. Imagine putting your face down on a scanner: The result would be a flatly lit, featureless photo. Personally, I far prefer to keep the built-in flash turned off and compensate in low-light situations by raising the ISO, extending shutter times, or increasing aperture.

With the addition of an external flash, you can control the direction of light in your scene, not just moving it higher above the camera but also getting the flash off the camera entirely to create more interesting photos.

Positioning the Flash

Photography is all about working with light, and the important thing to remember about light is that it moves. When we enter a room and flick the switch, or when we step outside, it seems as if light just appears and fills the environment. But, in fact, photons are always in motion, whether they’re coming from a lightbulb or the giant strobe in the sky.

Aiming Directly at the Subject

The most obvious way to use an external flash is to mount it on top of the G12 and angle the flash head 90 degrees so it’s pointing directly at your subject (Figure 10.12). This position moves the light source up and away from the lens and blankets the scene with light from the direction of the camera.

However, this approach may also serve to just increase the wattage compared to the built-in flash and blow out the subject. If you need this type of a direct angle, consider reducing the flash exposure compensation or setting a lower power output in Manual mode. Adding a diffuser (a semi-opaque plastic cap, for example, or a fabric hood) to the flash softens the light and avoids harsh shadows.

Directing the flash head at the subject is better than using the built-in flash, but it can be less flattering than you’d like.
Figure 10.12 Directing the flash head at the subject is better than using the built-in flash, but it can be less flattering than you’d like.

Shooting directly like this is often helpful when shooting outdoors, even in sunlight. You can set the aperture and exposure values based on the background light and rely on the flash to fill in shadows or prevent subjects in the foreground from becoming silhouettes.

Bouncing Light at 45 Degrees

A far more effective technique is to position the flash head at a 45-degree angle and bounce the light off the ceiling. Instead of striking your subject full-force, the light hits the ceiling and falls over the scene (Figure 10.13). This approach assumes you’re shooting in a fairly normal room with white ceilings; higher ceilings require more flash output. When I’m capturing photos inside, this is the angle I turn to the most for balanced, even light.

If your flash includes a deflector that pops out at the top of the flash head, use it to direct a portion of that light directly at the subject and create a catchlight (that glint in the eyes). Or, tape a small card in the same spot—no need to get fancy when a business card and a piece of tape will do.

Bounce light at a 45-degree angle off the ceiling to fill the scene with softer light, without needing a lot of equipment.
Figure 10.13 Bounce light at a 45-degree angle off the ceiling to fill the scene with softer light, without needing a lot of equipment.

Shooting Light from any Angle

With the addition of an inexpensive cord (or more pricey wireless remote triggers), you can move the flash off the camera entirely and direct the light however you wish (Figure 10.14). Position a light just outside the frame and light from the side to create dramatic shadows, or use it to soften dark areas caused by another light source, such as sunlight coming through a window.

Get that external flash off the camera and place it wherever you want. In this case, I put the flash on a tripod to the side of the subject.
Figure 10.14 Get that external flash off the camera and place it wherever you want. In this case, I put the flash on a tripod to the side of the subject.

Shooting with the External Flash

An external flash opens up all sorts of opportunities for lighting. Perhaps you’re looking to add more light to a dim scene, or maybe compose a dramatic portrait where most of the subject is in shadows except for a ray of detail. As you shoot more, you’ll develop a better feel for where to position light and how powerful it should be, but in the meantime do what I do: Take plenty of sample shots until you achieve the look you want.

A good starting point is to make sure the background is exposed properly. Press the shutter button halfway to get a reading from the G12’s light meter and make note of the exposure and aperture settings. Next, dial the camera to Manual shooting mode and take some test shots to experiment with the settings for flash exposure compensation (in the flash’s Auto mode) or flash output (in Manual mode) to get a good balance of light on your subject, as described on the next page.

Setting the External Flash Output Level

External Flash Output Level
External Flash Output Level
  1. Attach the flash to the camera and power them both on. An orange flash icon (a lightning bolt) appears to indicate that the two devices are communicating.
  2. Press the Menu button.
  3. Choose Flash Control from the main menu.
  4. Choose a Flash Mode setting: Auto or Manual.
  5. In Auto mode, highlight the Flash Exp. Comp (exposure compensation) item and use the Left or Right button to change the value in one-third stop increments, between –3 and +3.
    In Manual mode, the Flash Exp. Comp menu becomes the Flash Output menu; press the Left or Right button to change the output in fractions, from 1/1 (full power, bring your sunglasses) to a minimum of 1/64.
  6. Set the other flash controls, such as Shutter Sync and Slow Synchro, as described

Compose your photo and take the shot. Depending on the power output, you may need to wait for the flash to recharge; look for a light marked Pilot or Ready that comes on when it’s ready, depending on the flash.

Shooting Still-Life Subjects and Product Shots

Flashes are great for shaping light around people, but they’re also invaluable for shooting still-life images where you can fuss with the lighting as much as you want without making a person wait while you tweak flash settings (Figure 10.15 and Figure 10.16).

Want to make an item you’re selling stand out on eBay or Craigslist? Give it a professional- looking photo, not something that looks like you used a throwaway camera in your basement.

Capturing a really good product shot, such that you’d find in an Apple ad or a magazine cover, can entail a lot of time, experience, and equipment—it’s truly an art. However, if you need to take a photo of something more modest, you can do it easily and inexpensively by building your own lightbox (Figure 10.17).

For instructions on making a box for roughly $10, see http://strobist.blogspot. com/2006/07/how-to-diy-10-macro-photo-studio.html.

I positioned the flash to the left of the camera to get a more interesting lighting angle of this scene.
Figure 10.15 I positioned the flash to the left of the camera to get a more interesting lighting angle of this scene.
To capture the shot above, I placed the flash above and to the left of the espresso cup. I also turned off the overhead lights to prevent a lot of ambient light interfering with the effect I wanted. Shooting in my kitchen reveals that you don’t need a fancy setup.
Figure 10.16 To capture the shot above, I placed the flash above and to the left of the espresso cup. I also turned off the overhead lights to prevent a lot of ambient light interfering with the effect I wanted. Shooting in my kitchen reveals that you don’t need a fancy setup.
Speaking of not getting fancy, this is my homemade lightbox that I use for photographing products. If I did more of this type of shooting, I’d invest in better, more durable gear, but for now the cardboard and off-the-shelf lighting combined with a strobe light suits my needs.
Figure 10.17 Speaking of not getting fancy, this is my homemade lightbox that I use for photographing products. If I did more of this type of shooting, I’d invest in better, more durable gear, but for now the cardboard and off-the-shelf lighting combined with a strobe light suits my needs.

The Light Under the Door

Lighting with external flashes can quickly become an incredibly deep topic. You start with one strobe, then realize the advantages of using two or more, and pretty soon you could find yourself wanting to trigger multiple synced Speedlights using wireless remotes. For more on this fascinating topic, go read David Hobby’s Strobist blog (strobist.blogspot.com), a great resource for all things related to off-camera flash.