9 min read

Introduction to Flash Photography for Beginners

9 min read

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Flash Photography with woman using a retro camera

Welcome to our introduction to flash photography. In order to learn how to use a flash, it will help a great deal to understand what a flash is and how it works. We’ll cover built-in or pop-up flashes and Speedlight’s or shoe-mount flashes that mount on the top of your camera.

We’re going to talk about the different flash units available, how they work, and the advantages and disadvantages of each type of flash. A flash is an indispensable tool, and it’s not too complex or difficult to learn.

How to Get Started: Professional Tips on Flash Photography

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Why Learn about Flash Photography?

The answer is simple – learning how to use your flash properly can radically change your photography and will take your images to a whole new level. When using a flash in combination with available light, your goal is to add an appropriate amount of light from the flash to create a properly exposed image.

So, it’s helpful to learn how to control the amount of light from the flash when working with ambient light.

The Different Types of Flash

In this lesson, we’re going to learn about the various types of flash units on the market, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to select a flash that meets your needs.

Pop-Up Flash

Most DSLR cameras have a small built-in or pop-up flash. When your camera is set to fully automatic, it will determine whether there is enough light. If there isn’t enough light, it will pop up the flash automatically.

man taking flash photo.


Most built-in pop-up flashes are located near the camera lens, so the light points directly to the subject. Often this results in red-eye, especially under low-light conditions. Red-eye is common with pop-up flashes because pupils usually dilate when you use a flash in ambient low-light conditions.

Red-eye occurs when light from the flash is too fast for the pupil to close, so the bright light from the flash passes into the eye through the pupil, reflects off the fundus in the back of the eye and out through the pupil. The result is subjects with red eyes. The good news is there is a solution! Using a flash source off-camera or from a different angle will help eliminate red-eye.

back of flash close up.


An on-camera flash, or speed lights (sometimes called strobe lights), provides additional light when you don’t have enough available light to properly expose your photograph. These shoe-mount flashes mount easily to the top of your camera, or they can be held off-camera using a sync cord.

Speedlights run on batteries, and the higher-end units have an option to connect an external power source for improved performance. Most camera manufacturers offer a range of optional external flash units that are compatible with your specific camera. Most of these units have rotating heads that move left-to-right and up-and-down. So you can bounce the light off a wall or the ceiling using an external flash to enhance the quality of your photo.

Nikon Speedlight front and back.

This is an important consideration with smaller cameras that do not have automatic exposure control, like the two bottom cameras:

Smaller “point-and-shoot” cameras have flashes with non-automatic exposure control and very small flash units. So their range is quite limited. Usually, they are ineffective after 15-20′.

Most serious photographers use flash units with automatic exposure controls (ranging in price from $50 up to hundreds)… typical circuitry (called thyristor circuits) has the ability to continue to pour light onto the subject – and back to the camera – until the exact exposure is accomplished even if the flash is not pointed directly at the subject matter.

These strobes have a wide range of power settings to use – usually from Full power to 3/4 to 1/2 to 1/4. You can tell what aperture to use by checking the settings dial (r) or, on newer strobes, an LCD Control Panel on the back. Using Full Power drains the battery rapidly, so you should normally use a lower setting.

I stick with 1/2 power for most work, and that is plenty. According to the dial – after I set in the film speed (f400) at the bottom, I see that I need to set the sensor on the front of the strobe to red (1/2 power) …. and, RED= f8.0 …. and that is the aperture setting I would use whether I am aiming the strobe straight at the subject or not. Have a read of our flash sync speed article to get familiar with other handy tricks and tips.

Here is why you would not point the flash directly at the subject. If you shoot “straight-on”, you run the risk of washing out skin tones, eliminating texture, creating harsh shadows, and getting “red-eye”. But, if you want to soften the light and spread it out, and eliminate shadows, you should lift the flash off the camera and aim it… I aimed the flash at the girl in the background, and the light spread evenly from the foreground to the back.

Also, moving the flash to one side will bring out the detail and texture of the subject and help you avoid harsh shadows in your photography.

Use a Bounce Reflector

Even better…. use “bounce light” whenever possible. Aiming the light upwards will bounce off the ceiling and spread out softly, giving you much more balanced lighting and no harsh shadows. There are times outdoors when shadows may require fill light from a flash.

However, backlit lighting can be pleasing…. here, I opened up two stops from the normal daylight exposure.

At other times, outdoors, the shadows may be intrusive and offensive, and you should use flash to fill in the areas of the subject covered with shadows. Here I had to make the exposure based on the fact that the maximum shutter setting for flash is 1/125th … so I took the flash off automatic – thus giving me full power and set the aperture at f22.

Now let’s take a look at some accessories designed to take the harshness out of flash photography and help add to your flash techniques….. most of them can be homemade at a considerable saving for those of you on a budget or very frugal (a euphemism for cheap). I found this nifty and very accurate little Vivitar flash. The trouble was that it had a fixed flash head. So I cut away the upper cover, and re-mounted the flash head inside a black, plastic film canister, and secured it with two screws so that it could swivel. I then added a portion of a translucent film canister to further diffuse the light. It is a perfect, small flash unit with sufficient power for most uses.

