Photographer standing in the middle of his flash equipments

How To Use Flash Photography To Better Expose Your Subjects

Flash photography can be a daunting prospect for many photographers.

Who doesn’t have nightmares about images ruined as a result of red-eye?

But never fear. Follow our 10 simple tips as we shed light on the topic and show you how simple it can be.

A couple pose in a photography studio in front of a light
Follow our simple tips to make flash photography fun. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

What Is Flash Photography?

As the name suggests, flash photography means the creation of images using artificial light. The light source can be a classic Speedlight flash or studio lights.

A photographer holds up a camera with a speedlight flash attached
Buying a Speedlight for your camera is a great way to start flash photography. Photo by Tom Pumford.

The beauty of flash photography is that you are not forced to adapt to the ambient light. Instead, you create and sculpt your own light.

So how can I control light using a flash?

  1. Change the intensity of the light: choose from full output power down to 1/64th or 1/128th of full power;
  2. Adjust light spread (zoom): You can either make the flash beam narrow or wide by zooming-in/out the flash head (measured in mm). As you zoom out the flash head the flash beam becomes more narrow. As you zoom-in, the beam becomes wider.
  3. Change direction of the light: by bouncing the flash off another surface or by entirely moving the flash off-camera
  4. Modify the quality of light: by using different light modifiers.

Flashes are also useful outdoors, to improve your photos in tricky light conditions.

For example, in the photo below, I used a flash to produce fill-light so that my face is well exposed against the bright background light.

A man uses flash on his camera to take a selfie riding an electric scooter in the woods
A flash can help balance the exposure in tricky lighting conditions, such as taking a selfie while riding an electric scooter in the woods. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

Tips on How to Use a Flash

Using flash in your photography may sound intimidating at first. That is why we wanted to give you these tips and tricks to get the best results out of your flash photography.

1. Use Fill Flash Outdoors to Balance Exposure

Do you struggle to get good family photos during outdoor activities?

The main problem, especially on sunny days, is that most of the time you will shoot ‘into’ the light.

A woman, her child and dog by a lake, shot into the sun
A classic family outdoor snapshot. As you can see from the direction of the shadows, the sun is high up in the sky, slightly behind the people, so their faces are in shadow. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

In this case, particularly if you shoot in automatic mode, one of two things will happen. Both of which are undesirable.

  1. The bright background will be properly exposed, but the backlit subject will be underexposed; or
  2. The backlit subject is properly exposed, but the brighter background is overexposed.
Two images: one of a mother kissing a sun in silhouette, exposed for the background, and the other of a young boy shot using fill flash where it was exposed for the foreground
Exposing for the background (top) in this instance will result in silhouettes. Exposing for the people in the foreground, however, will blow the highlights in the background. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

Fill flash is a photographic technique where you use the flash to brighten areas in deep shadow. This technique is useful whenever the background is much brighter/lighter than the subject.

Whether you are using your smartphone, a compact camera or a DSLR, chances are those have a built-in flash. While the built-in flash is not the most powerful or flexible, it will serve its purpose as a good fill flash.

An image of a young boy stood in front of a lake, fill flash has been used to balance exposure
I used the flash of my compact camera as fill flash to better balance the exposure in this shot. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

2. How to Avoid Red-Eye When Using Flash

The red-eye effect happens when the flash is used to take a shot and the pupils of humans or animals appear red.

A close-up on a person's face showing the red-eye effect
When the flash is used on someone’s face, this can cause red-eye, as shown above.

In low-light, pupils dilate, but the flash occurs so fast they cannot contract. Thus, the camera picks up the light reflected back through the pupil after bouncing off the back of the eye. The main cause of the red color comes from the blood vessels in the eye.

The simplest solution to avoid the red-eye effect is to ask the subject to look away from the camera.

If that is not ideal, most cameras have red-eye reduction capabilities built-in. For example, they can fire the flash twice when the shutter is pressed, causing the pupil to contract. This function will tame the red-eye effect.

Other ways to prevent red eye include:

  • Bounce the flash to change the direction of the light: this ensures only diffused light enters the eyes;
  • Move the flash off-camera: this moves it off axes with the eye
  • Increase the ambient light: this will ensure the subject’s pupils are more constricted.

You can also correct red-eyes in post-production, however, it is to a limited extent, so it’s best to get it right in camera.

3. Bounce Your Flash for a Softer Light

There are two types of light in photography: hard and soft.

  • Hard light creates more contrasted images
  • The soft light gives more balanced images

If you take an image using direct flash, the light is hard and will cast strong, ugly shadows on the background.

