You know why I want people, and especially my students, to know all about flash? Because you never know when it will be needed.

Take this shot, from the wonderful wedding of Stephanie and David on Saturday:

That nice fire in the fireplace, with its warm glow? The bride wanted the fireplace. And so we turned it on, of course.

Yeah right. There was no turning on – not possible. So that is a 430EX speedlight fitted with a snoot and a rust-colored gel (both Honl photo).

Same here:

The moral of the story: flash is not always used simply “to light a dark room”. In my world, the more common world is to do something creative. Take charge of the light, including its location and colour.


Softening Recipe

Here’s a simple recipe for a dramatic flash shot outside. Like this:

Look s”photoshopped”, yeah? Well, it isn’t. It was shot like that. And for that, you need:

  1. An external flash on top of the camera
  2. A sunny day
  3. You in very close proximity to the subject
  4. The possibility to set flash (Canon system) or camera (Nikon system) to High-Speed Flash (Canon) or “Auto FP Flash” (Nikon)

On a sunny day, you now shoot as follows:

  1. Camera on manual mode
  2. Flash on TTL mode
  3. Camera set to 100 ISO, f/4, and 1/2000th second
  4. Honl or similar softbox on the flash
  5. You very close to the subject’s face (otherwise, there’s not enough power).

“High speed flash/FP flash” allows you to go to a shutter speed of 1/2000th, which normally you cannot do (normally, you are limited to around 1/200th second).

As a result, you now get dramatic light with nevertheless a blurred background.

Why do you have to be very close? Because high speed/FP flash diminishes the power of your flash very dramatically, more the faster you go.  And the softbox diminishes it even more. Hence – be as close as around 10 inches from your subject, or the flash will not show.  But when you get it right, it is a very cool look.


There. Another secret free to you from The Speedlighter. Want more? Come see me do my Flash workshop at Vistek in Toronto tomorrow, Saturday Oct 5. And get the flash e-book!

Recipe, another

Yesterday’s recipe was the “Willems 400-40-4 rule” for indoors flash shots.

Today, another one. Say that you want to go outside for a saturated colour flash shot like this, on a fully sunny day at noon.

So for that you need a flash with a modifier. I used a strobe, but you can use speedlights if you are willing to fire them at high power and have them close to your subject.

Here’s my strobe:

Now follow my logic.

Step One: ISO and Shutter. The sun is bright and I am competing with it. So to cut the sun, I will be at low ISO (meaning at 100 ISO, the minimum) and high shutter speed (1/200th sec, the fastest sync speed for many cameras). This is a given, an “always” starting point: by default. sunny day means 100 ISO and 1/200th sec).

Step Two: Aperture. At that speed, a “normal” exposure would be f/11 (this is the Sunny Sixteen Rule in practice – look this up on this blog – yes, there is a reason I teach you all this stuff. At 200 ISO it would be f/16 “sunny sixteen”, so at 100 ISO, we’d need f/11.). So we arrive at 1/200th sec, 100 ISO, and f/11… this looks like this:

But wait – I want that background darker, to get saturated colour as in the first shot, not light as in the second shot. So we go to at least f/16, one stop darker than “sunny sixteen”. Now, indeed the background is darker.

Step three: Flash power. Now we adjust the flash to give us enough power to get to f/16. If we are using a small flash, that means no modifier (loses too much light); if using a strobe, we adjust it until the brightness matches f/16. Use a meter, or use trial and error.

So the method was:

  1. Set low ISO and fast shutter;
  2. Decide on aperture you want;
  3. Set flash to match that aperture.

And to this, we add:

  1. Use a modified flash if you can – like shooting through an umbrella, as I am doing here. But modifying loses power, so you may need a direct flash, or have the flash very close to the subject.
  2. Use off-centre composition (avoid the centre – use the Rule of Thirds).
  3. See if you can get diagonals included to lead into the image and give it depth.
  4. Avoid direct sunlight on the subject’s face: it shows wrinkles and it causes squinting. Sun from behind gives you “shampooey goodness” instead: much better.
  5. See if you can angle the flash w.r.t. the subject, off to the side, and turn the subject into that flash. Also raise the flash 45 degrees (looks natural and you see no glasses reflections).
  6. See if you can get lucky and include all three primaries, red (-ish); green and blue, in the image. If so, you have a good image!

