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Introductory camera guide and beginners guide on film camera and digital camera for still photography

STsite's Guide to Still Photography Camera





Built-in Flash

RolleiFlex Twin Lens reflex Camera 1929 Built-in flash is an integrated part of most modern cameras today except for a handful of high-end professional cameras. This built-in flash is handy for taking pictures indoor. It also works great as a fill-in flash outdoor where you want to soften the eye shadow and the shadow under the chin of your subject in harsh bright noon sun.

The built-in flash is designed with the camera as an integrated system so it produces perfectly exposed pictures most of the time. This integrated flash system irons out the major problems photographers face with an external flash such as the flash guide number calculuation for the flash-to-subject distance, the film speed and the aperture setting. Also, remember the aperture problem with zoom lenses we pointed out on the topic on F-Stop and Aperture!

Build-in flash of a compact camera
The built-in flash of a
compact digital camera

The built-in flash is handy and useful but it too has its share of limitations. First, it consumes your camera battery since it uses the same battery as the one that powers your camera. Second, it is a low power flashlight as camera designers have to compromise on flash power and battery life! This built-in flashlight has a working range of 12 feet or 4 meters. Zoom compact may have as little as 6 feet or 2 meters on the telephoto end!

Built-in flash is almost useless when you zoom your camera lens to full telephoto. This is one of the reasons why we prefer a 3 times zoom rather than a 10 times zoom camera. You can improve the flash working range by changing the ISO setting to a higher ISO on a digital camera or use a higher speed film like ISO400 instead of ISO100. Changing from ISO 100 to ISO 400 will double your built-in-flash's working range.

Another problem with built-in flash is the physical size of the flash unit is very small. A small light source creates a high contrast light. Photographs taken with built-in flash often have glaring highlight on the subject and dark shadow behind the subject. This problem can be solved with a bigger light source. A bigger light source can be created by bouncing the flash on a wall or celing with a high power external flash. Unfortunately built-in flash is not suitable for bounce flash with its low power output.

A common problem we often see in pictures taken in the dark with compact cameras using the built-in flash is the Red Eye. That is in some of these photos we see the people in the pictures appeared to have glowing red eyes. This problem is due to the built-in flash's flash tube being too close to the camera's lens thus creating problem from the subject's eye if they looked straight into the camera in dim light.

This happens when the flash tube and the lens are in close proximity to each other.
Red eyes cause by flash too close to camera lens
"Red eyes" happens when the flash is too close to the camera lens.
This closeness creates a narrow angle of reflection that causes the flash light to enter the subject's pupil and reflect off the retina, and then straight back into the camera's lens. This red eye phenomenon is the result of reflection from the colour of the blood vessels in the retina, thus resulting in the subject with red eye.

In low light, the pupil of our eye is wide open and this increases the chance of red eye. Most compact cameras now have a red eye reduction mode where a series of low-power pre-flashers fire before the main flash fires causing the pupil to close and that helps reduce the chances of red eye.

built-in flash of a pro-camera
The built-in flash of a Professional digital camera the Fujifilm FinePix S2 Pro

If you take a lot of pictures using the built-in flash you would be better off with an additional external flash gun. The external flash gun is versatile, more powerful and can offer many techniques not possible with the built-in flash. For instance you can try bounced flash technique to soften shadows and create a more flattering result.

Creative photogrphers often use Off-Camera Flash technique with external flash gun - a method of taking the flash gun "off" from the camera to achieve effect not possible with built-in flash. With off-Camera Flash you can set the flash to one side to avoid reflection from glass surface; you can also use this technique with reflector, flash umbrella etc., to soften shadows. The high power output from this external flash gun allows these techniques to become feasible. A higher power output also means a greater working range. A distance of 10 meters or 33 feet can easily be covered with a medium power flash gun with a guide number or GN of 36 in meter at ISO 100 rating. As a comparision most cameras' built-in flash has a GN number of 10 ~ 13 in meter at ISO 100 rating. A camera that has the facility to connect an external flash unit is a big plus but this camera will usually be in the higher price range.

To increase the versatility of the built-in flash, camera makers provide a range of flash modes. The most important is the flash-off mode. Some cameras do not have this mode so check it out first. The flash-off mode allows you to take existing light photography when you want to preserve the atmosphere or the feeling of your subject. A tripod is a must for existing or available light photography, otherwise a steady hand can still allow a limited amount of existing light photography. Many digital cameras don't perform so well on existing light photography and low light photography even though image sensors are more sensitive to light than film. The image sensor or CCD produces more electrical noise in low light condition and during long exposure time that appear as colored dots on the picture. A film camera with high speed film scores better than a digital camera in existing light photography sometimes also called natural light photography.

Some historical buildings,
Huntington Libary, LA
Huntington Libary in LA, USA allows Photography with existing light only no flash light allowed.
theatres and art galleries allow photography but without flash. So if you can set your camera to "flash-off" you may be able to take some pictures in those places. If you are using a compact camera you will need to convince the guard on duty that you have turned the camera's flash off; with an old fashioned SLR I just remove the flash gun and no questions asked from any guards on duty!

Another useful mode of the built-in flash is the fill-in flash mode. The built-in flash will always fire a low power flash to compensate for shadow cast on the face under the eye socket or below the nose and chin for pictures taken under the harsh noon sun. This fill-in flash as the name says, will fill in light in shadow areas thus making pictures taken under shadows or the shade of a tree, or backlite subject more pleasing.

Flash pictures taken at night usually result in pictures with the main subject clearly lit by the flash but the background is in total darkness. Many cameras with built-in flash also have a nite scene mode. This mode will get the foreground subject clearly lit by the flash, and the shutter will remain open a few seconds longer after the flash has fired to expose the background scene. A tripod should be used with this night scene mode since a slow shutter speed of as much as 4 seconds will be selected by the camera. The length of the extended exposure time set by the night scene mode is determined by the ambiance brightness or darkness. One mistake to avoid when using night scene mode is not move the camera after the flash has fired. Count 1 to 10 before you pickup your camera again because we don't know if the shutter has closed. A count of 1 to 10 is quite safe.

The other flash mode available is the red-eye reduction mode which we discussed earlier on the limitation of built-in flash. The default mode of most built-in flash is usually the auto mode, the camera will decide when it should fire the flash.

Minolta Dimage7 with external flash gun
High end Prosumer camera such as Minolta Dimage 7Hi can pair with external flash unit to increae the performance or versatility of the camera.

Built-in flash is now a norm rather than an exception for most consumer and Prosumer (Professional-consumer) cameras. Still there are some all-in-one digital cameras sold mostly in computer shops that do not come with a built-in flash; this includes most mobile phone cameras as well. If you are buying it as a web cam for video conferencing and for posting of pictures to your web blog it will work fine. However, we will not consider this camera for real photography needs and these cameras have no way to connect to an external flash as well.

A wise move is to choose a camera with a built-in flash and check out if it also allows external flash connection. If it has that external flash connection then that camera is a "++" in your selection. Chances are you may not get that external flash connection these days. Cameras with this feature are limited due to cost savings by most camera manufacturers. Cameras with external flash connection are often in the high-end and higher price range.

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