Lose your fear of flash!

Using flash in a creative way has always been a worry for photographers, writes Jon Adams. The subject invokes ideas of complex exposure calculations and leaves those unacquainted with the laws of physics feeling at a distinct disadvantage. In this new series, we’ll be revealing how easy the whole process is, and how you, with a modicum of relatively inexpensive kit, can produce professionally-lit shots, using the same practices employed by every pro snapper on the planet!

There was a thread on the Tech Forum recently about off-camera flash, and because this is an area that regularly foxes photographers of all abilities, the aim here is to simplify the subject so you know what you need, and how to make everything work.

First of all, we all know that we can use the pop-up flash that’s built into most cameras, or stick a compatible flashgun in the hotshoe. Put the camera in the right exposure mode, and it’ll ‘talk’ to the flash, providing you with an acceptable exposure. This method is relatively easy, as you don’t really have to do anything other than shoot as normal.

When you take a flash off-camera, you tend to ‘break’ the ability for the camera to talk to the flash. There are exceptions to this – for example with a dedicated system that allows the communication to still happen through a cable or wireless connection – but in its simplest (and cheapest) form, you just need a setup that allows the camera to trigger the flash when you press the shutter button. Provided you can do this, you can take a test shot, check the exposure and adjust the intensity of the flash – by adjusting its power or position – to get the results you want.

That’s how simple off-camera flash use can be, and is the exact process employed on a daily basis by pro photographers using mains-powered studio flash heads. What the savvy will note is that in this situation, the only ‘talk’ required between camera and flash is that it goes off when you press the shutter. This means that providing this synchronisation need is met, ANY flash of ANY make can be used to light your scene. All it has to do is fire when it’s told to! But what’s the big deal about taking a flash off-camera? Why is it such a good idea?

Well, the benefits are huge. In a nutshell, light doesn’t look great front-on. That is, when your flash is really close to your lens, you can only illuminate the scene in one way, and no matter what the subject is, direct front-lighting is about as unflattering as you can get. Move the light source to one side – or below, above or behind the subject – and you have a shedload of better options for making your shot look good.

With a pop-up flash or an on-camera flashgun, only front-lighting can be used. While this certainly illuminates the subject, it’s not flattering, and looks like an impromptu snap rather than a considered photograph.
Take the flash off-camera and move it to one side, and the shot is transformed into something far more pleasing, with better contrast and far more appeal.

So with this simple setup that separates the flashgun from the camera, the important requirement is some form of trigger to make the flash fire, as any random flashgun off eBay will serve as the lighting unit. It helps if you can set the power manually to different levels, but that’s pretty much par for the course on any flash on the market.

Triggers come in either a wired or wireless form, and although there’s nothing wrong with a wired connection (aka a PC-sync lead), we’d suggest wireless as the best option as it offers much more flexibility in the creative options on offer. Wireless triggers come in two parts – a transmitter that sits on the camera’s hotshoe, and a receiver that attaches to the flashgun. Google ‘flash triggers’, and you’ll be met with a huge variety of different options for all budgets.

In the main, radio triggers are best, as they don’t rely on line-of-sight and can communicate through things like walls, trees and people! In terms of price, you can spend from very little to hundreds of pounds, and the advantage of the more expensive units is a better range of operation, better reliability and more advanced features (many of which you may not even need). If you’re on a budget, it makes sense to start cheap and simple, and upgrade to a better trigger system if you get into off-camera flash in a serious way, and want to control things like the flash output power of several flashguns from the camera.

Flash triggers are many and varied, but the key thing is reliability – when you push the shutter, you want the flash to fire! The very cheapest ‘no-brand’ units don’t always offer this in long-term use, so spending a bit more than rock-bottom tends to avoid lots of black frames.

Once you’ve got your flashgun synced to the camera (that is, you’ve attached the transmitter and receiver and the flash goes off when you press the shutter), all you have to do is position it where you want it (a light stand is useful for this if you don’t have a willing companion to hold it) and then take a test shot. You can be in any exposure mode to do this, but you’ll be able to control things with precision in Manual mode, where you choose your own aperture and shutter speed settings.

The thing you CANNOT do though, is set a shutter speed too fast for the flash to sync. Some cameras have a max shutter speed sync of 1/250 sec, and some have 1/200sec, so if you make sure that your exposure settings give a shutter speed under 1/200sec, you’ll be fine.

If you’re outdoors in daylight, and you just want the flash to add a bit of artificial sunshine or a touch of modelling to your subject, then check your camera’s own settings in Aperture priority mode (say 1/125sec at f/8) and then switch to Manual mode and dial these in. Set the flashgun to Manual as well, and set it to 1/4 power. Take a shot, and if the exposure looks too bright, then you can make the whole thing darker by stopping down the aperture to f/11.

Alternatively you can also change the intensity of the flash by decreasing the power from 1/4 to 1/8, or by moving it further away from the subject. Whichever route you take, just take another test shot to confirm you’re getting a good result.

Although there are many hi-tech ways of using off-camera flash with more sophisticated equipment, this simple method will give you exactly the same results, and by getting familiar with it, you’ll be taking full control of your setup and understanding how aperture and flash power work together to deliver your desired outcome.

More flash-related advice soon.

Published in Camera Skills
  1. Ooh good, I need this, always been out of my depth with flash

  2. Definitely something I have steered away from as I have/had no idea about what is needed. Thanks, going to enjoy this series 🙂

  3. Really pleased to get some excellent low-down on a subject that I’ve always steered clear of!

  4. And the mist clears 😀

  5. Looking forward to more in this series as I have begun to create images with the benefit of artificial light and am eager to pick up more knowledge.

Leave a Reply