When to Use Flash

Some photographers oppose the idea of using flash or light modifiers. Sometimes because it does not suit their style, sometimes because they do not feel comfortable using flash in first place. While we as photographers often love the feel of soft, natural light, knowing how to utilize artificial light can be of tremendous value in low-light environments. Not to mention that such knowledge and being ready to overcome challenging tasks in pretty much any environment can boost confidence and give peace of mind when working in the field. In this article, I would like to go over situations when flash should be used and how it can work to our advantage. I divided this article into indoor and outdoor photography to make it easy for everyone to follow. Please feel free to add your use cases in the comments section below. Please note that I am not going over the basics of flash photography here – the article assumes that you understand the relationship of flash with ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture.

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1) Indoors

1.1) Lighting Ballrooms, Churches, Wedding / Corporate Reception Areas

As a working professional, one should have at least the basic lighting plan to be able to capture the day with ease. High-end DSLRs may be flexible enough to capture images in poorly lit environments, but it is a game of compromises. If light levels are too low, you will have to deal with blurry images due to motion blur / camera shake, or you will have to increase ISO level too high, which obviously increases noise, messes up colors and greatly reduces dynamic range. In short, you are leaving very few options for post-processing. In order to avoid that and potentially reduce your post-processing time and other headaches, why not use flash instead? You can start out with a simple configuration, with flash mounted on your camera, or you could get more creative and use flash in an off-camera setup to make images appear more dramatic and well-balanced.

Wedding ballrooms, churches and reception areas are prone to have less than ideal light. The idea here is to be able to create a primary source of light that is brighter and more pleasant than the dim ambient light. Generally, churches do not allow using flash during ceremonies and you have to discuss using artificial light with the church officials before the ceremony takes place. But you can most certainly use strobes and light modifiers in other locations.

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So, what is the basic set up? If you have white ceilings that are not too high, you can mount flash on your DSLR and bounce light off the ceiling or nearby white walls. If the walls / ceiling are of different colors, I would not recommend to bounce flash at all. Remember that light will assume the color of where it is being bounced from. Green walls will create a nice green skin color on your subjects :)

Every photographer who is more or less serious about his time spent during the event and later in post-processing, should carry a bounce card (which will take a minimal amount of space in the bag). If you happen to forget one at home or at your studio, do not hesitate to create one out of just plain white paper. Get a scotch tape (elastic band, gaffers tape, etc.) to mount your handmade bounce card on top of your flash and voila – you have a much better light source than direct flash.

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A more complex setup involves moving the light source away from your camera, commonly referred as “off-camera flash”. You could set up a couple of lights that will illuminate the area from multiple sides / angles. Setting up one flash behind your subject as rim light and a single flash bouncing off or shooting through an umbrella could create great images in indoors environments. With modern camera systems, you can control both directly from your camera with infrared or radio transmitters.

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1.2) Photographing Details Indoors

If you are an event photographer, part of your job is to photograph details for vendors who made that particular event happen. The vendors will vary and are not limited to wedding planners, florists, bakers, etc. As an event photographer, you are expected to capture those details well. In terms of lighting the details, you may not need more than you have for lighting ballrooms, but working with stationary items is much easier, since they do not move or talk. If you wish to avoid using flash in these circumstances, you need to make sure that you are photographing at least at a semi-lit location. What you need here is a tripod and a camera set for slower shutter speed. This process will ensure that the camera gathers sufficient light to produce a sharp and balanced photo. One thing that it will not do, is speed up the process. If you wish to cut your time in half and be done with photographing details faster, your only other bet is to properly light your area of work. For this purpose, a flash on top of your camera bouncing off a white card might suffice. But you can go a little more complex with stationed back light and fill light on the side for a more balanced / professional look.

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2) Outdoors

2.1) Fill Flash – when your subject is poorly lit

Most photographers do not bother with flash outdoors. I would be lying if I said that I am not one of them. I love natural light and there is nothing easier than spotting a great backdrop with a good shade. Not to mention if you are photographing late in the afternoon, when the light is as gorgeous as it can get. But as the day progresses, your camera will start struggling to keep up with the available light. You will need to start thinking about using alternative light to get the job done. Learning how to set up lights in situations like these is very important. As much as the sun rays might create problems while photographing subjects, absence of the sun and hence good ambient light, would be equally painful. Much like photographing indoors, you may need to expose your subjects with an artificial light source.

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For the above image, for example, I used a single speedlight positioned to the left of my subjects, shooting through a medium size umbrella at full power. Without flash, the whole sky was getting completely blown out and I did not want that.

