Five Essential Tips for Beginners Using Flash
Whenever I ask photographers what they consider the hardest part of photography, without doubt, ‘Flash’ hits the number one spot. It is universally feared, hated and avoided by just about everyone (initially).
“It’s too hard, too complicated, and it takes horrible pictures!”
Yup, I’ve heard it all.
It’s funny just how so many photographers just don’t want to know. Sticking with natural light is so much easier and so much more… natural?
I admit it, for years I thought the same. I remember how my earliest flash attempts were back in the late 60s, when all I had was a camera-mounted flash gun that took plug-in bulbs (below). You used them once and binned them. Before taking a shot, you had to read the instruction manual, which gave you guidelines on how to calculate what aperture to use for the distance you wanted the flash to travel.
In the 70s, I bought my first generation electronic flashgun. It took batteries and came with a circular dial on the side to help you calculate flash distances. You still had to work it out yourself, but at least there was no more changing bulbs.
Technology started catching up, and before long, speed-lights (the generic name for portable flashguns) were coming onto the market that could automatically calculate the right amount of flash for you. They would fire off a pre-flash and measure the light bouncing back from the subject. Then they’d fire off the second flash, correctly adjusted to expose the shot.
These days, speed-lights use a system where the camera and the flash talk to each other to accurately calculate the exposure. Ambient light and flash work together to give you the best possible results.
Despite the genuine ease of use these days, many are still put off by the ‘perceived’ perplexity. This simple guide will help you avoid some of the more common mistakes and discover the creative possibilities that flash can offer you.
Having taught flash photography to so many people over the years, it has been interesting to see individuals experience their ‘lightbulb’ moments – as flash principles suddenly became clear to them. ‘Lightbulb’ seems especially appropriate when talking about Flash, of course.
I hope this article helps you have a similar epiphanic experience.
(‘epiphanic’… now there’s a word I’ve never used before, I wasn’t even sure it existed! So don’t be embarrassed if you have to look it up 😁)
Tip Number 1.
Don’t point the flash directly at your subject
This is a really basic no, no.
Many of our worse expectations of flash are influenced by images we’ve taken (or seen taken by others) by firing the flash straight into someone’s face.
Nasty shadows and specular highlights. Shooting like this is never going to produce flattering results, and if you have a pop-up flash on your camera, this is what you’ll get. If a pop-up flash is all you have, my advice is to turn it off and never use it again. Go out and buy a speed-light that will allow you to bounce the light off ceilings and walls.
By firing the flash straight at the subject, you’ll get harsh, high-contrast shadows in places you don’t want, especially under the nose and chin. If the person is standing in front of a wall, you also end up with unattractive shadows on the wall too.
If you purchase a flash with a swivel head, you can bounce the light for a much more natural effect. The shot below was taken at a party, with a single flash mounted on top of the camera and bounced off the ceiling.
In fact, both shots were taken with the same gear – a Canon DSLR with a Canon Speedlite mounted on the camera (Canon call their flashes Speedlites rather than speed-lights).
The difference between the two images is remarkable. Bouncing the light off the ceiling diffuses the light by turning the ceiling into a massive reflector. The girl is being illuminated by a large diameter of overhead light, which is wrapping itself around her, enveloping her and softening any shadows in the process.
Tip Number 2.
Shoot long and wide
One of the factors that helps make the shot above work is lens choice.
It is common practice among new photographers to leave the kit lens on the camera and the zoom in and out to suit the shot. I do the complete opposite. I prefer to use lenses that are designed for portrait use. They don’t zoom.
Lenses that don’t zoom are called prime lenses, and one of their big advantages over zooms is that they usually come with wide, wide apertures.
The shot above was taken with a 135mm f/2 lens. This is a stellar lens for shooting portraits, and it works particularly well when shooting flash.
Combining a reasonably long focal length with a wide aperture, the resulting narrow Depth of Field (DoF) gives the image a double-whammy of great background blur.
It’s easy to blur backgrounds with lenses like this, and the effect is very attractive.
Shooting with a long focal length enables you to keep your distance from the subject. This means that if you’re bouncing your flash off the ceiling, you are hitting their face at a shallow angle, great for eliminating nasty shadows, especially in the eye sockets.
Shorter focal lengths, like 50mm, mean you have to get closer. And in order to bounce the light off the ceiling, it has to point up sharply… which in turn means, that the light ends up coming back down at an equally steep angle. A bit like photographing someone under a midday sun. Not attractive.
So try shooting with a longer focal length. A 85mm on a 1.5 crop sensor is roughly equivalent to 128mm and it’s a good choice. 85mm lenses can be quite modestly priced, especially if you can get a used one from WEX or Park Cameras. 85mm lenses also tend to have very wide maximum apertures, which makes them a doubly appealing option. Long focal lengths with wide apertures are a good combo for shooting portraits, using them in conjunction with flash can produce stunning results indoors too.
I shoot Canon full frame DSLRs and Fuji crop-sensor mirrorless. The fuji range includes an astonishingly good 90mm f/2. It’s one of my favourite lenses and of course, allowing for the 1.5 crop, it behaves just like a 135mm on a full frame.
Tip Number 3.
