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Flash photography tips: external flash techniques anyone can understand

Lighting can be one of the most challenging aspects of photography, and yet it is so key. An external flash unit is one of the most effective ways of ensuring a correct exposure, but setting them up and usage them correctly is again a major challenge.

With this tutorial we’ve really tried to go in-depth and leave no stone unturned. The flash photography tips in this post run through some of the most effective techniques for using your external flash unit, the most useful accessories, set-ups and more.

Specifically, we’ll cover: Off-camera flash; How to replicate studio lighting with two flashguns: Bounce flash techniques; White bounce cards; Using flash diffusers; and Wireless flash.

We’ve also provided a couple handy photography cheat sheets to help illustrate the flash photography techniques we’re talking about.

The biggest weakness of built-in and auxiliary flashguns is that the quality of light they emit is pretty unimpressive. Because the flash is a high-intensity light source that originates from a relatively small area close to the lens, it yields flat, uneven lighting that creates deep, hard-edged shadows.

It can also eradicate fine textures and contours, bleach out skin tones and cause red-eye – all of which makes for particularly disastrous portrait, wildlife, macro and interior shots.

Larger flash heads aren’t quite as bad because they spread light out over a slightly wider area, but the results are still unsatisfactorily harsh.

This type of lighting, which hits your subject straight from a flashgun, is known as direct flash photography. Although direct flash photography usually looks artificial and ugly, it can generate terrific effects when used shrewdly.

Most of the time, however, you’ll need to minimise the gremlins.

SEE MORE: How camera flash works: free photography cheat sheet

Flash photography tips: off-camera flash

3 easy ways to use off-camera flash: wireless flash 3 easy ways to use off-camera flash: off-camera lead

The key to improving the quality and flexibility of flashgun lighting is to enlarge and soften the light source, and fire it at the subject from a more natural direction.

To accomplish the latter you need to completely separate the unit from your camera using a hotshoe adapter and sync cord. This will enable you to position your flashlight far more suitably and creatively. It will also give your subject a sense of depth and eliminate red-eye.

Nikon and Canon both make all-in-one off-camera flash cords that preserve full TTL balanced flash metering and power output. Nikon offers the one metre-long Nikon TTL Remote Cord SC-28/SC-29, while Canon has the 60cm Off-Camera Shoe Cord 2.

Some cameras require you to buy two adaptors – one for the hotshoe and one for the base of the flashgun – and a cable to connect them.

If you prefer to keep your hands free while you shoot and you don’t mind looking more conspicuous, you can buy a flash bracket that connects to your camera’s tripod socket and angles the flash unit permanently to one side.

Large hammerhead flash units, used for illuminating larger subjects like buildings, are commonly used in conjunction with a bracket.

SEE MORE: 8 flash photography mistakes every photographer makes (and how to avoid them)

Flash photography tips: replicate studio lighting with two off-camera flashguns

Flash photography tips: replicate studio lighting with two off-camera flashgunsUsing an on-camera flashgun to illuminate small subjects closer than about 60cm is a really bad idea because the flash output at such close range is way too intense.

The position of the flash head above the lens also causes most of the illumination to pass over the top of the subject. With close-ups further than 60cm away you might just get away with on-camera flash, provided you maximise diffusion using a wide-flash adapter and a diffuser.

Take care that a long lens isn’t obstructing the flash and, if possible, set the tilt position so the flashgun is pointing slightly downwards.

This solution is far from an ideal though – you’ll get far superior results if you use either diffused off-camera flash to one side (with a reflector on the opposite side to fill in the shadows), a specialist macro ring flash such as the Canon MR-14EX or Nikon SB29s or, as we’ve done here, a couple of wireless TTL flash units positioned either side of the subject.

SEE MORE: Studio Lighting: 4 seriously simple techniques to try at home

Flash photography tips: macro example 1

First shot
In our first shot we illuminated our lovely cherub statue using a single, undiffused on-camera Canon Speedlite 550EX. Blasting out an intense burst of light straight at the subject has created an unpleasant dark shadow behind the statue and given it a flat, almost two-dimensional look.


