Flash photography for beginners - no boring theory! Quick and easy guide

With all their fractions, dials, and buttons, flashguns can be quite intimidating. But they’re not too bad once you know which settings you need to pay attention to. Here is my quick and easy guide to starting with flash photography.

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There’s a handy-dandy video version at the end of this article

 
 

Part one will cover the basics, and on-camera flash. Part two will cover off-camera flash, and all the fun we can have with flashguns once we are confident enough. So let’s start!

Why do we need flashguns?

  • To (duh!) illuminate a dark scene

  • And, much — much more fun — to gain creative control over the exposure of our images. What does that mean?

Here’s an example. If, without flash, I let the camera take control, the subject is exposed correctly but the sky is completely blown out.

Similarly, if I expose for the sky, the subject is underexposed. This won’t do! Here’s how a flashgun can save the day. You can expose for the sky — keeping in all that lovely detail — and fill in some light to make the subject correctly exposed too. How cool?

Here are some examples I’ve used professionally over the years. Some of these are with off-camera flash — which is basically exactly the same technique except the off-camera angle makes the light a bit more pleasing. You can see how cool the results can be. Imagine those images with a blown out sky… boorrring.

Cheap vs Expensive Flashguns — what’s the difference?

If you’ve done any research into flashguns, you’ll probably have noticed a HUGE price range. So what’s the difference? And why do I recommend buying the cheaper one? (And not just to save us several hundred quid!)

Expensive, brand-specific flashguns

  • Auto-exposure (ETTL)

  • More communication between flash and camera

  • Can sync to faster shutterspeeds

  • Auto focal-length adjustment

  • Faster reload times

Cheaper, universal flashguns

  • Compatible with multiple brands

  • No auto exposure — manual only

  • Slower shutterspeed sync (but perfectly usable!)

  • Slower reload times (but perfectly usable!)

So, on paper (or screen) why on earth would I be recommending the cheaper option? Well, I don’t really want my camera to dictate the exposure for me. As good as they are, they are a bit dumb sometimes, and they certainly don’t know the vision I have in my head.


If you can wrap your head around manual settings, not only will you save yourself a ton of money, but you’ll also get better, more creative images.

Here are the flashguns I use, by the way. They’re super affordable compared to most, and every image in this article has been taken with Yongnuo flashguns (I upgraded from mk 2 to 3 to 4 over the years since 2012. I’m a long term fan you could say!)


Yongnuo 560 VI (single flashgun) on Amazon

Yongnuo 560 VI (2 pack with off-camera trigger) on Amazon

What do the numbers on your flashgun mean?

In manual settings on your flashgun, you have only two things to be concerned with.

  • Intensity — the fraction number (1/1, 1/4 etc) 

  • Focal length (28mm, 50mm, 100mm etc)

 

As you can probably gather, the intensity controls how, er, intense the flash power is. This is the most important setting.

The focal length isn’t too important. Don’t think you need to religiously sync your flashgun focal length with your lens. Basically, a longer focal length on the flashgun will narrow the beam of light and throw it a bit further. Maybe control the sideways spill a bit. A wider focal length will make the beam wider and cover more area. Choose accordingly, but don’t worry too much if you forget (I forget ALL the time. I just leave it in the middle — say 50mm — and only change it if something is really far away or really close).

Look how much of a difference on-camera flash can make!

How to expose correctly with a flashgun

There are two schools of thought, really. The technically precise equation route (zzzzz) or the educated guess route. You probably know which one I prefer.
For your no doubt burning curiosity, here is the equation if you want to give it a stab. To work it out you need to know the Guide Number of your flashgun, which should be found in the manual. 


Guide Number = Distance of subject from Flashgun x f/Stop number


This is at ISO100, so theoretically you’ll get double the reach by doubling your ISO or opening your aperture. If this helps you to get in the ballpark, then by all means keep it in your mental toolbox, but if it doesn’t, fear not!

Or you could just… make an Educated Guess

So long as you know how your ISO, Aperture, and Shutterspeed work, this method should be quick and simple. 

I start with middle of the road settings, such as:

  • ISO 200 (which is the base ISO of m/43 cameras)

  • F8

  • 1/125th shutterspeed

  • Flashgun on 1/4 power


From here, I fire a test shot. Unless I’m competing with direct sunlight, or in a particularly tricky situation, this is right in the ballpark 90% of the time. From here it’s just a quick tweak to get everything right.

Too bright? Lower ISO, up your aperture, lower the intensity of the flashgun.

Too dark? Up your ISO, open up your aperture, up the intensity of the flashgun.

One thing you’ll notice here is I’m not messing with the shutterspeed too much. There is an important reason for this.

The cheaper flashguns have a much lower sync speed, so if you put your shutterspeed too high you’ll start to see these awful dark lines in your images. It’s actually catching the shutter as the shot is being taken. 

Now, the threshold will differ from brand to brand and even camera to camera, so I’d suggest testing out the threshold of your setup and keeping that shutterspeed number firmly in your head. Or perhaps written on the back of your flashgun. 

