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Should You Use Flash for Indoor Photography or Only a High-ISO Setting?

Should You Use Flash for Indoor Photography or Only a High-ISO Setting?

Often, I read about natural light photographers who prefer a high-ISO setting above the use of flash. The latter is considered unnatural and unflattering light. Perhaps that photographer should consider the benefits flash can offer without the sacrifice of a natural-looking photo.

There are two sorts of photographers, I think. There is the one that will avoid flash at all costs, and there is the one that will use all means to achieve the best quality of light possible, even if that means the use of additional light produced by a flash.

Use Directional Ambient Light When Possible

As we all know, directional light is the best light available. We use it everywhere, like in landscape photography, product photography, portrait photography, and if possible, wedding photography. The use of shadows will bring depth to the image, making it much more interesting. It can also give the much-wanted cinematicc look.

When directional light is available, it is often enough to make a great image. If you use the light that falls through windows and doors, just position your subject at the right spot and take the photo.

Using the daylight pouring through the window offers wonderful photo possibilities. If you can place your subject at will, the directional light is great to work with. Shot with ambient light exclusively.

A strong backlight can also work, but without additional light, the subject will become a silhouette. Sometimes, that’s enough for a great image. A good photographer will recognize the possibilities the ambient light offers and use it if possible.

During events like weddings, it won’t be always possible to adjust the position of the couple and guests. You have to use the light that is present. It sometimes means you don’t have directional light, or it will have the wrong direction.

Strong backlight can produce some nice silhouettes. On these occasions, I don't want to have fill in with flash light. Using ambient light is enough.

Ambient Light Without Any Direction or the Wrong Direction

I encounter terrible light conditions quite often. Venues are poorly lit, often by lights hanging from ceilings with just a few small windows that won’t make any difference. It’s easy to use a high ISO setting to get the shutter speed necessary for sharp photos. Modern cameras allow amazingly high ISO settings without a great risk of unacceptable noise levels. On most occasions, that will still not be the best way to go.

I found a good example in my archives of a wedding from some time ago. The first one is a photo with the exposure set for the ambient light. I needed ISO 1,600 for an acceptable shutter speed. But the scenery is lit by ceiling lights only, without any direction whatsoever. Therefore, the faces of the bridal couple and vicar are shrouded in shadows.

By only using ambient light, you can end up with terrible light and shadows in your image. This wedding photo is a good example.

For the second photo in this example, I’ve used a flash to lighten up the faces. Suddenly, the photo is much better. I kept the exposure for the ambient light, but added a little bit of light to get a better quality of light. Although flash is used, the image still has a natural look. In other words, it's not an ugly flash photo.

The same light situation as the previous photo, the same ambient exposure settings, but now with a good fill in flash light. It opens up the terrible shadows.

Go for Balance Between Ambient Light and Flash

The main rule for this kind of flash photography is the separation of settings for both flash and ambient light. These are two different things and can be set separately. Keep the camera settings for the ambient light, perhaps one stop underexposed, and the flash can be used to correctly expose the subject. This way, you prevent the strong light falloff that occurs when the flash is too strong. It means you have to use a high ISO setting if necessary.

Bouncing flash light, and flagging a flashgun will turn the light from the on camera flash into great directional light. The balance between ambient light and flash light doesn't make the use of a flash noticeable.

By aiming the light towards the left or right, you will change the flashlight into directional light, especially when you will flag the flash to prevent direct light onto the subject. This will produce great directional light, as if you are using the natural light from a window. Whatever you do, never use the ceiling for bouncing flash If you do, as there is the risk of unflattering shadows under eyebrows, nose, and skin.

Flash and Backlight

Sometimes, there are many windows resulting in strong backlight. It will make the use of directional light much more difficult. Using only ambient light will either overexpose the background, or your subject will become too dark. In worst-case scenarios, the subject will become a silhouette. Fill flash will rescue you from this situation.

The use of a high-ISO setting won't be the answer because it won’t change the light situation. But if you use a flash with care, the result will give a natural look.

Post-Processing to the Rescue?

You might think you can use high-ISO settings and abandon flash. After all, the final result can be made in post-processing. Although it might be tempting, correcting photos in post-processing software will be time-consuming and perhaps result in an increase of noise levels where the shadows are lifted too much. Especially when you already used an extremely high-ISO setting, this can damage the quality of the photo or even render it unusable.

By using an on-camera flash, bounced from the right side, I was able to add more light to the existing directional ambient light. It looks very natural, and it prevented me from a lot of post-processing work.

If you’re a natural light photographer that doesn't use flash because it feels artificial, perhaps it is wise to reconsider. By learning to mix flash with the ambient light and using it in a wise and subtle manner, it will result in a photo with a great quality of light.

Are you using flash or do you prefer the use of the available light? If you do, please let me know in the comments and tell me why you won’t use flash. I’m looking forward to your response.

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Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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It depends how you use it.

In interior design i prefer to shoot all ambient. But to achieve the look I am going for in most cases I need to use flash to repair or emphasis directional light.

That said my approach is based on the assumption I am working on a tripod, and compositing multiple frames.

I totally agree that there are times that flash isn’t possible and or ambient light is all there is. I know of many times a minister will allowed photos during a ceremony only if flash isn’t used. That being said, I can’t tell you how many times i have found that a “natural light only” photographer simply doesn’t know how to use flash or use it correctly. Today’s cameras ability to shoot low light situations combined with many customers willing to accept lesser quality images because they don’t understand what correctly exposed image should look like, have allowed many photographers to get by without using flash- EVER. I’m not saying that not using a flash is wrong or not acceptable, only that anyone being paid for photographs should know how to use artificial light proficiently.

I hate the harsh light from my flash but it's a built-in flash that I can't point in another direction. Probably time to upgrade and really learn to use flash.

Try playing with flash exp compensation. Start at -2/3 FEC and work up/down from there.

I say 2/3 because it's a big enough change to be obvious, though I tend to set FEC to -1/3 for most of the time I need fill.

In the one photo class I ever took, the professor said "you folks with built-in flash...do you know what an oyster knife is? Get one, sliiiiiide it ever so gently under your built-in flash, and then pop that fucker right off...."

I do both. One of the reasons I started to use flash more is I found I edit less. The faces usually have cleaner light and have contouring. Otherwise, I'd have to spend more time dodging and burning.

With that said, I prefer no flash. :) I hate carrying or using extra gear. I like to keep it simple. Though, I always have a speedlight and a Joby Mini Pod in my backpack just in case.


The real problem is those hideous chairs in the first image!

Oh, you mean that one where it appears to be a BTS image so he can demonstrate where the flashhead is pointing? That one?

I once used shop lights plugged into a generator to photograph a wedding after the power went. The halogen lighting left the pictures a bit on the warm side of the spectrum.

With the ability to get clean images at ISO 25,600 (thanks to DxO PhotoLab's DeepPRIME noise reduction), I'm using flash less and less in my corporate event work. However, there are situations where the ambient light is not just dim but UGLY. I'm thinking specifically of overhead "cans", those nasty recessed lights in the ceilings of hotel conference rooms, that succeed only in lighting the floor and the tops of participants heads. They cause nasty raccoon eyes on anyone standing under them. Here's where off-camera flash really makes a difference. Even fill-flash can't help here.

My camera has this next to useless flash built in - however it's attached via a small flexible piece of plastic that can be held or taped to redirect the light off ceilings, walls, etc. If I'm in a pinch, it can produce just enough light to avoid having to set the iso too high.