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10 Cool Ways to Use Your Speedlight

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Related course: Wow Factor Photography

Speedlight is one of the simplest, but most versatile tools in photography. Sure, it might seem daunting at first, but once you grasp the basics (say, how to decrease or increase the power of your flash and how to synchronize it with your camera), you can step your lighting game up.

Get that speedlight off your camera and take a look at a variety of creative ways it can help you to tell an exciting story.

A Nikon Speedlight flash on blue background

10. Use Your Speedlight As Your Main Light Source

When I was considering my lighting options, I had to keep in mind future frequent shootings on location. Pack your equipment and props, go to the restaurant, unpack, shoot the menu, pack everything again, go home.

Backdrops for food photography are heavy enough. Everything else should be as lightweight and mobile as possible.

Sure, speedlights do not provide as much light as a large strobe or a studio light, but you can easily carry them outside to a variety of locations.

Moreover, it uses its own source of power. You don’t have to ask for access to sockets. And with the right modifier, a speedlight can look like natural light.

A diptych of a restaurant menu shot with speedlight
Making a menu is always shooting on location. Compact light sources like speedlights become invaluable.

Most of the time I put my speedlight behind a large diffuser to get a big soft light source, which works like a window.

If you don’t have a diffuser, soften your light with a piece of white translucent fabric (like a thin sheet) or a big sheet of tracing paper.

Or simply bounce the light from the white wall. Just remember, the larger the light source, the softer the light.

Diptych of a speedlight behind a diffuser and a final image
A speedlight behind a diffuser and a final image

9. Illuminate Your Subject at Night

Where there is very little or no available ambient light, a speedlight can be a life saver.

You can use it to lift the shadows and reveal details on your subject, if you shoot, for example, against a sunset sky.

Or, on the contrary, create a glowing outline of your subject, placing the speedlight right behind it.

Stunning portrait of a female model posing on a balcony at night shot with a speedlight
Photo by Vasiliy Us

This is a great way to create fascinating night or dusk portraits. On this image by Vasiliy Us you can see how Marina is standing right in front of a speedlight with a warm gel filter, which looks like one of the powerful streetlights. That is to say, very natural.

In fog, the light from the flash may result in very beautiful shining rays. Don’t be afraid to leave your model in shadows, creating a beautiful glowing silhouette.

Stunning triptych portrait of a female model posing at night shot with a speedlight
Photos by Vasiliy Us

8. Use Hard Light to Create Strong Shadows

Speedlights are small. They produce a very hard type of light with dark and pronounced shadows.

You can take advantage of this harshness and high contrast. Not every subject looks good with very dark shadows and very bright highlights, but crystals and flowers in glass jars surely do!

creative diptych of colorful glass jars shot with a speedlight

I’m going to talk in detail about still life examples, but if you’re more into portrait photography, using a speedlight on a grey overcast day. Then you can add some contrast and direction to the lighting and make your subject pop.

Garden themed flat lay shot with a speedlight
Highlights from jars with water would be impossible with soft light

For this shot, I used a speedlight inside a small strip box, from which I removed a diffusing cloth.

This way I got harder light and consequently brighter highlights from glass jars.

Creative outer space themed still life diptych shot with a speedlight
Hard shadows not always look pretty, but sometimes they can be really useful for enhancing the atmosphere

Hard light may be useful when you want to go for an outer space feeling. Take a look at photos from Moon. No atmosphere means no soft light, so the shadows should be very distinct.

I used that to invoke thoughts about outer space in this shot from my Endless Book series.

Artistic still life featuring a pineapple and a plate of oranges shot with a speedlight
Photo by Eduard Zhukov

Using speedlights to get hard light with strong contrast also good for revealing texture and making things pop. Look at this pineapple by Eduard Zhukov.

Seeing these strong shadows instantly makes me want to touch it.

Artistic still life featuring peanuts on a blue background shot with a speedlight
Photo by Eduard Zhukov

Another thing you can do is to shoot high contrast objects on vibrant backgrounds and create patterns with a slight nod to pop-art aesthetics.

I especially like this example by Eduard Zhukov, because it combines strong texture and vibrant colors.

