Flash photography

Basics for advanced beginners

Shooting with flash is a science for itself and it can be frustrating even for people who already did their first experiences in photography. The issue has gone so far that it fills entire books. But if you are curious and want to do the next step in photography, this would be right thing for you. That’s why I want to give you an introduction about flash photography. You will learn some about the common mistakes people make using flashes and how to use it properly to enter a whole new world of possibilities in photography. I will also give you some introduction about the gear you can use and a book recommendation as well.

Why to use a flash?

 

flash photography, speedlight, speedlite, flash, using external flash

 

First of all we should traverse why to shoot with a flash. Most of you would say: “To make a photo brighter and to avoid blurry images, of course.” But now think about bright photos where you have seen ugly red eyes, hard shadows and totally flat colors. I am talking about those photos you usually never would post on Instagram unless you don’t care about the quality. Therefore, I give you some real reasons why to use a flash:

  • When you get closer to this whole topic of flash photography, you will learn that a flash is not just a light source punching straight into your face. It’s rather a tiny “sun” you can use to make great photos with lighting moods you know from nature.
  • A flash can also be used to illuminate a subject perfectly and make a photo look like it was made by a professional.
  • Using a flash, you would be able to separate the subject from the background by creating a well lit subject and receiving a saturated dark background.
  • You can even use a flash during a sunny day. This is especially useful when you are shooting portraits. It’s hard for a model posing with the face turned to the sun. But standing with the back to the sun and shooting into the sun would most likely cause a bright background and a dark model. You can avoid this by using a flash and hence, make sure that your model would be illuminated properly.


Prerequisites

To shoot with a flash, you should get familiar with the photography basics first. At least you should know, what the rule of thirds is or why you should look for geometric shapes in your motif, and so on. You should also know how to deal with mechanical aspects of photography like aperture, shutter speed, and of course, the ISO. Without this basic knowledge, it does not really make sense to deal with flash photography (That’s why I’ve put this topic into the advanced section and not into the section for beginners). But now let’s take a look at three typical situations a flash is used in a wrong way.


First mistake – using the integrated flash

Most of the digital cameras are delivered with an integrated flash. For someone who shoots from time to time it might be okay. But if you want to learn how to photograph properly and seriously, I tell you: forget the integrated flash!

The integrated flash can only be used in a direct way. Which means that the light from it hits your motif hard frontally and causes an unattractive impact. In fact, in this case, the pictures look pretty ugly and unsightly. Hence, when you are thinking about to buy a good DSLR, like a full frame Canon EOS 6D*, you should buy one without an integrated flash. Instead, buy an external flash which you can mount on the top of your camera.

If you don’t want to spend too much money for your first gear and prefer to use an integrated flash nevertheless, you should at least look for a possibility to use a diffuser.

Second mistake – using flashes without a diffuser

 

Of course, you can also use a flash without a diffuser. But if you ask me, there are special situations you will deal with as an advanced photographer, e.g. by using an external flash to enlighten subjects from behind. But in most other situations, a diffused flash will work better. The reason for this is that even an external flash is a small light source which still punches the subject roughly and leaves harsh results. What we want instead, is to spread the light and make it much softer. In this case you can compare this with a hit by a big soft pillow instead by a hard fist.

Therefore, using a flash with a diffuser will give you a much more balanced photo. The common meaning of a diffuser is a normal plastic cap which you put onto your external flash. But if you go deeper, you will learn, that there are different ways to create diffusing light.

Third mistake – Using flash for a long distance

Have you been in a concert and seen people standing far away from the stage, and making pictures by using a flash? I tell you, this is senseless! The reason for that is that a flash has a range of about 3 to 5 meters (10  to 16 ft), depending on the performance of the device. Now imagine what happens, when you use a flash. You will just make the foreground in the short distance brighter but not the subject which is much farther away. Therefore, don’t make the same mistake and use a flash only, when it’s close enough to the subject.


Which gear to use

Now let’s take a look at some gear. I’ll give you a couple of examples and show you the most important (or the most common if you will) equipment, because there are too much technical devices for flash photography, folks. We will not discuss about studio lighting because in my opinion it would go too far for you as a (advanced) beginner. Instead, we will concentrate on flashes and accessries.

External Flashes

External flashes also called speedlight or speedlite. The term speedlight was first used by Nikon in the 1960ies, and described Nikon flashes which were built into Nikon’s cameras. Canon quickly jumped on the bandwagon and adopted this term by presenting a variation. Thus a new term, speedlite, was born.

Nowadays, the terms speedlight and speedlite became generic terms, and they usually describe a stand-alone camera mounted portable flashes. In other words – external flashes. You maybe already use generic terms in your daily life, e.g. kleenex instead of tissue or hoover instead of a vacuum cleaner. Therefore, I also will use the terms speedlight and speedlite in this article for the sake of variety.

