Photo Tips: Speedlights 101

I started out as a natural light photographer like a lot of self-taught pros. Flash was intimidating and very alien to me. The only thing I really knew about it was that I hated the way my pop-up flash made my photos look.

Based on that alone I decided Flash = Bad

But sometimes there just ISN’T good natural light. Then what?

I finally bought my first external flash in 2008 (prompted by an especially dreary winter in a nearly windowless rental apartment with no natural light). I had no real understanding of why. Everything I’d read on the internet said it was “better” than my pop-up flash. I spent three months learning through reading and a lot of trial and error. By the time spring came around, my opinion had completely changed.

Flash = Really, REALLY good

We hate on our pop-up flashes because it usually makes our photos look something like this when we use them:

Gross. Right?

Maybe we adjust our settings and try to get a brighter shot, and then suddenly end up with something like this instead:

That’s not great either. We can definitely learn to do a lot better with some setting adjustments and understanding of how to balance the light.

What You Need To Get Started With Speedlight Photography:

  • A flash with an adjustable power mode (Either Manual or TTL or both)
  • A flash with a head that swivels
  • Wall or Ceiling
  • Time

Choosing the Flash Mode:


This mode allows you to adjust the power of the flash up and down in fractions of total available power of the unit. In short, how bright the flash is.
How much flash is read by the camera is not effected by metering. This is really handy when you want to be really picky about your light, are bouncing light, or are in a situation where a meter might be fooled (such as strong backlighting). However, it also means that if your subject gets closer or farther away or if the overall ambient light changes, the flash will not automatically adjust itself to compensate.

TTL (sometimes E-TTL)

The initials stand for “Through The Lens. This mode works by emitting a “pre-flash” that bounces off of the subject and provides the flash with information before the “real” flash burst fires based on what the camera’s meter has then determined is the correct exposure. I consider this mode to be “semi-auto” mode, power can be adjusted with “exposure compensation” in 1/3 stops. The drawback to this mode is that it is impossible to tell whether the metering information is what you want the flash to use until you’ve fired the shot, and it can change from one photo to the next depending on whether your subject moves or the ambient light changes. This can be frustrating if you don’t understand why the flash is adjusting itself. Also, if you use the “focus and recompose” method, it might now work the way you expect with TTL flash because it throws off the meter.

  • A Note On Modes:  When you get started, it doesn’t matter which one you use as long as you can adjust the power levels. Some people naturally find one mode easier than another and some of you will have flashes that only do one or the other.  No worries! When you get more advanced with your flash there are reasons to use one more over the other.

Other Equipment You’ll Need:

1. Batteries

If you’re going to invest in a Speedlight, it’s my opinion that NiMH rechargeable batteries are the way to go. I use Panasonic Eneloops, but there are number of fine brands out there. You’ll make your money back on those babies after just a few days worth of playing with your flash because it will eat disposable batteries like candy. You’ll save a ton of money! The other reseaon NiMH rechargeable batteries are awesome is the flash recycle time (the amount of time it takes the flash to pull charge from the batteries and fire again) is faster with rechargeables. You don’t want to lose a potentially great shot because your flash was taking its sweet recycling time.

  • A Note On Batteries: Never leave batteries in your flash unit when you aren’t using it for an extended period of time! Batteries leak, explode, and corrode. Even NEW batteries. Don’t give them the opportunity to destroy your equipment!

2. User Manual

Yeah, yeah. This is everyone’s least favorite thing to do when they get new gear, but reading your manual is SO important. After 6 years, I’m still impressed to learn something new when I pull my manual out and look up the answer to a question. If you haven’t held onto yours, look up your brand and model in a search engine. Most user manuals have PDF versions available online. Think of having the user manual nearby as having an offline version of Google. If you have a question about how close to your subject you should be, what the buttons in your menu do, how to adjust the settings, etc… well, that’s all in there. Handy!

Getting Started: Understanding how in-camera exposure effects flash outcome

The trick to getting natural looking photos with flash is understanding that you essentially have to balance two “exposures” of light.

One exposure in camera and should be set for your ambient available light. The other exposure is that of the subject that you’re lighting with your flash. I think of them as “Camera Exposure” and “Flash Exposure.” They are controlled separately and balanced so that together they make one well-lit image, not unlike all other camera settings.

My favorite way to think about how to find what the “right” amount of flash is comes from David Hobby’s analogy of seasoning to taste as if you’re using light in a recipe – You start with the ambient light exposure as the “base” of your recipe and then add little bits of flash as needed until you get the right “flavor” in your image.

Controlling Ambient Light

Ambient Light is easily controlled by Shutter Speed and ISO depending on the needs of the situation.

The following series demonstrate how the ambient light can be controlled with the camera while the flash (metering off Mr. Snuggles, the Teddy Bear) fires in TTL mode. If you are using your flash in Manual mode, as you adjust the ambient light in camera you will also need to adjust the flash because the ambient light will effect your subject (increasing ISO for example requires a decrease in flash power to keep the balance)

Creating Flattering Light

There isn’t anything you can do to change the size of your flash head and unfortunately small light sources are inherently harsh and unflattering. But you can change the size of the beam of light it creates.

One of the most common ways to do this on camera is to bounce your flash off of a large surface, such as a light colored wall or ceiling, which creates a “softbox” effect. The look will be different depending on how high the ceiling is (in some cases this isn’t an option because the ceiling is too high to bounce the light back down to your subject), how far you are from the wall, etc. but you can see in the photos below how bouncing your flash will make a difference.

All of the following photos were taken with flash in manual mode, power at 1/32, and camera settings were ISO 1600, f/3.5, & 1/160 sec.

How do we do this bouncing thing then? That’s where the adjustable flash head on a speedlight outshines a built-in pop-up flash any day. An articulating flash head is an incredible tool. If you look on the back of your flash you may see lines like these:

Last Words Of Advice

We can go deep into the technical details of lighting and speedlights, but the best teacher is experience. Play with your speedlight! Get out there and take those pictures. You’ll be surprised by how much you’ll learn just by doing.

Originally published on IHeartFaces October 22nd 2014, reposted to in January 2017.