7. Experiment With Backlight

Speedlights are powerful enough to create a blindingly white background, which is great for a variety of shots.

First of all, it’s perfect for glass and other transparent objects. Just place your speedlight behind any kind of diffusing material (white cloth or layout paper), set it at a distance from your objects and watch how your tea of jars with water and flowers become shiny!

Artistic still life shot with a speedlight
Speedlight behind a diffuser used as a powerful backlight

If you move your diffuser in a way it slightly covers the scene from above and gives a reflection on a backdrop, you can shoot fantastic compositions with rain.

Water on a wet background becomes glowing in this lighting and raindrops (which you can create by pouring water through a kitchen strainer). It can add a sense of April showers or deep autumn.

Artistic still life shot with a speedlight
If you increase the power of your speedlights to at least ½, they can give enough light to break through the foliage.

It means that you can create a wonderful composition with ‘sunlight’ coming through summer leaves.

Bright and airy garden themed still life shot with a speedlight

Gather some tree branches with green leaves. Attach them with a transparent adhesive tape to your diffuser covering the entire surface.

Place the speedlight behind it and add a reflector to lift the shadows. It looks great for any tabletop photography where you need to show something as natural or organic.

Bright and airy garden themed still life shot with a speedlight

6. Create Your Own Moon to Shoot Exquisite Portraits

If creating a background of white light was easy enough, step it up a bit. Create your own moon to photograph your model as fairy tale princesses.

All you need to do is to take a large (I’m talking A0 large) sheet of black paper and cut a circle out of it. After that fix this paper on a diffuser at the height of your model’s head and shoulders.

Place the speedlight behind your moon. Voila!

Creative occult themed still life diptych shot with a speedlight
Sure, for a shooting like this it may be helpful to have some additional attributes like a twig crown or a witch make-up.

But nude photography as black silhouettes against a shining moon also works perfectly.

Creative occult themed still life diptych shot with a speedlight
You can cut out other shapes too! Cast a Patronus Charm and think about animal guardians! Or imagine castles and towers made of light!

The trick is the same, but you need to cut out a different shape out of paper and think about suitable props, that would help you to tell your story.

Creative christmas themed still life shot with a speedlight

5. Make Your Shoot Glow From the Inside

The best thing about speedlights is their small size. It means you can put them into something like a box and make it glow from the inside.

Step into the vast magical world of shiny objects!

Creative occult themed still life shot with a speedlight

The first time I used this trick was to make a cow skull glow. I simply put my speedlight inside a skull and made some smoke, so the light would be more visible.

I was surprised by the easy way I got such a good result and kept experimenting.

Creative occult themed still life diptych shot with a speedlight
The same shot with the speedlight on and off

It turns out that placing a speedlight behind of patch of flowers is a great idea too!

Glowing flowers looked downright magical. And the speedlight was so small, I didn’t even have to retouch its visible parts in post-processing, it was covered by flowers.

Creative still life of a flower covered typewriter shot with a speedlight
Why not to create a box full of stars or a glowing magician’s hat? Place the speedlight inside, add some smoke with aroma sticks or a hand steamer and take a sequence of shots.

Adding a colored gel is also a good touch.

Creative occult themed still life shot with a speedlight

Creative occult themed still life triptych shot with a speedlight

If you want to make it a bit more intricate, try making glowing ornaments, constellations or letters.

For this shot, inspired by one of my favorite songs, I cut a quote from lyrics out of black paper, put a speedlight on the floor right behind the paper and took a shot.

The simplicity and versatility of this trick is honestly stunning.

Creative occult themed still life triptych shot with a speedlight

4. Capture Rising Steam (or Smoke)

You can control your speedlight with the cheapest means possible. That’s why it’s great for creating a spot of direct light and capturing steam rising from a hot cup of coffee. Or, say, smoke coming from a burning candle.

First thing you need is a light modifier. It can be a narrow strip box, a proper snoot, or something you made yourself.

Creative christmas themed still life triptych shot with a speedlight

If you want your light modifier not to cost you a penny, take a box of chips in the shape of a tube, cut the bottom, put your speedlight inside.

