Most beginner photographers start their journey using only natural light.  As they progress and develop their style, some choose to learn and master flash photography, while others choose to refine and perfect the natural light aesthetic.  While there is no “right” or “wrong” path, a strong understanding of flash photography is important to have, even for photographers with styles defined as “natural light” or “bright and airy.” A full understanding of flash gives a photographer full control over a scene, regardless of the weather or ambient lighting conditions.  That is NOT to say that all photographers MUST use flash, but rather that they should have the knowledge and expertise to use it when doing so would create a better image or an image more in line with their creative vision.

Moreover, flash photography does not have to be intimidating. To help, we’ve compiled 9 helpful tips from our Lighting 101 workshop to use as your guide to flash photography, starting from how to use and operate a speedlight to full creative control of your flash.  The goal of this guide is for you to walk away with a sound understanding of flash photography that you can use to build upon with experience and practice.

Here is the outline of this camera flash guide:

  1. Realize Why You Need Flash
  2. Understand the Difference between TTL vs. Manual Flash
  3. Learn the 5 Most Common Light Patterns
  4. Choose Your Quality of Light
  5. Balance Flash with Ambient Light
  6. Memorize The Inverse Square Law (Flash Power)
  7. Understand Bounce Flash vs. Direct Flash
  8. Use Flash Modifiers
  9. Understand Creative vs. Corrective White Balance

Step 1: Realize Why You Need Flash

After a certain point, natural light simply just isn’t enough. Here are 5 of our top reasons as to why you should use flash::

  • Control/Modify Light: while the sun is a powerful key light source, it can be difficult to try and modify such a large light source and flash allows you to do that.
  • Control the Amount of Light: when you’ve lost your natural sunlight there is only so much you can push your camera to retain the information in the image and this is where flash comes in to assist.
  • Control Direction of Light: we can time our shoots around sunrise and sunset but what happens when you are forced to shoot in the peak afternoon sun or late at night? Using OCF allows you to change the angle and direction of your light source freely.
  • Control the Quality of Light: for the majority of the day, the sun is a harsh light source with only a few ways to modify it to make it softer. Flash gives you the opportunity to create the exact quality of light with flash modifiers like MagMod.
  • Control the Color of Light: this is where the creativity of flash trumps the power of the sun, especially when working indoors and having to bounce your flash to combat the nasty tungsten lighting we find in most rooms.

Step 2: Understand the Difference Between TTL vs. Manual Flash

When it comes to photography as a professional, you want control & precision. You don’t want your camera making decisions for you because it makes it hard to replicate settings, figure out how to troubleshoot, or even give you creative control. Let’s understand the difference between TTL and Manual Flash:

  • TTL – The flash takes a reading and makes its best guess.  The flash fires a pre-flash, which takes a measurement of the light reading, and then fires the flash at the power level that it thinks will properly expose the image. The biggest pro is that it’s automated and does the thinking for you, but it comes with a whole list of cons which is why we prefer manually controlling our flash.
  • Manual – The photographer controls the exact power.   At the end of the day, we want full control and precision. We want every one of our shots to be equal in exposure so that way when we get into post-production, we can apply one set of development settings to it and be done.

More Information: Watch this quick minute tutorial using Manual Flash to create soft light!

Step 3: Learn the 5 Most Common Light Patterns

  • profoto lighting modifiers
    From left to right: Flat Lighting, Butterfly Lighting, Loop Lighting, Rembrandt Lighting, Split Lighting. For more information watch this episode of Slice of Pye.

    Flat Light: Flat lighting faces directly into the subject from the angle of the lens. Flat lighting is the least dramatic lighting pattern because it casts the least amount of shadows on the subject’s face.

  • Butterfly Light: comes directly in front of and above the subject’s face. This creates shadows that are directly below the subject’s facial features.
  • Loop Light: it falls right in the middle between flattering flat light to dramatic split light. Loop Light is a nice middle ground where most of the face is still in light but you still have enough shadows to bring in some definition.
  • Rembrandt Light: move your key light around the subject until the shadow of the nose is touching the shadow of the face. This primarily leaves one side of the face in shadow but keeps a triangle of light on the cheekbone and eye.
  • Split Light: Set up the key light 90° directly to the right or left side of the subject’s face. The line separating light and shadow will be down the middle of the nose and chin. This creates the most dramatic light and the least flattering light to use.

More Information: Read this article to better understand how to use light direction and light quality to take better portraits.

Step 4: Choose Your Quality of Light

beginners guide to flash photography
Light qualities – starting from left to right: Soft, Hard, Diffused, and Specular. Learn the differences below.

There is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to the artistic world of photography, however, there are looks that do tend to go better for specific situations. Let’s discuss the differences between the 4 different qualities of light.

  • Hard Light: A light that qualifies as soft or hard is quite simple, it is the transition from light to shadow on a subject.
  • Soft Light: has a gentle transition from light to shadow.
  • Diffused Light: A light that has its reflective qualities removed is called diffused light. When this light hits a subject, the reflective light does not bounce back into the camera. Showcasing a soft and diffused light quality
  • Specular Light: A light that retains its reflective qualities. When this light hits a subject, the reflective light bounces back into the camera. This light has stronger highlights and stronger contrasts.

