From using side lighting to syncing your shutter speed with your flash, photographer David Taylor gives his tips on capturing minute details in the right light for more satisfying photos...
The story of every trip is always the shot that got away. It’s never something big, either. More often than not it’s a tiny feature that catches your eye: the filigrees on a historical building or the finer details of a statue hiding in the dark recesses of a church or museum. Capturing them is another story entirely.
Cherub statue (David Taylor)
Close-ups, especially those shot in buildings with little light, require a flash to bring out their detail. But using a flash fired direct from a camera (front lighting) can be unflattering. The police don’t shoot mugshots this way for art’s sake; it’s for maximum detail. If total recall is your aim, then fine, but your image could be dull and flat.
To get the right effect, I use side lighting: placing a separate light at a 90° angle to my camera by using an external flashgun. These are small and easily packed. This can create, as with this image of a cherub statue, interesting highlights and help define shape. It’s a simple technique that can turn an often tiny feature into a big travel shot.
Golden Buddha statue in good light (Dreamstime)
Use of a flashgun can produce hard-edged shadows and bright, intense highlights. For some subjects, such as statues and architectural detailing, this can be ideal, as the contrast helps to define shape.
For organic subjects, a softer approach is preferable. A diffuser fitted over the flash head will soften the light and decrease the contrast. At a pinch, a hankie will work too.
Photographer holding DSLR camera with flashgun (Dreamstime)
Flashguns can be fired remotely and typically use an optical triggering system, meaning the sensor on the front of the device has to be able to ‘see’ the light from your camera’s built-in flash. You therefore have to be careful where you place the flashgun. Don’t hide it around a corner, for instance.
Setting up a flash on a camera (Dreamstime)
Cameras use a system called Through-The-Lens (TTL) to ensure the flash exposure (its output) is correct, but this isn’t foolproof. You can adjust this manually by changing the Flash Exposure Compensation to a positive number to increase the exposure (make the subject brighter), or negative to decrease it (lessen the shadows and highlights).
Photographer shooting with flash (Dreamstime)
The fastest shutter speed that you can shoot with a flash is called the sync speed. This varies between different types of camera, but it's typically around 1/180 of a second. Shooting at the sync speed when using a flash means you reduce the risk of camera shake, which is likely when shooting in the dim corners of old buildings.
The one drawback to shooting at the sync speed is that the background of your photo may be underexposed, though this can be beneficial as it will make it less distracting. If you want to make the background lighter, use a slower shutter speed, but use some camera support to avoid any shake.
Sweet wrapper, an alternative to a colour gel (Dreamstime)
You can modify the colour of flash light by fitting coloured photographic gels over the flash head. For a cheap alternative, use a rubber band to hold a coloured sweet wrapper in place.
David Taylor’s book Mastering Macro Photography (Ammonite Press) is out now. To see more, go to www.ammonitepress.com/mastering-macro-photography/.
You can also buy a copy HERE.
Main image: Photographer with DSLR camera and flash (Dreamstime)