One of the most common types of photographs you see is a group of people lined up and looking at the camera. At weddings and other social functions, you’re bound to take photos like this if you have a camera. If you are the “official” wedding photographer, you can’t escape them. Quite often these pictures are made less attractive by distracting shadows against the wall or backdrop behind the people, caused by the camera’s flash unit, as well as the dreaded “red-eye” effect. Red-eye is caused by the flash unit reflecting strongly off of the blood vessels at the back of the eye and happens when the flash unit and the eye are at close to the same level. What can you do about these problems?
Fortunately, there is a way around both problems, which can kill two birds with one stone. I am assuming that you are using a 35mm or medium format single-lens-reflex type camera here, not a point-and-shoot type. Point-and-shoot cameras are too limited in their features to do much about these problems, with one exception. With regard to red eye, there are some flash units on the market which have a feature called “Red Eye Reduction”. With this feature, the flash unit sends a small flash burst just before it fires to take the picture.
This short burst of light causes the pupils of the subject’s eyes to contract, making it much harder for the flash to reflect off of the back of the eye. This helps but is not always completely effective. Some point-and-shoot cameras also have this feature, which is quite useful. To fully remove the red-eye effect, however, it is necessary to move the flash unit off of the same plane as the subject’s eyes. Luckily, this is also what is necessary to take care of those dark shadows behind your subjects.
By lifting the flash unit well above the plane of the camera’s lens, it’s possible to completely eliminate red-eye, and force the subjects’ shadows behind them as they stand in front of the backdrop. Although you may see some shadow (especially behind people to the outside edges of the group), it will be much less noticeable than without this technique.
Red-eye cannot occur with the flash unit well above the plane of the eye. Actually, the flash unit is still reflecting off of the back of the eye, but the light is entering and leaving the eye at an angle, and the angle is pointed downward, so it doesn’t reach the lens. Think of a pool table. When you bounce a ball off of the edge of the table, it bounces at exactly the same angle that it hit the edge at, only opposite. Light behaves in exactly the same way. The scientific quote to describe this phenomenon is “The angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.”
So how do you lift the flash unit above the plane of the camera’s lens? There are several methods that will work, depending on your particular camera and flash unit. With older cameras, it’s only necessary to get a simple flash extension cord, which connects to the “X” contact on your camera. Then you can either hold the flash up with one hand while holding the camera with the other, or purchase a “flash handle”, a special handle which allows the camera to be screwed into it’s base using a tripod screw.
An arm extends upwards, and the flash attaches to the arm. Usually, these are far more convenient than holding the flash by hand. With many modern cameras, the flash is electronically part of the camera, which allows it to have such features as Through the Lens Metering, and Automatic Shutter Speed Control.
For these types of camera/flash combinations, it may be necessary to purchase an accessory to be able to remove the flash from the top of the camera and still have it function properly. Speak to your camera dealer about what you need to do. How far up should the flash go? I recommend between 12 inches and sixteen inches in order to be most effective.
Another technique, which can be effective in reducing shadows and red-eye, is “bounce flash”. This method requires a reflective ceiling and a fairly powerful flash unit to do effectively. It is more complex than simply raising your flash unit, and requires more practice to master. I don’t recommend trying it out on any kind of critical situation until you are completely confident in the capabilities of your particular camera system.
In a nutshell, the flash is pointed at the ceiling, and the reflected light illuminates the subjects. This gives a much softer light, which is more flattering and less harsh, and reduces shadows dramatically. With all these methods, another minor thing to help reduce those background shadows is to make sure that the subjects are not standing too close to the backdrop, especially if it is light in color.
That said, it’s also handy if the backdrop is a darker one, as shadows are much less noticeable against dark backgrounds. All these techniques can be used to good effect, to make your group photos more professional looking. Have fun practicing!