Friday, June 17, 2011

Basic Flash Guide

There are so many different ways to use a flash, so today we're showing visuals for the less experienced readers in this area. Using a flash does not need to be a daunting task. Just like riding a bike, practice makes perfect. The best thing to do if you are starting out with using flash, is to do a test shoot and try out the different positions below after reading about them. This way, you can put two and two together and take it from there.

There are many different types of flashes which range in function and price. Usually, the more complex or feature rich they are, the more expensive they become. You can however, get the same great results from older models which are more cost effective than newer ones. Other options include manual, auto, or TTL flashes.

First, lets familiarize ourselves with a few definitions...

On-camera flash: Your flash unit is attached to the camera. This may be a built-in flash, either exposed or a pop-up, or it may be an external flash unit that is attached to the camera's hot shoe.

Off-camera flash: The flash unit is not attached to the camera. It may be attached to an off-camera shoe cord, on a bracket, or on a stand controlled by a slave or transmitter/receiver unit.

External flash: a flash unit that is not built in to the camera and can be used as an off-camera flash, also sometimes referred to as a standalone flash.

Speedlight: Nikon's name for their external flash units.

Speedlite: Canon's name for their external flash units.

Strobe: The term is used interchangeably these days to refer to both off-camera flash photography (with an external flash unit or studio lights), and to the larger studio lights that flash (vs. a hot light or modeling light).

Strobist: A technique or person who uses small off-camera flash units (Speedlights/ Speedlites).

Fill flash: A flash that is used to fill in the shadows of a subject. Typically used outdoors to aid in the control of the background and foreground exposures.

Bounce flash: When the top part of an external flash unit is pointed away from the subject and aimed at a flat surface, usually a ceiling or wall. The flash "bounces" off of the surface and back onto the subject diffusing the light.


Why would you want to use an external flash? It eliminates read eye, allows control of the light direction and amount of light, increases flash range, can offer a more natural or more dramatic effect, and typically has a faster recycle time.

When looking at the examples below, an important thing to pay attention to is how the light and shadows look and change based on the different positions or adjustments.

Shot indoors in natural window light, no flash

Shot using the built-in on camera flash, or "pop-up" flash

Flash is on-camera and bounced off the ceiling

Flash is off-camera and direct

Flash is off-camera, on a stand with umbrella

Shot using 2 off-camera flash units, one at right, one at left. One is in an umbrella, and the other has a Gary Fong Diffuser attached.

Shot outdoors in natural light

Outdoors with pop-up flash

Shot with an external flash, off camera, and used as a fill flash

A few tips:
* Learn how to shoot in manual mode (Flash and camera).
* Bounce is better (Bounce flash off: Ceilings, walls or flat reflector. It not only reflects the light but also diffuses it by scattering over a wider area.)
* Larger the light source the softer the light will be (Light spreads out with a diffuser or soft-box etc) a cloudy day is natures ultimate soft-box.
* Shoot in the shade on sunny days. Sunny days cast harsh shadows and cause people to make funny faces (squint or close eyes in bright sun). The sides of buildings or trees make great shady areas. Or make your own shade by using a large piece of cardboard or poster board. Don't forget to use your flash as a fill-in to give your subject some pop.
* Practice lighting techniques with objects and people to see which you like better.
* Shadows Create Volume. Lighting from the side, above or below creates longer shadows, which in turn creates a sense of volume.
* Use a flash outdoors on harshly lit days. I know it sounds odd, to use a flash when it's bright and sunny out and there's plenty of light, but this will lighten shadows on your subjects face and while keeping the background at a correct exposure.
* All light has color, even if it looks “white”. This is referred to as color temperature. Our brain is very good at adjusting our perception so we do not notice the change. The camera sensor and/or film may record color casts where our eyes did not see any. For example, on a sunny day the shade of a tree will have a blue cast. Learn and practice setting your white balance manually in each situation.

Ready for something a little more advanced in off-camera lighting/strobist techniques? Here are a few articles to check out: Strobist part 1, Strobist part 2, Jumping Off For Dramatic Lighting. You can also see our other lighting articles here.