Speedlights for Beginners: Using On-Camera Flash

After investing in a DSLR and a decent lens, most people’s next purchase is a speedlight for their camera: those small hotshoe mounted flashes. Adding a flash to your photographs can be an exciting way to change the look and feel of your work and, in some cases, can be the only way to get a decent shot. In this post, I’m going to talk about using your on-camera flash and some techniques to get the most out of it straight out of the box.

Camera with Speedlight Attached On Top

TTL and manual modes

First, most speedlights have a TTL mode and a manual mode (possibly others too) and you’ll likely use both. TTL stands for “through the lens” and it is an automatic mode. These days, cameras are hand held computers and can quickly calculate how much light a scene needs based on the distance to the subject and the focal length of your lens, all in a split second. In TTL mode the camera is doing all the math for you and firing off a burst of light at whatever intensity is thinks is right. In many cases, TTL mode is right on, or close enough that you can adjust it one or two stops and have it be perfect. In manual mode the speedlight gives you a choice of light intensities, ranging from 1/1 (full power) all the way down to 1/128 power and some models even go as low as 1/256. Manual mode allows you complete control over how bright your flash is.

Ways to make your light look better

The easiest, most common, and arguably the worst way to light an image is to point the flash directly at the subject. We are all used to seeing that type of flash from point and shoot cameras, iPhones, and novice photographers. Not to say you should never do this; I think a harshly lit photo is better than no photo at all. In some cases that is the only option.

However, there are a few techniques that can take your on-camera flash technique to the next level.

1. Drag the Shutter.

This doesn’t have much to do with your flash, but it does affect the photo overall. Dragging the shutter means to slow it down past where you can comfortably hold it without the image looking blurry. This will allow more ambient light into the shot, meaning you need less flash intensity to light it up. The light from the flash that you do use, will somewhat freeze the motion of your subject. This is because even though your shutter speed may be 1/25th of a second, the flash is firing at somewhere between about 1/250 and 1/20,000th of a second, depending on the power level, enough to freeze motion.

Wedding Couple Walking Through Crowd with Sprinklers

2. Bounce the light.

All speedlights I know of have a swiveling head that allow you to point it upward, sideways, and even backwards. This is important because if you bounce the light off of something relatively large and flat it will give you a softer quality of light. Walls and ceilings work very well and are typically in great supply, but you could also use a sign or a curtain or even a person’s shirt. Anything that is bigger than the surface of your speedlight will soften up the light if you use it to bounce.

3. Use a diffuser.

There are lots of fancy pieces of plastic out there that will help diffuse, or spread out your light. Sto-Fen’s Omni-Bounce and Gary Fong’s Lightsphere are very popular options, but you could also use a white piece of foam (I did this for a long time) or a piece of paper taped to your speedlight to bounce the light and make it look bigger than it is. Remember: bigger light equals softer light, which generally looks better. Some speedlights even have a bounce card built in, which allows you to bounce some light off the ceiling and reflect some light forward—double awesome!

Bride with Arms Around Groom on Dancefloor

Now get out there and try these things! You might also enjoy learning about off-camera flash photography with Pocket Wizards. And come back to the Craftsy Blog on Thursday for a look at different file formats for digital photography.

Do you have a clever way of making your on-camera flash work for you? Or a homemade diffuser with magic results?

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