For instance, I know I can get to around 1/200th with my Lumix cameras. I like to keep it at 1/125th just to be completely sure I’m in the clear. I can lower it to a certain degree, so long as it doesn’t introduce motion blur into my shot, but generally speaking I like to set it at 1/125th and pretend it’s locked there when the flashgun is on the camera.

Hopefully this makes sense. It can all sound a bit sprawling and long-winded when it’s written down, but in practice we’re just using our knowledge of the exposure triangle (ISO, aperture, shutterspeed) to get the look we’re after. 

OK. Right. But how do you PHYSICALLY compose a shot with a flashgun?


If you’re in a dark environment it’s as simple as illuminating your subject enough that it looks good. Super simple!

If you want to creatively take control of the shot, like I talked about in the beginning of this article, the best method is this:

1. In manual mode on your camera, with your flash OFF, expose for the sky and get it exactly how you want it. Take a test shot to check.

2. Do not change those camera settings. They’re done with now.

3. Add in the flash, using the fractions of intensity to fill the light in on your subject and make them look cool.

4. Done!

It’s all about compartmentalising which bit does what. In this scenario, the camera is making sure the information in the background isn’t blown out, and the flashgun is making sure the subject is illuminated.

How do you angle a flashgun to get the best results?


Ahh, this is the fun bit! I love how much versatility on-camera flashguns can give us. 
First and foremost, here is what NOT to do. Do not angle your flashgun directly down at your subject. Not unless you’re paparazzi. This angle is quick and dirty. The shadows are nasty. It’s like having a bigger pop-up flash on steroids. And we should all know by now that pop-up flash is not a pleasing source of light.

flash gun angled straight on. ICK!

 

So what can we do instead? There are LOADS of options! It’s ace!

My go-to a lot of the time is having the flashgun in the middle point between straight on and directly up. This gives a much more pleasing light. 

Angled slightly up. Much more pleasing, even light!

 

Also good indoors — if the ceiling is low enough — is straight up. The light will bounce off the ceiling and come back all lovely and diffused.

An absolute cracker is having the flash point sideways. In this same “half up, half down” angle. This can create some fantastic fall-off on the subject’s opposite side. It looks really cool. Just be aware of your surroundings and don’t blind people beside you if you’re in a crowded area!

angled to my left. Notice the light fall off on one side of her face?

 

And finally, the oddest, just-trust-me-on-this style: angle the flash back over your shoulder. This gives super diffused and angled light. It looks ace. It will only really work indoors because you are relying on the environment bouncing some of the light back for you. But it does look really nice.

angled over my left shoulder. We get the fall off AND diffused fill light.

 

Give them all a try! Different angles will work best in different scenarios.

Other light modifiers for on-camera flash


You can buy little cute softboxes for your flashguns, and also these things called stofens, which are a white plastic cover that helps diffuse the light a bit.

I have a stofen and it’s definitely worth having. As for the softboxes etc. I’d personally rely on angling the flashgun for on-camera flash photography, and play with diffusion methods during off-camera flash sessions. But if you want to have a dabble by all means go wild!



Catch-light


Most good flashguns will come with a little white card that you can pop up. This can give a nice little spark in your subject’s eye, so try to remember to put it up if the angle of your flashgun is in an appropriate place for it to work.

So there we go! A quick(ish) real-world guide on how to get started with flash photography. I hope you found it helpful. Before we go, here are some quick-fire tips to help you out.


Flash photography TIPS and TRICKS

  • Try not to use your flashguns on 1/1 power unless you absolutely need to. Your recharge cycle time will suffer, you’ll burn through your batteries much more quickly, and it’ll often be overkill for most scenarios. It’s better to start at around 1/4 and working up or down from there. 

  • Remember what I said about shutterspeed! Too high and your images will be ruined.

  • Take loads of rechargable batteries. Also label the batteries and keep an eye on how much you’re using them, and cycle them out of circulation when they start to become a bit naff.

  • There is a pilot light on most flashguns which will change colour when your flashgun is recharged and ready to fire. Keep a close eye on this as it’s really annoying when you shoot and nothing happens, especially when you’re with paying customers. Also keep an eye on that light. If it is starting to take longer to recharge between flashes, it’s a good indication that your batteries need replacing.

  • Bear in mind that flashguns are not infinite. The bulbs only have a certain number of flashes in them before they die. Of course this number is ridiculously high (we are talking probably years of average use) but if you use them a lot you’ll notice a slow decline. This is another reason to buy cheaper ones! Because the more expensive ones have the same sort of lifespan.

  • Because the flashguns are finite, don’t buy second hand ones. They might have had 10 flashes. They might have had 10,000. Just buy new then you know for sure.

There we go! Here are the flashguns I use right now and love. They’re amazing for both on, and off-camera flash, which we will get into in the next part of this article.


Yongnuo 560 VI (single flashgun)

Yongnuo 560 VI (2 pack with off-camera trigger)