Top 10 Speedlite Tips

TOP 10 Speedlite Tips

#1 Start out with a budget speedlite

Don’t go rushing into flash photography by buying the most expensive equipment just because you’ve seen it being used in YouTube tutorial by your favourite photographer. You are much better off starting out buying a cheaper speedlite and using the rest of the money to buy another speedlite (two will allow you to be more creative) and lighting accessories such as a light stand, bracket, radio triggers, a diffuser/reflector and a selection of modifiers. click to read more

Nobody said that photography was going to be cheap. However, when starting out, you need to prioritise how best to spend your hard-earned money. There is a lot to be said for investing in good quality equipment that is going to last you for years – that’s great if you have the cash and you already have some of the basic equipment but if you’re starting from scratch then it’s probably best to start off with a range of budget equipment that’s going to get the job done. It may not look as good and it may not have all the latest functions but it will allow to learn and develop your skills. At the end of the day the light that comes out of a cheap speedlite is exactly the same as the light that comes out of a top-of-the-range one and if you place it in a softbox to soften the light then no-one is going to be able to tell the difference.

Budget speedlites do have one disadvantage though – they have a tendency to overheat more quickly so you have to remember to slow down and take your time. This will allow you concentrate on other aspects of your photography such as image composition or posing the subject. When working outside in the rain you may need to put your budget speedlite in a clear plastic bag to protect it from the rain or dust and you will need to take more care with it as it’s less likely to survive a fall if your light stand blows over.

When your are more experienced and your work has reached a high standard you can then start charging for your time and skill and use some of this income to buy better quality equipment as and when you need it. The expensive stuff may not improve the quality of your photos but it will probably be more reliable, last longer and have a few more functions that will save you time and allow you to shoot quicker.

#2 Set the ambient light exposure first

The main reason why most people go a bit crazy when starting out using flash is that they don’t understand that with flash photography you now have TWO exposures to think about. You have the ambient light exposure (the background lighting) and now you have the flash exposure. These exposures have to be treated to read more

Ambient light is all the light in a scene that doesn’t come from the flash. Ambient light is usually light from the sun but it could be the light from a nearby street light at night or a table lamp in your house. It makes life simpler if you set the ambient light exposure first and then set your flash exposure second. i.e. you turn the flash off and set your camera’s exposure for the naturally occurring light first to give the exposure that you want. When you are happy with how the background looks like you can then turn the speedlite on. You can then set the power of the flash, increasing or decreasing its power to achieve the desired exposure on the subject.

When working in a studio environment you may want to eliminate the exposure from the ambient light completely. You can do this by setting your ISO to 100, your aperture to f/8 and your shutter speed to 1/125 second. This usually does the trick. Take a photo without turning the flash on and it should be completely dark. If it’s not you may need to block out more of the ambient light (draw the curtains or close the blinds). You could also increase your shutter speed to your camera’s maximum sync speed (typically 1/200 sec or 1/250 sec) or reduce your aperture to f/11 or f/16. Once you have eliminated all the ambient light from your scene then you can introduce the flash. This way you will know that all the light in the final image is coming from just from the speedlite and you have full control over it’s power, direction and quality (hard or soft light).

Ambient light exposure.
When not working in a studio environment the ambient light is usually the light coming from the sun and a lot of the time we want to include it in our final image since it’s illuminating the background. It’s the exposure for this background light that we want to set first before we introduce any light from our flash.

In manual mode you need to choose your aperture, shutter speed and ISO to give you the required background exposure. If I was taking a photo of a model on a beach on a sunny day I might choose an aperture of f/16 , a shutter speed of 1/125 sec and an ISO of 100 (see the Sunny 16 Rule to get a good estimate of exposure). Note that I’ve kept my shutter speed below the camera’s flash sync speed. This should give you a reasonable exposure. You might like the photo just the way it is without having to use flash. The final effect will depend on the position of the sun. If the sun is directly behind the model then the model’s face will be in dark shadow and underexposed – not always a great look. If the sun comes from the side of the model you will get hard shadows across the face that don’t look great either or one side of the body will be bright and the other side very dark. If the sun is in front of the model and shining directly into the model’s face the model may be squinting or looking uncomfortable so you’re not going to achieve a great photo unless the model’s wearing sunglasses. As you can see there may be many reasons why the image might not look that great. A flash can be introduced to help lighten up some of these dark shadows. The flash reduces the hard contrast and softens the shadows. This type of flash is know as fill in flash because the sun still remains the primary source of light in the image (the main light) and the flash from the speedlite is just filling in the dark shadows (the fill light).

