Let there be…

To those of you who are new on speedlighter.ca – this daily blog (yes, I write every day) is your resource for photography knowledge – and very often, speedlight knowledge. Speedlights, as you know, are small flashes, and as you may or may not know, they are wonderful.

When used well.

That implies that you can use them badly. And yes, you can, and that is easy. So here’s how not to do it:

Typical “this is why I hate flash” snap. Of two kind student volunteers yesterday. Shot at f/8 at 400 ISO at 1/125th second. Ouch. Thanks, guys!

To improve this – nay, to have fun and make it good – I would do the following:

  • Set my camera to a better exposure setting for the background. In my case, this was  f/4.0 and 1/30th second, which made the light meter show “-2 stops”.
  • Set my white balance to “tungsten” to make the background blue.
  • But at the same time, add a Honl Photo Full CTO gel to my main flash, to keep the subjects neutral.
  • Now add a second flash to light up the wall.
  • Add a Honl Photo red gel to this second flash.

Then I would get this:

Looking Skyward (Photo: Michael Willems)

How long does that take? Mere seconds. And it results in a great picture, that belies the idea that you cannot use direct flash. When you are mixing light, you can.

What if I had had more time?

Then I would have added one more flash with a gel: a green one.In the bottom left corner. Red-Green-Blue, the three primary colours in one image, adds visual interest.


Light meter know-how

If you are a photographer, you will need to use a light meter sooner or later. Like in studios, when shooting flash, or when shooting outdoors in mixed light. Or for when you want it accurate. Light meters, like my Sekonic L-358, are invaluable.

But light meters are not perfect. They can vary between modes, between measurements, and between light meters. Even between ISO settings, or times of day.

The good news: modern light meters can be calibrated, i.e. adjusted, when necessary. The bad news: this is sometimes a little similar to black magic.

If you doubt your meter’s accuracy, here is what I would suggest you do:

  1. Set your camera to aperture mode, f/5.6, 100 ISO
  2. Filling your entire viewfinder, shoot a grey card, evenly lit by diffuse daylight. Avoid reflections. Avoid standing in the light (d’oh).
  3. Check if the histogram is neutral in color (Red, Green and Blue channels, if you can display those, are equally bright).
  4. Now check if the histogram is in the centre. If not, adjust the exposure using exposure compensation, until it is in the middle.

You should now see something like this on the back of your camera:

If instead you see a histogram like the one below, the image is too dark – use + (plus) exposure compensation:

If you see the type of histogram below here instead, then the image is too light – use “-” (minus) exposure compensation:

So. Done? Now repeat the process until this is right.

Now that you have adjusted the exposure to get the histogram into the centre, read the shutter speed you now achieved.


  1. Set your light meter to f/5.6 and 100 ISO.
  2. Dome extended, put it on the grey card.
  3. Without blocking the light, measure the light.

If your light meter indicates the same shutter speed as you got on your camera,you are good. If it indicates something else, you may need to calibrate your meter.

On my Sekonix, this is done by pressing ISO1 and ISO2 together while you turn on the meter – and keeping them pressed. You can now adjust the meter, + or – as needed, then repeat your measurement. Repeat this until you see the same time on your meter that you saw on the camera before.

Now, take some shots metered with your meter, in various light intensities and types, and verify that the grey card peak is in the centre for most images.

Like I said, black magic.  But now you know. Bet you were not aware your meter was adjustable!


Speedlight tip

When you are using a speedlight (such as a Nikon SB-800, say, or a Canon 430EX) and firing it in manual mode by using a Pocketwizard, there is one problem I see a lot.

Namely: after a few minutes, the speedlight turns off. It times out, “goes to sleep”, and the flash stops responding until you wake it up again. Grrr!

The solution: use a custom function on the flash to disable the timeout. When you have successfully done this, on a Nikon, you will see the timeout words followed by “—“. On a Canon, you will at least see an indication that a custom function has been activated, by the “C.Fn” symbol on the back of the flash:

See, bottom left of the display. (It’s usually custom function 1: check your manual).

Yes, I know – the interfaces used to operate your flash are terrible. Press this button, go right, hold down that button, sing incantations while dancing around an oak tree, then enter the square root of pi: not for the fainthearted. But worth learning!


Ready.. aim (flash)… shoot!

An event shoot the other night prompts me to point out how important it is to bounce your flash into the right place.

When you shoot an event, you:

  1. Set your camera to a good starting point: Manual mode, 400 ISO, f/4.0 and 1/30th sec.
  2. Use the right lens: perhaps 35mm prime (on a full-frame camera, or 24mm prime on a crop camera).
  3. Aim your flash roughly behind you.
  4. Fire.

That gives you images like this:

You now adjust aperture, shutter and ISO according to ceiling height, available ambient light, background colour, and “how you like it”. For a neutral, normally lit background you want your in-camera meter to read roughly -2 stops when taking an average reading. So take a test shot, adjust where needed, and carry on.

Fine. But where exactly do you aim?

You aim the flash:

  1. Where you want the light to come from. Usually this means behind you.
  2. And it should throw light into your subject’s face, not onto the back of their head.
  3. This flash bounce area must be outside the image area.
  4. And it must have a nice bounce surface (not too far, not too coloured).

If you do not get the bounce area right, you get this, where I got it wrong (I aimed the flash too far forward):

Instead of this, where I did it right (I aimed it behind me):

Because I aimed correctly, the wall behind me became a big virtual umbrella, and cast natural light throughout the room, not mainly into one area like in the previous shot.

Another couple of shots from the event:

I like warm backgrounds. That’s my style.

Dancing in dark rooms is hard to capture. Shoot a lot.

Yes – you can shoot in wood-paneled rooms too, but it can be challenging.

Want to read more? Watch out for the June/July issue of Photolife Magazine, with my article on “Flash: 20 problems, 10 solutions”. It should be in the stores any day now.


A little known fact

When you shoot Nikon and use the CLS/iTTL systen, you can fire remote flashes and set them to manual instead of TTL. This is well known since you set the options through the on camera menu.

In the Canon world, this is not possible: remote flashes operated by light control must use TTL. Right?

Wrong. Canon too supports this functionality.

Here’s a TTL flash set to slave mode (a 430 EX in this case). The display looks like this: (And note that the “M” here refers to the flash’s zoom setting – nothing to do with flash mode):

So it’s a TTL flash set to slave mode.

Now press and hold the MODE button. After a few seconds, you see this:

Now your cannon flash is still in slave mode, but it is now in manual power mode – TTL will not meter: the flash will just fire at whatever level you set it to (1/8th power, in this case). Note that the “M” to the left of the “1/8” now flashes, to remind you. One press and it goes back to TTL mode.

I bet there are some here who did not know this! Yes, you can use light-operated remote slaves that you set to manual, even in the Canon world.

PS: what’s that on the front of the flash? A Honl Photo speed strap plus a Honl 1/4″ grid.