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Sometimes you just don’t have enough light when shooting or you may be looking to produce a certain effect and natural light isn’t cutting it. This is where learning to use a flash will come in handy; you may also see them referred to as speedlights. Speedlights are only one method of lighting but due to their small size they are more easily used (and more portable?) than studio strobes or continuous lights.
When To Use It
Having a speedlight is one thing. Knowing when to use it is another. Some photographers swear that the only way to go is to use speedlights. Personally, I don’t use one for most of my photography. That said, one of my favorite photos was taken with the built-in flash on my old Nikon d3300. So there are conditions where it is advantageous to use a flash. Such as:
Poor lighting and no tripod.
Capturing a fast moving subject in low light.
Balancing out highlights and shadows.
Creating heavy contrast.
That favorite photo I talked about, falls under the poor lighting condition. The spot we were shooting at was deep inside a hotel room and I didn’t have enough light streaming through the windows to get the shot without the flash.
On-Camera vs Off-Camera
There are two main ways photographers use speedlights when lighting their subjects, on-camera flash and off-camera flash. On-camera is just as it sounds, you mount the speedlight on the hot shoe (the socket on top of the camera designed to mount a camera) and you're done. With off-camera you move the speedlight off the hot shoe and you can either hold it, use a tripod, or some other mounting apparatus. By moving your speedlight off camera you are changing the direction of your light and potentially changing the entire image. The best way to use off-camera flash is by using a wireless trigger. A wireless trigger comes in two pieces, a transmitter and a receiver. You mount the transmitter onto the hot shoe of your camera and the speedlight is connected to the receiver. The wireless trigger allows communication between your camera and the speedlight so that when you press the shutter button, the speedlight fires at the same time.
TTL vs Manual
When it comes to controlling your speedlight you have two options, Through the Lens (TTL) or manual. With TTL, the speedlight will fire off a preflash which it can register “through the lens” of your camera to determine the correct intensity for the main burst. Manual is just like it sounds, you set and control the flash intensity on your own, this is where a light meter can come in handy. If you don’t have a light meter you will need to use trial and error to get your exposure right.
Flash Sync Speed
When using a speedlight you need to be aware of the sync speed. The sync speed is the fastest shutter speed the camera and the speedlight can work together properly. Each camera is different and will have a different sync speed so look yours up online or check your camera’s user manual.
The Inverse Square Law
One thing you need to know when using flash in photography is the inverse square law. The inverse square law is this, the further your subject is away from the light source the more the light will decrease in intensity. To better help you understand how this law affects your photography watch the video below where Peter Hurley gives a crash course on the subject.
There are a few different techniques when it comes to using flash in your photography. The three I will cover are direct, fill, and bounce.
Direct: Mount your speedlight on your camera, point it directly at your subject, and then shoot.
Fill: When using fill flash you will typically be outdoors and you will use the light from your flash to “fill in” any shadows on your subject. This is why you will sometimes see photographers using a speedlight outdoors on a sunny day.
Bounce: With bounce flash you will be pointing your speedlight not at your subject but at a wall or the ceiling to bounce light off of before it hits your subject. Bounce flash produces a softer, more even light than direct flash.
Just like with cameras you can grab a number of accessories to use in conjunction with your speedlight to help you get the most out of it. Below is a short list of the most common and, in my opinion, most useful accessories to use with a flash.
Diffuser: A diffuser is a small semi translucent plastic cover that helps to diffuse and spread out the light coming from the flash. One thing to note is that you will usually lose one stop of light with a diffuser. Be sure to get one that fits your flash.
Mini Softbox: Similar to the diffuser, the mini softbox helps to soften the light while keeping a little more directionality to it.
Colored Gels: Gels are small pieces of translucent plastic that change the color of the light and can be really fun to use.
Wireless Transmitter & Receiver: If you will be using off-camera flash then you will probably want a set of these.
Gorillapod: This little flexible Gorillapod allows for a multitude of creative placements when using your speedlight off-camera.
While flash photography might not be for some photographers, that doesn’t mean it isn’t for you. Take your time, do a little research and you might just be surprised by the results.
P.S. While doing research for this post I came across the following video I thought you would enjoy.