Introduction to Flash Photography & Speedlites | Including off Camera Flash

Learn the basics of flash photography Ireland with Gerard Conneely Photography

The Basics of Flash Photography

Flash photography uses light emitted from your cameras flash or add on speedlite (external add on flash unit) to add light to a scene. With a DSLR or even your smart phone camera, you pop up or turn on your flash option to add flash to illuminate your subject. When starting out in photography, we often presume the only real reason we add flash is to brighten up a dark space so the camera can take a well exposed photo. And while this is true, the limitations of the cameras pop up flash may produce results that are less than desirable. In general we could say the darker the area we take a photo in, the more flash power the camera needs to emit to brighten up a scene. In such cases, the light emitting from the flash becomes the main source of light and the images taken often have a washed out look & feel to them. When shooting in indoor areas, this often results in unflattering harsh shadows being visible behind our subjects.

Apart from brightening up a somewhat dark scene, there are many more reasons why we use flash in photography. In my Full Day Photography Workshops for Beginners Course attendees are often supprised to learn that I typically use flash photography outdoors as well as indoors. Where possible, I teach beginners to avoid using flash, especially in indoor locations. With the right camera lens, photos can be taken in relatively dark locations without the requiement to use flash at all. As you'll read further on, the pop up flash on cameras are quite limited for a new of reasons. The best way to learn photography is to understand how to take photos in all lighting conditions without flash. Once you have mastered that, then learning to master flash photography should be your next goal. 

Reasons to use flash in photography

There are a number of reasons to use flash in photography. Without getting too technical, we use flash to a certain extent to brighten up a dark scene. We use flash outdoors to brighten up the shadow areas on our subjects faces. Using flash outdoors is known as "Fill Flash" and it is typically used to add a hint of light to remove shadows under people's eyes and add a little pop to a photo. Taking photos outdoors while using flash as fill, is one of the times when it's acceptable to use the flash on your camera and point it directly at your subject. In these cases, the light emitted from the flash is quite faint in comparison to the available light so it works well to add a hint of light to remove shadow areas and clean up an image. Also, in most cases when using flash outdoors, there are no close by background surfaces for shadows to show up on.

Flash may also be used to add depth & dimension to your photos, to shape portraits with flattering light, to add mood or dramatic effect to images. Flash can be used to freeze motion in images as well as to allow us to shoot with specific shutter speeds while still maintaining a correct exposure by supplementing a scene with additional light. It can also be used to balance the light levels in one part of a scene with the exposure of another part of a scene. 

An intoduction to light in photography

The single most important factor we can consider when taking photos is the lighting. Bad lighting in a photo can ruin an otherwise good photo opportunity. When it comes to lighting in photography, more light does not always equate to better light. When adding light to a photo whether it be via the flash mounted on our camera on a remotely triggered speedlite unit which is not attached to the camera, also known as "off camera flash", there are a number of lighting factors to consider. Firstly, lets review "Quality of Light", a small light source will produce very vivid harsh shadows which are typically very unflattering in photos. The flash head which emits light from the pop up flash on a DSLR camera is very small, thus that small light source will produce very harsh shadows when used in relatively dark areas, like indoors for example. Remember, the more light we add to a scene, the more obvious the shadow areas may become, this is especially true when using the pop up flash on a camera due to the small size of the light source. Take the sun for example, the sun is a massive light source, but due to its distance from earth it is a "relatively" small light source and thus it produces a hard quality of light that easily casts shadows.

Small Light Source == Harsh shadows (also known as hard light)

As the size of a light source increase relative to our subject, the softer and more pleasing the light becomes and shadows being to dissipate. Photographing someone next to a large window for example, would produce soft directional light without any harsh shadows. As a rule of thumb, the larger the light source, the softer the light becomes. 