Second, place the speedlight slightly behind of source of smoke or steam. The backlight makes steam not only visible but practically shiny.

The setup of a creative christmas themed still life shot with a speedlight

Set your camera on continuous mode, pour some hot water into a cup and take a sequence of shots with rising clouds of steam.

Keep the kettle a bit higher than usual so it won’t get in the frame. Be careful with hot water and watch for the safety of any electronic equipment.

3. Tell Your Story With Sillhouettes

Got your pretty steam picture? Good! Now add a narrative. Use the same trick to create the light spot with a speedlight making a snoot out of chips tube, but add a twist. Take a glass jar instead of a coffee cup.

Think about a story along the lines of ‘trapped in a can’ and pick your silhouette — a haunted mansion, a monster, a carnivorous plant, anything that comes to mind.

Cut it out of thick dark paper, place inside the jar. Fill the jar with smoke and take a shot. Check out our tutorial for the detailed instructions.

Creative fantasy themed still life diptych shot with a speedlight
It’s a very simple way to tell a lot of stories, not only for Halloween still life photos but for any creative project.

Using speedlights makes it even simpler and more affordable.

2. Play With Creatures of Light

Compact speedlights can be set on a very low power, which is great when you want to light up one thing, but don’t want much light bouncing around.

That fact makes speedlights perfect for magical still life photos with creatures made of pure light!

Creative fantasy themed still life diptych shot with a speedlight

To do that you need to make a sketch with the creature of light: unicorn, butterfly, dragon, fairy, anything you like.

Draw its silhouette and cut it out of transparent tracing paper. Fix it in place with wire and arrange the rest of your still life around it.

Place a speedlight in a way that it lights up only this magical figure.

Creative fantasy themed still life triptych shot with a speedlight

For example, for a shot with the unicorn, I taped the unicorn silhouette to a small wire and fixed it on books. When I placed my speedlight right behind my unicorn.

It’s covered with a stack of books, so in the frame, you can’t see the speedlight, only the light it produces.

I added some smoke to cover the edges of my paper figure and make the spreading of light more visible.

Creative UFO themed still life triptych shot with a speedlight
The ray of light from a UFO was made out of tracing paper too!

1. Freeze a Splash in Motion!

And last, but not least, use speedlights to freeze motion! Namely, to capture splashes of water, coffee, hot chocolate or anything you prefer.

Surprisingly, relatively cheap speedlights are better for high-speed photography than studio strobes. They have less power but produce a shorter impulse and that’s exactly what we need!

This means that the length of time that the light source emits light for a single burst is really short.

Creative coffee themed diptych of the still life setup and final result shot with a speedlight
When your light source is on, it lights the scene only for a short time, say, 1/4000 of a second or shorter. And your camera records only the motion it sees for this 1/4000 sec.

Tour scene would be ‘visible’ to your camera sensor only for a very short amount of time. And this freezes the motion with all the sharpness!

Creative coffee themed still life shot with a speedlight
I use two SB-910 speedlights. They are affordable, easy to use and provide the impulse quick enough to give me the freezing effect I want.

The important thing to remember is to keep power settings reduced to 1/32 or 1/64 of full power.

As power gets lower, duration gets shorter and has a better ability to freeze motion. That results in low light, but that’s why I have two speedlights, not one.

If you have only one light source, you can compensate for that by opening the aperture and increasing ISO.

A quote from my speedlite User Manual showing the correlation between flash duration and power

Check your manual, find a line about fastest flash duration and see at which power you can get this impulse. Say, Einstein E640 can give you 1/10,000 sec at 1/16 power and continues down to around 1/13,500 sec.

My Nikon SB-910 gives the same 1/10,000 sec at 1/16 output but is less powerful (so I have to keep my aperture a bit more open).

Find the power setting where the impulse speed of your light source is over at least 1/4000 sec. That would be more than enough for a start.

Creative floral themed still life of flowers in glass jars shot with a speedlight

Conclusion

Speedlight photography is where a ‘doing a lot with very little’ attitude justifies itself excellently.

Experiment with strong shadows, direct spots of light, silhouettes, and splashes, take advantage of an affordable and simple tool to make some astonishing photos!

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