Flash: how to make it easy

flashesIn the beginning I used the built-in flash of my camera. Although I realized that the pictures I took had little to do with what I saw, I did not know what to do. Then I bought a separate flash for the hot shoe on the camera. The reason was that this one was more powerful and I could use the ceiling or a wall to get indirect light. Although this was an improvement, it was still not what I had in mind.

The Hot Shoe Diaries and Sketching Light of Joe McNally made me aware of the wide variety of possibilities of using one or more flashes and getting better pictures. He is a very enthusiastic author and makes using several flashes to get better lighting easy. This book has been very influential for me.

The first step is to take the flash off the camera and put it either on the right or left of you. This will create some shadows and gives a better feeling of three dimensions. This is quite an improvement compared to the built-in flash that hits the subject right in front leaving only cast shadows. Cast shadows, by the way,  can be avoided in several ways: use several flashes, place the subject far away from the background, make the flash bigger by using a softbox.

single_flash softbox
Small flash – hard light Big light – soft light

The second step is to understand how the camera via the built-in flash (master) communicates with the off-shoe flash (slave) without flashing itself. You probably have to read your manuals. The idea is that the built-in flash communicates with the other flash just before the curtain opens.  If you know how to do this it is quite easy to start using several flashes (left, right, rear, or top) with different flash power. This is real fun!

The third step is choosing the right Aperture and Shutter Speed. Actually, the Shutter Speed has no influence on the light coming from the flash. The duration of the flash is much shorter than the opening of the curtain. With some cameras you can go all the way down to 1/250 sec. On the other hand, if you leave the curtain open a bit longer, like 1/30 sec, then you will also catch some ambient light. It is important to remember that independent of the shutter speed the flash light freezes motion. The Aperture determines how much light we let through to the sensor. In TTL-mode (automatic mode), however, widening the Aperture does not give a brighter picture, only the flash requires less power; in M-mode (manual mode) it would make the picture brighter. In both cases the power balance between the various flashes is important, because it determines how much light each side of the subject gets.

The final step is to experiment:

  • where to position the flashes;
  • the power balance between the flashes;
  • use TTL- or M-mode of the flash;
  • what type of softbox gives the right light;
  • what type of background gives the right atmosphere

Enjoy, you will learn a lot from it!