Using your flash effectively will help you to grow your photography skills immeasurably. We take a look at the different types of flash on the market and how to make the best use of them.
Whether it’s using fill-flash to banish harsh shadows or illuminate would-be silhouettes, or using off-camera flash techniques to create professional looking portraits, flash is an essential skill to master.
That being said, it’s a difficult ability to truly master, so let us explain the basics of flash while exploring some of its more creative application in our complete guide to flash.
Types of Flash
Broadly speaking there are three types of flash unit, each of which offers incrementally more power.
At the bottom end of the scale are the small pop-up flash units that are built into virtually all compact cameras, along with most compact system cameras and DSLRs.
Next come the standalone flashguns that slot into a camera’s hotshoe connector and which use their own power supply – usually four AA batteries.
At the top end of the power scale are the large professional lighting kits that are primarily designed for use in a studio environment where they are only going to be moved short distances. These also require their own power supply, usually in the form of a standalone battery unit, which makes them quite cumbersome. That said, it’s also possible to buy professional lighting kits that have been weatherproofed for use outdoors.
All three types have their own uses and practicalities – even the most basic of pop-up flash units. However it’s the small, hotshoe-mounted flashguns designed for use with CSCs, DSLRs and even some advanced compacts that offer the most convenient way to use flash creatively.
This is because they offer much more power and flexibility, yet remain small enough to stow away in a small camera bag.
If you plan on specialising in flash then you may want to graduate to a professional lighting system eventually, however for learning the ropes a hotshoe-mounted flashgun is undoubtedly the best tool for the job. Indeed, if you own a DSLR or CSC then equipping yourself with a decent flashgun should be your top priority.
If you own a simple point-and-shoot compact with a built-in flash then the scope for altering the power and type of light it emits will almost certainly be quite limited. Move up to a mid-range compact, CSC or DSLR though and you will more than likely find options such as ‘red-eye reduction’ or ‘slow sync’ included within the flash menu.
Understanding how these affect the duration and intensity of the flash can often make or break an image under certain conditions.
Red-eye is a common issue with flash that can result in people having unflattering demonic-looking red eyes. It’s caused by the flash’s light reflecting off the pupils and is most common when the subject is looking directly at the camera. While it’s relatively straightforward to remove with some basic post-processing software, many cameras are equipped with a red-eye reduction mode that aims to prevent it from happening in the first place.
When selected the flash will emit a brief pulse of light milliseconds before the main flash goes off. This has the effect of constricting the subject’s pupils, which in turn reduces or even eliminates the red-eye effect altogether. It’s useful if you don’t want to spend time processing the flaw out at a later date.
Slow sync is another flash option that’s commonly found on digital cameras. On cheaper compacts it’s often listed as a ‘Night mode’ option (or similar) within the Scene Mode menu options, rather than within the flash options menu.
Either way, slow sync mode forces the shutter to stay open longer than the burst of flash, which in turn allows any available ambient light to illuminate the background more than if you just used regular flash.
While the main subject will usually be frozen by the burst of flash, the background will often be slightly blurred. This makes it a fun mode to experiment with and one that’s capable of producing quite interesting results in certain situations. If you’re out at night in a social situation this is often the best setting to use.
Sync flash modes can be used to capture motion
Front curtain sync and rear curtain sync are two further flash modes that can be used to capture interesting images with, although they are only generally found on more advanced cameras.
They are especially useful when capturing a moving subject as they convey a sense of movement through motion blur in the background behind the subject (the main subject will, however, be ‘frozen’ by the flash).
In practical terms the main difference between the two is that the former fires the flash just as the shutter opens, to create a blurred effect in front of the main subject; while the latter fires the flash just before the shutter closes, to create a blurred effect behind the moving subject.
They both work especially well when combined with a panning technique and are commonly used by sports and action photographers.
X-sync speed or ‘maximum sync speed’ simply refers to the maximum shutter speed that can be used reliably with a flashgun. Cheaper cameras often offer an X-sync speed of around 1/60th of a second, whereas more advanced cameras will typically offer around 1/250th of a second.
Higher X-sync speeds are useful because they allow you to use wider aperture settings for a shallower depth-of-field effect in daylight when there is plenty of ambient light available.
Either way, if you try to use a shutter speed above your flashgun’s X-sync rating, then your image will come out partially black as a result of the shutter curtain closing before the flash has completed its cycle.
Hotshoe-mounted flashguns are a different beast altogether, although for the novice user they can often appear intimidating thanks to the large range of buttons, functions and metering modes that they offer.
