Flashguns and Speedlights

An introduction to adding your own light to photos

Some people swear by them, some hate them. I am somewhere in between.

If I feel a shot could be enhanced with a bit of flash, I will use it but there are many ways of using it that look more natural than others.

As mentioned in the absolute beginners section, try not to use the camera’s built in flash if you can help it. There are many other options open to you and pretty much all will give better results.

All flashguns or speedlights do “in a nutshell”, is to add light when other natural or ambient light sources are low or otherwise unavailable. However, there is a whole lot more to a speedlight than that…the creative uses are only limited by your own imagination.

Flashguns come in all shapes and sizes so try not to get confused and bewildered. Most DSLR manufacturers also produce a range of speedlights so check them out and get whatever suits your photography and price bracket.

Flashguns and Speedlights

​Fill in Flash

When to use flash in the daytime even on sunny days

This is the term given to adding just a touch or “ping” of light to brighten otherwise shadowy or shaded areas. A bonus is that it also brightens the colours.

For example, if your subject (portrait) is outdoors with harsh shadows from the sun across their face, try setting your flash to auto or ETTL and firing a bit of flash in. It should be just enough to brighten the shadows.

Take all camera meter readings and get the overall exposure right before turning on the flash. These days cameras and speedlights are intelligent and “talk to each other” but they don’t always understand each other!

(If it is too much or too little, you can adjust the power output of the flash (FEC – Flash Exposure Compensation) to compensate or switch the flash to manual and play with the power output from within the flash’s menu).

The flash will hit the subject, bounce back to an on board sensor and switch off when enough light has hit your subject.

The beauty of digital is you can keep practicing until you get it right at no cost.

Fill in flash works best if your subject is far enough away from any background that could create harsh shadows. If a background is unavoidable, hold the camera landscape (or normally) as opposed to upright or portrait as the shadows will be less noticeable.

Basically, try to make sure the flash or speedlight is above the camera’s lens when shooting direct flash with close backgrounds and use a diffuser if you have one.

Ok, let’s look at some examples…

These were all taken at the same wedding and for some I used flash, others I didn’t.

This first image has no fill in flash, the people are facing directly into the sun so they are squinting and have some harsh shadows present.

Flashguns and Speedlights - Fill in Flash

By changing the angle slightly and adding a touch of flash, the colours become more vibrant and there is noticeably less shadows on the faces, particularly around the eyes…

Flashguns and Speedlights - Fill in Flash

By turning the people away from the sun a little, you can eliminate the squinting but you still get shadows as you can see in this image and the 100% crop that follows…

Flashguns and Speedlights - Fill in Flash

100% crop…

Flashguns and Speedlights - Fill in Flash

But by adding some fill in flash using E-TTL or full auto, you can clearly see the difference once again, in particular, the eyes which now have wonderful catch lights in them bringing them to life.

Flashguns and Speedlights - Fill in Flash

100% crop…

Flashguns and Speedlights - Fill in Flash

The next time you are out and about shooting in bright sunlight, use your flash and see what results you can get. The main thing is never to think flash should be confined to indoor or night photography.

Direct Flash

​...and when to use it

Yuk! This is where you simply place the external speedlight on your camera, aim it straight at your subject and shoot or just use the camera’s built in flash.

It is sometimes unavoidable but if you can help it, try not to use direct flash as it is very unflattering and can wash out the colours. If you find yourself having no other option, at least use a diffuser on your speedlight to help diffuse the light and soften the shadows.

I have had no other option many times during wedding shoots where I had to use direct flash. One example is where the couple were cutting the cake as a fireworks display was about to go off behind them therefore they were out in the open (no ceilings or walls), it was dark and all ambient light was turned off.

I simply used my speedlight with diffuser safe in the knowledge that there were no walls behind to cast ugly shadows onto.

​Bounced Flash

Bouncing flash from a wall or ceiling can make all the difference!

A way around using direct flash (except when using built in flash) is to bounce the flash from a ceiling or wall. This will diffuse the light and spread it more evenly over your subject and can make all the difference. I am all for bounced flash personally and it is a technique well worth learning!

It is important to note that when using bounced flash, you are effectively doubling the distance that the light has to travel. That means by the time the light reaches your subject; it is too weak to light them correctly, it can confuse the metering system.

To get around this, you simply double the power output to compensate by using the FEC (flash exposure compensation) on the camera OR flash unit. This works if the subject is fairly close. The further away they are, the more output you will need to apply​...+2, +3 etc.

It is also worth remembering that it is your aperture that determines the flash’s brightness recorded on your sensor or film​. ​It's the shutter speed that determines how much ambient light is recorded​. This is one of the best things you can learn for really effective indoor photography.

Think about it​

Imagine you are in a dark room with just a candle burning in the back ground.

Now, your flash sync speed is around 250th/sec maximum (meaning you cannot use a faster shutter speed than that but you can use slower) and the flash fires at around 5-10,000th/sec so you can really shoot using a shutter speed of anywhere between 250th/sec, 60th/sec, 1 second, 10 seconds, a minute or an hour…it won’t make any difference to the flash output whatsoever.

The shot will look practically the same because the flash is firing at supersonic speed regardless of what you do​. Have you ever seen a super slow “flash”?

All you can do is control how that flash is recorded by altering the power of the flash and how much is let into your camera (how long for).