An image of a young boy taken using direct flash
An image taken using direct flash. The light is very hard, casting strong shadows on the background. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

However, if you tilt the flash head to bounce the light off the ceiling or a wall next to your subject, the light will be much softer. See below example:

An image of a young boy taken with the flash bounced off the wall
I bounced the flash off the wall next to my son, to create a softer lighting effect. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

If your camera has a pop-up flash, you have to rely on a bouncing card to do this.

An image of a bounce card over a pop-up flash on a camera
If your camera has a pop-up flash, you’ll need a bounce card.

Ultimately, though, If your camera has a hot-shoe, consider buying a Speedlight for better results.

4. Use Light Modifiers to Shape Light

Flash photographers sometimes use light modifiers to shape and control their lights. Such modifiers range from grids to softboxes.

A light modifying grid on a flash creates a beam of light across a camera
A grid on a flash creates a tight beam of light across the image. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

If you are on the move, you can get several kinds of modifiers that attach directly to your flash.

Lastolite has produced EzyBox, a series of softboxes to help soften your flash.

We recommend Rogue grids (to focus light) and flexible panels (benders) to bounce your flash against.

A speedlight and some light modifiers including a grid, flash bender and a color gel
Light modifiers for a Speedlight: a rogue grid (left), a rogue flash bender (center) and a color gel (right). Photo by Andrea Minoia.

You can also use color gels to color your light, umbrellas, reflectors, and shoots, but we’ll talk about all of these later.

5. E-TTL vs Manual Flash: Which Is Best?

An E-TTL flash unit is great for reportage or documentary photography, or if the light conditions change a lot. The camera adjusts the flash power accordingly to the light metering reading.

A manual flash cannot communicate with the camera, thus, its power cannot be adjusted automatically by the camera.

However, manual flashes are much cheaper than their E-TTL counterparts. And because they give you full control of the light, they are perfect for use in a studio.

The E-TTL function is expensive and can be tricky in a studio situation, as the camera changes the flash power depending on the light reading. This can lead to inconsistently lit images.

6. Buy the Most Powerful Flash You Can Afford

Flash units are classified by their guide number (GN). The GN is a measure of the distance at which the flash can illuminate a subject.

The higher the GN, the greater the distance at which your subject will be properly exposed.

This scheme illustrates the concept of guide numbers, GN. The lower the power of the flash (low GN), the closer you have to be to properly expose the subject.

For serious flash photography, consider using a flash with a GN of at least 56. The higher the GN number, the better: you will have more power and will be able to light your subject from further away.

Also, units with high GN will allow you to use larger light modifiers, to create better quality light.

7. Move Your Flash Off-Camera for Better Results

On-camera flash can limit your light options. For example, unless you have a surface to bounce the flash from, you will only be able to light your subject from the single direction you are shooting in.

However, if you take the flash off-camera, you can control the direction of light onto your subject.

A diagram demonstration different light setups using off-camera flash positions.
A single off-camera flash can create a lot of different light setups. On the left side, square positions represent the camera location while the circle position represents the flash positions (left side). On the right side is the resulting lighting effect.

You can control off-camera flash using a flash cord or radio triggers. Radio triggers are the best way to trigger your flash remotely: some models even allow you to control, group and set up more flash units.

8. Use Multiple Flashes to Shoot like a Pro

A single flash set-up is good to begin with. However, for better results consider adding more units to your equipment.

Three flash units allow you to recreate many classic lighting set-ups. You will be able to:

  1. Set a key light: use this as the main light source;
  2. Set a fill light: use this as a secondary flash to fill shadows (it gives more flattering results by balancing contrast on faces); and
  3. Set a background light: this will illuminate behind the subject to help separate them from the background.
A model stood with hands on hips in front of a black backdrop, demonstrating a three-light flash set-up
A classic three-light setup: the key light is on the left, the fill light is on the right, and the third light illuminates the background. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

9. Use Colored Gels to Create Effects

Color gels are colored sheets of translucent plastic, which cover your flash in order to alter the color of the light.

Electronic flashes naturally emit white light with a color temperature of about 5500-6000 kelvin (K). But you can alter this will color gels.

The gels come in many different colors and you can buy cheap, complete sets. Get creative and use multiple flashes to create great light effects by mixing the different colors.

A lady wearing glasses lit up with red and blue color gels
A popular combination of color gels in portrait photography is red and blue. Photo by Ben Blennerhassett.

