Foto Friday – Flash

A few weeks ago, I announced a new photography blogging event – Foto Friday. This month, the focus was flash and how to use it to your advantage. (Be sure to watch for the February topic announcement next Friday.) My goal for the month was to find a suitable way to use my flash to photograph food. As most of you know, it is always recommended to use natural light when photographing food. However, now that winter is upon us in full force, the daylight here in Boston only lasts about 8 hours. And of course those 8 hours happen while I’m at work. This has caused me to usually save food to photograph on Saturdays so I can have natural light. But sometimes it’s just not feasible.

Now you might be thinking “But Jen, why don’t you just build a light box the way that many of your friends have, including Steph, Amy, Sara, and Clara.” To that I say this: Hubby and I live in a little over 700 square feet. And we have 2 cats. Extra space isn’t something we have and I worry I wouldn’t have a good place to store it. Although Amy’s light box is collapsible, so that could be a possibility.

So back to flash. I started with my trusty Nikon D40 manual and set out to read anything and everything related to flash. I found it online which was a great way to read it.

After reading everything I could about flash (and some other future FF topics), I decided to try to use the flash compensation to control how intense of a flash my D40 gives off. This can only be done in S, A, P, or M mode. The main problem with using a flash without messing with the settings is that sometimes you get some areas of the picture that are washed out. By using the flash compensation I’m hoping to avoid that.

According to the D40 manual,

Flash compensation is used to alter flash output by changing the brightness of the main subject relative to the background. Flash output can be increased to make the main subject appear brighter, or reduced to prevent unwanted highlights or reflections.

So first, here’s how you find flash compensation on the D40 (see page 48 in your D40 manual for details). Check your users manual to do it on your camera. Like most things, there are probably multiple ways to do this, but this is the way I use and I find it very easy to do. First, when the camera is on (yes I did turn it on after I took this picture), hit the info button.

Now, press the little magnifying glass button near the screen. I don’t know it’s official name is. 

Now just navigate over to the Flash compensation and hit OK.

Now you are at the Flash compensation screen. It has a nice little picture to help you decide which way you want to set your flash compensation. Values range from -3.0 to +1.0 in increments of 1/3. By setting the compensation to zero, you are using the standard flash.

See how the picture helps to illustrate the difference between the settings.

Now that we know where to find flash compensation, let use it! I actually did this little experiment back in December, when I made these chocolate peppermint cookies. First I started with the standard flash setting. I set my camera to S mode (shutter priority), and set flash compensation to zero.

Be aware that the flash compensation does NOT reset when the camera is turned off. So the last thing you set it to is what it will be the next time you use the camera in that mode.


This picture actually isn’t too washed out. There is a bit of reflection off the plate, but that’s about it. Next I decided to set the flash compensation to +1 just to see what it would look like. I know that will brighten the subject, so it won’t help in this case, but I wanted to see how drastic it was.

As suspected, this picture is very washed out. Now, I set the compensation to -3.

While this picture definitely isn’t washed out, it is very dark. I think something negative, but not quite so negative would be a good solution.

This is the picture from the blog post. I ended up with a flash compensation of about -2.0. Overall I am happy with the picture. You can see some shadows around the edge of the plate and the cookies, but I’d say that it looks pretty good. And the good news is I’ve found a way to take pictures in the dark without building a light box!

Since then, I’ve used this setting for many more food pics. Here are a few other pictures I’ve taken at nighttime.

Chocolate Chip Snowballs:

Snickerdoodles:

Chicken Wings:

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8 Responses to “Fotography Friday”

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    Joelen — January 3, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    This is such a great idea… and for those who are considering purchasing a DSLR, this will prove to be very helpful too!

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    Steph — January 3, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    I’m in! I have a Canon Rebel. At one point in time, I’d read most of the manual concurrently with a digital photography book. (yeah, I’m nerdy like that) I found it only helps to know where to change the setting if you know the affect will be on your photo. I can’t wait to brush up and learn some new tricks!! Great idea!

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    Amy Kingman — January 3, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    This is a great topic! The flash is so frustrating. Do you want people to share about equipment and hacks that have to do with the flash? I have found that various ways of diffusing/bouncing the flash has the biggest impact on my photos.

    As far as your food photos go, have you considered constructing a light box out of white foam core and a couple clip lights? It would allow you to take your photos even at night but still feel bright and cheery! Just an idea. 🙂

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    Jen — January 3, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Amy – feel free to post about whatever you want. The point is to share what you’ve learned about how to make the flash work for you. I’d love to hear what you do when you use your flash.

    I have considered a light box. I had one on my Xmas list 🙂 I’m just worried about storing it in our tiny condo. For now, I just wait for daylight but I would like a light box in the future.

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    Amy Kingman — January 3, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    Totally understanding the lightbox storage concerns. I’m thinking that I’m going to get some white foam core from the store today and play with making one that breaks down easily into a flat stack. I’ll post my experiment. 🙂

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    Jen — January 3, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Yea Steph said she was going to make on today. This is the one I had on my Xmas list. I still might get it since it folds up.

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    Amy Kingman — January 4, 2009 at 1:29 am

    Ok, I made a collapsible version of the light box today with your situation in mind. 🙂 Can’t beat that nylon one you’re looking at, but for $6 this one does a pretty good job! Thanks for the challenge! Here’s the light box.

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    Sara Therese — January 5, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks for the heads up, Jen! This is JUST the kind of help I’ve been looking for when it comes to taking pictures. Great idea for Foto Friday! I’m really excited. 🙂

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