Commentary: A Bunch Of Dim Bulbs At The Olympics

Judging from television broadcasts of the Olympic Games, America has a major problem with flashing. And I don't mean exposing private parts in public places. I'm talking about the ridiculous overuse of flashes by amateur photographers in all sorts of situations where they are of absolutely no use. In Atlanta, every time Michael Johnson or Nourredine Morceli or Gail Devers hit the track, Olympic Stadium turned into the Twinkle Dome.

What's wrong with us, anyway? Don't people know that photo flash can't illuminate anything more than a few feet away? In the stadium, the one thing all those flashes could do was bad--namely, light up stray objects in the foreground of the frame. Automated film developers sometimes expose the frame so the foreground--and not necessarily the subject--comes out properly lit. That means that more than a few spectators came home with beautiful shots of the straw hat on that nice lady from Australia a couple of rows down. Beyond the hat: inky blackness.

It's not as if flashes are beyond human control. On most point-and-shoot cameras, the flash can be turned off. As for those cardboard, single-use cameras, it actually takes an extra step to turn the flash on. Nonetheless, photographers continue to use their flash to take shots of, say, Times Square or the Statue of Liberty from the shores of Manhattan. Eastman Kodak Co.'s strategic initiatives director, Terry Faulkner, says he has seen people using flash bulbs to photograph the light show at Niagara Falls and even a lunar eclipse.

Folks, your flash won't light up the moon--and the eclipse would be spoiled if it could. "There really are people who simply have a flawed understanding, and they believe that the flash is going to work," says Faulkner. But "the main problem is people not knowing how to turn off the flash, or not bothering." In other words, we flash for the same reason we can't set the clocks on our VCRs.

PRIME-TIME FLOP. Ironically, the one time organizers in Atlanta wanted a fury of flashing, photographers failed to cooperate. For the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, volunteers handed out Kodak single-use cameras to all 90,000 spectators, along with instructions on when to trigger their flashes to make a wave of sparkles circle the stadium. The instructions were repeated over loudspeakers during commercial breaks. But when the time came, the globally televised spectacle fizzled to a few isolated pops. Observers theorize that lots of willing participants couldn't figure out how to use the flashes. Figure that.

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