There are a lot of different models of external flashes, produced by the photo manufactures or by third parties. For example, Canon and Nikon manufacturing not only cameras but also flashes. Other manufacturers specializing themselves in photography accessories. For example, the German Company Metz produces only lighting equipment. Another German Company, Hähnel, produces high-quality accessoires like external flashes, flash triggers, tripods, and so on. An example for a non-European third party manufacturer is the Chinese Yongnuo. This one manufactures speedlights, triggers, cables, and so on. In total, Yongnuo offers about 7 series and 40 products.

But which equipment should you buy as an advanced amateur photographer? Should you buy from the same manufacturer who made your camera or from a third party?

This is up to you, but my opinion is this one: brand speedlites from camera manufactures are very good, but they have their price. And sometimes I have the feeling that you have to pay innately more just because the product is made by Nikon or Canon. Therefore, if you are new to flash photography, I recommend you to buy the equipment from third parties.

Speedlites from manufactuers like Metz, have a very good quality by a price which is much lower than speedlites from Canon, Nikon & Co. When you gathered some experience and able to earn money with photography, then you should think about investing money in more expensive devices. But again, it’s up to you and you will find your way if you delve into flash photography more seriously.

But just to give you an orientation: some good basic models you can trust are the “Metz mecablitz 44 AF-2*”, or the more advanced speedlight “Metz mecablitz 52 AF-1*”. There are even cheaper speedlights, like the Yongnuo YN560*. But as I don’t have any experience with this model, I list it just for the sake of variety.  The expensive alternative would be e.g. Canon’s Speedlite 600EX II-RT* which is used by professional or semi-professional photographers at weddings and other events.


Diffusers for external flashes

As mentioned, you should preferably shoot with a diffuser*. A typical diffuser for a speedlite is a white plastic cap and they are really affordable. There are also some variations available, like a mini soft box* which you can put on your flashlight or the classic diffuser cap in a different color than the white one.


Soft boxes for using the flash remotely

Usually, soft boxes are used with AC powered studio strobes, and considered as workhorses in a photography studio. But imagine, you are in nature where you’ve found a gorgeous location, and where you would like to light the scene like a boss. But where to take electrical power for the strobes? In fact, there are studio strobes with a battery available. But outdoors, where every kilogramm / pound counts, lighting the scene with a strobe wouldn’t necessarily be the best solution.

Therefore, a softbox where you can fixate a speedlight and fire it remotely using a trigger is a great alternative for a strobe. They are small sized, lightweight and quick in setting up or tearing down. For example, a Lastolite LL LS2711P Ezybox II* with a mount for your speedlight can deliver the desired solution. I used this system for years even indoors for people photography, and always achieved great results. Of course, with a strobe you can maybe achieve even better results but this is again a question about the expenses. For two Lastolites with two speedlights (e.g. from Metz), two tripods*, and a trigger system you would pay about 300 to 350 USD/EUR/AUD/GBP (depending on your country). For a good equipment using strobes you would pay the double amount.

But of course, this doesn’t mean at all that using soft boxes with speedlites instead of strobes is the best solution. It even depends on your preferences, and on what are you want to do.


Triggers

Triggers are used to fire one or more speedlights remotely.

This works in this way: on your DSLR there is usually a so-called hot shoe. Onto the hot shoe you need to slide the sender (or transmitter). Then you take your speedlight and mount on it the receiver. Once you have pressed the photo button on your camera, the transmitter on your camera sends the signal to the receiver, and the receiver fires the flash.

There are two categories of flash triggers: infrared triggers and radio triggers

Infrared triggers (IR triggers) are using infrared light to “communicate” with each other. So the receiver needs to “see” the infrared signal coming from the transmitter to fire the flash. And that can be a disadvantage in some cases. Firstly, if you need to shoot through a longer distance, a infrared trigger has a range limitation (depending on a manufacturer), compared to a radio trigger.
Another limitation of an infrared flash trigger is that they can be unreliable in certain light conditions. E.g. when you shoot outdoors, a bright sunlight can interfere with the infrared light of your flash and cause problems.

But of course, infrared flash triggers also have their pros. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have their right to exist, right? One big advantage of the infrared trigger is that they are cheaper than radio triggers. The other bonus using the IR triggers is that the can “communicate” with the camera which allows you use some features like TTL, high-speed sync and remote power control. A lot radio triggers (but not all of them) can only fire a flash but nothing else.

Radio triggers are more expensive than the infrared triggers. One of the reasons for this is that there is no worldwide uniform regulation regarding to radio transmissions. Therefore, a radio triggers needs to be designed for each region’s regulations which make the expenditures usually higher.

