Why Use Speedlites?
The “Swiss-Army knife” of photographic lighting
Speedlites are the “Swiss-Army knife” of the photographic lighting world. They are relatively small and compact yet can deliver a powerful punch of daylight-balanced light allowing you to take well lit photos whatever the weather. They are powered by batteries making them highly portable. No more tripping over cables and having to rely on finding a power socket. The light emitted from a speedlite is fired in a burst so quick it can “freeze” action and you can take photos of people before they’ve had a chance to blink or screw up their face at the bright light. Overall speedlites are an incredibly useful and versatile bit of kit and can produce some fantastic and natural-looking results when used correctly.
Main light, fill light and accent light.
There are three main ways that we can use speedlites to add light to an scene. We can use the speedlite as the main light source (known as the “main” light or “key” light) or we can just use it to brighten up and fill-in dark shadows in a scene (known as a “fill” light). We can also use a speedlite to highlight a certain area of the image. This is known as an accent light. In portraiture examples of an accent light are when a light is used to highlight the hair making it look shiny and healthy (“hair” light) or to separate a subject from a dark background by lighting the subject from behind to create a glowing edge. This type of light is often referred to as “rim” light or a “kicker” light.
Common examples of when to use a speedlite
We’ve included some common situations below when speedlites can be used to produce some really great results.
#1 STUDIO LIGHTING. Speedlites can be used just like studio lights. The main difference is that they aren’t quite as powerful, don’t recycle as quickly and they run on batteries rather than plugging into a wall socket.
When using a speedlite in a studio we usually place it on a light stand and if you only have just the one flash then you’ll use it as the main light source. In studio photography we try to eliminate the effect that ambient light has on the final image by making the flash from the speedlite a lot brighter than the ambient light. Ambient light is the light coming from other sources such as sunlight coming through the windows or normal room lighting such as wall lights or ceiling lights. We can reduce the effects of the ambient light by covering the windows in black-out material and keeping the room lights low. We can also select camera settings and speedlite power so that only the light from the flash is illuminating the subject. click to read more
In a studio you are in full control of the lighting and additional speedlites can be used to provide fill-lighting, hair-lighting or rim-lighting to obtain the effect that you desire. The speedlites are best controlled using a radio wireless system of communication. Many speedlites have radio receivers built-in while other cheaper and more basic models may require you to buy an external radio receiver. Speedlites for studio lighting can be very basic indeed. You are best shooting in Manual Mode and generally don’t need all the fancy features such as E-TTL (auto exposure), HSS (high speed sync), weather-proofing or even the autofocus (AF) assist lamp. However a radio transmitter equipped with an AF assist beam may be useful if shooting in low light conditions.
#2 OUTDOOR FILL-IN FLASH (SUN TO THE SIDE). When taking photos outdoors on a sunny day we often see hard shadows falling across the subject’s face especially when the sun is to the side of the subject. Hard shadows are shadows that have a very defined edge where the light changes from bright to dark very abruptly resulting in a very contrasty image. This might be the look that you are after and can look great when you are trying to emphasise the hot sunshine such as a model in swimsuit on the beach wearing sunglasses. However, unless you’re working with a supermodel, hard shadows usually aren’t that flattering as they can show up flaws in the skin and model’s figure. Using a speedlite in a situation like this is great because it can subtly add light to the dark shadows making for a much softer and less contrasty image. Your model will thank you for it. click to read more
The sun acts as the dominant source of light (the main light) and the light from the speedlite is just used to fill in the shadows and hence referred to as the “fill light”. The fill light should be subtle and most of the time you shouldn’t even know that a flash is being used. Getting the images exposure right in this situation is much more complicated than the studio lighting example above. You first have to consider the “ambient lighting” (the sun) and set your cameras aperture, shutter speed and ISO to get a correctly exposed image without using any flash (which will look a bit contrasty). Then you have to set the power of the speedlite to produce just enough light to fill in the shadows and reduce the contrast. You can do this manually (Manual Mode) or by letting the speedlite and camera take control and automatically calculate the “right” amount (E-TTL mode). If the camera doesn’t get it quite right first time you can increase or decrease the brightness of the flash as you feel necessary using the Flash Exposure Compensation.