So, as you decrease the shutter speed, the candle light will appear brighter and brighter the slower you go. A fast shutter speed will not record it at all. So, in manual on your camera with no flash at the moment, slow the shutter speed down until the candle is recorded nicely and how you want it and now you have the ambient light covered.

Now, add the speedlight and bounce it from the ceiling using say f8 for your starting aperture setting. If the rest of the shot, other than the candle, is underexposed, gradually open the aperture until the rest of the room suits the mood and looks well lit and voila, you have the flashlight and ambient light well mixed and exposed!

Watch the video ​above that illustrates this in more detail.

If you noticed in that video, the image improved dramatically when using an aperture of F8 as opposed to F1.4 in the first shot. This is why it is important to take control of the camera and get it to do what YOU want not the other way around!

​Off Camera Flash

Whip the flash off your camera and open a new world of lighting!

Once you get used to and confident with using an external flash, you can start to really play. One way to experiment is to remove the speedlight from your camera altogether and fire it remotely. To do this you will need some extra gadgetry but it needn’t be expensive.

Flashguns and Speedlights - Off Camera Flash

​Off camera flash used for back-lighting

There are a few ways to get your flash away from your camera to produce a nicer light. It all depends on what type of flashgun you are currently using. Until only a few years ago, I still owned the superb Metz CL-4 below. A great flashgun but a little dated today.

Flashguns and Speedlights - Off Camera Flash

However, if you own one, you can buy a simple slave unit as in the image below that will allow you to move the flash away from the camera via the compatible connecting cord.

​If you own a modern speedlight, you can do the same, if not better, simply using a cheap off camera TTL cord: Off camera E-TTL shoe cord

​Many of the modern full flash outfits on sale ​now have all of this and more included for you to get as creative as you like! They have built in Bluetooth or Wireless systems that allow you to shoot with off camera flash wirelessly.

​Another option, but one that adds a bit of expense, is the use of radio slave units to fire your speedlights from a distance. The Pocket Wizards are my particular favourites and can fire multiple flashes from a good distance away. I have been using them for years. Just make sure your camera and/or speedlight is compatible.

Flashguns and Speedlights - Off Camera Flash Backlighting

TTL Dedicated Flash

Get your camera and flashgun ​"talking​"!

Flashguns and Speedlights - TTL Dedicated Flash

TTL simply means “through the lens” and is a term used for both normal camera metering and flash metering. When the speedlight is on the camera, the flash fires out, reflects from the surface of the subject, bounces back and in through the camera’s lens.

The amount of light returning is recorded by the camera which tells the flash to stop the output resulting in a perfect exposure (dedicated).

Dedicated means that the camera and flashgun speak the same language making exposure settings and results that much better.

If the speedlight is off the camera, it is difficult for the camera to judge the correct exposure because camera and flash are at different locations and distances.

Therefore, you would need to go manual with the flash and practice until the exposure is correct…all good fun!

​Ring Flash

​ A circular flash for the front of your lens

Flashguns and Speedlights - Ring Flash

Ring flashes are excellent for close up or macro photography. They even look good for portraits as they can leave a cool looking round catch light in the eye whilst giving a nice, all round and even illumination…

Flashguns and Speedlights - Ring Flash  Portrait


​A cheap and effective way of utilizing available light

“If the mountain won’t come to Mohamed”…

If you simply cannot light your subject correctly and you have no speedlight or flash, take the light from elsewhere and direct it onto your subject using a reflector. These generally come in white, silver or gold depending on the effect you want or you can make your own quite easily.

Lastolite make excellent, fold-able and portable reflectors…very handy, and when you get serious, try the California Sunbounce for size! It is advisable to take a meter reading from your subject once the reflected light is on them…not before.

Here are a couple of examples using a large, gold, Lastolite reflector. The first two images were shot outside with the sun behind the subject giving heavy back-lighting…

Flashguns and Speedlights -  Reflectors

Without balancing the light with a reflector or fill in flash, the subject would be more in a silhouette as the camera would meter for the light behind and not for the subject. Using a reflector creates a nice balance, a warm tone to the skin and a nice catchlight in the eyes.

Flashguns and Speedlights -  Reflectors

In this next shot, the subject was deep inside an outdoor porch where there was little light hitting her. ​

We simply held a reflector outside in the sun (about 20 feet away) and shone it into the porch area and onto the subject.

The results once again are spot on with great skin tones and catchlights in the eyes.

I would highly recommend getting hold of a silver/gold reflector to add light where the sun cannot reach and you don't have anything else.


Kill harsh shadows from your flash by using a diffuser

One of the best things you can invest in for your flash or speedlight is a diffuser. They really help to spread the light from a flashgun and create a much more pleasant and flattering look…I love them and use them 99% of the time when using flash!

A “naked” flash from a speedlight can cause harsh shadows and give the skin a pasty look when shooting people whereas the diffuser is much more complimentary.

More and more manufacturers are making these now so check a few out. When I first used diffusers for my Canon Speedlights, I used the Harbour Digital Pro System from the USA. They fit just about any speedlight on the market.

​For the past couple of years I have used Gary Fong’s Diffusers (clear and opaque) and cannot fault them.

I use them for weddings, property shoots, portraits and still life stock…very flexible, adaptable and useful.

I would highly recommend you check out the diffusers​ (with reviews) on Amazon by clicking the image.

If you have completed the Absolute Beginners section, you will have seen these examples before. They were taken using the Fong domes​ and it is worth explaining/showing the benefits again here​.

Flashguns and Speedlights - Diffusers
Flashguns and Speedlights - Diffusers