Let’s see that image again. Click on it and click through to see the original image at full size:

That looks like a photoshopped image, and yet it is not – it is the way I shot it in the camera. yes… and I can teach you the same – it really is simple, once you get the idea.


The Pro Flash Manual e-book is designed to teach all this and much, much more, and it dovetails into this site and into my classes. Learn about both these e-books here on my web site. Want to learn? Check out as well.


Wednesday Possibilities

Today, some shots to get your imagination going – shots that show how much is possible with little effort, and quickly. Shots I took in and between classes in mere seconds, to demonstrate specific points.

Like this quick demonstration shot showing what a great modern camera like my 1Dx can do at – wait for it – 51,200 ISO:

Meaning that with a new camera, you can now photograph pretty much in the dark, or mix a little flash with very low ambient light, or bounce off very high ceilings.

Especially when using off-camera flash, that opens up all sorts of possibilities. Here’s a demo shot showing what a little extra light can do; look carefully and you will see that I am using remote TTL flash (where my camera’s flash is the “master”), and my student at Sheridan college has set his flash to be the “slave”:

Result: he is temporarily blinded… and lit up. You can do that too, with very little extra equipment. One flash, if you have a moden camera whose popup can “command” external flashes; else, two flashes, on on the camera and one remote. Imagine what you can do when you can add a little light everywhere you like!

Then, another student lit dramatically – from below! This kind of eerie effect is easy once you can take your flash off the camera as desribed above.

Or – just turn the camera upside down and bounce flash off the table, as I did!

Off-camera handheld flash gives me this image, even when the flash is aimed direct, of Mr Jun:

Not bad, and that is direct light aimed into his face – as long as it is not near the camera, the flash can be unmodified and direct!

And when you have several flashes, you can do things like this:

Now that is a competent portrait, taken in just a few seconds, using this setup with two off-camera flashes each fitted with a Honlphoto grid, and one with a blue-green gel; using two “biological light stands”:

But finally – do you need all those flashes? No, here’s a portrait using one flash fitted with a Honlphoto 8″ softbox:

The apparent Martian in the background adds a little extra “huh?” to this photo, don’t you think? His glasses reflect the round softbox.

Anyway, these snaps demonstrate that you can achieve a lot in a very short time using simple means – you may already have every thing you need. Get creative, go outside the box, and above all, think “where is the light coming from”!


Outdoors modifiers

Reader James asks:

I’ve read you advocating for unmodified on camera flash outdoors (as fill), and for on camera flash diffusers (Bounce card, Gary Fong,etc), but is there a reason you don’t use the techniques together? Why not use a diffuser while using fill flash outdoors? Wouldn’t that produce better images?

Good question, and one I am grateful you asked. To avoid confusion: yes I certainly do advocate modifiers outdoors.

Like an umbrella, as in this image:

(That image, by the way, was my tribute picture to Rineke Dijkstra, famous Dutch photographer whose work is in MOMA and many other museums. I was amazed that in The Netherlands, several people, when seeing this image, immediately said “That’s a Rineke Dijkstra”! Europeans really do have a great sense, and knowledge, of art.)

So why do I often advocate direct flash outdoors?

I have several reasons.

  1. Main reason: modifiers take power, and with a speedlight, you are fighting the sun at top power already; taking away a few stops of light (and you take away at least that!) is fatal: in bright sunlight you would now need to move the flash very close to the subject.
  2. Ancillary reason: It is quicker and simpler. Often, you have to move quickly; an on camera flash is convenient in those circumstances. Imagine carrying an umbrella with you when sightseeing in a foreign city!
  3. Ancillary reason: outdoors you are mixing with lots of available light, so you can get away with the shadows direct flash gives you: these are filled in by the ambient light.
  4. Ancillary reason: sometimes you want harsh shadows. Rarely, but it does happen!

And that is why I often use direct flash. But generally, modifier, softened flash is better, absolutely.