Take Control of the Zoom
I’m always surprised at how few photographers know about this one.
Imagine shooting with a 50mm lens. The field of View (the area of the scene that the lens can see) is around 40°. When you shoot with flash, what we want is for the flash to shoot a wide enough beam of light to ensure that the entire 40° is covered.
Now, let’s assume we changed lenses for a 24mm. The field of view is now significantly wider, perhaps as much as 84°. If we didn’t change the flash beam to match, only the centre of the photo would be illuminated. Not ideal.
Today’s flashes are very clever, they detect what your focal length is and automatically change the width of the beam to suit. If you have a zoom lens on your camera, you can hear the flash zoom in and out as you adjust the zoom on your lens. Miraculous!
This ensures that, whatever focal length you use, the flash will always provide a broad enough beam of light to fill the frame.
Well, not exactly any focal length. There are limits. Flash guns vary, but it’s not unusual for a flash to have a zoom range from as wide as 20mm… up to 200mm. Some flashes have wider range, many more have less.
What if I have a wider lens than my flash range covers?
Fear not, there is a way around that.
Most flashes these days have a pull-out diffusion screen that spreads the light beam into a wider pattern. The amount of diffusion will vary from flash to flash. Some flashes will display information on their LCD about what focal length their diffuser will cover, which is helpful.
So, if the normal zoom range of your speed-light is 20mm – 200mm and you slap a 15mm ultra wide-angle lens on your camera, you’ll need to pull out the diffuser to widen the beam to match the new focal length.
Having explained how clever your flash is (automatically matching the spread of light to the field of view of your lens) you should now know that I usually work with this facility turned off, especially when shooting with the flash located off the camera (on a light stand, for instance).
On the back of your speed-light are a number of buttons, one of which will control the Zoom. In most cases the default setting is AUTO.
If you switch off the AUTO, you can manually dial in a setting of your own choice. This is great, as it gives you the creative control to choose a flash beam to suit the job, from wide to narrow. It’s a bit like controlling the lights in a theatre.
During a theatrical production, whether it’s a play, a musical or a concert, the lighting manager will make decisions about whether to use floodlights or spots. Floodlights obviously illuminate a large area and spots a small one. Being able to do this with your speed-light opens up a whole range of creative opportunities.
This is especially important if you are using the flash inside a soft-box, where of course you’ll want a wide spread of light to completely fill it. It would be rather pointless having a narrow beam of light which only illuminates the centre of the soft-box’s diffusion screen.
Experiment with your zoom settings and explore the creative potential.
Tip Number 4.
Buy a Flash with Enough Power
I’m often surprised at how few photographers understand the significance of guide numbers.
I guess because I grew up in the early days of camera flash, using one-shot bulbs (as in the top photo), guide numbers were something I used all the time. They were integral to helping me calculate the distance for the flash to reach, or which aperture I should use for any given distance.
To calculate the guide number you multiplied the aperture by the distance.
Guide Number = aperture x flash to subject distance
This simple graphic helps you to memorise the calculation.
- Aperture = Guide No. over the Distance (divided by).
- Distance = Guide No. over the Aperture (divided by)
Why is this important today, when technology does it all for you? Because the guide number helps you understand something about the power of the flash. The bigger the guide number, the further it will throw its light. Especially important when deciding which flash to buy.
Let’s just clarify something, the Guide number isn’t actually a measurement of the flash’s power, but it does give you a sensible indication of how far the flash will throw its light.
Higher power speed-lights usually have guide numbers of around 60. You should probably be looking to these, if you want a long throw of light from your flash.
And in case you’re asking yourself why you need such a powerful beam, imagine you’re shooting in a venue with a high ceiling. The speed-light has to fire its beam all the way up to the ceiling, and then back down again. So although the subject might be reasonably close to you, the distance travelled by the light is likely to be a whole lot further.
Add to that, the ceiling will absorb some of the flash’s power when the light hits it. Yes, it will reflect the light, but in doing so, the light will reduce.
Even more so if the ceiling has a poorly-reflecting surface like timber. When that happens, the light fall-off could be huge and you may be forced to crank up your ISO.
Tip Number 5.
Rechargeable Batteries are the sensible choice
Save an absolute fortune in batteries by ensuring you use rechargeables.
Some flashes take traditional AA batteries, some take rechargeable AAs… and others have rechargeable lithium batteries. Rechargeables may be a more expensive initial investment, but the long-term savings are extraordinary!
Spending a fiver in the local supermarket for 4 x AA Duracells may seem like a good deal, but the couple of hundred of full-power shots you’ll get from them will be a fraction, a tiny fraction, of the thousands of shots you’ll get from rechargeable batteries.
Yes, rechargeables are THAT GOOD!
I’ve heard reports of people recharging their batteries several hundred times, even a thousand times!! If that’s true, you could be looking at the number of flashes possible from one set of rechargeable exceeding 200,000!
That is incredible.
There’s obviously a lot to learn about working with speed-lights and if you’d like to learn more, why not come to one of my flash workshops at our Training Centre in Fleet, Hampshire (southern England).
Check out the Hampshire School of Photography website (gohsp.com) for more information. If there are no courses being offered at the time you look, drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll make sure you get added to the mailing list for the next one.