Using an external flash is a scary notion for many new photographers. The idea of working with artificial light, or flashing away like a paparazzi may seem daunting, but using external flash enables photographers to capture images in a much wider variety of situations, especially when shooting indoors or at night.
Flash doesn’t have to be scary. Understanding a few basics will help ease even the most timid of photographers into the world of external flash.
What Is External Flash?
An external flash is also commonly referred to as a Speedlight (for Nikon), Speedlite (for Canon), or a portable flash (as a generic term.) This type of flash slides into the camera’s hot-shoe (usually located at the top of the camera), and is an essential piece of equipment for any professional photographer. External flash is much more powerful and versatile than the pop-up flash that is built in to a camera, but less powerful than a studio flash unit.
When To Use External Flash
External flash can be used to light a dark scene, make a subject ‘pop,’ or just gently fill in the shadows of a high-contrast photograph. All of the images below were taken using flash units attached to a camera.
Image taken by annilove
Image taken by Barry Rayburn
Image taken by Edward Peters
This kind of flash can be used in any of the camera’s capturing modes (P, Tv or S, Av or A, M, and even AUTO), but it is most effective when the camera is in manual mode, as you will have more control over the final exposure. It is important to note that the flash unit itself also has operating modes. The most useful of those are TTL and M. TTL stands for Through The Lens, and is kind of like the ‘auto’ of the flash world. M is obviously manual. In TTL mode, the flash works out its optimum output for any given shot, but in M mode, you have to do this manually.
Change The Output
One of the biggest mistakes beginners make when first using an external flash is to treat it as an ‘all or nothing’ light source. Unlike pop-up flash, Speedlights/Speedlites are designed with the ability to output varying amounts of light, which means that you can control how much flash you want to use. Using the flash on full power will often make your shots look ‘flashy,’ or overexposed (but of course, this depends on your environment and the ambient light available). While this is sometimes necessary, or desired, choosing to lower the power of the flash is useful for adding just a little bit of ‘fill light’ to the shadows in a scene, without it looking overly lit.
Learning to balance flash and ambient light is an invaluable skill to learn, and will help you to achieve more natural looking shots. But to begin with, try dialing down the power of your speedlight and testing the results in different environments. You may be surprised at how much of an impact just a little bit of flash can have! Don’t think of your speedlight as just having an ‘on/off’ switch. Varying the amount of light emitted will give you much more control over your images.
Pointing your flash directly at a subject can result in a very harsh light, especially when the flash is at full power. This can give your subject a washed out look, and is particularly unflattering for portraits. Choosing a flash with a head that can swivel or rotate will give you the most flexibility in terms of bouncing the light. If you point the flash at a wall or ceiling, the severity and power of the light will be reduced because it has to ‘bounce off’ a surface before hitting your subject,.
Bouncing the flash essentially causes the object you are bouncing off to become the new light source, thus resulting in a much larger ‘light.’ For example, if you point your flash directly at your subject, the light source is the flash head (perhaps only a few inches in size.) But if you bounce your flash from the ceiling, the whole ceiling becomes the light source, and that could be up to a few meters in size. A larger light source will result in much more even light, and is generally more flattering than a narrow source.
Bouncing the light also allows you to control the direction of the light source, which can give you a huge variety of effects. Bouncing your flash from the ceiling will light your subject from overhead, giving a natural look. Hitting a wall to the left or right of your subject will result in a side light, which will enhance the shape and form of your subject. If you want to work with direct light, but need a larger light source, then try pointing the flash over your shoulder and bouncing it off a wall if there is one behind you. Alternatively if aim your flash at a reflector (either held up by a stand or an assistant) in any position you like that best suits the photo, you’ll have even more control over the direction and angle of the light.
Attaching modifiers to your flash unit is a great way to alter the appearance of the light being emitted. Modifiers that can be attached include diffusers, reflectors and gels, all of which can be easily attached to your flash. Diffusers will help to soften light, and reflectors are used to bounce it. Gels are coloured pieces of plastic that alter the colour of the light being emitted, Using gels can help to balance the colours in your images (if you have mixed coloured lighting), or intentionally alter the colours for an interesting effect. Depending on what shape and style of modifier you use, you are able to to obtain a wide variety of results.
You can also create DIY modifiers such as coffee filters to reflect and bounce, or some baking paper to act as a diffuser. Just make sure the materials you use are not flammable! Also, don’t try to make your own gels using cellophane. The heat of the flash is likely to melt or burn the cellophane, which can cause a lot of damage!
Use It Off Camera
Using your flash off camera (removing it from the hot shoe) means that when that when you press the shutter, the flash will fire without being physically connected to the camera. It allows for much more freedom in terms of flash angle and location. Some flash units can ‘speak’ to cameras via infrared systems, but others will need to be synced using radio transmitters or pocket wizards. Off-camera flash is commonly used in studio shoots.
Using your flash off-camera means you can use other flash modifiers such as umbrellas and softboxes, to manipulate the light even more. But it’s best to practice using your flash on your camera first, and master its basic functions before using it off camera.