Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pop-Up Flash to the Rescue

It was a Sunday which was rather unplanned for, that I dropped by Times Square to have lunch and catch up session with a friend. Obviously I brought my camera along, and intended to do some street shooting initially, but decided not to after looking at the terrifying stormy weather out there on the sky. I only brought my Olympus E-5 together with 11-22mm F2.8-3.5 and the tele lens 40-150mm F3.5-4.5, leaving the external flash behind. My 50mm was with another friend who loaned it for a wedding he was shooting that very same weekend.

And then I bumped into this event at Times Square: Comic Fiesta, where hundreds of anime character wannabes cosplaying themselves into the characters they adore from selected favourite anime/comic. I thought to myself, great, this just had to happen at the time I decided NOT to bring my external flash.

I went to the 14th floor, where the Manhattan Ballroom was situated. I scouted around the place, and to my horror the lighting condition was VERY bad. It was mostly dark, and the lighting was setup across the hall in such an uneven manner that having a properly lit photograph was quite a difficult stunt to pull. I did try gathering as much light as possible, bumping my ISO up to as high as 3200, but the result was just plain unsightly. There were harsh shadows in the face and all around the cosplayers, the skin tone was disgustingly ugly with greenish and yellowish tint, and the photograph came out very flat and unflattering. I almost decided to run to the exit, until I thought to myself, hey, why not use the built in camera Pop Up Flash?

An example of the horrible photograph taken without Flash, just ambient light at High ISO.

ISO2000, no flash.

OMG I cannot believe I just posted this horribly taken image !! Just an evidence to show how useless this situation can be, without flash.

You see, I am sure a lot of DSLR users will come to a universal agreement that the pop up flash unit in the camera is rather useless. In Scott Kelby's book for the beginners he mentioned jokingly that the reason any camera manufacturers would even include the pop-up flash was to allow the user to experience the horror of the pop-up flash results that they get so frustratingly annoyed by it they would automatically buy the real external flash unit after that. I cannot agree more. Generally I would avoid using the Pop Up flash that throws too much frontal light casting a lot of problems people normally hate in people photography: 1) oily skin and washed out white spots 2) Heavy shadows cast on the backgrounds 3) Unnatural looking photograph, with overly dark background and blown foreground.

However, as much as I hate using the Pop Up flash, I was thrown into a circumstance, with a few possibilities:
1) Leave the event, and forget about shooting. Exit was nearby.
2) Shoot solely with available ambient light, and get 90% ugly looking photographs, with noise issues (ISO3200 was pushing it far for even E-5), ugly skin tone, and generally lousy photographs.
3) or, use the Pop Up flash, and work around the weaknesses. And pray for miracles.

I went with option no.3, and you know what, the results were not too shabby at all. I know the overall outcome was nothing stellar, there were still plenty of flaws that cannot be mitigated, but I would say, after working around twiddling with the camera settings, I did manage to get what I intended to achieve with the pop up flash, more or less. In such emergency situations like this, it was comforting to know that the pop-up flash still managed to salvage some otherwise, completely useless shots. Yes, the shots could have been better with external flash (with some kick-ass softbox diffusers and what nots), but it sure beats the crap out of photographs taken solely with the horrible ambient available light.

1/80sec, F/3.4, ISO1250, pop up flash fired

1/80sec, F/3.4, ISO1250, pop up flash fired

1/80sec, F/3.2, ISO800, pop up flash fired

1/80sec, F/3.2, ISO800, pop up flash fired

1/80sec, F/3.2, ISO800, pop up flash fired

As I have mentioned, the few things I hate about using pop up flash were the oily skin with bright spots, heavy shadows casted and the unnaturally bright foreground vs dark background. The technique I employed to counter these issues was nothing new or special at all, it is called, pulling the shutter.

The following is the list of settings/tips I used to counter the problems as highlighted:
1) Raise the Pop-Up flash, and set the flash to "Force Fill".
2) Set the Flash TTL-setting to -0.7EV to -1.0EV. This will minimize the oily skin issue, and overblown bright foreground vs dark background.
3) Set the aperture widest possible (Lowest F-number)
4) Set the Shutter Speed to 1/50 to 1/80 seconds.
5) Set the ISO between 800-1600 depending on the lighting condition, the darker the background the higher the ISO setting

The combination of widest aperture, slow shutter speed and high ISO allows more background ambient light to be captured, and the flash was fire gently just to "kiss" the skin of the cosplayers, adding the glow to enhance the skin tone appearance, while lightening some of the heavy shadow casts on the face. I found these settings to work well, though to a certain limitations of course, but good enough to obtain reasonably good and presentable shots as seen on this entry.

Do bear in mind that I do not think my shots in this entry were up to the ordinary standards, but you have got to admit that those shots were quite usable. It was quite interesting to note that even up to ISO1600, noise was very, very well controlled in the E-5, something that previous Olympus DSLRs such as E-3 or the E-520 failed to match up to. Shooting at high ISO with flash, can blend the subject well with the background, creating a more believable and flattering image, especially for people photography. I have always favored flash over available light when it comes to a poorly lit condition, fairly because if the light is bad, your photograph will be bad, unless you play around with the light (introduce your own artificial light, such as flash, or just move and shoot at a better lit set-up).

1/80sec, F/3.2, ISO800, pop up flash fired

1/80sec, F/3.2, ISO1000, pop up flash fired

1/80sec, F/3.2, ISO800, pop up flash fired

1/60sec, F/3.2, ISO1000, pop up flash fired

1/80sec, F/3.2, ISO640, pop up flash fired

1/60sec, F/3.2, ISO640, pop up flash fired

Knowing the fact that I wont be able to grab spectacular shots with only my Pop Up flash, I did not purchase the tickets to enter the hall and photograph the entire event. Instead, I just immersed myself into the crowd of people flooding the walkway outside the hall, where the cosplayers were getting themselves ready and posed for by passers to photograph them. It was not easy to compose, because the background were full of people, and many distracting elements. The cosplyers were looking at possibly a dozen other photographers pointing their cameras at them at the same time, hence having eye-contact was not really an easy thing to do. I decided to just grab some quick shots to test out the pop-up flash capabilities and bolted out of the human flood zone just after about an hour there. If I had brought my external flash along, I might have decided otherwise, and spent possibly the entire day in the hall, and come back with more photographs.

Do share with me and the rest of the readers, what do you personally think of the Pop-Up flash in your camera, or the built in flash if you are using a compact camera. Do you use them a lot, and would you use them in emergencies, or rather not shoot at all? Have you guys tried the technique "pulling the shutter", that I have mentioned earlier? Do share, because I am still very new to flash photography. I have relied heavily on flash for all my paid assignment, and it would be great to hear some tips and tricks from experienced users. I also acknowledged the importance of external flash, which I did use extensively, but I want to hear your story.


  1. OMGeeee

    how can i missed this, im a big anime fan, i saw so many characters here, grrrrrr. should have gone to this event !!

  2. Hi Gerald,
    I was not aware of the event too until I saw some cosplayers running around Times Square and I followed them. Kinda weird they remained so low key in marketing eh? budget issues maybe? I searched Times Square event listing and the comic fiesta was not there.

  3. very horrible meh? looks damn good to me LOL


  4. Hey Marcus,
    Thanks, but I think could have been improved with an external flash ahahahah