A Step By Step Guide To Your First Flash Photograph


One of the first things you did when you bought your first serious camera was to pop up its internal flash and take an indoor shot. That may well have lead to your first serious disappointment in photography. Pop up flash guns built into cameras can have their uses, but if you really want to get great flash shots, you will need to invest in a third party flashgun.

Flashguns are not expensive, relative to many other elements of photographic gear. They can, however, bring your indoors shots to another level. Today we are going to give you a step by step guide to shooting your first flash photographs. 

Photo by Tom Pumford

Which Flashgun To Buy

Time was that there was little choice to buying a flashgun. There were the original manufacturer's choices, then a couple of third-party manufacturers. These days there are quite a few third-party manufacturers all producing flashguns. The vast majority sold via reputable camera stores are high quality, and often cheaper than the own brand versions. 

When choosing a third party flashgun you need to get one that is “dedicated” your camera. This means it will “talk” to your camera, reading details such as shutter speed, aperture, focal length, focus position, and white balance. This, in turn, helps the flashgun to decide the correct exposure. A dedicated flashgun will give you many more options when shooting with flash.

Another consideration is the guide number. This denotes how powerful your flashgun will be, the higher the number, the further the flash will illuminate. We won’t go into the details here but if you are planning to shoot larger groups, then a flash with a higher guide number would be a better choice.

Another must in a flashgun is a tilt/swivel head. This allows you to turn the flash head in a direction away from the subject. We will look at why this is good a little later.

There are many more options for buying a flashgun these days. Bill Ebbesen on Wiki CC 3.0 

Shooting In Auto

It’s probably going to be best to start your journey into flash by shooting in an Auto mode. This means setting your camera to Program and your flashgun TTL or Through The Lens mode. There may well be several vvariations on this mode on your flashgun depending on the manufacturer. 

The concept of TTL is that the flashgun communicates with the camera to determine the correct exposure. This is how to shoot in this mode the correct way.

  • Set your camera to Program Mode and your flashgun to the basic TTL Mode.
  • Pose your subject in a suitable location.
  • Compose your shot and half press the shutter button. This will lock focus and exposure and the flash will send out a pre-flash to determine correct exposure.
  • Take the shot. 

The chances are that you will be pretty impressed with the results of your first proper flash shot. However, we are only just begging the journey into flash photography. Remember we suggest buying a flashgun with a tilt/swivel head. Here’s why.


Shooting Bounced Flash.

Flash by it’s nature is a very harsh and direct light. We can however alleviate that harshness to a certain extent with various methods. One of the easiest ways is to use bounced flash. Rather than fire the flashgun directly at our subject, we bounce the light off of a nearby wall or ceiling. Ceiling is often the best option but it needs to be low enough, a high ceiling may be too far away for the flash to reach the subject. The higher the flash’s guide number, the better it will be at bouncing flash. 

We can repeat the exact same shot that we did in the previous section. This time however, point your flashgun’s head at 45 degrees, up towards the ceiling. Depending one whether you are shooting in landscape or portrait mode, this will mean either swivelling or tilting the head. Now take the shot.

You should see that the lighting is much softer on your subjects face. Harsh shadows generated by direct flash will now be much less black, giving a much more pleasant look to your subject. Having taken our first, fully automated flash shots, let's look at some more creative ways to use the flash.

Shooting Semi Automated.

We can take more control of our flash shots using one of our camera’s semi automatic modes, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority. When we shoot in Aperture Priority we can take control of the depth of field. If we are looking for a nice out of focus, Bokeh for our portrait, we can set a nice wide aperture. The camera will select a suitable shutter speed and the flash will fire according to the camera’s settings.

Similarly, if we use Shutter Priority, we can select a nice slow shutter speed to allow a lot more of the ambient light to be seen in the exposure. Alternatively, we can shoot hight shutter speed, this will drown out the available light leaving us just with the flash.

This brings us to another important aspect of flash photography, sync speed. Flash guns have to synchronise with our camera’s shutters. There is a maximum shutter speed to which this can occur, often around 1/250th of a second. Any shutter speed below that, the camera will expose correctly. Above it you will see black lines through your images. If you keep the flash and camera on auto modes this will not be an issue. However, if you want to shoot manual, you will need to consider this.

Photo by Gift Habeshaw

Shooting In Manual

The last stage in our flash journey is to shoot completely manually. This gives us the ultimate control over our shots but does need us to think a little more.

Let’s assume we are shooting the same subject as before. With the camera on manual, we need to read and set a suitable exposure. We can consider ambient light, shutter speed but we will also may need to consider the camera’s white balance. Shooting RAW will eliminate the need for the latter. 

With our camera set up for the look we wish to achieve, we can now set the flashgun up. We need to set the flash to manual mode. In this mode, flashguns work in power ratings starting from Full Power through 1/2, 1/4 1/8th and beyond. Getting the right balance can be calculated using the guide number, aperture and ISO but for someone just learning the ropes, trail and error is probably the best option. If the flash light is too bright on the subject, lower the power settings, if it’s not bright enough, raise them. 

One last thing to note when shooting flash either in auto or manual modes is that only ISO and Aperture have a direct effect on the amount of light the image receives. If you open the aperture or increase the ISO for the same flash setting, the subject will become brighter. Increasing the shutter speed will not have this effect.

Flash is an immensely rewarding genre but it is also a complex one. Hopefully, this primer will get you started on your very first flash shots. Amongst Light Stalking's, vast array of tutorials, you will find many more that will help you further your flashgun experience.

Further Resources

Further Learning

Learn the fundamentals of Lightroom Editing and make your images really work for YOU by getting the best out of them.
We recommend this fantastic course by the guys at Photography Concentrate – Super Photo Editing Skills

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

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