Large Light Source == Less vivid shadows and more pleasing light (also known as soft light) 

Secondly, the importance of the "Direction of Light". One of the main reasons why pop up flash is also so unflattering is due to the direction of light. Light coming from a pop up flash is coming from the same angle as the camera, thus the light on your subject will be flat and generally washed out looking. We strive to light our subjects with non-direct light, this creates depth & dimension in photograph's. Everyday our eyes view the world with non-direct light from the sun and we have become accustomed to viewing the world with directional light. It's often the case then that when we look at photos which have an overbearing amount of direct flat pop up flash light in the images, our minds say "ah there is something just not right with that photo" or at a basic level, they just do not look natural nor professional.

The trick to taking a photo with flash is so that the person viewing the photo should not be able to identify if flash was used. Flash light should supplement the light in a scene, not dominate it.

Using bounce flash to get correct exposure

Buying your first speedlite | add on flash unit

So its safe to assume that in general the results from using our on camera pop up flash are not ideal. A significiant upgrade would be to purchase an external add on flash, known as a speedlite. Speedlites can be mounted onto your camera hotshoe on the top of your camera and provide a number of advantages over the standard pop up flash. There are much more powerful with the main advantage being the ability to swivvel the flash head to allow you to direct light in different directions, this will allow you to perform bounce flash photography, more on this later. In addition, you can zoom the flash head on the speedlite to control the spread of light as well as trigger them off camera so you can play with the direction of light as well as fire multiple flashes off camera at the same time.


Speedlites vary in price & brand as well as features, below we will review what to look out for when buying your first speedlite as well as cover the basics of their operation. 
Nikon Speedlites - flash units for beginners learning photography

Types of speedlites and how they work

When your camera takes a photo (without flash) the cameras shutter speed, aperture & ISO are set at certain values in order to obtain the correct exposure in your image. (We use the term exposure in photography to indicate how bright an image is). If you add flash to an already properly exposed image, the result would be an "over exposed" image or an image that is to bright. So when we take photos using flash, we typically start off with a baseline exposure that is a little darker that what we want, then we add light via our flash or speedlite to make up the difference and produce a final image with a proper exposure. In other situations, we start with a proper exposure, for example taking a group photo outdoors, and we add just a hint of fill flash to brighten up shadow areas in the photo. How much light we add to each scene can be adjusted quickly and easily via the controls on the speedlite itself or via the camera controls.

There are two main types of speedlites, automatic (also known as TTL speedlites) and manual speedlites. As you can guess, with a manual speedlite, you have to manually set the power output, this can sound a little daunting for beginners and typical use cases for manual speedlites would be in the studio, when you need to maintain the same level of flash output for a set of images or when using off camera flash as I tend to use a lot when lighting interiors etc. With an automatic or TTL speedlite, the camera and flash units work together to decide how much power to output in order to give you a properly exposed image. This is useful for event photography when lighting changes very quickly and you need the assistance of the TTL system to output varying degrees of light as you move through differently lit areas. Automatic speedlites can also operate in manual mode so you have the best of both worlds. TTL stands for "Through The Lens" and it refers to a camera & flash metering system that allows the camera and flash unit to automatically adjust the flash power output as required. 

Recommended speedlites for beginners 

If you own a Nikon camera, you may purchase a Nikon speedlite, if you own a Canon camera, you may purchase a Canon version. There are also third party brands such as Yongnuo, Metz, Nissin & Cactus. For manual speedlites, I highly recommend Yongnuo for their inexpensive pricing & ease of use. For automatic TTL speedlites I tend to recommend same brand, as in purchase a Canon flash for your Canon and Nikon branded for your Nikon DSLR etc. You can expect to pay more for the Nikon & Canon speedlites due to the TTL functionality and other brand enabled features like the Nikon Creative Lighting System for remote optical triggering of off camera flashes or the Canon built in wireless off camera triggering and commander modes. Further on, I'll wrap up with my explanation of off camera triggers and recommendations based on the ones I have used.

Where to buy speedlites in Galway | Buying speedlites online

While I'm all for buying Irish and supporting the local economy, you will find better value by not buying your speedlite in Galway. I find the best value retailers in Ireland are & in Dublin. I also use for many of my photography equipment purchases.

For Nikon branded TTL units I recommend the Nikon SB700 or the Nikon SB910 speedlite units. The both have pretty much the same feature set but the SB910 is more expensive so unless you plan to shoot event photography, I'd recommend the SB700 which is an excellent speedlite. The main difference bring slightly more flash output power on the SB910. 