2.2) Fill Flash – when shooting backlit

Photographing subjects backlit can create a nice separation and bring more depth to images. But you should also know that if the subject is heavily backlit (say with the sun behind), the opposite side of the subject where you stand might get underexposed. While you can bring a reflector (and potentially an assistant for holding it) to help you get a more balanced exposure from the front, fill flash can do wonders, too. A single diffused light positioned away from the camera would do the job. I usually use one medium size umbrella or a softbox on a stand to do the trick:

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2.3) Sunny Day – overpowering the sun to avoid hot spots and intense shadows

Next comes the issue of photographing on sunny days, usually in the afternoons, when the sun is directly overhead. While some gorgeous stuff can be done with harsh light, photographing portraits may not be as pleasant in such cases. Much like photographing backlit, I would recommend taking out a simple umbrella or a softbox and get the game going. Properly placing flash will help avoid ugly shadows on people’s faces (ever seen “raccoon eyes”?), leaving your subjects beautifully exposed.

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2.4) Avoiding environmental color casts on your subject’s skin tone

While doing one of our FAQ series on our Facebook fan page, we got the following question from one of our readers: “When shooting surrounded by lush greenery, is there any good way to avoid the green reflection on skin tones SOOC? It’s driving me crazy to have to color correct/brush the yellow/green out of skin tones!”.

While working with natural reflectors, you always run into a problem where your subject will assume the color of the reflective surface. I encounter the same problems while photographing, and it sure might be a lot of hassle during post-processing. Although there is no cure for it in the camera, you can reduce this effect by using a reflector right next to your subject. You can also use fill flash (umbrella, softbox or other modifier) to illuminate your subject, which will more or less isolate him/her from the rest of the background and reduce color reflections. I find that using flash is often easier than a reflector in such situations, especially when I want to light my subjects from different angles.

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2.5) To have fun by adding different colors to images with gels

Regardless how hectic the day might turn out to be, leave yourself some room to be a little creative at each event you photograph. I recommend starting off with something very simple and gradually advancing as you start understanding your gear a little more. If you are photographing a wedding, you are probably working a long day with whatever comes your way. Since we cannot predict what might happen with weather, accommodations and other unplanned stuff, you may not be interested in trying out something new. But I beg you to give yourself a little more credit and push your own boundaries. When Nasim and I photograph weddings, we promise ourselves to do something a little different with each wedding. It is not something drastic, but something a little different from every other wedding. We usually aim for one special look. One idea is much easier to fit into a hectic day of the wedding and easy to complete. By executing such mini projects during crunch time, you know what you are capable of when you have to be creative on demand.

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3) Conclusion

Flash helps you to use another dimension in your photography. While at times you do not have any other choice but use flash, I encourage every photographer out there to leave some room to be creative. Regardless of the type of photography you do, it is just another skill that will keep you challenged and motivated to do something different.

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Avatar of Lola Elise About Lola Elise

is a professional wedding and portrait photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. She is the co-author of Photography Life and author of the Lola Elise website. Read more about Lola here.

Comments

  1. Thank you Lola, I enjoyed reading your post. I don’t often use flash as a) I don’t do much portrait work and b) sometimes they make the images look stark. However, I do use it for wildkife photography especially in the dull and dank UK winters. This is where birds are silhouetted against a white cloudy sky and it works very well. Then I use my flash on Nikon SB-800 on manual. In the opposite direction I occasionally do weddings, usually for friends only. I have found that in low light conditions especially, then I am better using the flash and D800 combination totally in Program Auto, the only time I ever use this mode. I must admit I haven’t got a great knowledge of flash photography and found it a bit of a dark art (forgive the pun).

    Your article has intoduced some interesting dimensions, so thanks for posting.

    Richard

  2. 2
    ) craig

    Regarding item 2.2) Fill Flash – when shooting backlit, I watched a youtube flash tutorial on using flash in backlight (Outdoor Speedlight Portraits: Ep. 201: Digital Photography 1 on 1) which stated that if you adjust exposure compensation up or down, your subject will remain well exposed while the background exposure will increase or decrease, yet the example photos they showed had the exposure of the entire photo going up and down (did not match up with what he was saying).

    His second point was when adjusting flash compensation up or down the background will remain well exposed while the subject exposure will increase or decrease. This seemed to hold true.

    My question is how CAN you keep the subject well exposed and vary the background if his example did not work? Maybe it should have and he messed something up? The funny thing was, he was bragging that Canon was the only one that could do this yet his examples did not reflect it at all. Also, I’d like to know how adjusting ISO would affect both examples. I know you can get more distance with higher ISO, but is there a better way to utilize it?

