Basics of Flash Photography
Fundamentals we must know

Introduction to Flash Photography Basics

The reason we use flash is that flash is very bright (and its duration is very fast to freeze movement) for easy camera exposure when light is needed. In comparison, the brightest household light bulbs are dim for photography, not nearly sunlight bright. Without flash, even reasonably lighted rooms will suffer from needing long slow shutter speeds, or high ISO, or probably both. Light bulbs are continuous light, which can be fine for still life photography, when a one second shutter speed is no problem (on a tripod), but which is unacceptable for pictures of people, who tend to move. Flash is relatively about instantaneously fast (freezing motion). Flash also allows us to create the lighting, to add it like we want it to be, to place flash wherever we want the light, and to be made soft as we might desire, etc.

Flash photography is many things. There is on-camera flash and off-camera flash, manual flash and automatic TTL flash, and direct flash and bounce flash. There is fill flash in bright sun, multiple flash units, studio and portrait and table top flash in umbrellas, high speed flash, and more. Lighting is a big and fun subject, but before anyone can get much into "lighting", there are a few more fundamental basics we need to know, about "light". In all of these cases, there are basic differences between flash and existing continuous ambient light. Unfortunately, one downside of automation today is that many photographers don't bother to learn any basics any more. They can only get whatever their camera might do (and even the fanciest cameras are much dumber than we might imagine). The photographers brain is the most important tool. Seeing and then knowing what to expect is the biggest part of knowing how to deal with it. When we know why, then we know how, and then it's easy. Flash is not difficult. Flash may seem puzzling because it is just different than the sunlight or regular continuous room light we are used to, so we need to understand flash too.

In short summary, the major points, the basics (always needing a few IFs and BUTs) that you need to understand, the really big deal about using flash, is:

This really is pretty easy stuff, but it can be new ideas too. So I suggest that it could obviously help to try just a little before letting your eyes glaze over. Photographers simply need to know. Many of us do just "want the picture" without any bother. But we are either interested in the photography or we're not (and there's much hope for those who are interested). It's about like learning to drive — we did have to learn to operate the car, and we did have to learn the rules of the road, and maybe a little about maps, and ice and snow too. So we learned a few easy things, and now we've got it for life, and can use it at will to great advantage, in any situation, with great results. So yes, there are a few extra details to know about flash too, and photographers may actually have to think a little about creating their picture now and then, but none of it is difficult. The rewards are great.

If you don't bother to learn anything about flash, then flash pictures may be among your worst results, and enthusiasm is surely diminished. But the opposite view is if you try just a little to understand how to use it, your very best pictures may be due to flash. Flash is how we make the light be great, to improve the scene. Being willing to give it a little thought will certainly always help photography.

"Lighting" is a skill to be developed (which is mostly about learning to actually "see" the results, to look, to notice, to actually realize what you see, to think, to actually be aware of what happened). But the flash is just a light, and we can see exactly what it does (if we just bother to look at the result, carefully enough to actually "see" it). Anything you cannot see should not matter in a picture, however, we do learn to observe much more with experience. Much of the problem is that beginners probably have not yet learned to see much, and you should be aware that the ability to "see" is the main thing to be learned about lighting. There is a page about that too. Flash is just additional illumination, however we can aim and modify the light to be like we want it to be, and we can learn to control the shadows it makes. This concern is not so much speaking of the shadows behind the subject, because generally we try to eliminate those. This is speaking of learning to notice and see the shadows and soft gradient tones ON the subject's face, intentionally created by off-camera lighting (including bounce flash).

Flash can be necessary, and/or it can be a big help. The simplest tips for universally better hot shoe speedlight snapshots (the way we ought to be using our speedlights, but sadly, many don't know yet) are:

Which flash? The camera internal flash is a very small flash, extremely minimal, perhaps sometimes better than nothing, and convenient to carry, but it is very limited in use. A regular size hot shoe speedlight will have at least 4x power, at least 2x more Guide Number, and at least 2 stops more range. Other than power limitations, the internal flash won't zoom for longer lenses, it won't tilt for bounce flash, and it can't be used off-camera. Today, there are Chinese import flashes for less than $100 US, some of which are excellent, for example, Yongnuo flashes are very popular. See a Beginners Guide to Speedlights.

You should try these things, the results will be self-evident. There is a detail or two though, and if your experience level is comfortable working with aperture and shutter speed, and if you want to be able to manage your flash pictures, then the material here is what you need to know. If still a beginner, and not yet comfortable, you really do need to know, and there is a very useful book here. These first basics are the dividing line where we become knowledgeable, no longer clueless. We won't be able to go very far without fundamentals.

These flash basics here are about "light itself", and are obviously important even if you always use automatic TTL metered flash.

Some people avoid any math. Inverse Square Law and Guide Number concepts do have a little arithmetic that a user might follow, easy stuff. It will not do you any harm by simply reading it. We do need to understand the concepts, about what to expect. There are numbers in photography, so there are several little calculators scattered around here to help any deeper questions. Most of the following pages involve less calculation, but still, a concern might be "how bright is my flash?"

Inverse Square Law, Continued

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