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10 Tips for Better Flash Photography

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Here are 10 tips for better flash photography. These will help both the beginner and the advanced photographer.
Introducing flash techniques to your photography doesn’t only mean more light. It also means more more exposure options, and more control. And a lot more complications.
But it also opens up whole new areas of photography, allowing you to advance your skills.
Here’s how, in 10 simple tips.

Crowds at Poi Sang Long Festival shot with flash photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

1. What Are Flash Modes and Settings

When it comes to flash photography, there are three important settings you need to know about.
Through the Lens (TTL) metering is common on camera flashes. With this setting the camera and flash will communicate with each other. When you press the shutter release the flash will provide the amount of light required.
This will depend on the ambient light and your camera’s current exposure setting. As well as the distance your subject is from your camera.

A portrait of two female friends shot with flash photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Automatic Mode (A). In this mode you provide the flash with the aperture and ISO value for correct exposure.
The flash sensor will measure the light output. It’ll cut off its power when there’s enough light based on your aperture and ISO settings.
The measurement of the flash output is independent of the camera light meter.
Manual Mode (M). You calculate how much light you need and set the output of your flash yourself. The camera and flash have no control over the amount of light the flash puts out.
You need to adjust your camera exposure settings to match the output from the flash.
TTL and Auto modes are the easiest to use, especially when you are not used to using a flash. But they are not always as accurate as Manual mode can be.

2. When to Use a Flash

Most people use flash photography only when it’s dark, at night or indoors. This is because there isn’t enough natural light or ambient light.
But there are many other situations where we recommend it.
You can use a flash to get rid of shadows from your photo. By adding in the extra light source you can minimise shadows by filling them in.
Place the flash opposite the light source causing the shadows to achieve this.

A mannequinn at the side of the shot shot using flash photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

You can also use flash and a slow shutter speed when photographing a moving subject. This creates a half-frozen impression.
This technique might take some practice to master. But it’s a fun and often somewhat unpredictable way to practise your skills.
Illuminating your subject more than the background helps to isolate it. Set your flash so the output is a lot more than the light in the background. This will cause your subject to be brighter.
This means it will stand out more.
Adding a little flash when the light is dull can bring a photo to life. On cloudy days, before sunrise, or after sunset the light can be very flat.
Introducing a little flash into a scene when the light is like this can liven it up.
Strong backlight is often a challenge. Balancing flash with backlighting will diminish the washed out look. This is due to strong light behind a subject.

3. How to Use Flash to Correctly Expose an Image

One of the best flash photography tips I can offer you is to balance your flash and camera settings. Unbalanced settings will lead to too much or not enough light from your flash.

Portrait of a woman on a beach shot with flash photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Take this photo, for example. I started by making a reading of the ambient light with my camera’s exposure meter. I set my camera using manual mode settings. In this photo I took my exposure reading so the background would be well exposed.
My wife was standing in the shadow of the rock, so would have been underexposed had I not used flash. I popped up the on camera flash and set it to TTL.
In this case it has given me a well balanced exposure. The light on my wife and the background is similar.
If there is an imbalance between the ambient light and the flash your photos will not look natural. This is okay if it is what you want.
You can set your camera’s exposure to underexpose a background. And your flash to illuminate your subject with the correct amount of light.
When the difference in settings is extreme, it results in an imbalance. Photos will again look unnatural.

When there’s less of a difference, the effect can be subtle and quite interesting. This is how I created the photo below of the young woman dancing.
A flash photography portrait of a woman dancing outdoors
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

4. Flash Photography and Shutter Speed

Shutter speeds are limited with flash photography. You cannot use the fastest shutter speeds when you are using flash. This is because the flash must synchronize to fire when the shutter is open.
At a faster speed the shutter is not completely open all at once.
Modern cameras limit the shutter speed to the max sync speed the camera is capable of. This varies from camera to camera but is typically around 1/250th of a second.
On higher end cameras with dedicated flash units it can be much faster. Check if you have your shutter speed set to above what your camera’s sync speed is. The camera will then automatically set a slower shutter speed.
Using a faster shutter speed allows you to open your aperture wider. This means you’ll need less flash output and your flash will recycle and be ready to fire sooner.
You’ll need faster shutter speeds with flash for pictures in bright sunshine.
To help you choose, think about shutter speed having more effect on the ambient light. Aperture has more effect on the flash exposure.
Set your shutter speed so the ambient light in your scene is good. Then set your flash to balance for the look and feel you want.
ISO will also have an affect on your exposure, but not so great in relation to the flash output.

5. Flash Photography and the Aperture Setting

With your flash to manual, check the aperture setting. It will determine how much light from the flash influences your exposure. Your choice of ISO and shutter speed will also affect your choice of aperture.
You can set your shutter speed anywhere within the sync range. This will not influence the exposure the flash provides. But it will affect the exposure from ambient light if there is any.

Flash photography shot of Falling Coffeee Beans against a black background
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

I took this photo in a darkened room with very little ambient light. I used an aperture of f5.6 and set my flash manually to achieve the correct exposure.
I chose a shutter speed of 1/15th sec to allow for some motion blur in the falling beans.
The lack of ambient light is important here. It means that a faster or slower shutter speed would not have affected my exposure.

Flash Photography of Tourists in cycle taxi, Hanoi, Vietnam
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

I made this photo with some ambient light and flash to get a pleasing exposure. The combination of my aperture setting, f2.8, and flash output has exposed my subject well.
Using a shutter speed of 1/8th sec means the ambient light affects the background somewhat. But it does not affect the subject. The subject is exposed by the flash, which is a little brighter than the ambient light.
Aperture settings when using TTL and Auto flash are not so vital. With these flash settings the calculation made for flash output takes into account all the camera’s exposure settings.