The flash exposure.
If you turn your speedlite on and set it to manual flash power you can control your flash exposure by increasing or decreasing the power of the flash. You can control the power either directly on the flash itself or from within your camera menu if you have a compatible camera that allows you to do this. If you set the power to it’s lowest setting of 1/128 power and take the photo of the model on the sunny beach then the image is unlikely to look much different because the light from the flash is probably isn’t going to be strong enough. More than likely you’ll need to increase your flash power to around 1/4 power to see any effect of filling in the shadows. The actual power will depend on the make of speedlite that you are using, the distance of the flash from the subject and the effect that you are trying to create but you can see that having set the initial exposure for the ambient light you then have to set the flash power independently to achieve the desired flash exposure on the model.

#3 Understand hard light and soft light

Your speedlite is a small light source and produces hard shadows and contrasty light which can show up wrinkles and bad skin, obviously not ideal for most types of portraiture. Your photography will dramatically improve when you learn how to make your light source bigger to produce more flattering light. You can place your speedlite in a light modifier such as a soft box to soften the light. There are literally hundreds of different light modifiers on the market that you can choose from. You can also achieve softer, more directional light by bouncing the light off a nearby white ceiling or wall – see #4 Bounce the Flash below. Knowing the difference between hard and soft light, how to create it and when best to it them will dramatically improve your photography.

#4 Bounce the flash

Pointing your on-camera flash at a person and taking a photo is rarely going to make you a popular photographer unless you are going for the “paparazzi” look. Angle your flash head to bounce the light off a white ceiling or nearby white wall to create a softer more flattering light. Using a flash diffuser dome or bounce card can also help. If you don’t have a suitable wall nearby you can have an assistant hold a white reflector or if you don’t have an assistant you can place a white reflector on a light stand. Anything is usually better than just pointing the on-camera flash directly at the subject.

#5 Get you speedlite off-camera

Using a flash on-camera can be convenient if you are on your own, moving around a lot or are just using the flash as a subtle fill-in light. However on-camera flash pointing directly at your subject usually produces flat light with little or no shadows. This can often look a bit boring as you lose all of the depth and texture of a subject. The small shadows that direct light do create, for example under the chin, can be harsh and contrasty. If this is the effect that you want then that’s great but to create more interesting shadows and styles you need to get your speedlite off your camera. Being able to control and position an off-camera flash will raise your photography to a whole new level.

#6 Use radio wireless communication

When getting your speedlite off your camera you want to avoid the hassle of using long cables which are easy to trip over and inconvenient over long distances. Use a radio wireless system instead, they are cheap and reliable and can fire your speedlite up to 100m away. This saves you from having to walk over to the speedlite to change the settings. Depending on your camera and speedlite set-up some radio triggers allow you to control speedlite power output, E-TTL II metering, high speed sync and even adjust the zoom setting. Radio wireless allows you to position your speedlite out of sight of the master transmitter/speedlite i.e. behind walls and within soft boxes. Radio wireless is far superior to the older style optical wireless form of communication which older speedlites used requiring a clear line of sight between master and slave flashes.

#7 You’ll learn quicker with manual exposure

Auto settings are great when you are in a rush or when the distance between the light and the subject is continuously changing. They are also great when you get stressed and have a brain melt down and you need the camera to take over. However auto settings aren’t very good when you are trying to learn about photography and lighting since you are leaving the hard work to the computers “brain” to decide what settings to choose. If you want to understand what’s going on you need to take back control and set your camera and speedlite to manual. Only once you feel confident in manual can you flip to auto mode when you think the situation calls for it.

#8 Use 1/4 power and below

At 1/4 power your flash recycle time will be almost instant, your speedlite won’t overheat as quickly and your speedlite’s life span will be improved. click to read more

It’s fine to shoot with your flash on full power from time to time when you need that extra boost but try not to shoot continuously on full power or your speedlite will soon start to heat up and, if you are lucky enough to have a overheat protection function, it will probably cut out and you’ll have to wait half an hour to cool down before you can use it again. The number of full power shots you can take will depend on the brand. With Canon’s 600EX II-RT you should be able to take around 70 or 80 full power flashes. However with cheaper speedlites you might start to have problems after just 15 or 20 flashes. Without overheat protection the first signs of a problem may be a nasty burning smell as your speedlite starts to go into melt down.

At 1/4 power you will also find that the recycle time between flashes is much quicker than at full power, in fact almost instant. At full power you could be waiting between 2.5 and 5 seconds between shots depending on the brand. This is really going to slow a photoshoot down when often a model will be moving between poses every second or so. Using 1/4 power and below will also extend the life of your speedlite considerably.

Using four speedlites set at 1/4 power will give you the same power output as one speedlite at full power but your recycle time for the four speedlites will be much much faster (easily less than a quarter of the recycle speed of just the one on full power). Therefore if you are on a low budget and you plan to do a lot of studio portraits and indoor fashion shoots but you still want to be highly mobile you may want to consider buying four cheaper speedlites rather than a single top of the range speedlite. Of course if you plan only to do studio work you are probably better off just buying a more powerful studio light that can be plugged into a wall socket rather than run off batteries but you will lose the portability.

