Good photographic light isn’t limited to the sun, it comes from many different sources, some we can control, some we cannot. Use the sun to your advantage but when you want to add light to a dark scene or skillfully sculpt it for a certain effect, you’ll find your external camera flash unit one of the best tools in your bag.
Using an off camera flash, often referred to as a speedlight, to control and shape the light can mean the difference between a snapshot and a great photograph and if you understand the basic principles of photography, learning to use one is not as difficult as you may think.
Whether shooting portraits, events or even macro, the speedlight can be used to simply fill in shadows to provide a more evenly lit scene or to create drama by directing or modifying the light a certain way. Although the on-camera pop up flashes can be handy at times for fill, speedlights allow greater control.
Flash units vary between brands and models and although they are pretty sophisticated, they can be used right out of the box in the auto mode, referred to as TTL (through the lens) or iTTL, ETTL depending on brand. But as you’ll quickly discover, better results and more control of the light can be achieved by adjusting the flash power in the TTL mode or by using it in the manual mode.
Consider exposure. When using an external flash the ISO controls the overall brightness of the image, the Shutter speed controls the ambient light and the Aperture controls the amount of light from the flash that actually reaches the subject.
Keep in mind that the smaller the light source, the harder the light. Straight on flash is very harsh and for portraits is unflattering. Modifying that light is the next step and this can be done numerous ways. Umbrellas to shoot through or reflelct off of, softboxes, accessories like a Gary Fong Lightsphere or Honl light modifiers that attach directly to the flash, all help control how soft or harsh, direct or indirect the light is. They help you to shape the light and create the effect you are looking for.
Portrait photography is best done taking the main light source away from the camera to create a more flattering look. Light stands offer the most flexibility in placement of the speedlights and can easily be repositioned to adjust the direction of the light. Using multiple speedlights allows you to be more creative; positioning them for backlight, hair-light, sidelight and such and to create mood and drama.
The same applies for event photography but depending on the size of the group or venue, you may need to use multiple speedlights strategically placed on stands around the event location. Using the Master/Slave setting on the camera and flash, or triggers such as Pocket Wizard, allows you to fire flash units wirelessly. In smaller venues or house parties, you can experiment with things like bouncing the light off of white ceilings or walls as a way to diffuse and soften the light. Most speedlights swivel and tilt for this reason.
Another great use for off-camera flash is when shooting macro photography. Whether it is photographing flowers or even smaller items like coins or jewelry, off camera flash can create dramatic results and show the detail that close-up photography demands because you can place the flash very close to your subject. By using flash only inches from a subject, you can use very small f-stops, like f16 or f22, to create a large depth of field, something that is often hard to attain in macro photography.
Using one off-camera flash unit can greatly improve your photos and is the best way to start. Experiment and practice and when you have one mastered, consider adding additional units or simple light modifiers.
You’ll find it surprisingly fun working with speedlights. Try it and you’ll see how easy it is to take your photography to the next level.
If you want to learn hands-on how to use your off-camera flash, join us at our External Flash Made Easy class on June 23, 2019. Instructor Corey Hilz begins the class covering the basics of flash photography and builds on it, by the end of it you'll be comfortabe using the flash. You’ll come away with the confidence and know-how to use your speedlight and your photos will look better for it.
Photos by Corey Hilz