The flash on my trusty, old Ricoh “point-and-shoot” camera was powerful enough, so I placed some Mystic tape over the flash head to reduce the harsh light. Instead of paying $40-50 for a factory-made diffuser for my Vivitar strobe … I cut off the end of a small plastic bottle (made of translucent material) and taped it on the head. Works great!!!!!

Again, for those of you on a budget, there is no need to kick out $40 for a reflector card…. when you can simply use a piece of white plastic. It works every bit as good as the factory-made options….. and you could use colored plastic to introduce off-colored light!!!

Finally, there are some accessories you should consider buying…. an extension cord which will provide a high degree of flexibility in the way you aim light…. and a remote sensor that will make a second strobe a slave unit.

10 Advantages of an External Flash

The basic flash that comes on your camera should rarely be used, it adds sharp shadows and flattens out your subject too much. With most DSLR cameras you can change the ISO so that it is more sensitive to the light and will catch more light, thus brightening up your subject.

However there are also times when your subject might move too much causing ghost-like subjects instead. So what do you do if you don’t want ghosts and you don’t want flat subjects? For these times it is handy to have an external flash.

External flashes can cost anywhere between $60 and $800 for the most common ones, but they can enhance a pictures quality.

Benefits of Using an External Flash

1. A cleaner look to the diffusers you use to soften your lighting

There are handheld diffusers that can be used with your built in flash but with an external flash you can buy diffusers that hook to the flash to make it easier and cleaner looking.

Color diffusers can also be used to change the color of your lighting.

2. Reflectors can change the angles and intensity of bounced light

Again there are hand held ones, but the ones that attach to your flash make it much easier.

3. A flexibility to the ways you can angle and turn it

Most external flashes rotate so the light can be moved to come from a wider variety angles.

photographer using attached external flash.

4. Red eye reduction in portraits

The light is no longer coming from close to the center of the camera so your chances for red eye are much less.

5. Better illumination of subjects who are farther away

An external flash is much more powerful than the built in one so it has a larger distance it can cover.

6. More control of your lighting

There are settings on your external flash that can allow you to change the brightness and you just have more overall control of your lighting.

7. Added creativity with your lighting

Your lighting options become endless as you try new positions, angles, and brightness.

creativity with lighting and external flash.

8. More options with positioning, tripods, and remotes

Your flash is no longer just connected to your camera, and it can be moved and positioned to your wants and needs.

9. Lighting looks more natural

Lights aren’t usually straight in front of us, so with an external flash you can make the lighting look like it is coming from above or from the side.

10. Varied possibilities to bounce light off walls or ceilings

Bounced light is fun to play with as you bounce it off ceilings or walls and depending on the colors of those or other things you bounce it off your subject will look different.

Tips for Filling in Shadows Using External Flash

One of the methods for filling in shadows is to integrate an external flash with the use of ambient (natural) light. Properly named as “fill light” an external flash can help pull out the dark sections and shadows created from shooting in harsh daylight. Here are some ways that an external fill flash will help you create a better image without shadows.

Add Light to Pockets of Darkness

In a portrait used without flash, the lighting would need to be ideal to illuminate the entirety of your subject. Most often, light will wrap around your subject – allowing the figure and outline to appear bright. Although this is helpful, we still find that the more gentle, delicate features such as the face, will still have shadows and patches of darkness. Using an external flash allows you to brighten the foreground of your subject and lift those shadows, all while keeping the background properly exposed and intact.

Using the Sun to Backlight

It is typical to place your subject in a position that allows the sun to act as a perfect light source. When using external flash, you now have two possible light methods to help brighten and expose your subject. It is best to place the subject with their back to the sun, while photographing with the fill light from the front. This way, you are allowing the sun to add light and frame the subject while you aid in focusing on their facial features.

Keep the Photo Subtle

For artistic purposes, a flash may used with the intention to create and convey a specific mood and feeling for the viewer. Yet, in most situations a flash should be used with subtlety, aiming to avoid over exposing the foreground and darkening the background.

Remembering that flash is a great tool to avoid shadows and create depth, you want to ensure that the use of your fill light is to highlight features in a soft, appealing manner.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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    1. A slave unit is a flash that is not actually a part of the camera. It is not internal and it is not connected in the hot shoe. They often have an optical sensor that triggers the flash when the flash on your camera fires. There are more highly developed systems out there that are more commonly in studios where you can basically connect a remote control to your hot shoe and have all your lighting fire based on that remote control trigger. Slave units are incredibly useful as often times you want light sources from more than one angle.

  1. Thank you for sharing the wonders of trying to create great pictures. The lessons were informative and even as the film camera era is eliminated the information you shared will make those in of us non photographers in the digital era more aware of the art and science of capturing a picture that is worth a million ahhhs.

    We will always need the real photographers.

    Thank you

  2. Just for future readers Light level decreases in defined formula. The formula goes something like 1/distance^2 also known as the inverse square. basically if you double the distance you quater the light, triple the distance and you take the level of light to 1/9th that of the original distance.

  3. Your web pages are great, but you could help the reader to follow your explanations more easily by writing ‘above’ or ‘below’ when referring to images.

  4. So I’m guessing that this isn’t for beginners? I kinda just clicked because I’m getting a new camera for my birthday and I’m beginning out.

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