Flash photography basics – where is the light coming from?

When you’re starting to learn how to improve your flash photography, the way ahead can be daunting. But with a few small changes, you can make it much more simple for yourself.

If you want to improve the quality of the light in your pictures, you’ll need to improve the quality of the light source. Using a popup flash is a last resort. You can improve on it a little, but your best best is to get a “proper” flash gun.

You’ll do much better if you invest as much as you can on a flash gun which can be used when it’s detached from the camera. Either a flash gun which you can connect to the camera’s hot shoe with a cable; one which has an optical sensor; one which you can control by the camera’s own remote control system; or one to which you can attach a third-party “radio trigger” receiver.

By preference, you should get the flash gun to go with your camera: for example, the Nikon SB-910. If you’re on a budget, then a less expensive alternative, like the ones by Yongnuo, will work well too. Make sure you read other users’ reviews online before you choose a flash gun, and be sure not to buy a super-cheap one which will stop working after fifteen minutes’ use. (This happens a lot more often than you would expect.)

Your flash gun should, if possible, have an automatic mode (TTL or Through The Lens metering), and it should definitely have a 360° rotating head. (Left to right, up and down. We call this a “bounce and swivel” head.) This will allow you to make the first leap into better lighting: bouncing your flash.

When you start out learning new technique, you’ll quite possibly have only used either a pop-up flash or a flash gun attached to your camera. You’ve turned it on, taken your picture, and that’s it. The light in this instance is usually coming from the camera, pointed straight at the subject, and fairly direct and unflattering. And thus, the photo is also unflattering.

Stopping the flash from firing straight down the lens of your camera at the subject is the first step on the road to improving your lighting. Using a flash gun with a bounce and swivel head, fitted to the camera, you can point the flash gun away from the subject and at a nearby wall or ceiling. That will make the light from the flash reflect off this surface.

The light will be diffused by the surface and spread out, causing the overall light effect to be softer. Softer is good. Softer is less harsh, and any shadows cast by it will be less defined. In the following photo, I used one flash, on the camera, bounced off the ceiling above the subject. This diffused the light and illuminated the area around him.

Yannick, photographed using a bounced flash technique

By using this technique, the reflected light will pick up the colour of the surface against which it was reflected, so find a neutral surface if you can. White or grey are the best, with white reflecting the most light and therefore the preference.

When using this technique, you’re effectively turning the flash on your camera into an overhead light. This means that the light isn’t shining directly into the subject’s face any more, so you’ll encounter shadows beneath the eyebrows, nose, and chin. That might look a bit odd and will probably mean that there is no pinprick of light in the subject’s eyes: called a catch light. It’s only a small detail, but one which brings life to a face and to a portrait.

To get around this problem, manufacturers have added a little sliver of white plastic to most modern flash guns, which you can extend when using the bounce flash technique. The easiest way to use it is to mount the flash on the camera, point it straight up at the ceiling, and extend the white catch light card on the flash. Hold the camera horizontally, so that the light bounces off the ceiling. The little white card will be illuminated by the flash when it goes off, and you’ll see a tiny reflection of this little card in your subject’s eyes.

Flash catch light