Flash photography tips: macro example 2

Second shot
This time we used two off-camera Canon flashguns; one master unit bounced from the side and a diffused, wireless slave pointed at the subject from above (angled towards the front). This set-up reduces shadows and accentuates the subject’s contours for a much more pleasing result.


Flash photography tips: macro example 3

Third shot
Here we used exactly the same setup as the previous shot, except that a white reflector was placed opposite the master flash to fill in some of the shadows caused by the overhead flash. The difference caused by the second reflector is quite subtle but it’s definitely an improvement.

SEE MORE: What is flash sync: what your flash modes do and how to use them (free cheat sheet)

Flash photography tips: bounce flash techniques

Bounce flash photography techniques: 4 simple steps

Of course, simply taking the flash off-camera doesn’t stop the lighting from looking harsh and artificial – it still needs enlarging and softening.

There are several ways of doing this, and one of the most effective is to bounce the flash. This is easy if your flashgun allows you to tilt the head upwards (usually through click-stops at 45°, 60°, 75° and 90°) and swivel it around the horizontal axis.

The idea is that you bounce the flash off a reflector, wall, ceiling or even a mirror – spreading the light out over a much larger area and effectively increasing the size of the light source.

This lightens dark shadows and produces softer, smoother and more natural lighting than direct flash. For the best results, tilt the flash head up to at least 60°. The downside is that subjects can look somewhat flat and lack that ‘sparkle’.

Bounce flash photography can also produce unwanted shadows underneath a subject, which in the case of a portrait accentuates eye bags
and creates shadows under the nose and chin. It also significantly reduces flash power, which typically translates to a light loss of two to three stops.

As long as the flash sensor’s still pointed towards the subject a TTL flashgun will automatically amplify its output to compensate for this, but if it can’t meet the new requirements you must increase your aperture, boost your ISO and/or move in closer to your subject.

If you’re using a manual flashgun you’ll need to increase your exposure accordingly.

Another important consideration when bouncing flash is that the surface you bounce off must be a neutral white, otherwise your subject will end up with an unnatural colour cast.

SEE MORE: 99 common photography problems (and how to solve them)

Flash photography tips: white bounce cards

Bounce flash photography techniques: 4 simple steps

Better flashguns have a white bounce card built into the flash head to reflect some light directly onto the subject when the unit is tilted up into a bounce position.

Bounce cards are a great way to add a vibrant catchlight to a subject’s eyes and to fill-in any resulting shadows – for the most effective results, tilt the flash head up to 90°.

Some advanced flashguns feature dual flashtubes instead – firing a weaker burst directly at the subject to fill in shadows and add a catchlight while the main flash is bounced upwards.

Bounce flash photography techniques: 4 simple steps

If your flashgun doesn’t feature a bounce card or dual flashtube, try using a rubber band to secure a piece of white card around the back of the flash head to reflect some light forward.

Conventional bounce flash won’t always be practical – you might be working outdoors. And if you’re indoors the ceiling/walls might be too distant or the wrong colour.

One solution is to buy a mini flash reflector that clips around the flash tube and bounces the light forwards, softening it with minimum loss of light. Try LumiQuest’s Big Bounce, Pocket Bouncer or Midi Bouncer – available with different coloured metallic inserts.

If your flashgun is a non-tilt model, taking it off-camera will allow you to bounce the flash in any direction. An off-camera flashgun can also be reversed, attached to a studio brolly stand and fired into a flash brolly, thereby turning it into a respectable studio light.

Flash portraits: creative off-camera lighting techniques you have to try
The easy way to set up off-camera flash for perfectly lit shots
Flash compensation: how to get perfectly balanced exposures
Flash photography basics: every common question answered

Flash photography tips: using flash diffusers

Child photography tips: attach a diffuser

A flash diffuser is a good alternative to bounce flash and works in a similar way by spreading out hard, directional light into a larger, omni-directional source.

