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It’s the partyin’ time of year. Some companies schedule holiday parties in January after the season is officially over, but it’s a fair bet you’ll be going to at least a couple of them in the next two weeks.

Holiday Party picture for Christmas

Holiday Party picture for Christmas

There was a young couple at my wife’s work holiday party who had me photograph them every year for their Christmas picture. And there was always plenty of action to shoot too, from gift winners to dancing.

Slow Speeds or Camera-Mounted Flash?
You can shoot these events without flash, but you might end up handholding the blurry shutter speeds below 1/30 second. Even if you’re inhumanly steady at those speeds, you’ll still end up with motion blur if anyone moves. You need flash to freeze that motion. Flash can be anything from popping up faces and creating eyeshine to the primary light of your picture. Most of the time, though, it’ll be something in between.

The classic flash location is mounted on top of the camera, either with a camera’s built-in flash or in the accessory hot shoe. You’ll pop that sucker on, aim your camera – and fry your subject with too much light. Even with today’s TTL (through the lens) flash metering, the camera will give you too much light out of the box. And your subject won’t thank you for that mugshot / deer-in-the-headlights look of direct flash, either.

The problem is the size and angle of your light relative to your subject. Your flash is a small light source, aimed directly at something from the top of your camera. It creates hard shadows like mid-day sun on a blue-sky summer day – instead of caressing your subject, it slaps them. But there are a few ways to restore that caressing, soft light.

Soft light with a flash reflector

Softer light with a bounce flash attachment

Think Artillery – Soften ‘Em Up
The biggest bang for your buck comes from bouncing the flash off something before it reaches your subject. You simply tilt it (flash, not subject) up at an angle to the ceiling and fire away. This mimics the overhead light most of us are used to.

But there are a few problems. Overhead light reflected from a low ceiling can leave you with unflattering eye-socket and snorting-nose shadows. And it does nothing to spotlight your subject out of the background. If the ceiling is too high, you may get next to no light from it. And if it’s painted pink or orange, guess what color the reflected light is?

I got the nutcracker!

I got the nutcracker!
Flash fill equalizes overhead ceiling light

I prefer a bounce flash attachment for more repeatable color and control. It diffuses the light and gently aims it at your subject, direct lighting with fewer hard shadows. Like a cloudy sky, larger diffusers make softer light. But I don’t feel like setting up a 4-foot by 6-foot softbox everywhere I go. I use a Lumiquest 80-20 pocket bouncer with diffusing screen over it. This gives relatively soft, even light from a shoe-mounted 430EX III-RT flash. It’s much better than direct flash.

Get It Off The Camera
After you soften the light, you’d like some direction to it. Shooting straight at your subject with a shoe-mounted flash won’t give it to you.

There are a few ways to do this. You can use a flash extension cord designed for your camera and flash. For Nikon and Leica fans, Nikon’s discontinued SC-17 will set you back about $25 on eBay. Canon’s OC-E3 is expensive, but you can find inexpensive knockoffs on eBay. With any knockoff copy, don’t expect the durability of the real thing.

Then you can just grab camera and flash in two separate hands and blast away, right? Not if you’re after sharp shots. Pro shooter Joe McNally came up with the best way to separately hand-hold camera and flash. Tuck your flash-holding arm across your body. Then cross your camera-holding arm over the top of it and up to your eye. Now you have a multi-point cradle supporting everything, and all you have to do is point camera and flash at your subject and shoot. With flash to one side of the camera, you’ve given some directionality to the light, and created shadows to define your subject’s face.

Don’t want to play arm Twister? Me neither, most of the time. A lightweight bracket gets flash off the camera too. The good ones give you flexible flash positioning (within limits), and let you keep the flash in the same position for vertical and horizontal shots. They can also mount to an Arca quick-release plate on your camera, so you can easily take ’em on and off as needed.

December birthday

December birthday
Flash reflector softens the light

Your Flash Unwired
You’ve probably noticed at least one gotcha here. There’s this cord attached to camera and flash, and it’s getting in the way. A wireless flash trigger gets rid of it. Nikon and Canon make wireless triggers for their own cameras and flashes, and there are cheaper third-party models too. The older ones are optical, relying on a light path between the trigger and the flash. Newer ones use RF (radio waves) to connect between on-camera transmitter and on-flash receiver.

The camera maker’s own remote system preserves TTL (through-the-lens) flash metering. This means you can set the flash to under- or over-expose the scene’s available light while you set initial exposure. Then you can forget about it as you shoot, right?

Not really. Chances are good you’ll need to open up lens aperture to isolate a portrait with shallow depth of field, then stop back down again for a group or couples shot. Any building’s interior is never lit consistently – your ambient light will change in different rooms. You may want to spotlight your subjects for one shot and just pop up a face while the ambient does most of the work in another. Canon and Nikon flash systems do a pretty good job with TTL balanced fill. I used to set -2/3 to -1 2/3 of flash underexposure using Nikon SB-series or Canon EX Speedlites with strong ambient light. 90 percent of the time, this worked pretty well.

But dedicated flashes for Leica and other cameras don’t do as good a job, because of their simpler center-weighted metering systems.

And none of this is an exact science. I usually take a few test shots and tweak the flash vs ambient balance before capturing the real “money” shots. That said, if you’re using recent Canon or Nikon gear, multi-point TTL will give you very consistent results. I’ve used both brands with set-flash-underexposure-and-forget convenience.

Firepit fill 'flash'

Firepit fill ‘flash’

Sometimes the ambient is your best “flash”. The fire pit flames filled the faces nicely at a recent Oktoberfest party, no flash required. So look at what you’re shooting, and use what’s already there. Sometimes that’s way easier than flash – but not always.

Shot Notes
All the flash pictures shown here were captured with Canon flashes and camera bodies. The trick is making the flash as subtle as possible. This works when there’s a lot of background light from windows, or you put a CTO gel (Color Temperature Orange) on your flash to match the color temperature of lights in the room. In a room lit by old-fashioned filament bulbs (or LEDs), the CTO gives a slightly yellow-orange cast to your flash to match.

With fluorescents, though, all color temperature bets are off. Today, some of them may match filament bulbs, while others (usually those long tubes in office buildings) give a slightly green cast. The trick is having gels for any of them, and trying ’em out to see what works.

You don’t want to mix your light sources – you’ll never be able to choose white balance that works for everything. Much better to do ballpark-level matching. It doesn’t need to be exact, but fairly close. No gels? Shoot it anyway, but try to make flash the main light source for faces. Also know some white balance tweaking is in your post-processing future. (If you’re using daylight film, you’re REALLY in trouble!)

I get rid of those pesky sync cords with RadioPopper Jr2 remote triggers. I use ’em for Canon 430EX, 430EX-III-RT and 550EX flashes, and Alien Bees studio monolights. They’re made for Nikon flashes too. You can control power of up to four of these lights independently or in groups from the on-camera transmitter, over a range of 1500 feet.

Yes, it’s a little more expensive when you have to buy a receiver for each light, but it’s reliable, and very easy to use. Jr2 TX and RX units use two AAA batteries for power. I use Eneloop NiMH rechargeable in mine.

Another option is a third-party trigger for late-model flashes you may already have. I’ve started using Yongnuo’s YN-E3-RT transmitter with Canon’s 430EX III-RT flashes. Yongnuo reverse-engineered Canon’s ST-E3-RT and priced their trigger at 1/3 the cost. The Yongnuo also has an AF assist light not found in the Canon model.

Daylight fill outdoors in warm November

Daylight fill outdoors in warm November