Must-Have Flash Photography Equipment

There are a few must-have accessories that will help you improve your flash photography. And the good news is, with few exceptions, you don’t need a big budget to expand your studio equipment.

Accessories and speedlights from Neweer, Impact, Godox, Yongnuo, etc, have great price/quality ratio, particularly for amateur and enthusiast photographers.

Flashes, light stands, umbrellas, softboxes, and reflectors don’t have to break the bank.

A photographer in a studio surrounded by flash equipment, stands and umbrellas
Me and my studio equipment: I have three flashes, light stands, an umbrella, two softboxes, a foldable reflector, and a foldable background.

1. A Light Meter

A light meter is an external meter that reads the ambient light or flash exposures to help you correctly expose images.

A sekonic flash meter
A flash meter helps you correctly expose images. Photo by Wilmar Sandoval.

They are not cheap, but they remove all guesswork from your flash photography.

Simply set your ISO and shutter speed on the meter, it will then read the light and tell you which aperture to use to correctly expose the subject. Next, change the flash power so that the suggested aperture matches the one you want to use. There will be no need to waste time on test photos.

Sekonic makes a range of light meters. One of their simplest is the L-308S.

2. Light Stand

A light stand is a must-have when using off-camera flash. Stands come in all prices, heights, weights and max payloads.

A light stand with the flash attached.
A light stand helps to position your external flash securely.

The Manfrotto Nano is a lightweight and portable stand, perfect for speedlights. If you use heavier studio lights, you will need sturdier, more heavy-duty stands.

3. Light Modifiers

When shooting in the studio, a photographer can control the light by using the following light modifiers:

  • Umbrellas
  • Softboxes
  • Beauty dishes
  • Diffusers
  • Snoots and grids
  • A 5-in-1 reflector.

If there is one must-have light modifier, it is a simple umbrella. This will soften the light emitted from your flash.

Umbrellas are cheap, portable and light. They are easy to use, but for better control of the light, consider using a softbox instead.

A photography studio umbrella
Studio umbrellas are a cheap and simple way to modify your light. Photo by PublicDomainPictures.

There is less risk of stray light if you use a softbox, plus you can add a grid to it, to constrain the light even more. A grid is a honeycomb metal grid, which again, fits over the flash to direct the light.

A beauty dish is usually used in portraiture or fashion photography. It is a disc that wraps around the flash to produce a concentrated source of light and gives a round catchlight in the subject’s eyes.

A Diffuser helps you soften the light of your flash so that you get soft shadows and even skin tones. Here’s an example.

The photo on the left was taken without a diffuser, one on the right taken with Gary Fong Origami Flash Diffuser

A snoot is a tube that fits over the flash to direct the light.

Finally, consider a large 5-in-1 reflector. Reflectors are often used as a basic fill light, to lift shadows. 5-in-1 reflectors have 5 different surfaces:

  1. White;
  2. Silver;
  3. Gold;
  4. Translucent; and
  5. Black.

White, Silver and Gold surfaces affect the temperature of the light bounced back. For example, the gold surface gives a warmer light.

A 5-in-1 photography reflector
A 5-in-1 reflector like the Fotodiox Pro, above, is a great addition to your kit.

The Black surface is usually used to block light reaching the subject from a particular direction. The translucent surface diffuses the light, similar to umbrellas. We recommend the Fotodiox Pro 5-in-1 reflector.

4. Light Bracket

Light brackets are indispensable pieces of kit and allow you to tilt the flash up and down when it is on a light stand.

Also called swivel hot shoe mounts, these will allow you to attach light modifiers, such as umbrellas and softboxes.

A swivel support for three photography flash units
Light bracket with swivel support for three flash units. The hole in the middle is for mounting the shaft of umbrellas and softboxes.

Some flash supports even allow you to group together up to three-speed lights. This is great if you have to work with weak GN flashes or you are using large modifiers.

5. Batteries

Speedlights rely on batteries to power them. The most common models use 4 AA batteries, so I strongly advise you to purchase good, rechargeable ones.

In my experience, the Panasonic Eneloop Pro batteries are good and last a long time.

Conclusion

We hope we have illuminated you as to how simple flash photography can be.

Follow our tips and experiment with artificial light to boost your photography skills and your creativity. Flash photography need never scare you again.

Disclaimer: Our reviews are based on personal experience and extensive research by qualified photographers. We pride in keeping these reviews unbiased. Products may contain affiliate links from which we earn a small commission without any additional cost to you. Your support funds our research as well as PhotoBlog.com platform.

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