One of the basic advantages of radio triggers is that they don’t need visual contact, compared to the IR triggers. Therefore, you can e.g. place a flash in a room and fire it from another one due to the radio signal. Thanks to the radio technology, you would also get a higher range and would be able to shoot at distance from 300 ft (appr. 91 m) to even 1,600 ft (appr. 487 m), depending on the trigger system. Of course, most photographers probably never would need to shoot from such distance. But nevertheless, it’s good to know that you will have this feature in case your really need it, right?

The disadvantage of a radio trigger system depends on the price you are willing to spend. For there are actually two categories of radio triggers – basic and advanced ones. With a basic radio trigger system you will get just one feature which is to fire. That’s why there are several manufacturers producing this type of basic radio triggers.

Remember as I said that radio triggers are more expensive than infrared triggers? Producing basic radio triggers, the manufacturers can give you an affordable radio trigger which doesn’t cost much more than a IR trigger. Here are some examples for low-level basic radio triggers: PocketWizard PlusX* or the cheaper one Yongnuo RF-603C*. 

On the other hand, advanced radio triggers provide tons of features which makes them versatile. That’s why they are better suited for professional or semi-professional photographers. The features of an advanced radio trigger can be:

  • TTL- Feature
  • Remote power adjustments at the flashes
  • High speed synchronisation
  • Upgradeable firmware
  • Multiple radio channels to avoid interferences

Of course, not every advanced radio trigger brings all features listed above. But most of them offer at least a couple of them. Examples for advanced radio trigggers: PocketWizard FlexTT* or Phottix Laso*. In general, the price level of an advanced radio trigger is higher than of a basic one. But it depends on the number of features and there is no general rule and no specific bandwidth of prices. Just check the examples I gave you and see the difference, folks.

Which radio trigger should you buy?

If you are dealing with flashes for you first time, it makes sense to buy a basic system first. You won’t need all those extra features an advanced trigger system provides. Besides that, basic radio triggers require manual adjustment and thus forcing you do deal with them in detail which would increase the learning process.

At the beginning, I bought a set from Hähnel (this model is now known as Hähnel captur) which consisted of a transmitter and a receiver. Later, I wanted another receiver because I wanted to use two flashes simultaneously. A single receiver from Hähnel would cost about 80,- EUR (about 90 USD).

That’s why I got a complete new set from Yongnuo RF-602/C, which had a transmitter and also just one receiver. But an additional receiver would cost just about 20,- EUR (about 23 USD). The disadvantage of Youngnuo was though the lower quality. After just two shootings, the lid of the transmitter broke. With a Hähnel product, it wouldn’t happen. Nevertheless, I still use the Hähnel product and the Yongnuo one as well.

So at the end of the day, it’s again all up to you, which kind of a trigger to use and how much money to spend on them. Just do some practice and find it out, folks.


Ring flashes

Originally, the ring flash was developed for dental photography and later this product was adopted by commercial photographers. Using a ring flash, you will get a specific type of light which is different to a typical flash or studio lighting. The advantage of a ring flash is that it reduces harsh shadows a normal flash can produce. But this doesn’t mean, that a ring flash per se is better than a normal external speedlight. It rather depends on the field of application.

But just to give you an orientation: a ring flash makes sense in macro photography, close-up flower photography or fashion photography. In other words, everywhere where you would like to achieve a more even light cast and to a better flatter of the details.

Especially in macro photography you will get an enormous advantage compared to a normal speedlite. For in macro photography, you will usually get very close to you subject. As a speedlight sits on the top of your camera, it would be a pretty challenge to light the subject. With a ring flash, you bring the light from the top to the front element of your camera and can light your subject.

Beginners or amateurs in photography can use ring flashes e.g. from Metz mecablitz 15 MS-1*, or Yongnuo YN-14EX*. Those with a more budget could use Canon MR-14EX II Macro Ring Lite*.


Bookshelf – what books about flash photography to read

There are tons of books out there. I’ve read a couple of them. But I would like to recommend you just one book because I think, it would be enough for a beginner. Consider this book as an inspiration and as the first touch with flash photography. When you’ve read it, I am sure, you will find your way to discover another sources which would be helpful for you.

Creative Flash Photography from Tilo Gockel*: this is my favorite and was my very first book about flash photography. Tilo shows the whole topic in an easy way. Additionally to the theoretical part, he also provides about 40 workshops in his book to show you exactly, how he used the flashes to achieve the results. I love it!

Okay folks, that’s it. I wish you an enjoyable learning and a lot of fun in photography.


*Affiliate link: when you click on this link, no additional costs would arise for you and the product or the service will not become more expensive. When you decide to buy the product or use the service, I’ll get a little benefit from the provider which I would reinvest to keep this blog alive.

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