I’ve written quite a bit lately about stepping up your SmartPhone camera game, but this month’s column is intended for photographers with “real” cameras – maybe one you got for Christmas.

My definition of a “real” camera is one that is dedicated to being just a camera – anything from a $250 advanced point-and-shoot to a $6,000 and up full-frame Digital Single Lens Reflex camera with several lenses. The cameras in this range go beyond the capabilities of your SmartPhone in many ways. What I want to talk about in this column is a “real” camera’s typically much more capable flash – how to and not to use it.

I am not a big fan of on-camera flash units. They produce a very flat light that looks artificial and usually leaves the background looking dark. Most SmartPhone and “real” cameras are quite capable of photos in average room lighting, but if the light is very dim or is not even, chances are you will end up with a dark, contrasty, blurry photo. Time to use your flash!

Often the best approach is to take a plain old flash photo. It will get the image and will probably look ok. But most photographers who have been around for a while are aware of a technique known as “bounce flash” - typically bouncing the flash illumination off of the ceiling. This tends to give the light a softer, more diffused look and helps prevent your background areas from going dark.

To make this work, your camera’s flash needs to be pointed toward the ceiling. Not many cameras have this capability built-in, but there are several that do, and the effect is typically quite pleasing. It works best when the ceiling is a light, neutral color.

If your camera has a flash shoe on top of the camera, you can add an external flash that has more power and a flash head that can be tilted and rotated. You can typically buy a nice flash unit that is compatible with your camera in the $50-100 price range. Drop me a note if you are interested, and I’ll be glad to discuss brands, prices and sources.

My favorite use for a built-in flash is as a fill light when working against a very bright background, typically when outdoors on a bright sunny day, or indoors against a window. In a situation where the brightest light is behind your subject, turning on your flash will make your subject look much brighter and more colorful.

It’s possible to overpower the existing light and give your subject a flat look, but if you take the photo from a distance of 6-10 feet the flash fill should look very natural. Try this a few times to get the hang of it. It may be necessary to use your camera menu to change your flash from “automatic” to “always on.” If the flash is set to automatic, the flash will likely not fire unless the existing illumination is very weak.

So, as I have said many times before, it’s time to go practice. Once you get a feel for how light from a flash can affect your photos, both positively and negatively, I think you will welcome your newfound flash knowledge into your photographic “toolkit.”

Space constraints make it difficult to include detailed information in these articles. If you want more info on any of the topics covered in this column, have general questions or comments, or an idea for a future column, please send me an email at PhotographyForEveryone@hagedon.net. I want and need your feedback to make sure this column is relevant and worth reading in future issues of Saddlebag Notes.

Jim has a Fine Arts degree with a major in Photography and more than 50 years experience in a wide range of photographic disciplines.