June 27, 2022
Flash photography is much more accessible as many cameras have a built in pop-up flash and the availability of Speedlite flashes with TTL auto exposure. Ian Pack is your guide.
Welcome to AP Enhance your photo series – in partnership with MPB – this series is designed to take you from the beginning of photography, introduce different shooting skills and styles, and teach you how to grow as a photographer so you can have fun producing amazing photos (and videos) to get you started taking you to the next level, whether it’s making money or just mastering your art form.
You’ll find a new item every week, so be sure to come back to continue your journey. Getting started might seem easy for some photographers, but it’s an important step in making sure you’re comfortable with your gear and the basics of photography, as that’s part of the basics that help build great photos, and once you’ve got them know you I will be able to play with them and understand more articles in this series.
Jan Pack shares an insight into flash and its tips for using it in your photography, and learning how and when to use flash is an important part of mastering light, especially when it comes to portraits:
pop up flash
Many crop sensor DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have a pop-up flash on top of the camera. This is either not used by some or little used by others. With careful use, it can be used outdoors to fill in shadows and create catchlights in the subject’s eyes.
Pop-up flash is a small, harsh, and direct light source that doesn’t produce a flattering light, but several diffusers are available that are said to soften the light from a pop-up flash. They’re still a relatively small light source close to the flash, which doesn’t provide optimal spread.
The pop-up flash can also be used to control off-camera flashes, but is limited to short lines of sight. Dedicated flashes and wireless triggers give better results.
hot shoe or speedlites
Many photographers own one hot shoe or speedlite and mainly use it as a convenient way to light a photo. Speedlites have so much more to offer. When the camera’s hot shoe is attached, there is the option of automatic TTL (Through-The-Lens) exposure, which can be set independently of the camera using the exposure compensation function.
Most Speedlites have a pivoting flash head that allows you to bounce light off nearby ceilings or walls, creating a big, flattering, soft light. Keep in mind that any reflective surface that isn’t white will create an overall color cast in your photos.
There are many light modifiers for speedlites ranging from £10 to hundreds. One of the most affordable is the white, translucent, bullet-through shade, which diffuses the light from a Speedlite and is ideal for lighting solo portraits or small groups. Don’t be put off by the low performance of Speedlites, which average 50-60 Ws (watt-seconds). With medium ISO settings and an aperture of f/4 or f/5.6, a speedlite is a versatile tool.
Indoors, easy solo portrait posing
All you need to create beautiful portraits is a speedlite, a wireless shutter button, a white push-through umbrella, a rotating umbrella, a lamp stand, and a reflector to direct light into shadows. This is my favorite headshot setup.
With the following settings as a starting point, you can create portraits or headshots in minutes. If your camera is set to manual, set the shutter speed to around 1/125 sec to 1/250 sec depending on your camera’s flash sync speed. ISO 320, f/5.6 aperture, daylight white balance. For flattering results without much distortion, use a short phone lens or zoom setting of 70-85mm.
The Speedlite should be set to manual with a power of 1/16. This is usually done with the radio trigger. The spread of the beam from the Speedlite can be changed with the zoom setting. This does not affect the harshness of the light, only the coverage. 50mm is a good starting point when shooting with a bulletproof screen.
Once the Speedlite, umbrella, and lamp stand are assembled, place the umbrella slightly above head height to one side of the subject and align the umbrella shaft with the subject’s nose. Rotate the screen slightly towards the camera – this is called feathering. Take a test frame to judge the exposure, lighting and pose. If necessary, make an adjustment using the camera histogram to assess exposure.
In the first screen shot, the background is lighter and busier than expected. I moved the Speedlite closer to my Max model and marked one side of the flash to reduce the light falling on the background. The photos you see here are straight out of the camera with basic raw processing.
In the last image I added a soft gold reflector to open up the shadows or give them more detail as they were too dense for my liking. The reflector also warmed up the skin tone on the dark side of Max’s face.
It’s also possible to create stunning outdoor portraits with a little thought and planning. Here I positioned Max in the shadow of a building to reduce the ambient light falling on him. The camera was set to Av, the speedlite to TTL and modified with a RogueFlashBender 3 Large Reflector with diffuser plate, giving me a 25cm softbox.
Using the small softbox meant Max was only lit up to his waist. If you have a Speedlite, don’t let it gather dust, take it out and use it. If you’re looking to start using flash off-camera, a Speedlite is a great introduction to flash photography, both indoors and outdoors.
Ian’s top tips for flash photography
Creative color gels
Color gels are an inexpensive accessory and great fun to experiment with. They can be used to add color to shadows, as an accent light for portraits, as a key light for extra attention, or as a background light.
Highlight the light
Umbrella light can be controlled by attaching a plaque or flag to the speedlite head. I use a foam core board that attaches with velcro.
By bringing the light closer to the subject, the background becomes darker and the light more flattering when using light modifiers like softboxes/umbrellas. The ideal distance of a light shaper from the model is equal to the longest dimension of the light shaper.
Stabilize the stand
It’s a good idea to ensure your light stand is stable when working alone. You can put the light stand riser through the handle of your camera bag. When using a hard case, I attach the case to the light stand with reusable cable ties.
Use an umbrella swirl
For any photographer working with Speedlites off-camera, a way to attach them to a light stand is essential. Umbrella swirls are essential. Most are tilt-only, and some have a ball head to aid in precise positioning of the Speedlite.
choice of background
With care, even unpromising locations can create viable backgrounds. The stacks of pallets created the industrial dockside feel I wanted. I used a 200mm prime to isolate Max from the surrounding distractions and a wide aperture blurred the background.
Flash photography kit list
Pixapro Li-Ion580 MkII Speedlite
This compact hot shoe flash can be used with a wireless trigger on and off the camera. It features automatic TTL exposure that interfaces with your camera’s light meter, manual setting for ultimate control, and multi-flash capability for creating strobe images.
Rogue FlashBender 3 Large Reflector
These reflectors fold flat so they can easily fit in a camera bag. With the addition of a diffusion plate you have a small softbox. Smaller softboxes are ideal for working outdoors in windy conditions as they have a smaller surface area than umbrellas.
Nam Grip LS-255C carbon fiber light stand
Weighing 500g, this stand is ideal for mounting your Speedlite. It extends to 220 cm and closes to 48 cm. If weight and volume are an issue, a single speedlite kit weighing around 1500g can be transported.
White Translucent Shot – Through Umbrella
One of the first light shapers for anyone working with Speedlites or other flashes. Available in sizes from 80cm to 200cm. Some fold up small enough to fit in a camera bag, making them ideal for photographers on the go.
Tune in next week for the next article in the series AP Enhance your photo series – in partnership with MPB.
Find the latest articles on improving your photography here.
How to use flash on location
Essential guide to off-camera flash