Neil van Niekerk: My top 20 list of flash photography tips:
1. don’t fear your flash
It is entirely possible to get amazing results from your flash. Look at the image above. It’s done with one on-camera speedlight .. bounced properly. It’s actually pretty easy once you get used to it. So hang in there ..
2. you need something better than your camera’s built-in flash
You really do need a speedlight that attaches to your camera’s hot-shoe for best results. You simply can’t get there with just that pop-up flash on your camera. You need something bigger. Something that can rotate and swivel. The manufacturers that try and sell you little add-ons and gizmos and promise you that you will get great results from your pop-up flash after spending a couple of dollars on their crap .. well, they are misleading you. Get a proper speedlight!
3. bigger is better
My advice will always be to get the most powerful speedlight you can afford. The more powerful your speedlight, and the more features it has, the more options you have.
4. bounce your flash for better results
The larger your light-source, the softer the light. For that reason we bounce flash. We’re creating a larger light source. This implies that when we’re working indoors, and we have walls and a ceiling around us, that shooting with direct flash straight-on is possibly the worst that we can do. We may as well have stayed with the pop-up flash, and saved ourselves some money. So, bounce your flash!
5. use that wall as your softbox!
Don’t be stuck in thinking you can only bounce your flash off the ceiling. Bounce your flash off the wall(s) behind you, and beside you. Even try bouncing your flash into the open room behind you.
6. try for directional light
By bouncing off areas to your side, you can get directional light on your subject, instead of flat lighting. Here’s another example.
7. flag your flash
When you bounce your flash to the side, make sure that there is no direct flash spilling on your subject. I use a piece of cheap black foam, held in place with hairbands, to make sure I only get soft indirect light on my subject.
8. allow TTL flash to make your life easier
TTL flash technology can allow you to get great results easily, but …
9. .. nudge your TTL exposure with flash exposure compensation
TTL flash exposure could vary, and it can also give you under or over-exposure. That’s the penalty for getting good results easily .. your exposure may vary, unless you adjust your flash exposure compensation. With practice (and a sneak peek at your camera’s preview), you can pre-judge this to a good degree.
10. TTL flash and manual flash are two very different beasts
You have to understand the difference between TTL flash and manual flash, and how their behaviour differ. They each have their own benefits. There are those photographers who disdain TTL flash, and only push one way of using flash – manual flash. You’ll be a stronger photographer in knowing the differences between manual flash and TTL flash .. and being able to use either with confidence.
11. understand maximum flash sync speed
It is imperative that you understand what maximum flash sync speed is .. and why it is often a sweet spot when you use flash.
12. high-speed flash sync
High Speed Flash Sync (HSS), also known as Auto FP on the Nikon cameras, allows us to go past the limit of maximum flash sync speed. A truly useful feature, but be aware that there is a penalty to be paid for going into the higher shutter speeds while using flash.
13. aperture controls flash exposure? … well, maybe
You will often see this short-cut thrown around. It is true to an extent. But you need to be aware that aperture affects manual flash exposure, but not TTL flash exposure. Similarly, you need to be aware that ISO also affects manual flash exposure.
14. shutter speed controls ambient exposure? .. well, maybe
This is another short-cut which can be misleading since other photographers may well omit in telling you the entire truth … that aperture and ISO also affects ambient light. Where that shortcut – shutter speed controls ambient light – actually kicks in, is for manual flash, where shutter speed becomes the only independent control for ambient exposure. A subtle but important distinction.
15. gel your flash for tungsten!
If you’re using flash in an environment that is predominantly incandescent lighting / tungsten lighting .. and you want your flash to appear more neutral, and not so blue (or your background so grunge-orange), then gel your flash to join the incandescent spectrum .
16. throw away the tupperware
When working indoors, you can most often get the best results by bouncing your flash. You don’t need that expensive piece of plastic that is advertised as being the solution to all your flash photography problems.
17. allow available light in
Sometimes flash is your dominant light source. Sometimes flash is your only realistic choice. But it usually looks better if you allow available light to give you some context and colour and mood.
18. start with the available light, and then add flash
At times it might need a slightly different approach between manual flash, and TTL flash .. but invariably, a good starting point when figuring out what you need to do with your flash, is to start with your ambient light metering and exposure.
19. matching, and even over-powering the sun with flash
We can easily use a speedlight to even out harsh sunlight. But we need to consider our settings. And be aware that going to high-speed flash sync isn’t necessarily our best option here.
20. the end will never be in sight
Learning more about flash photography and lighting is a never-ending journey.
There should always be the aspiration to become better.
That’s the challenge, and that’s also the good news.