Using the GF1's Built-In Flash

Started Dec 24, 2009 | Discussions thread
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Sam Bennett
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Using the GF1's Built-In Flash
Dec 24, 2009

Some recent discussions got me to finally un-tape my GF1’s flash to see if there’s any hidden potential in the pint-sized unit. Immediately upon using the flash it became clear that the GF1’s system is a bit quirky, so more research would be required before I started giving advice. In the end I’ve found it to be a frustrating system to work with, and I likely will not use it on a regular basis.

The overarching issue I discovered with the GF1’s flash system is the limited operating range in which it can operate effectively. Most of the unsatisfactory output I’ve produced has come as a result of unknowingly operating outside of this range. As far as I can tell the camera gives no indication that the exposure has been compromised, resulting in confusing, unpredictable behavior from camera.

(My findings are greatly biased towards my use of flash in indoor, low-light situations. I typically use either Aperture Priority or Manual modes when doing flash work so that I have control over DoF and the level of ambient light to flash power.)

High-Level Issues

  • The GF1 does not support a FP or “High Speed Sync” flash mode, limiting you to a 1/160th max sync speed, no matter what mode you’re in. This greatly limits the apertures you can use outdoors – shooting wide-open with the 20mm f/1.7 will likely result in overexposure.

  • Forced Flash mode has an artificial floor of 1/30th of a second, making it problematic in low-light shooting when balancing flash with ambient light. In combination with the 1/160th maximum speed, this is just over a 2 stop operating range before either the aperture or ISO will need to change.

  • Both the Auto and Slow Sync Flash modes will only fire the flash when the shutter speed dips below 1/60th. The only difference between Auto and Slow Sync mode is that Slow Sync will allow for fairly slow shutter speeds – down to one second.

  • Auto ISO and Intelligent ISO only serve to make the problem worse, where they easily could have made the situation better by allowing the camera to stay within the “window” required for the flash to work optimally. Instead, both modes simply result in an ISO 100 setting when the flash is enabled.

  • For close-up work, the camera’s limited control over its power makes it easy to overpower your subject – particularly in low light situations. This comes as a big surprise considering the flash is fairly low-powered to begin with. The camera’s control appears to be limited to Full to 1/16th power – much narrower than dedicated flash units.

  • Changing the Flash power through Flash Exposure Compensation requires a trip to the menu – there is no way to easily adjust this either through the Quick Menu, or a combination button-press/wheel turn.

  • The Exposure Compensation (for ambient) is downright buggy in how it adjusts itself when the flash is enabled and you’re near the minimum shutter speed. This is a difficult issue to characterize, so I will likely start a thread dedicated to it. Long story short – if you’re at the “minimum” shutter speed, the behavior of EC is completely “wrong”, so watch out.

Using GF1 Flash Indoors

  • Consider using some sort of light modification to change the color temperature to match the ambient conditions. I will be starting a thread dedicated to this. Without doing this, you will wind up with overly-warm backgrounds and foregrounds with warm shadows and cool highlights.

  • Keep a good bit of distance to your subjects in low light. Shooting groups of people will generally be less problematic than shooting individuals up close, although the light will be harsher.

  • Use aperture priority mode, and establish settings that give you a bit of “wiggle room” for the prevailing conditions. Having an average of a 1/60th shutter speed should be your target.

  • Try dialing in -1EC, which should give you a look that gives a bit of “pop” to the flash exposure, without looking too “flashy” and resulting in “ghosting” with the foreground/background exposures “competing” with each other. If you’re not gelled, this will also minimize “warm shadows”. This takes a bit of experimentation and really depends on where the light is in the room.

  • Note that EC and FEC exposures are “separate” exposures. Changing EC has no effect on FEC, making the camera more similar to Canon’s system than Nikon’s. So if conditions change radically, you may have to change both.

Suggestions for Panasonic

  • Remove the “auto” aspect of the Slow Sync Flash option. Allow it to operate as “Forced Flash”, but with the ability to sync to slower shutter speeds. I would use this option if it were there, and it would make it much easier to control in low light situations that are not really consistent light-wise.

  • Provide an easy means for adjusting FEC. Pressing and holding the flash release button was what I tried first, and is probably the most natural place to put it. At a minimum, adding a Quick Menu item would make it much easier.

  • Work on getting an FP flash mode in future models. It’s a bit ridiculous to have a daylight balanced flash unit that is essentially useless in daylight.

  • Consider being the rogue company that finally uses Halogen-balanced flash color temperature instead of Daylight-balanced. It only makes sense, given the FP limitation anyway.

In Summary

The GF1’s flash will help a few people in a pinch, for others it will serve as an exercise in futility. The GF1 is limited both in the power-range in which it can control the flash and in the ambient exposure it can operate consistently at (especially in Forced Flash mode) which can make getting consistent results challenging. Take the advice above and experiment a bit in controlled situations to really get a handle on the system and you’ll be more likely to get the most out of it.

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 Sam Bennett's gear list:Sam Bennett's gear list
Olympus OM-D E-M5 Olympus E-M1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GM1 Panasonic Lumix G 20mm F1.7 ASPH Panasonic Lumix G Vario 45-200mm F4-5.6 OIS +4 more
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