Flash Photography for Beginners

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Learning your flash is just as important in photography as learning the camera functions.  There will be a time in any photographer’s day where additional, artificial light will be needed for a shoot.  This is where, external or on camera flash will be required. 

These days flash units of any brand are becoming just as complicated as the DSLR cameras.  However, do not be intimidated.  Once you know the basics, you will be able to master your flash in no time. 

In order to learn your flash, the 1st thing you need to understand is that, regardless of brand, function and power, any flash (external light source) will affect your picture and what you see through the viewfinder.  Having said that, just as a flash set up will affect the photo taken by your DSLR, the DSLR set up will also affect the flash and its settings. Therefore, you need to learn and understand both so that your pictures come out perfectly exposed.  

Back to the basics, as we all know an added flash, puts more or additional light on your subject.  When done correctly you can manipulate the ISO and shutter speed and achieve a much cleaner image.

To understand how your flash works and how it affects the image, the best is to learn to shoot in manual mode.  When you understand how the flash works in conjunction with shutter speed and aperture you can then, gain control of the shot and make it look exactly how you want it.

There are a few things that you need to understand when shooting with flash.

  • The first is sync speed.  Sync speed refers to the fastest shutter speed you can have in your camera when the sensor is exposed at the shutter release.  The way a shutter works is having one shutter that exposes the sensor to light and another that covers it up.  These may be mechanical or electronic.  At certain shutter speeds the rear shutter will start to close before the front curtain has finished opening which will result in having part of the shot dark and the other part exposed for the flash which will be lighter.  All this however, seem a little counter intuitive because you logic says the faster the shutter speed the more likely the flash is to fill that shorter exposure time but due to the way the shutter works it limits the fastest shutter speed that you can use which then is actually a lot slower than the duration of the flash.  To correct this, we can use a function called high speed sync where, it enables you to shoot with much faster shutter speeds.  However, since this will be a little advanced, it will be covered in another article.

There are several ways to find the sync speed of your camera.  One of the most popular and obvious is to just Google it.   The second is to take the same test shots with several different settings.  Such as, one at 1/100th of a second, then one at 1/150th of a second, then one at 1/180th and so on. Once you see the black strip on your image appearing, you know that you’ve gone over the sink speed.  That is when you just bring the settings back to the shutter speed where you don’t see any black strip.  Make a note of this shutter speed so that you don’t ever take the shutter speed faster than the sync speed. 

  • Flash light is a filler.  In order to get a good balance of light, in our opinion, the best is to balance the flash and ambient light in your camera and in turn, in your image.  Basically, break your light into ambient light and flashlight.  Later, depending on how the image comes out and your style and preference, you may want to reduce or increase the ambient light.  The same applies to the flash. When shooting in ambient light, always keep in mind, your shutter speed is much slower than the duration of the flash.  Therefore, think of it as just controlling your ambient light because no matter how slow or fast the shutter speed is with relation to the sync speed, it won’t be as fast as the flash.  Hence, whenever the shutter is open it will take in all of the flash, light.   But the longer you leave your exposure the more ambient light you’ll let into the camera. Also remember, with ISO you’re changing the application of the signal from the sensor, so these control the overall exposure of your photograph.   

  • Then we have the flash power settings. These come in fractions 1/1 being full power 1/2 being half power, 1/4 being quarter power and so on. Keep in mind, the lower the power the longer the batteries will last and the recycle time will be quicker. Another thing to take into consideration is that for each fraction change that you make in the power of the flash you change the flash brightness by one stop so 1/4 to 1/2 would be the same as F 5.6 to F4 or ISO 100 to ISO 200 and 1/4 to 1/8 on the flash would be the same as F 5.6 to F8 or ISO 100 to ISO 50.  As for shutter speed, so long as you are below the sync speed, the shutter speed has no bearing. We encourage you to use the flash in manual mode as long as you understand the relationship between stops of light and you are familiar with aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

If you have things moving fast through your frame the closer to full power on your flash unit the longer the duration of the flash, so somethings moving fast through your shot are more likely to blur.  Don’t worry too much about this for now just know that if your subject starts blurring due to motion when you’re using a flash, you may have to reduce the power which will reduce the duration of the flash. Do remember to increase your aperture or ISO to compensate for this decrease in flash power.

Most flashes also have a zoom function which tend to go from about 24 millimeters to around about 100 to 105 millimeters.   All this is does is widening or focusing that light head. You don’t have to worry too much about this for now just make sure that the zoom follows what zoom you’re using on your camera.  For example, if you’re shooting with a 24 millimeter lens make sure it’s at 24 millimeters, if you’re shooting at 70 make sure the zoom on the flash is at 70.

A quick tip, to get much better light from your flash instantly is to tip the head of the light up towards the ceiling. As long as you’ve got a white ceiling it’ll give you a really nice light. This will bounce the flash, light off the ceiling making the flash a much bigger light source and making the light a lot softer. Keep in mind this technique, may dissipate the intensity so you may have to increase the flash power if needed. Then you want to play around with your shutter speed and flash power to get the right ratio between the two sources of light. Once you’ve got this you can adjust your aperture to get a good overall exposure and this is where personal taste comes into play. You might like more flash or you may prefer more ambient light but knowing how to change each light source is critical to get what you want. If you want more ambient light, lower your shutter speed.  If you want less ambient light then increase your shutter speed. You just need to make sure when increasing your shutter speed you don’t go faster than the sync speed. If you want just the flash to be brighter, just increase the flash power.  If you want the flash to be darker, then decrease its power. This way, very quickly you can dial in your settings by just thinking of shutter speed for ambient light and flash.


It does take a while to get your head around this, but once you do you’ll be able to dial in those settings really quickly and then you’ll have ultimate control over your flash and ambient light, and be able to get really consistent results that you wouldn’t do in maybe an auto mode or TTL mode.  

Keep in mind, this is just an introduction to flash photography but if you understand these basic principles, you’ll be well on your way to getting good photos with flash.  Then, the next thing to think about is how you use the flash head to disperse that light. Obviously, if you have it pointing directly at your subject, it will be a really harsh, hard light, because that light source is really small. If you have one of these flash units with a movable head, what you want to try and do is bounce it off different surfaces in the room that you are in, as long as the surface is are not black they will bounce that light back and they’ll normally create a much bigger softer light.

Now these are just the basics but there are many more aspects to flash photography. For instance you can bounce the light using soft boxes, you can use umbrellas, you can use really big soft boxes, or if you want to be more creative,  you can have a remote system of firing the flash off camera by angling the flash compared to the angle that you are shooting at. On top of all of this, you can also use multiple flash heads in a single shot. Therefore, there is so much to learn.  Just make sure you master the basics mentioned above and the rest is just an add on.

Remember, the more you shoot, the more you will become a master of your equipment and create stunning images.

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