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Built-in Flash Techniques #6: Magical Bokeh Circles on a Rainy Day

You would tend to think a rainy day is not suitable for a photo shoot, partly because the scenery gets darker. Yet, all you have to do is shoot and illuminate the rain drops with the built-in flash, and you can create bokeh circles from them for stunningly magical photos. In this article, we will show you how. This is one technique you will want to use for cityscapes in particular. (Reported by: Teppei Kohno)

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24mm f/2.8 IS USM/ FL: 24mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/2.8, 1/30 sec)/ ISO 1600


Create bokeh circles by opening up the aperture and firing the flash

*Shooting Procedure
A: Focus on the main subject and compose your shot.
B: Set to Aperture-priority AE, and open wide the aperture.
C: Shoot firing the built-in flash.
D: Increase the ISO speed to set a faster shutter speed.
E: Shoot several times to get a good shot of the rain droplets.


A rainy day is actually an opportunity for a shoot as you can capture everyday scenery with a completely different impression by using built-in flash.

If you try to shoot falling rain conventionally, the droplets captured are small and unnoticeable. However, you can freeze the raindrops in time at night by hitting them with light from the flash. When doing so, make sure you increase the aperture and focus on distant scenery. This way, the bokeh effect on raindrops nearer to you is greater, and when you fire the flash they are captured as bright bokeh circles. Also, increase the ISO speed to ensure the shutter speed does not become too slow. When the shutter speed is too slow, the raindrops will be blurred and cannot be captured. This works not only for rain, but for snow as well. This is a technique you will want to remember if you are carrying a camera with you on your travels abroad.

As a camera is a piece of precision equipment, it is not particularly robust against rain. In particular, entry-level camera models are not entirely drip-proof, so you will want to take measures against the rain, by shooting from under the eaves of houses, etc.


Negative example: Without using built-in flash

Good example: Using built-in flash

Both images:  EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24mm f/2.8 IS USM/ FL: 24mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.8, 1/30 sec)/ ISO 1600

Left: I shot this conventionally without using the built-in flash. Even though it was raining at the time, the rain is barely captured and cannot be identified from the picture.
Right: The raindrops illuminated by the built-in flash were largely defocused, resulting in a very magical-looking photograph.



Depict large raindrops by using wide aperture

Negative example: f/8

Good example: f/2.8

Both images:EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24mm f/2.8 IS USM/ FL: 24mm/ ISO 1600

Left: Manual exposure (f/8, 1/13 sec)
I fired the built-in flash with the f-number set to f/8. By increasing the f-number, or narrowing the aperture in other words, the droplets are not captured as circles. Also, due to a low shutter speed, the drops are blurred and captured as strokes.

Right: Manual exposure (f/2.8, 1/200 sec)
I fired the built-in flash with the f-number set to the maximum aperture of f/2.8. Large bokeh circles were captured, conveying a sense of snow falling.

The photographs below show how bokeh circles are captured to varying extents using different f-numbers. Try using wide aperture when you want to depict larger bokeh circles.


Keep this in mind: Carry bright, wide-angle prime lenses as your second lens for landscape photography


EF24mm f/2.8 IS USM​


EF-S24mm f/2.8 STM

Shutter speeds slow down during shoots at night or on a rainy day because of the lack of light, so it is convenient to have bright prime lens at such times. You will be able to use an aperture of f/2.8 or below, and there are quite few of such relatively light-weight lenses, so you will want to carry one with you on top of your zoom lens, especially if your focus is street or landscape photography.

Have an external flash unit? Here's a tutorial on using it to create surreal-looking portraits in the rain

For more on capturing bokeh circles, check out:
Lens FAQ #8: Where Should I Focus On to Capture Beautiful Bokeh Circles?

For more tips and ideas for rainy day photography, check out:
Landscape Photography: Shooting Rain
Tips for Water Reflection Photography: Fun with Puddles!

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Teppei Kohno

Teppei Kohno

Born in Tokyo in 1976, Kohno graduated with a Social Work degree from the Department of Sociology of Meiji Gakuin University, and apprenticed with photographer Masato Terauchi. He contributed to the first issue of photography magazine PHaT PHOTO and became an independent photographer after that, in 2003. The author of many books, Kohno not only shoots all sorts of commercial photographs, but also writes prolifically for camera and other magazines.