6. How Does Distance Affect Flash Usage

Light diminishes the further it gets from the source. With the sun we hardly notice it because the sun is so far away. With flash, it’s different. The further your flash is from your subject makes a difference.
Say you are one meter away from your subject. You will need half the output of light from your flash than if you were two meters away.
We have all seen photos where the photographer has the flash too close to the subject and it’s overexposed. To avoid this, move back and use a longer lens.

A flash photography portrait of a woman on her smartphone
© Kevin Landwer-Johan
Being too close to your subject and having having your flash output too high will cause dark shadows. This is because unmodified light from a flash is very harsh light.
There are several techniques you can use get soft light that looks more appealing.
Here are some of them.

7. How to Use Bounce Flash to Modify the Light

The easiest way to modify the flash output to make it softer is by ‘bouncing’ your flash. Turning the head of your flash so it’s not pointing straight at your subject can help soften the light.
You will usually need something for the flash light to bounce off so some is directed at your subject.
You can use a ceiling above you, a wall behind or beside you or a portable reflector. Bouncing the flash causes the light to scatter. This increases the surface area of the light.
Light directly from the flash is hard because the flash head is small. Increasing this area by bouncing the light spreads it around. This will result in softer shadows.
Close up of a person painting an ornament shot using flash photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Keep in mind if you are bouncing your flash, the effective distance from your flash to your subject is increased. To maintain the same exposure using manual settings you will need to increase the flash output or your aperture and/or ISO settings.
With TTL or Auto the camera and flash will calculate the difference and adjust the flash output.
Bouncing your flash will also alter the direction the light hits the subject. Too much flash bounced from above can cause dark shadows under people’s eyes, noses, and chins.
Bouncing flash off a wall beside your subject will alter the look of the photo significantly. And bouncing flash from a wall or reflector directly behind you will give a different, and often nicer, look.
In these three example photos I used direct flash on the first one. In the second I bounced the flash off a gray wall to my right. I made the third photo by bouncing the flash off a large silver reflector behind me.
Looking at the right side of the figure’s face, the shadow difference is most noticeable.

Triptych comparision of using flash photography on an ornament
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Keep in mind that you will get a colour cast if you bounce your flash off a coloured surface.

8. Why Use a Softbox for Flash Photography

One of the best photography accessories I have is a small collapsible softbox to use with flash. This one extra piece of kit can make an immense difference to the look and feel of your photographs.
Mine is 60 cm square. You can buy smaller versions too. But these don’t have the same capacity to spread and soften the light.

A softbox for better flash photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Light is diffused and softened before it reaches your subject. The shadows will be less harsh and the look of the light will be more natural. It is designed to be used off camera and triggered remotely.
You can use a softbox like this on a light stand or have someone assist you. In the image below I had the flash and softbox on a light stand to my left.
The flash and camera were both set manually so I could balance the flash with the ambient light.

A flash photography portrait of a young female photographer
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

9. Why Use Your Flash Off Camera

Using on camera flash, either the one built into the camera or an external flash on the hot shoe, is very limiting. You can only have the light coming straight at your subject or bounced from a surface nearby.
Taking your flash off your camera opens up many more creative lighting possibilities. You can position it to one side, above, below or even behind your subject.
When using off camera flash, (which is most of the time I use flash), I place it opposite to the main ambient light source. This allows me to balance the light by filling in, or partially filling in, shadows.
There are no limits to where you can place your flash, so long as it’s light can still reach your subject.
The most important thing is creating the type of light coming from the best direction. It can fit the style of photo you want. This is the flexibility you have when using flash.
For this photo I was up on the mezzanine level of the market and my model was on the lower level.
The flash and softbox were on a stand outside the bottom right of the frame, also on the lower level.

A flash photography portrait of a young female butcher
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

10. What Is Rear Curtain Synchronisation and Why I Love Using It

Modern camera shutters comprise of two ‘curtains’. When the front curtain opens, the sensor is exposed to light. When the second, or rear curtain closes, the exposure ends.
Most cameras default to the flash being triggered once the front curtain is fully open. You can change this setting on your camera. Then the flash will be triggered immediately before the rear curtain closes.
This may not seem like much of a difference. Our exposures are typically only fractions of seconds. Using a slower shutter speed rear syncing can produce photos with a significantly different look when there’s motion in a scene. It makes no real difference when nothing is moving.
Photographing something that’s moving and using a slow shutter speed produces some blurring of moving subject. If you have your flash set to front curtain sync the subject will be ‘frozen’ at the start of the exposure. The trail of blur will then appear in front.
Using rear curtain sync, the blur will happen before the flash fires. Just before the shutter closing, the moving subject will be frozen and the blur will appear behind it.
Even with only a slight amount of blur the results are much more pleasing than with front curtain sync.
Synchronisation can also happen manually when it comes to longer exposures.
In this image my wife was about three meters in front of the camera and off to the right with the flash. I wanted the flash to be closer to the taxi truck as it entered the bridge. At that distance the flash would not trigger automatically.
The exposure time was 1.6 seconds. My wife was manually firing the flash. It took several attempts to get some frames exposed well. I had the flash firing before the rear shutter curtain closing.

A brightly lit bridge at night shot with flash photography
© Kevin Landwer-Johan


Putting in the time to practice with a flash, studying and comparing your results will give you practical experience. With this you will learn far more than only reading or watching videos about how to do it.
Once you are grounded in the basics and have grasped how the flash works, then cut loose. Play with motion, bounce it, use a soft box and even several external flash units.
If you’d like to learn more about changing the color of the flash or using gels in photography, check out this article.
We have a great article on using a ring flash to check out next!

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