More Information: We recently did a Slice of Pye Episode on the Profoto Instagram covering this topic – you can watch the full episode here!

Step 5: Balance Flash with Ambient Light

The balancing act is simple in theory: lower flash power combined with longer shutter speeds offer a more natural look, and higher flash power with shorter shutter speeds will create something more dramatic looking that no one would ask, “did they light that?”. Look at the scene in which you’ll be shooting and think of how you want the background to look, without paying as much attention to how the subject will be exposed, again working within the parameters of your camera’s flash sync speed. Once you’ve got that look dialed in, we can go on to the next step – adding the flash.

flash photography
Save this slide is you are struggling with balancing ambient light and flash in your flash photos! It’s a great tool to help you remember what power settings you should dial-in.

When working with flash, your aperture will determine how much of the flash gets to the sensor. This means that if you’ve chosen a wide aperture for your desired background look, you will need less flash power to get your ideal exposure. The power of your flash is determined by your desired look and you can see on the slide from Lighting 101 above, for a natural look you’ll want to decrease flash power and brighten your ambient light exposure.

More Information: Read this article to better understand how to balance ambient exposure with flash.

6. Memorize The Inverse Square Law (Flash Power)

Lighting 101
This slide is taken from Lighting 101 and described the relationship between distance and light intensity.

The Inverse Square Law states that any physical law stating that some physical quantity or strength is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source of that physical quantity.

For example, if you set up your light 1 meter away from your subject and you are getting 100% power flash hitting your subject. You move your light back 1 meter and now you’re 2 meters away. Does that mean you lost half your light, about 50%? It seems to be logical but it’s not the case. You actually lose 75% of your light.

More Information: Check out our Lighting 101 workshop to fully comprehend the Inverse Square Law!

Step 7: Understand Bounce Flash vs. Direct Flash

Bounce flash does not work in every situation, but it provides a great solution for indoor venues with low, neutral or bright ceilings. If the ambient light in the room is an unusual color, such as blue, try using daylight colored light (flash without a gel, temperature set to 5500K) to more naturally light the subjects in the scene. Otherwise, if you use a gel and set the temperature to 3200K, the subjects will look yellow or orange, and after adjusting the white balance in post, the blue lights will turn a deeper shade of blue. Ultimately, gel (or don’t gel) to match the dominant light color in the room.

Direct flash has a very distinct purpose and looks when used correctly. Often times, amateurs point the flash straight forward because they want to fill the face with light in dark situations make the subject look like a deer in headlights. The key here is anything but subtlety. Give the flash enough power to become the main and primary light in the scene. Just watch out not to blow any highlights, especially over the skin.

More Information: Both have their intended uses however, there is almost always a better option than using direct flash so it’s important to understand when it can be used vs. when it shouldn’t be used. Here is a great example of when direct flash is appropriate.

Step 8: Use Flash Modifiers

magmod modifiers
Start modifying your flashes for creative or corrective changes to your light.

While understanding how to use a flash is the first step, modifying it for corrective and creative control will really help perfect the shot. Our favorite flash modifiers on the market are the MagMod flash modifiers. They are great for beginners and give photographers the ability to quickly and easily modify their flash. These are our top 3 favorites:

  • MagSphere: an omnidirectional flash diffuser that gives you the best looking light possible.
  • MagGel: is made of silicone rubber material which holds up to 3 gels. This is great for corrective/creative white balance which you will learn about in the next section.
  • MagGrid: carefully optimized beam pattern provides even light coverage and eliminates unwanted light spill, allowing photographers to capture cleaner and more consistent photographs between shots.

Besides MagMod modifiers, one of the best modifiers to have on you at all times is a shoot-through umbrella. This is a great flash modifier for soft, beautiful light no matter where you are.

Step 9: Understand Creative vs. Corrective White Balance

In photography, there is always room to bend the rules when it comes to the “correct” way to do something. Creatively speaking, there is no “perfect” way to set your White Balance. Every type of light has a color and the best way to achieve the right color in almost every situation is actually the WB setting that may seem the most intimidating and yet is actually the most simple: Kelvin White Balance.

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This slide represents Kelvin White Balance settings for corrective white balance.
This slide represents Kelvin White Balance settings for corrective white balance.
This slide represents Kelvin White Balance settings for creative white balance.
This slide represents Kelvin White Balance settings for creative white balance.

Take your camera inside and outside, and practice dialing the Kelvin up and down until the image looks right. (of course, if you want to cheat, you can check the chart we’ve provided!) In no time at all, you’ll start to remember which numbers correspond to which shooting conditions. A lot of indoor light is somewhere around 3000-4000K. Daylight is around 5000-6000K. Deep shade, or after-sunset light, is 7000K+. In no time at all, this will become second nature!

More Information: Check out our Ultimate Guide to Creative Use of White Balance.

We hope you enjoyed our Beginner’s Guide to Flash Photography! If you’ve mastered the foundation of flash photography be sure to check out our more advanced off-camera flash courses to learn creative tips and techniques to up your flash game or purchase our comprehensive Flash Photography Training System which includes Lighting 101, 201, 3, and 4!