Learning to use flash

Posted by on Mar 10, 2013 in Techniques | 0 comments

Learning to use flash

At one time or another every photographer tries to use a flash with their equipment and generally that first use comes out a less than successful and we are left deflated at the perceived complexity of using flash. Just recently the team at OzLight completed the second run of our new course, Flash Portraits. This course is designed for the beginner and really helps to unravel a lot of those mysteries about flash and it use – all of the images in this post come from the course on the weekend.


Bec’s Laughing by Ken Dickson
1/200s @ f16, ISO 250
Canon 7D with Sigma 105mm

During the course we look at a number of the fundamentals at using a flash and look at ways to improve our images:

Fundamental 1 – On camera flash.
Quite often our first experience with using a flash is to use the device that is build into the top of our camera. Using this type of flash can be a great contributor to less than successful attempts, and it is mainly because the flash is in the wrong spot. Lets think about this for a moment. When we use a pop up flash on the camera we are placing a very narrow and bright light source directly above our lens. What normally happens is that your subject ends up being blasted by light that comes directly from the front. This strong harsh light provides a shadow that falls directly behind the subject and thus we are left with a flat looking image with no real definition that the use of shadows gives us.

We can purchase an external flash unit “speedlite” type of device, and they are many different models available from each of the camera manufacturers. These devices will provide a stronger version of the pop up flash and can be mounted directly on top of the camera in the hot shoe position. The trap with these devices is that we may continue to use them in the same manner as a pop up flash and thus suffer the same issues. A speedlite does offer some great advantages which we will talk more about shortly.

So should we not use pop up flash? In some cases you might not have any choice, so use the pop up flash but be aware of its limitations.


Are you ticklish? by Ken Dickson
1/200s @ f16, ISO 250
Canon 7D with Canon 50mm lens

Fundamental 2 – Bounce the flash
A great advantage of using a speedlite type of flash is that you now have the option of turning the flash head around enabling you to fire the flash at the ceiling or even a wall. By bouncing the light from a ceiling or wall we overcome the immediate limitations of the pop up flash. The light for our image comes from above or the side and we start to see more depth in the image because we now have betters shadows. The other big advantage is that we now have a bigger light source, giving a much softer and more pleasing light. As the students learn on our course, the colour, shape and proximity of the bounce surface can greatly affect the light received at our subject.


Alex and Bec by Ken Dickson
1/200 sec @ f16, ISO 250
Canon 7D with Canon 50mm lens

Fundamental 3 – Get the flash off the camera
After learning the art of bounce flash, our students are then ready for the next step, which is remove the flash completely from the camera. Once we remove the flash from the camera we open up a world of possibilities when it comes to lighting a scene.

With the flash off the camera we do introduce a challenge of how to trigger the flash (telling it when to fire) but a number of options exist to solve this issue. The options range from the very cheap flash cable to wireless triggers which can range widely in cost.

With the flash off the camera, we start taking control of the light and can also start having attachments like umbrellas to help us modify the light. When it comes to calculating exposure, some people can feel overwhelmed but during the course we show how this can be easily understood and the students get lots of time to practice.


Mysterious Pair by Ken Dickson
1/200s @ f16, ISO 250
Canon 7D with Canon 50mm lens

In summary, a lot of photographers become worried when it comes to shooting with a flash. In truth you will find that it is a lot like other areas of our great hobby. Learn the fundamentals and then get some practice and you will quickly start capturing some wonderful images. Check out the Ozlight Photo Adventures section of this web page for a chance to enrol in the next Flash Portraits course.