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Understanding Digital Camera Flash Units

Jul 22, 2008
Flash units can come in many sizes and shapes for digital photography. Those cameras on the lower end of the scale come with low energy built in flash units. However, some gear such as the high end digital SLR cameras can accommodate external flash units advanced in their abilities to provide excellent lighting in complicated situations. Know the basic facts about the difference between built in and external flash units.

In the early days of photography, flash units were much different indeed. They once consisted of powder that was lit by an electrical current and then literally "blown up" to produce a flash of light energy. This method was both dangerous for the photographer and difficult to manage as the flash units were not automatically designed to go off at the exact moment as the camera's shutter. The task of ensuring the two went off together rested on the photographer.

The flash units of today are highly developed technology devices. The flash and camera are automatically synchronized using an electronic flash tube taking all of the pressure off of the photographer. Digital cameras today can determine themselves if a flash is necessary, can set their own intensity and other parameters and can trigger the flash at the precise tine the shutter is opened. All of this is done in the background with no manual effort. For those scenarios calling for a more hands on approach, digital cameras also include a manual mode where the user can set all of the same features to their specifications.

Flash units are divided into two categories: Internal built-in flash units or external flash units. Internal flash units are built into the camera. Almost all digital cameras include such a unit and allow the user some control over it through the camera's menus and buttons. External flash units are attached to the camera's body through a dedicated slide-in slot or by using an electrical cable. Not all digital cameras support external flash units. Usually the lower end pocket cameras do not allow external flash units while all high end digital SLR cameras do allow such external flash units. External flash units can vary a lot. They can have different light energy levels that they can emit and different mechanical characteristics. Some external flash units also include smart sensors to measure ambient light, distance and other optical parameters in order to optimize the flash effect.

Flash units can be used in both automatic and manual mode in most digital cameras. When in automatic mode, the camera measures ambient light and fires the flash when there is a lack of enough light. There can be times the camera will make the incorrect choice in using the flash and will either fire or not fire the flash when the contrary was needed. Setting the flash intensity is important also. Should the flash unit fire too much light energy on objects that are too close to the camera the digital photo will be washed out. Of course if the flash unit fires a small amount of light energy on an object that is farther away from the digital camera the digital photo will be a too dark.

Flash units have limitations too. They can not light any scene and any object at any distance from the camera. It is important to know your flash unit limitations. For example check what the maximum light energy that it can emit is and what the farthest that an object can be effectively lit from. This is also known as the effective flash range. If the object is out of the effective flash range it is actually better to turn off the flash altogether and use a tripod with a longer exposure. Sometimes it is useful to use the flash even if there is enough ambient light. In such cases you can manually force the camera to fire the flash. This is also known as fill-in flash as it is usually used to fill-in shadowed areas on objects in the digital photo.
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