Overcome Your Fear of the Flash! A Lighting Tip for Photographers

In photography, lighting is everything. After all, the Greek meaning of photography is “drawing with light”. That said, we have many tools to take advantage of, and one of them is the Speedlite, otherwise known as a hotshoe flash for digital SLR cameras and some point-and-shoot cameras too. But many photographers are intimidated by flash. I know it’s easier for some photographers to transition into the use of available or natural light, and that is great knowledge to have. But clients also love the results of detailed scenery or iconic landmarks in their photos, especially in wedding photography. In some cases that can be hard to accomplish with just natural light since you have to balance the exposure well enough to capture the detail in your couple and the background at the same time. Depending on lighting conditions for example, when you set exposure for your couple, the background may turn out too dark. Or when you expose for the background, the couple may turn out too bright. No matter what kind of camera you are using, AUTO mode or manual mode, entry-level or professional SLR, it’ll never be able to process light the way your brain does. Although today’s cameras do quite a good job trying! So how do you deliver professional results that your client expects? By understanding on and off-camera flash and what is known as fill light. Here is a simple technique to make it happen, known as through-the-lens metering, or TTL (ETTL for Canon cameras). This means measuring light through the lens the photographer is using. This information can then be used to select proper exposure and control the amount of light emitted by a flash connected to the camera. Your camera can do all of this for you, they are that good. All you need to do is attach a Speedlite and you are set for some lighting and photography!

When shooting in sunny conditions the camera flash has the job of filling in some harsh shadows and keeping your bride and groom well lit. Depending on the look you want, firing the flash off-camera via sync cord can result in more dimensional lighting (e.g., a mix of highlights and shadows), while on-camera flash results in more direct lighting. Both are simple and effective ways for adding fill light to your subjects, making them look fantastic. Lighting also gives you the chance to maintain the detail in the scenery while using fill flash, or fill light on your subjects. As a destination wedding photographer based in DC, many couples that hire me want to include the scenery or iconic backdrop as a way to remember where they celebrated their big day. After months of planning the wedding this detail is very important to them.

The couple pictured in these accompanying images really wanted photos of the US Capitol and the luxurious Omni Shoreham Hotel where their reception took place. While there is more than one way to achieve a good exposure and create a great photo, I had very little time to set up any fancy lighting, a common scenario in wedding photography. Wedding photographers typically need to be mobile with the best portable equipment they can afford. This is when the powerful and portable Speedlite shines, literally in a sense. I carry three, but for this example, one is enough. Simply attach the Speedlite to your camera’s hotshoe, switch it to TTL mode (or ETTL for Canon) and have good fill light all day. For the off-camera flash approach, use a Off-Camera Flash Sync Cord for Canon EOS Cameras, or if you’re a Nikon shooter, B&H Photo has a Nikon compatible Off-Camera Sync Shoe Cord.

On this couple’s wedding day the early afternoon sun was hitting the west side of the big white building head on, resulting in a brightly lit Capitol building. The solution was to correctly expose the US Capitol so it doesn’t appear totally washed out. If you’re shooting in “AUTO” mode, the camera can try and do this for you. But getting proper exposure of your subjects might result in the poor lighting of the couple. Solution: fire your off-camera flash! The flash opens up a world of possibilities, but most importantly it helps you get good exposures when working with less-than-ideal conditions. Depending on the look you want to achieve, off-camera lighting results in more dramatic and flattering light. While natural light shooting is great, learning and practicing off-camera flash could create more diversity in your work. Also learning to shoot in manual mode brings its advantages as well, but that’s for another tutorial.

With the small window of time to photograph the couple in DC, I chose the the ease of mobility and speed using my Speedlite and TTL lighting. In addition, I attached a small Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce diffuser to the Canon 580EX Flash to soften the light just a bit more to ensure a flattering look on the bride and groom. I handheld the flash outward with my non-shooting (left) hand while I exposed for the US Capitol building and/or the sky above it. This resulted in images that pop with color, a clear background, and a well lit bride and groom. Mission accomplished. To see more results, visit my photography blog post about the DC wedding.

Today’s photographic technology has come a long way, especially with the rise of powerful, affordable consumer digital SLRs entering the market. But remember, all the high end tech won’t replace the fundamentals of understanding exposure, composition and lighting. I hope this brief lighting tutorial will help expand your photographic creativity. Happy shooting, or should I say, happy lighting!