#9 E-TTL: your camera’s light meter just wants everything to be grey

Hopefully before starting to use speedlites you have already started to master natural light photography and already know how your camera’s light meter works. Your camera’s built-in light-meter wants to make everything a mid-tone grey colour and that includes your flash exposure as well. click to read more

Basically the camera’s light meter measures light reflected from a scene. The multiple light meter sensors in the camera take measurements throughout the scene and calculate an average exposure reading. The camera’s light meter “thinks” the exposure is correct when this average brightness falls right in the middle of your camera’s histogram i.e it wants the average exposure to be middle grey halfway between black and white. This middle grey is also referred to as 18% grey since it has a reflectance value of 18% even though it is located 50% between black and white. If you set your camera to auto and take a photo of a black subject (such as a groom in a black tuxedo) the camera will render it as grey. If you take a photo of a completely white subject (such as a bride in a white wedding dress) the resulting image will still end up looking like grey. When a very dark subject or a very bright subject fills the image the camera gets it wrong. However if you take a photo of the bride and groom side by side the camera will average the black tuxedo and the white dress scene to give a correctly exposed image. The groom’s tux will look black and the bride’s dress will look white. (the camera tries to turn the black tux to grey by increasing the exposure but it also tries to turn the white dress to grey by decreasing exposure and the two cancel each other out to give a correct exposure).

[to see this effect put your camera settings on auto and just take a photo of a white sheet of paper and then take a photo of a black sheet of paper. Both images will look the same – they’ll look like a grey sheet of paper. Now put the two sheets side by side and compose you shot so that the white sheet fills half the image and the black sheet fills the other half. The white sheet will look white and the black sheet will look black. Now you will start to understand how the camera “sees” a scene and sets exposure.

When using flash you have to consider two exposures: ambient light exposure and flash exposure. If the speedlite is set to automatic E-TTL II mode then the flash exposure is measured separately to the ambient exposure. When you press the shutter button the camera takes an ambient light reading and calculates the exposure settings to give an average grey scene as described above. This happens when the camera is in full-auto exposure or semi-auto exposure such as aperture-priorly mode. The camera tells the speedlite to send out a pre-flash which is then measured by the camera’s sensors and it then calculates what flash power to use to turn the subject grey. The camera’s computer then compares the ambient and flash exposures and sets the “correct” ambient exposure and flash power output to achieve an average grey exposure. Using flash you will have just the same exposure problems as discussed above as the camera will try to make bright subjects grey and dark subjects grey. If the final result is not to your liking then you can change the ambient exposure using the exposure compensation button and change the flash brightness using the flash exposure compensation button. Overall modern day E-TTL II is a very clever system and has been programmed to ignore areas of high reflectivity in an image such as mirrors in the background or watches or jewellery but it’s still useful to understand that when photographing subjects that are either predominantly black or predominently white it still makes errors as it wants to make them a nice mid-tone grey.

#10 High speed sync for large apertures outdoors

When taking a photo of a subject outdoors on a sunny day and you want to use a large aperture setting such as f/2.8 to make the background nicely out of focus you will find that you need to use really fast shutter speeds. Typical values may be around 1/3200 second (see Sunny 16 Rule). This can pose problems when working with flash. Your speedlite will only work normally below your camera’s maximum sync speed which is typically between 1/200 second and 1/250 second. To check your camera’s max sync speed read your manual or visit our page Canon Sync Speeds). When using flash with shutter speeds faster than your camera sync speed you need to turn on High Speed Sync. click to read more

If your speedlite doesn’t have high speed sync then you will need to add neutral density filters to the front of your lens to make the whole scene much darker, dark enough to bring your shutter speed down to your camera’s sync speed. Neutral density filters are just like adding dark sunglasses to the front of your lens. However they also means that the flash power needs to be set much higher and when you look through the lens the scene is also much darker and more difficult to focus easily.

High Speed Sync (HSS) allows you to work with shutter speeds above your camera sync speed even up to shutter speeds as high as 1/8000 second. This all sounds great but there is a catch. As you increase the shutter speed the power of the flash rapidly decreases. This is because when using HSS the speedlite fires a series of rapid flashes (like a strobe light) rather than just one flash. Because the flashes are so close together they don’t have time to fully recycle and the flash output is less affective the higher the shutter speed. This is why you may have to group 3 or 4 flashes together to get the desired result especially if you are working in strong sunshine and using the speedlites as the main light to illuminate the subject (overpowering the sun) rather than just using the speedlite to provide a fill-light to soften the shadows caused by the harsh sunlight.

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