This minimises red-eye, weakens shadows and creates softer, more flattering lighting. Taking diffused flash off-camera enables you to create even more natural results.

You can buy various types of diffusers for external flashguns. High-end flashguns often ship with a translucent diffusion dome, which looks a bit like a plastic ice-cream carton and fits snugly over the flash head.

If you don’t have one, try the white, green and gold Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce diffusers, which are available for different makes and sizes of flashgun. LumiQuest makes a similar device called the UltraBounce and a built-in pop-up flash diffuser called the Soft Screen.

SEE MORE: DIY Photography Hacks: make a foam flash diffuser to soften portraits

For a dirt-cheap substitute, tape some tracing paper or soft tissue over your flash window. Or you can follow our popular DIY Photography Hacks tutorial to make a simple foam diffuser for your flashgun.

To create a more powerful diffusion effect you need a miniature softbox, such as LumiQuest’s Softbox or Mini Softbox. Lastolite also makes a mini Micro Apollo softbox in three different sizes that attaches to any make of flashgun with Velcro.

For the ultimate in soft, shadow-free lighting, combine off-camera bounce flash with a diffuser, adding a wide-angle adapter for even greater diffusion.

This method’s great for close-ups and portrait work, but because diffusers also reduce flash output by up to two stops, you could be looking at a light loss of five stops in total.

Products like the LumiQuest UltraSoft overcome this problem by combining a mini reflector and diffuser in one completely enclosed modifier that keeps light loss to just two stops.

SEE MORE: Free portrait lighting cheat sheet

Flash photography tips: wireless flash

Review: Flash Wave III RX wireless flash system

Using two or more flashguns will extend your lighting options considerably. To avoid nasty multiple flash exposure calculations and cumbersome cord connections, the simplest, most effective way to connect several flashguns is via a wireless TTL multi-flash system.

Nikon and Canon’s wireless TTL flash systems allow up to nine ‘slave’ flashguns to be controlled and fired simultaneously via a ‘master’ flashgun on the camera. The remote slave units can be divided into three distinct groups.

Flash mode and flash output level compensation values can then be set separately for each group and the master unit. If you want to use all your flashguns remotely you can control them via an infrared flash trigger on the camera’s hotshoe.

Being able to position several units anywhere up to ten meters from the camera has many benefits. Most importantly, you’ve got the freedom to create natural looking lighting that eliminates shadows and emphasises the subject’s form, texture, tones and colours.

You can also illuminate dark backgrounds, highlight secondary elements, cast coloured lighting – the possibilities are practically endless.

Usually, only top-of-the-range flashguns have the ability to control multiple flashguns in a wireless TTL setup. If your flashgun isn’t wireless-enabled, but features a PC cord connection, you can create a cheap and cheerful, non-TTL wireless system by attaching a PC slave flash unit to it.

This sticks to the top of the flashgun and plugs into the PC socket, allowing the flash to be triggered wirelessly, either by your camera’s built-in flash or an on-camera auxiliary flashgun.

SEE MORE: 44 essential digital camera tips and tricks

A cheat sheet for getting the best results possible from your external flash

Flash photography tips: use a diffusion domeFlash photography tips: use a bounce cardFlash photography tips: use a wide-angle diffuserFlash photography tips: use an off-camera shoe cord

The portraits below were shot using an 80mm lens and a single Nikon SB-800. The four accessories above were introduced at various stages to illustrate their effect.

To see the larger version of this cheat sheet, click on the image to expand the graphic. Or drag and drop it to your desktop to save.

A cheat sheet for getting the best results possible from your external flash


Free portrait lighting guide: 24 essential studio lighting set-ups
Best studio lighting for photography: 8 top options tested and rated
How to shoot portraits with continuous light sources
In-camera flash settings: exploring your built-in flash options


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