From external flashes to imitating this trendy look with editing, learn how to capture stellar flash photography with tips from seven pros.
Flash photography is having a “moment” right now, gracing the pages of publications ranging from VICE to Bon Appétit. It’s a saturated, high-energy aesthetic that hearkens back to the 1990s, creating a mood that is at once playful and edgy. Once popularized by brands like Marc Jacobs, Céline, and American Apparel, this dramatic, contrast-filled look is, once again, “in vogue” for portrait, food, product, and fashion photographers alike.
“The demand for flash photography is definitely there,” Ukrainian photographer Ann Haritonenko tells us. “I think this might be because you can use a flash to create a very relaxed, nostalgic atmosphere — as if it were a photo made unintentionally by your friend on a night out. For some commercial projects, that’s exactly the look they’re going for.”
As with any high-drama technique, getting flash to work well can be a tricky endeavor. Take it too far, and you end up with something that looks more haphazard than spontaneous. That’s why we interviewed these seven pros to discuss their top tips for better flash photography.
“My biggest tip for beginners is to start experimenting with flash as early as possible, and to not be afraid of failures,” Belarus-based photographer Alex Nabokov, a.k.a. Navistock, tells us. “Try not to chase expensive, branded equipment right away. It’s better to buy a ton of various types of flash to play with and better understand what suits your aesthetic. That’s how you gain experience and learn how to create an image in any lighting situation.”
Know When to Use Manual vs. TTL Flash
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Manual mode and TTL (through the lens) mode each come with a unique set of benefits and disadvantages, depending on the situation. Simply put, TTL mode enables your camera to determine the correct power you need to get a proper exposure, while manual mode gives you control over your flash’s output.
When working in TTL mode, much of the work is done for you. That can be good when you’re unsure of how much power to use. It can also come in handy if your subject is moving and you don’t want to spend a lot of time adjusting your settings.
But, if you’re in the studio and you have something specific in mind, you might be better off in manual. You’ll also learn more by going through the settings yourself and seeing what works. “I find that flash in TTL often leads to incorrect exposure,” Russian photographer Mikhail Spaskov explains. “Instead, I recommend taking the time and learning to control the power of the pulse, the scattering angle, and exposure parameters.”
Take Some Test Shots
Often, you’ll need to adjust your settings a bit to get the exposure just right — so take your time. “The most difficult thing is using a flash with daylight, and for that, my best advice is to always check your settings,” Navistock adds. “Take test shots and try not to rush. It’s always better to fix everything on-site than it is to retouch or ‘rescue’ incorrect exposures.”
You can always start by exposing for the background, before you even introduce a speedlight. Then, bring in the flash, take some more shots, and adjust the power, or move it further or closer to your subject, for the result you want. Here’s another tip for shooting with bright daylight: turn on HSS (high-speed sync) for faster shutter speeds than your camera’s max sync speed (usually around 1/125 or 1/250).
Get the Mood Right
“Mostly, I prefer to make pictures with natural light, but in some cases, a simple on-camera flash really works,” Belarus-based photographer Viktor Solomin, a.k.a. solominviktor, admits. “I love that ‘no-shadow’ flash style you get with old compact film cameras, with an automatic flash. So, I use flash not because I don’t have enough light, but because I’m trying to pay homage to that style.”
For these kinds of shoots, the rock-and-roll theme works well, as do party scenes with a fun, youthful vibe. It’s all about that vintage nostalgia, so don’t be afraid to play with a humble on-camera flash to aim for that classic aesthetic.
Add a Pop of Color
“For these kinds of photos, your frame has to be colorful, and the background has to be strong,” Solomin continues. “Backgrounds and clothing can’t be made of materials that absorb light, like velvet, but they also can’t be too reflective, like mirrors or polished metal. Look for vivid clothing and accessories. I like to combine colorful backgrounds and cool, colorful fashion. The flash can bring those colors out, giving you more freedom to create bright and vivid pictures anywhere you want.”
Watch Those Shadows
“The most common mistake I see is not knowing how the flash works,” Haritonenko explains. “That can cause the light to spread unevenly, forming dark spots or ugly shadows on the face.”
While shadows are hard to avoid, you can learn to minimize them by moving your flash farther from your subject or diffusing it with an umbrella, mini-softbox, or something similar. Additionally, consider bouncing that speedlight off a wall or another surface. Experiment with using bounce cards and the ceiling to see what works.
Think Beyond the Flash (Use Modifiers!)
While we’re on the subject of reflectors and diffusers, don’t be timid about adding modifiers to your light. “Get in the studio or rent a space and try working with various reflectors and softboxes and color gel filters,” Spaskov suggests. “As you learn to understand how a particular tool works in the studio, you can create more special effects on set.’
“You don’t have to try something complicated right away. You can learn gradually, moving from simpler to more complex. Start with a simple on-camera flash and learn how to bounce it off different surfaces. Learn how to correctly expose a photo using a flash.’
“From there, try to remove the flash from the camera and use a synchronizer. Shoot with a remote flash on a stand. Finally, connect two or three flashes and try different light schemes. You don’t have to take pictures of people immediately, you can practice on a plaster head, or any object, until you find your footing.”
Watch the Ambient Light
“The most common mistake when it comes to flash is inappropriate illumination, which can damage the overall atmosphere,” Konstantin from the Russian photography team SeventyFour tells us. “Ambient light sources include windows, room lighting, or light bouncing from the walls, so you should take those light sources into account when producing the photo shoot. Take your time to study the way the light falls and spreads.”
If you have ambient light illuminating your scene, you’ll likely have to match your flash to the temperature of that light. If, for example, you’re shooting in a room with an orange lamp, you might want to add an orange filter to your flash, as well. If you’re shooting outdoors at night, you want to be aware of the temperature of the street lights.
Switch off that auto white balance, as well, for more control over color and temperature. And finally, remember that longer shutter speeds will capture more ambient light in the background.
Scout Your Location
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This step is a must for anyone working outside the studio. “I always get ready in advance and scout my locations,” Moscow-based photographer Alexander Alenin, a.k.a. Superlime, explains. “If you are shooting outdoors, I recommend taking one external flash with you, as well as a stand and an assistant, to get everything arranged properly on location. I also like to bring my laptop or iPad with me so I can see the photos on my screen right away and make any adjustments as I go.”
Mimic the Effect in Post
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Okay, so this one isn’t a flash photography tip, but you can use it to get those vintage vibes without an actual flash. “This image was not made with a flash, but I achieved a similar look while editing it on the computer,” Ukrainian photographer Dmytro Betsenko, a.k.a. finwal89, tells us. “Believe it or not, I took this photo on a big pink sofa in a shopping mall, using only the mall’s overhead lights.’
“When I looked at the RAW files, I noticed that there were some good shots, but with this lighting they looked terrible. After some time, I returned to this series and thought I’d try to make them look like these trendy pictures made with flash that we’re seeing these days.’
“First, I applied a VSCO preset. Then I raised the whites significantly and made the temperature cooler. I lowered the exposure, contrast, and highlights, added some contrast with tone curves, and raised the shadows and blacks. In the HSL panel, I moved the hues around. I worked instinctively, feeling out the image while replicating that hip, old-school look.”
Cover image by LightField Studios
Looking for even more pro lighting hacks? Check these out:
- 13 Photographers on Lighting Techniques for Small-Budget Shoots
- Using Tungsten Lighting in a Daylight-balanced Scene
- Color Temperature and 3 Point Lighting Basics
- 6 Tips for Portrait Photography Using Natural Lighting
- The Ultimate Guide to Artificial, Natural, and Mixed Lighting
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