The latest in electronic flash in my camera bag

As promised, this blog entry will not include any writing about my “philosophy.” For the moment, I have happily returned to talking about cameras and photographing. In this post I am going to highlight the other new and important piece of gear in my camera bag.

Portable electronic flash units have come a long way since I started in photography. Today we are somewhat spoiled by the flash units that adjust the output of the flash based on a reading of the flash’s light as it is reflected back from the subject, “through the lens.” That last phrase is why the best flash units boast about having what is labeled “TTL” capability. TTL is very important to flash photography and let me explain why.

First some background. In the 1890’s flash powder was invented. It was something of a revolution, as it enabled photography indoors and in all sorts of other lighting situations that were previously “un-photographable.” The movie caricature we have all seen of how flash powder works is pretty close. The photographer holds a pole or a stand and atop that is metal pan with chemicals, which when ignited, cause a brief but very intense burst of light.

Flash bulbs followed (an attempt to essentially package that process in a more controlled way). Next was electronically generated flash, the invention of which is generally credited to Harold E. (Doc) Edgerton in 1931. The trouble was that in all of these cases, a fixed amount of light was generated by the source of the light. The photographer had to make detailed calculations to figure the correct exposure setting based on the light source, the flash to subject distance, etc. If the flash to subject distance changed, which it often did, the calculations had to be redone. Flash tended to be a very controlled process, practiced by a technically skilled few.

Automatic electronic flashes, which first came to market in the early 1980s were something of a revolution. After nearly a century of fixed light outputs, a small sensor in the front of the newest electronic units “automatically” varied the flash output. These sensors adjusted the output of the flash, based on reading the flash’s light as it was reflected back from the subject. Suddenly, the photographer could worry less about the exposure and more about the photography. Flash became a more spontaneous process practiced by a growing number of photographers.

For me, and most of my peers in publication photography, this was a real revolution. The next step was the remote flash cords allowing the photographer to take the flash off the camera and put it somewhere else. We were used to having the flash over the lens, but were never happy about it, because it tended to create images with a “deer in headlights” kind of look.

With the new remote cords, we could much more easily control and change the direction of the light. Like so much of photography, this new technology was blurring the lines between various types of photography. Many of the sophisticated lighting techniques that studio photographers once dominated were now available to the more innovative location photographers who were willing to learn the new technology.

I was one who embraced that new technology when it came to using off camera flash with remote cards. Here are a few examples of my favorite images using that technology.

In all cases you may notice that the images appear to be lighted from the left. That is simply because I am holding the camera in my right hand and the flash in my left, as shown in the image below.

TTL was next, moving the sensor from the outside of the flash unit to the inside of the camera. Thus, the reading of the flash’s light as it was reflected back from the subject was now made “through the lens.” That way the aperture, the focal length, the filters over the lens, etc., all became part of the calculation that the flash made automatically.

All of this freed photographers like me to use flash for what I think it does best. Flash, at its best, reduces the difference in the amounts of light in different parts of a picture. If you make a portrait of a person in bright sun and they have a hat on (or have deep eye sockets like me) what you have is black spots where the face (or eyes) should be. There is too much difference between the brightest and darkest part of the picture.

Electronic flash is an excellent and easy way to put some light “into” those dark places so the difference between the dark and light is not so extreme and the picture more pleasing. Automatic flash made the flash do most of the work in calculating the exposure in this kind of situation. TTL made the quality of the reading/calculation notably more accurate. The remote cords allow the photographer to direct that light as they choose. Sounds almost perfect, right? Well, it is except for one thing. I hate to complain, but I will.

That remote cord was a real pain. It limited how far away you could place the flash unit. It also meant you needed to have a place to “hold” the flash (and the cord) when you needed to have both hands free. I usually had to wear an extra belt pouch (among the many I already had on) to hold that combo when I was not using it. It never ceased to amaze me how often I could tangle up the remote cord, a camera strap and a couple other lines and end up wrapped in my own mess…

So, when I was talking with an Olympus technical rep recently and he showed me the newest, wireless controlled version of the electronic flash unit that I already own, I was amazed. I have to say I went right out and bought it.

No, I did not use Photoshop to erase the cord. I just do not need it anymore!

I should say I was very happy with my old Olympus FL36 unit. It was small, easy to use, had great TTL and I could raise and lower the TTL output as I liked. It just had that darn cord. Now I have all the other things I had with that old unit and I now work wirelessly with my new Olympus FL36R.

I know that most readers are probably NOT Olympus users, but most of the big camera manufacturers have or will soon bring out wireless version of their flash units. (To clarify, this is not wirelessly triggering the flash, which has existed for a while. This is wirelessly varying the flash output, which is newer.)

If you have not yet used much flash, don’t be afraid of it. Think of electronic flash as a way to put some light “into” dark places in your images, reducing the difference between the dark and light areas, to make the picture more pleasing. Then think about how TTL can simplify the exposure calculations as the wireless capability frees you to place the light source wherever you want. As they say in the commercials, it doesn’t get any better than this.

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