For Canon branded TTL units I recommend the Canon 430EX ii (similiar to the Nikon SB700), the Canon 580EX ii, it's big brother and similar to the Nikon SB910 or the recently released Canon 600EX-RT with built-in wireless triggering. For beginners the Canon 430EX ii is ideal. 

For non-branded TTL speedlites which will be a lot less expensive without sacrificing on quality or features, I'd recommend the Yongnuo 568EX ii TTL speedlite which can be purchased in either the Nikon or Canon option.

For manual units, I'd recommend the Yongnuo YN 560 iii which has a built-in wireless receiver for the inexpensive Yougnuo 603 triggers.

Off camera flash | firing your speedlites remotely via wireless triggers

Below you can see some of the wireless triggers I use to fire my speedlites remotely when they are off the camera. Triggering the speedlites to fire remotely allows me to alter the direction of light and use light modifiers like a softbox or umbrella to increase the size of the light source to change the quality of light to a softer light. I recommend the use of wireless triggers as they do not require line of sight which is required by optical triggers. Optical triggers emit a light pulse to tell the flash units to fire but this method is known to have issues in bright locations and when surfaces block the line of sight from the camera trigger to the speedlite. Wireless triggers resolve both of these issues. 

A beginners guide to using off camera flash speedlites

Types of speedlite wireless triggers & how they work

Just like speedlites operate in manual and automatic modes, the same is true for triggers. A wireless trigger is attached to the hotshoe on your camera and the other receiver is attached to the flash unit. When the camera takes an image, it tells the trigger to fire the remote flash unit. Less expensive triggers operate in manual mode only. For example, the Yongnuo 603 trigger below is a dumb trigger, that means that all it does is tell the speedlite to fire, it does not tell the speedlite how much flash power to emit, that needs to be set of the speedlite itself. If you need more or less power output from the speedlite, you need to make that adjustment on the speedlite itself. Even if your speedlite has automatic TTL capability, it will not be utilised by this trigger. You can still use the manual trigger with a TTL speedlite, but you need to manually adjust the power level on the speedlite by setting it to manual mode.

Wireless speedlite triggers for nikon and canon

Moving up from the Yongnuo 603 trigger is the Cactus V6 trigger, this trigger will work on any camera model with any speedlite model. This trigger is also a manual trigger but it has manual mode with remote power adjustment. This means that while it will not pass automatic TTL information to the remote speedlite, you can remotely change the flash power output level on the flash via the hotshoe trigger itself. This is extremely handy as you do not need to walk over to your remote speedlite to change the power, it can all be controlled quickly and easily from the on camera trigger.

Moving up again in features and price it the Phottix Oddin triggers. These triggers support manual mode as well as fully automatic TTL modes. This triggering system allows you to operate your off camera flash unit just as if it was attached to your camera. It passes full TTL information to the remote speedlite allowing you to use the automatic features of your speedlite. It also supports HSS or High Speed Sync which is something that is very useful in outdoor situations but outside the scope of this article. The other brand of triggers in this category are the Pocket Wizard TT5/Flex triggers which are quite expensive and have the same feature set as the Phottix Oddin.

Learning to use camera speedlites with flash triggers

Hi, I'm Gerard, an experienced wedding photographer & photography teacher. I photograph weddings throughout Ireland & I'm based in Co. Galway in the west of Ireland.

I'd consider myself to be a people person, I know how to bring out the best in my couples & I take what I do very seriously, but you would never think so when working with me.

I've been photographing weddings for 6 years; my style is very much documentary in nature & I’ve found over the years the best way to capture beautiful moments is to let them occur naturally. Many love stories have unfolded in front of my cameras and it truly is an honour when a couple places their trust in me to document their day.

While some of my couples live only a few miles away, others plan their wedding from abroad & I place great emphasis on taking care of my couples both pre & post wedding. If you like the idea of a photographer who will guide you through each step from the pre-wedding meeting, the day itself & right through to delivering your printed story in an Italian handmade album, I'd love to hear from you...