Getting Started With Flash Photography

Updated: Apr 8, 2019

Whether you are starting out in photography, or have been shooting for many years, using flash can often be quite a daunting task. We see it all the time where someone has purchased a flash, but when they see all the buttons on the back, they get confused, put it away and never think to use it again. If you take the time to learn a few basic principles of flash photography, you will be amazed at the results you can achieve. Flash isn’t just for portrait work either, you can use it in everything from macro to landscapes.


The first place to start with flash photography is choosing the right gear. ‘Flashes’ are broken down into two main groups; speedlights which is what 90% of you will think of when someone mentions a flash; and strobes which are the larger flash heads usually found in studios. Both of these options have their own pros and cons which makes them ideal for different situations. Speedlights are the smaller, portable flash systems that clip on to your cameras hot shoe. These are fantastic for portability and flexibility when you are on the move. Speelights are also customisable by adding a range of light modifiers and off camera systems. Your other choice is going for strobes, also known as monolights. Strobes are great for studio / at home setups. They are cost effective, provide more power, and most models are wirelessly triggered which allows you to have complete control over placement. Their downsides however are that they are much larger, require 240v power and usually don’t have any ‘auto’ modes for ease of use. If you are still struggling to figure out what the best option for your situation would be, you can always pop in and have a chat to us in store.


Nikon SB-5000 Speedlight vs Elinchrom ELC 500 Strobe

When you think of landscape photography, a flash isn’t the first thing that you think to include in your kit. When doing any sort of landscape photography in the late afternoon, and especially for astro shots, a speedlight should be your go to. Let say that you have a stunning scene with storm clouds in the distance, and an old cottage in the foreground that is backlit. You can choose to expose for the clouds and end up with an under-exposed building or expose the building properly and lose all the detail in the storm clouds. In this situation we can expose for the sky, then using our flash unit illuminate the building. This will retain all of the detail in the sky, and the flash will provide enough light to bring the building up to the correct exposure.


Balancing Foreground Exposure Using Flash

Another field that flash is almost essential is macro photography. When shooting macro photography, it is always a battle between your depth of field and shutter speed. Make your aperture to narrow and you won’t have enough light to handhold the camera; make it too wide and you won’t have adequate depth of field to capture your subject. Adding a flash to the mix provides so much extra light that you can have the best of both worlds. Using the flash will create a far sharper image, with greater depth of field and you will be able to control the direction of the light. One thing to keep in mind is that when trying to use flash for macro photography it is required to have it ‘off camera’. This means that if you are using speedlights you will need an off-camera trigger system, or if you are in a studio your strobes will work just fine. It is important to play around with light intensity and angle so that you can put your own personalised touch on the image.

Portrait photography is often the most common practice where flash is used. Whether you shoot in a studio, or on location, learning to use flash is where I would recommend you focus your time. As portraiture covers such a broad range of styles there is no way we could cover it all in this post, but we have a few key situations where it is essential.


Using Off Camera Flash With Macro Photography

Firstly, for on-location/outdoor photographers. Speedlights are ideal in this situation due to the flexibility and portability. Speedlights are perfect for providing just an extra ‘kiss’ of light during the day to bring back all the detail in your shadows. Let’s say you are shooting a portrait shot for a family and they want to be sitting under a shady tree, and to capture the beautiful blue sky above. If you try to expose for the sky the family are going to be completely underexposed in the shade, if you expose for the family you are going to lose all the detail in the sky, and it will over expose to white. Here we can pull out our speedlight, and using a similar technique described in the landscape section. We again expose for the sky to retain all of the detail and fire our speedlight towards the family to bring light to those previously under exposed areas.


Using Flash to Light Shadowy Areas Of Portraits

Second, for portrait photographers working in a studio. Instead of speedlights, strobes are going to be for this scenario. You can still do these techniques with speedlights if you have them, but strobes are going to be more cost effective and give you higher power outputs, plus as mentioned they generally come in sets of two-three which allows you to have more flexibility. There are so many different setups you can use with studio, but we will work on a basic three light setup. The basic three light setup consist of a key, fill and back light. The key light is where you want the main direction of light to come from; next is the fill light, we sit this light on approximately a 90 degree angle from your key light (see picture below) this light is put on a much lower power setting as its job is to just fill in the shadows; lastly is the back light, this light is placed behind the subject to one side and is used to provide definition and subtle highlights around the outline of the subject. This is a great setup and if you play around with the light positions and power can provide some really fantastic results.


Example of Three Point Lighting Setups in Studio

There is definitely a lot to learn when it comes to flash photography, but you shouldn’t be afraid to start. Just taking what you have learnt from this article and starting to practice a bit at home and with your club, you will see there is a whole new dimension you can add to your photography. As always if you have any questions about any of this you can always get in touch with your fellow club members or come in and see us in Domain Central.


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