Our best advice is to leave feature-laden, high-end models to professional shooters and start out with a more basic flashgun model instead. Stick to the basic TTL (Through The Lens) Auto metering modes at first before graduating to the manual modes once you are more comfortable with things.
Complete Guide To Flash – When and How
When to use flash
Flash is useful in a wide range of situations. The most obvious of these is when ambient light levels are too low to get a decent image without cranking up the sensitivity to noise-inducing levels.
If you’re using a camera with a pop-up flash on any of its fully automatic modes then the camera will likely engage the flash automatically for you.
If, however, you’re shooting in Program mode or any of the semi-manual or fully manual modes then you will probably need to force the camera to employ flash by pressing the relevant buttons yourself.
Using flash in daylight
Flash isn’t just for use in the dark. Indeed, some of its best applications are reserved for use in daylight when there’s plenty of light available, for example when shooting directly into a bright light source such as the sun. This is where the use of fill-flash can come in handy.
Fill-flash is essentially a way of using flash to illuminate nearby subjects (or objects) to help them stand out from a bright background, while still retaining some highlight detail behind them.
If you don’t use fill-flash when shooting directly into bright light then any objects in front of the light source will end up as dark silhouettes that lack any detail.
In addition, fill-flash can also be used to smooth out any harsh shadows caused by shooting with the sun shining directly onto the subject at an unflattering angle.
One problem with using direct flash indoors (i.e. flash that’s pointed directly at the subject) is that it can cause unsightly shadows, especially when the subject is standing close to a wall.
One way around this is to use ‘bounced’ flash. This involves angling the head of your flashgun so that it points towards the ceiling or an adjacent wall. This has the effect of softening the light, which in turn reduces the harshness of any shadows behind the main subject.
Given that the light has to travel further you may well want to increase the power slightly – most flashguns allow you to do this via dedicated buttons on the unit itself.
You also need to watch out for unflattering colour casts that can be caused by bouncing flash off brightly coloured walls or ceilings.
The technique of positioning your flashgun off-camera has grown hugely in popularity in recent years with whole communities and websites dedicated to the art of getting great photos using one or more flashguns positioned off camera.
To get involved you’ll need a camera with a pop-up flash that’s capable of acting as a flash commander, or a set of remote flash triggers. Thankfully the latter can be purchased on eBay and suchlike relatively cheaply.
In addition, your flashgun will also need to have the infrared or wireless capabilities required to allow it to act as a receiver. Once you’re set up with all the right equipment the creative possibilities are near endless, which makes it a very exciting and fun branch of flash photography to explore and experiment with.
Where you choose to place your strobes will, of course, depend on the situation and the lighting effect you want to create. If you’re interested in learning more then one of the best places to start your off-camera education is Strobist, which contains an excellent ‘Lighting 101′ educational module on the subject.
Complete Guide To Flash – Flash Modifications
One of the best things about owning a flashgun is that it opens up a universe of after-market accessories that can be used to soften and shape the light it emits.
Virtually all flashguns come boxed with a simple diffuser that can be attached to it in order to soften the light it emits, and while these are a good place to start it’s well worth investing in some additional accessories if you want to progress your ability to take better photos using flash.
Flash with in-built diffuser
Thankfully a small investment can go a long way and there are hundreds of products catering for all tastes and situations.
Accessories come in all shapes and sizes too – from small diffusers that slot directly onto the end of your flashgun such as the Gary Fong Lightsphere, to larger umbrella and softbox kits that require their own stand (or a willing assistant).
Ultimately though, most flash modifiers serve at least one of two purposes, if not both; to soften the harsh directional light (and shadows) caused by direct flash, and/or to channel the light emitted into a more specific shape or area of spread.
Free-standing flash umbrellas
Photographic umbrellas, for example, will produce a wide area of coverage with gradual light fall-off, whereas softboxes are designed to channel the light more narrowly towards your subject.
Snoots, meanwhile, can be used to produce a tightly focused directional light source with sharp fall-off. Last but by no means least, beauty dishes are another popular modifying option.
The ring-shaped catchlights they produce in a model’s eyes make them especially popular with portrait and fashion photographers.
In this guide we’ve concentrated primarily on pop-up, hotshoe-mounted and professional studio flash, however there is one other type of flash unit well worth knowing about, especially if you have a keen interest in macro or fashion photography, and this device is called a ring flash.
This is a distinctive-looking circular flash that slots into the hotshoe but is engineered so that the ring of light is positioned around the end of the camera’s lens.
The advantage of this approach is that the circular ring of light creates noticeably softer shadows, especially when used at short distances to photograph small objects.