#3 OUTDOOR FILL-IN FLASH (SUN FROM BEHIND). Positioning a subject so that the sun is directly in front of them (and fairly low in the sky) may sound like a good idea as this will light up the face more evenly and will eliminate any dark shadows but the biggest problem is that the model will usually be squinting and generally not looking too happy with you. Placing the model so that the sun comes from side can create ugly hard shadows as described above. However placing the model so that the sun comes from behind the model can often look just great. The sun illuminates the back of the model’s hair and body and the edges can be seen to glow – this is known as “back lighting” or “rim lighting”. click to read more
Unless it’s around sunrise or sunset the sun will be very bright so you’ll want to avoid getting the sun in the frame. You can sometimes use the model to block out the sun completely or just leave a small amount showing which can create lens flare for artistic effect. However you still have the problem that the models face and body will be in dark shadow. This is where the speedlite comes in handy by filling in the shadow to make a great looking image. Again you can use Manual or E-TTL mode but manual usually works best since E-TTL often has problems coping with any direct sun shining straight into the camera lens.
#4 OUTDOOR OVERPOWERING THE SUN. When shooting outdoors there are occasions when we want the speedlite to be used as the main light rather than the sun being the main light. To do this the light from the speedlite needs to be brighter than that from the sun – not an easy task for a small flash when shooting out in the midday sun. In order to achieve this the flash needs to be either very close to the subject or the flash needs to be very powerful. If the flash isn’t powerful enough you can just strap a few speedlites together until it is. click to read more
To produce a more dramatic effect the ambient exposure is often deliberately underexposed. Remember we previously mentioned that the ambient exposure should be set first before turning the speedlite on. In the case of overpowering the sun you set the ambient exposure first and then you set it one or two stops underexposed so the scene looks a bit darker than normal. Using this method the sky turns a beautifully dark blue and when you turn on the speedlite and correctly set the flash power to expose for the subject the subject really pops out from the scene and you get incredible saturated colours.
#5 WEDDINGS. Taking great wedding photos requires a lot of skill and the ability to stay calm in a stressful situation. A wedding photographer needs to be able to take photos inside the church with very low ambient lighting and then again outside the church when it could be bright and sunny (hard shadows) or wet and miserable (lack-lustre). The wedding photographer needs to be super mobile and his/her equipment needs to be light and portable. This is why the speedlite is one of the wedding photographer’s favourite lighting tools. For obvious reasons it’s critical to get things right first time so wedding photography is all about reliability of equipment in all possible lighting situations. Backup cameras, backup speedlites, backup photographers (known as second shooters), backup everything. click to read more
A reliable weatherproof speedlite with an autofocus assist lamp which supports multiple autofocus points is a must. High speed sync may be required if shooting outside in the sun if planning to use large apertures required to make the background soft and out-of-focus. If using the speedlite off-camera then you’ll need a radio wireless system to trigger the flash which is usually mounted on a pole and carried by an assistant. (sometimes referred to as a voice activated light stand!). You’ll also need the option to add an external power pack so you don’t end up having to changes batteries just at the moment when the bride and groom kiss and you’ll also need a speedlite that can take plenty of continuous flashes without overheating and starting to melt.
At the reception you’ll need to create softer light by pointing the flash head towards a white ceiling or nearby white wall. The light from the flash bounces off the white surface creating a lovely soft light. This is known as “bounce flash“. Even though the Canon 600EX II-RT speedlite is expensive it does tick all the boxes for features required by a professional wedding photographer and if it was me taking the photos this would be my first choice even though it is expensive. However I might have a couple of Canon 430EX III-RT as back up or even a couple of Yongnuo 600EX-RT II just in case.