Flashphobia – and how to cure it!

Unless we’re very studio-oriented and using it on a daily basis, flash is a bit of an enigma for most photographers, writes Jon Adams. It’s a mysterious entity we might be happy to use for a burst of extra illumination if it’s on ‘auto’ mode and the flash is ‘talking’ to the camera, but we like to stay out of that conversation and just accept the results. We can always delete the pics if we don’t like them, and the idea of getting involved in those inverse-square-law calculations to determine the required exposure is far too much like being back at school. And photography is supposed to be fun, isn’t it? Not some practical application of Newton’s laws we didn’t quite grasp half a century back in ‘O’ level physics!

So we talk ourselves out of the flash game, on the grounds of it being too technical. We tell ourselves it’s ‘not natural’ as well, and since non-natural things are bound to be bad for us, then flash is bad, too. Before long, we’ve played out a number of arguments against it in our heads, and have come to the conclusion that not only is flash too difficult to use, but also that we don’t even like what flash does!

Now we might accept the first one, but convincing yourself that you don’t like flash pictures is going a bit too far, as flash is just a light source, and light reflecting off something is what photography is! To fix your fear of flash and add its use to your repertoire of photo skills, all you need to do is embrace it, and get in a bit of practice. Familiarity breeds competence (and confidence), and taking a little bit of time to hone your flash skills will arm you with additional creative options for your photography – options just like popping on a different lens or seeking a fresh angle on the subject.

It should be said that flash is generally for small and medium-sized subjects, as the spread of light isn’t going to cover something big like a landscape. But anything from portraits and still-lifes – liked the flashed one above – to flowers and insects is perfectly suited. And for a deeper dive on flashing insects, take a look at AJ’s article here.

Trigger warning…
The great thing about flash, of course, is that it’s highly portable, and it really comes into its own when you can take it off the camera. With this kind of freedom you can place it wherever you like and either use it as a direct replacement for missing sunshine, or use it in opposition to the sun to reduce contrast or add cross-lighting to a subject. But when it’s off the camera it needs to be able to fire at the right time, and you can do this with either a wired or wireless solution. Wireless is best as there are no cables to get in the way, but it makes no difference to the end result, so long as the thing goes off when you pull the trigger. I often use a cable (a curly flash lead) for simple jobs, as there’s less to set up, but if I need more distance between camera and flash, then I’ll go with wireless flash triggers which comprise a transmitter (that goes on the camera’s hotshoe) and a receiver (that attaches to the flashgun).

With some way of triggering the flash in place, you don’t need to learn any special techniques or do any complex calculations. Thanks to the screen on the back of the camera, you can use your flashgun in its Manual mode and use the standard shooting mode of Aperture priority on your camera. It’s worth noting here that if a flashgun is in Manual mode, then any flashgun can be used, so it doesn’t have to be a dedicated unit or own-brand model designed to ‘talk to’ your camera – it just has to fire at the right time and have an adjustable power setting. If you have a dusty old flashgun in the attic that ticks these two basic boxes, it’ll be just fine!

Creating your own sunlight
To make the flash act as a substitute for sunlight to brighten up a dull day, dial in f/8 on the camera, frame up on a subject and take a test shot without flash. You need your shutter speed to be at the camera’s sync speed (normally 1/250sec or 1/200sec), so if it’s faster than than this, reduce your ISO to 100 and/or dial in a smaller aperture like f/11 if needed. You can have the shutter speed at anything slower than sync, but do not go over it. You won’t break anything if you do, but the flash won’t be recorded properly in the scene.

With the non-flash test shot over, now dial in -1.0 stop of Exposure Compensation, and set the flashgun to 1/2 power. Hold it to one side, in line with wherever you want your new sun to be. Take another test shot, this time with the flash, and if it’s too bright, you can either decrease the flash power to 1/4  (or 1/8), or set exposure compensation to -2.0 (or -3.0).

It’ll only take a couple of goes to get a good-looking result, and you’ll have mastered the art of using off-camera flash manually to add your ‘custom sun’ to a scene. I trained a macro lens on a humble daisy in the back garden, and after dialling in an Exposure Compensation of -2.0, I fired in a bit of backlighting to make the petals glow and illuminate the grass around it.

Simple fill-in flash
If the sun is out and you want to brighten the shaded side of a subject to reduce the contrast, or boost a dark-looking foreground against a bright background, then the technique is even simpler. This is called fill-in flash (or ‘synchro-sunlight’), but you’ll find that you’ll usually want to keep the exposure settings the same as for the non-flash test shot. This is because you’re filling in to balance the existing lighting that’s already there, rather than creating that lighting in the first place. In other words, the exposure settings are correct for one part of the scene (very often the sky, or one half of a subject – you just don’t have enough light in the darker areas. In this shot, he runner in the woods has a well-exposed sky behind him, but he’s too dark and needs a lighting boost.

To fix this problem, you need to leave the sky alone but fill in the foreground with some flash. So, you don’t even need to touch the Exposure Compensation setting like you did before – all you need to worry about is the flashgun power on the foreground. How much you use will depend on the distance, but start at 1/2 again and turn it up or down, until you arrive at the balance you want. The result will be that the bright part from the original scene stays the same, but the subject or foreground is now “filled in” and nicely illuminated.

Practice makes perfect
Practice these techniques in the back yard, and once you’ve got the hang of them (it won’t take long) you’ll be able to employ them quickly and easily whenever you’re out and about. The only techy thing you need to watch out for is that your shutter speed is at (or slower) than your camera’s sync speed – the rest of it is down to a few simple tweaks of exposure compensation and flash power.

As an additional tip – if you’re working fast, and need to brighten or reduce the flash power quickly, just leave the unit on the existing setting and move it a bit closer or further away from the subject. This is Newton’s ‘inverse square law’ in operation, but ‘a bit closer’ or ‘a bit further away’ is the preferred Foto-buzz terminology!
Happy flashing!

Published in Camera Skills
  1. Thank you Jon, I’m so glad that you have written this article. You have boiled down this complicated topic into a couple of good points to remember to help me with my flash photography.

  2. you’ll have us flashing all over the place now!

    like the idea of move exposure comp rather than reducing the flash power – much simpler

  3. Now, if we’d have had Fotobuzz terminology in O Levels, I might have just passed my physics exam!! Thanks Jon.

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