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Avoiding the 'taken in a cave' look
Quite often, these type of flash photos have a reasonable well exposed subject, but the backgrounds are typically quite dark, and that's because the camera sets the flash exposure to only light up your foreground subject. Here's a shot of my wife Jane, taken in a local pub the settings used are typical auto mode settings:-
Auto mode, 1/60th sec, f4, ISO 100, pop-up flash fired
Even if we use aperture or shutter speed priority, you wouldn't really get a better exposure than this because f4 and 1/60th are pretty good settings for this type of shot. Other than a very small amount of ambient light, the only light in the background is from the bottles and lamps reflecting some of the flash. Now consider what would happen if we turned the flash off using the exact same settings:-
Auto mode, 1/60th sec, f4, ISO 100, flash NOT fired
Well, no surprises there then! But what does this tell us?
It tells us that out settings are only allowing very little ambient light to enter the scene, and of course by trying to light up the whole scene with a teeny weeny little flash, the best we can hope for is a nice snapshot (no award winning images here!).
We can improve on this by increasing the amount of ambient light coming into the scene, and unless we're going for a special technique (known as dragging the shutter - tip coming soon), the best way to achieve this is to increase the ISO. Here's how it looks with an ISO of 800 (no flash, same aperture and shutter speed):-
Auto mode, 1/60th sec, f4, ISO 800, flash NOT fired
You can now see that the background looks much better, simply by raising the ISO we've got a much better looking background. Finally then we can switch the flash and now look at the final result:-
Manual exposure mode, 1/60th sec, f4, ISO 800, pop-up flash fired
Compare this image with the first one we took, you'll see that Jane looks pretty much the same (courtesy of the flash's TTL mode), but look at the difference in the background.
In Summary, my favourite settings for flash are:-