    FYI, I shoot with a Sony A77 and am considering buying an external flash if I can get some of these concepts nailed down. Thanks in advance!

    • 4
      ) Motti

      @Craig,

      The important thing to remember is that shutter speed DOES NOT EFFECT FLASH. Flash is effected by aperture, ISO and of course increasing or decreasing flash power. Shutter speed has no effect on flash strength.

      Outdoors:
      So if you want to keep your subject well lit while varying the background you need to increase shutter speed as you do so the background becomes darker but flash effect on the subject closer to you remains the same.

      However, a few things to remember (we wish things were so simple..), 1/250 sec. is the maximum optimum shutter speed you want. However, sometimes that’s not good enough to keep things darker in the background. Although you could shoot at shutter speed higher than 1/250, it’s not always recommended. If you do, you over work your flash and, surprise, surprise, flash power will be less ( due to its working much harder).

      In many cases, especially very bright days you need to go higher on the aperture to let’s say f/11 or even higher. Do not bump the ISO because the background will be brighter also, just up the flash power.

      The best formula when working flash outside is:
      1. Keep everything manual.
      2. Keep the ISO settings as the shutter speed. So if you put shutter speed on 1/250 (the best place to be), keep ISO at 200-300.
      3. Your aperture should be f/16 on a bright day, f/11 on a cloudy or hazy day, f/8 on a heavy clouds day, f/5.6 in the shade and so on. This is not exact science. Just try it but when getting to the right aperture, keep it there unless you move to a shaded area.
      4. Play around with your speedlight power. That’s what I do, I keep all other settings the same and go up and down on flash power.

      If you want to create a more dramatic lighting effect bring your aperture one stop over what is optimum. If the sky looks beautiful and blue at f/11, take it to f/16 or even f22 to make the sky really dark. But remember, the speedlight might not be strong enough to light the subject.

      NOTE:
      Using exposure compensation is done when using Aperture Priority, not recommended settings when using flash in my experience. Be on manual and use the settings above, it works.

      • 12
        ) craig

        I will try those suggestions, thanks for the detailed response! As suggested by another poster, it looks like shooting in manual is key as I was trying aperture priority and could not get it to expose how I wanted it to.

    • 6
      ) Motti

      Forgot to mention that:
      1. to use flash outside properly you definitely need an external flash.
      2. Nikon, Canon,Sony etc. all can do this.

    • 10
      ) GGandra

      @Craig – This video you mention must be old. In “older” NIkon’s when you induce exposure compensation it affects both ambient light and flash exposure (power). Both were linked in the EV comp dial.
      Currently, through the camera settings you can set if the exposure compensation affects only the ambient light or just flash power. You now can manage exposure and flash compensation separately.

      Keep in mind that when you use flash you have two exposures: the background/ambiente light that is ONLY afected by the shutter speed and the subject lighted by the flash that is ONLY afected by aperture.
      If you change ISO it will affect both.

      • 13
        ) craig

        The video was posted 2 years ago… not sure if that’s considered ‘older’? Anyhow, thanks for the simple description of how flash, shutter speed, aperture and ISO interplay! I understand shutter speed, aperture and ISO, but throwing a flash in the mix messed me up! That will help!

  3. Not sure if it helps, but I shoot in manual mode when using flash. So assuming aperture, shutter speed and ISO is a constant, exposure compensation will increase the power of the flash. Flash exposure compensation will also increase the power of the flash. Seems redundant, but actually makes sense. In Aperture mode EC compensation will change the shutter speed. This is where difference between EC and flash EC becomes important.

    Adjusting exposure compensation will change your shutter speed in aperture priority mode, but leave the light untouched. Thus +1 EV will overexpose your photo by 1 stop. Flash exposure compensation, however, will leave the shutter speed as is and will increase the power of the flash. Now put the two together, and you have a neat system, where you can manipulate ambient light very easily. Dial in -1EV and and +1 on the flash, and you decrease ambient light. Do the opposite and you increase ambient light.

    Personally, I use manual mode because i’ts just easier to flick the control wheel and adjust shutter speed manually. I shoot at ISO 400 or 800 (d800 easily handles that noise level even for double spread magazine prints). The reason is that bumping ISO indeed increases the range of your flash. Or, and this is more important to me, it dramatically decreases battery use while keeping recycling times really fast. Flash in rear mode and TTL. I dial in 1/10 F/4.5 if I want more ambient light. This is also excellent fo subject tracking and creating motion blur with background highlights, and all kinds of fancy stuff. If, however, I want to kill the ambient light, I dial in high shutter speed.

