Using Flash to Get Creative 

Tips on various methods of using flash with your camera

Photographers Using Flash Outdoors

Using Flash. This is a more tricky area for many people, even the more experienced. There are probably more combinations and chances of things going wrong here, than with any other type of lighting. It all depends on;

  • Is your flashgun or speedlight "dedicated" to your camera?
  • Does it have a full range of settings, including E-TTL (Canon), i-TTL or D-TTL (Nikon) or full auto?
  • It fits on the "hotshoe" or base of the camera right?
  • Has it got a bounce and swivel head?
  • Does it have "slave" capabilities?
  • Do you have enough battery power?

I will cover all of these in detail in chapter 14, but for now let’s just cover the metering side of things.


In the days of old when I first started in photography, I had minimal kit. I just had a fully manual film SLR and fully manual flashgun. The flash came with a complicated chart that I needed to use to get the exposure right. I guess if anything, it taught me about the qualities and properties of light.

You needed to:

  • Work out the distance of your camera to the subject via the focussing ring
  • Check the table on the back of the flashgun
  • Set the aperture accordingly

All very time-consuming.

Then came along flashguns with what was called a "Thyristor". This was a small sensor located at the front of the flashgun. It would measure the amount of light bouncing back from the subject at the point of exposure and immediately cut off the flash’s power. Thus leaving a well exposed image.

Nowadays, the manufacturers have moved things on nicely with their fully integrated speedlight systems. These now work in conjunction with, and dedicated to your SLR/DSLR.

Using Flash as Daylight/Fill-in Flash

You are pretty much able to just set your camera up as normal with the settings you desire and simply set the flash to auto. It will work with the camera and "ping" just enough light to fill in the gaps. It does this using a modified version of the Thyristor I mentioned earlier.

Try using Av mode or aperture priority for fill in and just shoot as normal. Take a reading from behind your subject, recompose and shoot. The fill-in flash will take care of the main subject and your reading from behind will take care of the background. We've seen this image before...

Girl on Swing Pulling Face at Camera

Using Flash @ 125th/sec, F8, ISO 100

It is well worth practising with your own set up as once you get the hang of it. You may well use flash for a lot more than just night or fill in shots.

I use the above for flower shots to decrease the shadows and enhance the colours or for pet shots to add some catchlights to their very dark eyes.

Off Camera Flash

The shot from a wedding below was taken using off-camera flash. I had a speedlight to the side of the couple on a stand and fired using Pocket Wizards. It adds just a touch of highlights around the subject and helps make them "pop".

Young Wedding Couple Hugging by Waterfall

Using Flash for Night/Indoor Flash

Not my favourite of lighting as direct flash at night can leave the subject looking "whitewashed" and cause some pretty horrendous shadows. Here are a few tips for better flash photography;

Increase the Aperture in Auto/Program mode

With some DSLR's set to "program mode (P)" with auto or E-TTL flash, such as the Canon EOS 80D or EOS 5D Mark IV, the camera automatically sets the shutter speed to 60th/sec and the aperture to F4. It leaves the rest to the speedlight.

If you want to increase the depth of field by decreasing the aperture size, try this;

You want to close the aperture for added depth of field and increase the flashguns power to compensate and give out more light!

On your DSLR, you should have a FEC (flash exposure compensation) button. This allows you to increase or decrease the power output via an override to the automatic system.

If you want to decrease the aperture for more depth of field, you need to close the aperture thereby letting in less light. To compensate, you must increase the power output on the speedlight.

I usually close the aperture to around f6.7 or f8 and up the FEC by +2 or +3 stops. This works quite nicely.

Bounced Flash

The idea behind bouncing the flash from another surface is to break up the intensity of the light and diffuse it. Direct flash as we mentioned before tends to leave harsh shadows, overpowering light and sometimes causes "red-eye".

If your speedlight is capable, and you are shooting indoors, try simply aiming the flash at the ceiling and shooting that way.

Pretty Model With Pensive Look

Using Flash - 60th/sec, f6.7, ISO 200

For effective bounced flash lighting, remember these tips;

By bouncing the light away from the subject, you are almost doubling the distance that the light travels. This may cause the camera to underexpose slightly. If it does you can either up the FEC +/- (flash exposure compensation) by 1 or 2 stops to increase the power output.

Or do the same with the camera’s exposure compensation to let in more light. Either option will allow for more light to hit the subject thereby cancelling the effect of bouncing.

The angle at which you bounce the flash is directly related to the distance of your subject from the camera. For example, if your subject is a matter of 3 or 4 feet away, you need to aim the flash straight up. Anything else and the flash will bounce straight over their head and hit the area behind them.

If they are on the other side of a room, you need to angle the flash at about 45° so that it bounces from the ceiling and onto them. To simplify it, imagine you are throwing a ball at the ceiling at different angles, where will it land? That is where the flash light will land.

Update 2018: Canon's 470EX-AI does all this automatically. Genius!

This basic principle applies also, if you are bouncing the flash from a wall or white card.

If your flashgun has a second “fill in” flash bulb like the Metz CL-4, use it. With both the bounced flash and fill-in flash, the effect is superb, almost studio-like!

Using Flash - Move the subject away from any walls

If you just have to use direct flash, if possible, move your subject away from any walls or large objects. This way you illuminate the person or object without the nasty shadows in the background.

Man Dancing at Wedding

Using Flash - 60th/sec, F5, ISO 160

In the shot above, I took a meter reading from the background knowing that the couple would be well under-exposed. By pinging in a bit of flash, the whole scene was well lit with no unsightly shadows. I made sure that anything in the background was a long way away.

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