Friday, September 18, 2009

Review of Neil van Niekerk’s On-Camera Flash: Techniques for Digital Wedding and Portrait Photography

[Disclosure: I participate in Amazon's referral program. Clicking on the links below to Amazon may result in compensation to me.  However, I wrote this review as objectively as I could.]

Neil van Niekerk's On-Camera Flash (paperback or Kindle) teaches how to improve the lighting in photos of people at events and other situations with little or no setup with the use of an on-camera external flash.   The majority of the techniques taught in the book rely on bouncing the flash, and controlling flash exposure via TTL. Note: the book presupposes the reader has a working knowledge of exposure.

The technical quality of the information is excellent.  The author describes the techniques clearly and in detail.  The techniques he applies are logical and methodical, and he explains his thought processes very clearly.  In many cases, the book shows comparison images showing the effect of using flash and not using flash, which is helpful in illustrating the impact of using the flash.  The author is a master of the subject matter of the book, and he doesn’t appear to withhold any information or techniques within the scope of the subject matter.  From cover to cover, the book is filled with useful information and beautiful images.  There are no fillers, fluff, or lame jokes in the book

Particularly if you're just beginning photography or if your flash knowledge is limited, the author's primary technique of using bounce flash AND actively controlling the direction of the bounce flash can make a huge difference for your shots (as it did for me).  As a total novice in 2007, I took this group shot by applying the author's technique.  It is still one of my favorite shots.
Pentax K100D, Tamron 18-200, f/3.5, 1/100. AF540FGZ flash on TTL.

The book is well-organized and builds on concepts step-by-step.  The book begins with a discussion of lighting principles: quality, direction and color of light, and gives you an idea of what your lighting objectives generally should be.  The second part of the book discusses metering techniques, flash exposure (mostly TTL), and combining ambient and flash exposures.  That gets you to the point where you understand how to control the flash exposure relative to your ambient exposure.  The third part of the book discusses skillful use of on-camera flash to improve the lighting of your photos, primarily by using bounce flash as well as actively controlling the intensity, direction and color of the flash.  There is a fourth part that discusses very briefly what is possible with some techniques that fall outside of the book’s scope, namely wireless TTL and off-camera manual flash.

For family photographers, the techniques are very useful and practical.  With a few exceptions (disclosed), the author assumes that you’re taking photos solo, without assistants and without setting up equipment such as lightstands.  There are no impractical or ‘impossible’ shots.  The techniques can be used by almost any family photographer with a camera equipped with an external TTL flash, as long as the flash has bounce and swivel capability.

The book is less useful for some people:
  • If you take only outdoor photos, many of the techniques will not be usable by you.  There is a chapter, however, on outdoor photos that does show some of the best techniques for photos outdoors.
  • If you’re looking for edgy, artistic ideas, this book may have less to offer for you.  The images shown in the book, and the application of the techniques discussed, are geared toward producing event photos with mainstream appeal.  It is possible to use the techniques for bolder, more unique photos, but this book is not a source of those ideas.  On the other hand, the book can help strengthen the technical foundation for your artistic vision.
  • If you have advanced lighting knowledge, I don’t think you’ll learn anything new.  I didn’t find anything groundbreaking in the book for advanced lighting.
  • If you want to learn manual flash exposure, and have absolutely no interest in flash exposure via TTL, this book is less useful for you.  (As for Auto flash exposure, I believe many of the techniques can be applicable, but I have limited experience using flash on Auto mode, so can’t confirm that.)  In any case, you can still apply the book’s techniques on controlling light quality, direction and color.
  • As implied by the title, if you have only a film camera, the techniques on controlling the intensity of the flash are less valuable because the book relies on many features of digital cameras to adjust flash exposure, such as the LCD preview screen, histograms, and the blinking highlights display.  You can still learn techniques on controlling light quality, direction and color.

What about longtime readers of (like me)?  To be honest, much of the information can be gained from a thorough reading of the author’s website (and perhaps ).  However, the book still adds value even for those readers by saving time and presenting the information with greater detail, in a manner that helps solidify your flash knowledge.  The book puts it all together in way that is more understandable.  After reading the book, I also learned additional techniques for metering and exposure.  I also got value from reading the examples, thinking of how I would solve them, and comparing my solution to the author’s.

A couple of nits:

First, the author strongly advocates using manual exposure mode to control ambient exposure, and uses it exclusively throughout all examples.  The author’s techniques can still be used by less experienced photographers (like me) who are still slow to use manual and still rely on program, aperture priority and shutter priority, although I have to ‘translate’ the exposure techniques first (which on the other hand, should be fairly easily for the intended audience).

Another nit: in many of the comparison images between photos with and without flash, the author uses the exact same settings.  I think that is fine to show what portion was lit with ambient and with flash, but it is possible with a hasty glance to misinterpret the comparison images as “evidence” that ambient-only photos are vastly inferior, whereas in fact the ambient-only photos are often underexposed for sound reasons.  It would have been nicer to see a comparison against the best (or at least normal) results that can be achieved with existing light, and how flash improves upon that image.  Again, this is something I think the intended audience already should understand anyway, so it’s not a big deal.

On-Camera Flash is a practical, well-written instructional book on using an on-camera flash to improve lighting of your photos.  The techniques are highly usable in the field, and the author explains them clearly and in a straightforward manner.  For photographers who have previously shunned flash, particularly those who take shots indoors, the techniques can lead to a vast improvement in your photographs.  For flash novices, this book offers a clear path to take you to the level of a skilled flash user.  For more experienced photographers, the book helps fill out any gaps in your knowledge about on-camera flash techniques.  Highly recommended.