    One advantage of manual mode is that you have all controls at your fingertip and can work really fast. One flick on front command dial = decrease/increase DoF as needed. One flick on the sub command dial = increase/decrease ambient light. Adjusting exposure compensation will manipulate the power of the flash. That’s why the EC button on my d800 is the most used button on my camera, and I couldn’t think of a better placement – it’s right where I need it. That’s one of the reasons the DF worries me :-/ I actually shoot without flash most of the time, and I do lots of backlit shots, silhouettes, etc, and I’m often between -1 and -3 EV, changing in a pinch as needed. I can’t possibly work as efficiently with the new DF, with the fiddly EC dial on the wrong side of the camera :(

    • 11
      ) craig

      Thank you for the detailed response! I think using manual mode might be key. In aperture priority, I don’t seem to get the overall exposure I’m seeking. Appreciate the discussion!

  4. 5
    ) Winston Cooper

    I am always confused about where to set WB when using flash outdoors. Does it matter or better handled in Post???

  5. 7
    ) Motti

    @winston
    I keep my white balance on auto. I also shoot raw so post processing is easy. Nikon’s auto WB is decent but I don’t really care since it is easy to bet it right after. If you shoot JPEG try to remember to put WB on FLASH.

    • 14
      ) Winston Cooper

      Thank you Moti. I shoot and edit both RAW and JPEG with my D800 and have always suspected that just letting the camera work it’s wonders and then correcting if needed in post was the easiest way to do it. I seldom use flash outdoors and then only for fill. Thanks again for sharing.

      • 15
        ) Motti

        When not using flash outside Aperture Priority is the best! You put it on 100-400 ISO and decide what aperture you want, the camera takes care of the shutter speed.

  6. 8
    ) Motti

    Thanks Lola, a great article!

    • Motti, and thank you for providing the answers – you definitely did some heavy lifting for us, really appreciate it!

  7. 9
    ) gregorylent

    just shot an event using flash … on iso 6400 … arrrrgh!

    • Ouch! Forgot to change ISO back? :)

      • 18
        ) Motti

        Glad I could contribute! It’s not always the case :-), I am a rookie compare to some photogs here. If my short experience helps someone, I would be delighted.

  8. 19
    ) Temitope

    Lola, thanks for this post. Its really awesome ! I just wish to have more ‘lIght’ thrown into the issue of off camera flash system using umbrella and any other material. Please hpow does the set up work ? I look forward to your response.

  9. 20
    ) MicheleB

    I love to see the results, and the descriptions of techniques are great. A picture is worth a thousand words and on occasion it’d be great to see the set up the final was shot with i.e. show the photographer, strobes, lights, bounce cards etc. either a picture or a diagram Not every one, but every now and then would help visualize.

  10. 21
    ) Chrsitian Oster

    Hi Lola and Nasim,

    your website is great with a lot of super and usable informations for taking better pictures. I have your site on my bookmarks since a year.

    Normally I am taking pictures of landscapes so I am not so experienced with people photography.

    I am interested in taking pictures like the second from above (wedding couple in dim ballroom).

    I know you did use a flash. But how did you use the flash? What settings must I use in my camera and what settings in the falsh?

    I have a Nikon SB500 and D600 camera, but when I would have done this picture with my SB500 flash the whole scene would have been lightened. On your picture only the couple has been lightened and the rest of the room seems like taken without flash.

    How can I try to setup my camera and SB500 flash to get this result? I normally always get the whole room lightened and bright, but then there is no atmoshere in the picture.

    Hope you can give me a good advice.

    Kind Regards
    Christian

  11. 22
    ) Land Cruiser

    Dear colleagues.

    I shoot Sony Nex7 for fun and family/kids/friends. Can anybody recommend a model of an external flash which will give enough flexibility for both on-camera and off camera application? I guess a hot shoe adapter expands the range of potential options significantly, thus I will order the thing with an adapter.

    Thanks
    LC

  12. 23
    ) Gilles

    thank you Lola
    I can’t wait to be out there practising all this new lighting situations wit my strobes

  13. 24
    ) Christian

    Hi Lola,

    I have read your advice for flash photography above and have some questions to points 2.1, 2.2 and 2.3.

    I have a Nikon SB900 and a D600 and want to start taking wedding portrait pictures outside.

    What is better, a big softbox with the SB900 or a umbrella with the SB900? What would you recommend to me for starting taking portrait pictures outside?

    I want a lightwight equipment with good results as shown in your sample pictures above.

    How did you shoot the pictures in point 2.1 to 2.3 ?

    Are you shooting throught the umbrella or in the umbrella (as a reflector), how is the umbrella positioned?

    Perhaps you could give me some advice.

    Kind Regards
    Christian

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