Photography comes from a composite Greek word, which when translated means to â€˜write with lightâ€™. That being the case, it could be said that there is no greater pen than the humble flashgun.
Flash is perhaps one of the most misused and abused forms of light in photography. For many it is a means to an end, a simple way to add light when there isnâ€™t enough. But flash is much, much more than that. Flash is the ideal â€˜light writingâ€™ instrument. We can control its output, its direction, its colour, its effect and its power and presence in our photographs.
There are many ways flash can be used to enhance your everyday images and in fact make others possible. Usually, the straightforward approach to flash makes it the most uncomplimentary light source possible and can give flash a bad rap.
The old pop up flash is among the greatest of crimes perpetrated upon the unwary user. The problem with straight â€˜in-the-faceâ€™ flash is that it is perhaps the most uncomplimentary and mono-dimensional light source known to man. It is the most common method of flash used and, with few creative
exceptions, itâ€™s the ugliest. I am reminded of interrogation scenes from old spy movies. However, if you have bought an additional flash that comes equipped with a bounce and swivel head, your days of ugly flash photos are over. Bouncing your flash off white walls and ceilings fixes that very quickly.
But some easy pondering over our analogy (you know, the light – pen thing) indicates that if you know what you are doing, you can turn your flash into a tool that creates shape and form using light, shadow and contrast. With a little innovative thinking and almost any kind of flashgun, you can do some amazing things.
Remove the Flash
The first step is to remove the flash from the camera. Doing so means you can point it from any angle, shaping and illuminating your subject using the flash as you see fit. This allows you to create highlight and shadow to imply shape and form in a way that the ambient or prevailing light does not.
Thatâ€™s all very well, but how do you synchronize it with the shutter? There are several ways, some rather basic and others quite technological. Photographers have been using synch leads of various lengths for a long time. Quite simply, they attach to the PC connection on your camera and to the flash at the other. They are fragile, cumbersome and a right royal pain, but they work. Coiled leads that connect to the cameraâ€™s hotshoe are also available, offering through the lens metering control â€“ a real benefit.
The disadvantage is that they are usually quite short. Then, there are wireless remote options. Some camera companies such as Nikon and Canon offer a wireless option in which several flash units can be
controlled by the camera and guided by its exposure meter. This is nothing short of fantastic. I use the Nikon CLS system, which I absolutely love for its simplicity, its accuracy and its flexibility. Then, there are third party options such as Pocket Wizards which remotely fire flashguns over great distances, no matter the brand of camera or flash connected. Cheaper options also abound and reports are that they are actually quite good too! Ask your photo retailer what he has available
or can order for you. Whatever you use, understand that you are now entering a whole new world of writing with light.
Writing with Light
If you really believe that your flashgun is your new paintbrush, then you can only begin to picture your options. These are limited only by your imagination and your technical understanding. However,
letâ€™s begin with a few suggestions.
The fantastic thing about using a flash off the camera is the freedom you have to manipulate the degree of its effect in the image. One of the ways you can do this is by metering, altering the ambient exposure so that the flash is either subtle or obvious. Allowing the flash to simply fill is a completely different thing to allowing it to be the primary light source. The latter is achieved by underexposing the ambient light a stop or two and allowing the flash to have a greater visual effect in the image. Another way to achieve this is direction.
Using the flash as a directional light source to paint light upon your subject where and how you want is very powerful and often the interplay between available light sources, (such as the sun) and the introduction of flash can add a dynamic to your images that is incredibly creative.
Toying with your cameraâ€™s white balance settings and adding color to your flash is also an interesting plaything. For instance, adding a warming filter to your flash and using a tungsten white balance in daylight can create some interesting color dichotomies. Then there is something friends refer to as my sunset kit â€“ a small square of orange cellophane and an elastic band. This simple
kit has created sunrises and sunsets on commercial shoots that needed them to appear in real life, but didnâ€™t. I donâ€™t believe I have begun to tap the options here, and your imagination can take over from here. The more you play with flash in this way the more your mind will open to the possibilities.
Flash is essentially all about the aperture because we are talking about the amount of light you need to control and not the speed or timing of it. Your shutter speed can plays a creative role however -depending on what you want to achieve. Naturally you would need to make sure that your shutter speed is not faster than the synchronization speed of the camera, but you can certainly have fun with anything slower than that! As we have said, some flash systems and cameras make the whole thing so easy. But if your camera and flash are not compatible or do not have wireless remote
technology built in, you will need to understand how to set up your exposure. If youâ€™re using a
generic flash gun then youâ€™re going to have to understand how to set it up to expose correctly.
If your flash has its own â€˜Autoâ€™ settings, you can usually rely on these as a starting point. Simply set the aperture according to the suggestions that line up with your chosen ISO. You may need to make
some adjustments from there depending on how your flash reads each situation.
The advantage with digital is knowing immediately if it has over or under exposed. As an aside, use your histogram or your flashing highlights setting on your cameraâ€™s screen to confirm that all is well â€“ or not.
If your flash does not work this way or you prefer to set things manually you will need to calculate for the correct aperture. This is done by dividing the guide number of the flash by the distance between it and the subject. In other words, if your flash has a guide number of 45 at 100 ISO and
your subject is three meters from the flash, your aperture would be around f15 – but f16 is close enough! The reverse of that is to set the aperture you wish to use and place the flash at the correct distance from the subject. You donâ€™t know the guide number of the flash? Check the instruction book, or simply look at the settings on the back of the flash and do some reverse mathematics.
So, here is your starting point. However, as we have also said, the option to play with exposure is one you should seriously consider. The flash can be either used in conjunction with the ambient light as a supplementary or fill light, or you can underexpose the ambient light and use the flash as primary or main light source. Now, this is where the fun can begin! I would suggest you grab a willing
model and begin experimenting right away.
Of course these techniques can be applied in almost any arena of photography from landscape to macro, portrait to still life. Taking your flash off the camera is only the first step. From there it is a long walk before you come to the end of your imaging opportunities.