Flash Photography Learning with MUNNS - November 2018

We have now covered everything you need to get a perfectly exposed picture, Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO… But is that all you need to get a perfect picture? “No” would be the answer to that, there are many, many more bits and pieces to cover that will help us to get that perfect shot.

Below you’ll find a piece dedicated to Flash Photography. This is not a perfect “how-to” manual, but it will provide a little understanding and allow you to experiment confidently, in your own way.

Part 1 – What is Flash Photography?

Flash photography is something most people will use at some point in their life, be it on a compact, at home taking pictures of the kids or just on their mobile phone.

A lot of people will use a flash, but very few will completely understand or even want to learn how to control it.

It can be daunting to think about and with so many different styles, techniques, equipment and rules, how does anyone use it effectively?

At this point, we’ll just think of Flash Photography as being the ability to add light where there is not enough.

Part 2 – Measurements and Adjustments

As with everything creative in photography, there are measurements to consider when using a flash.

We will cover Guide Number (GN), Aperture (f/), Shutter Speed (/sec), Distance to the subject (m/ft), Intensity (1/1–1/128), Compensation (+/-) and Zoom (mm) in this guide but for now, just guide number, intensity and compensation.

Be careful when reading the measurement of a GN. If there are no measurement markings on the flash, take it as reading in meters. If you see “SI” it is meters and if you see “ft” or “ ‘ “ it is in feet

1. Guide Number?

The GN is a measurement of how powerful the flash is or more importantly, how far the flash light will travel at full power.

To make it easy, the GN divided by the aperture equals the distance to the subject (1 foot = 30.5cm’s)

GN / Aperture = Distance

So at GN36 and f/4 will illuminate the subject at 9m (29.5’)

You can also re-arrange this formula to evaluate which power to use your flash at.

Distance x Aperture = GN

The subject is 10ft away (3m) and you’re using f/4 = GN12

2. Flash Intensity

Many flash units will use the flash intensity scale rather than telling you at which GN you are shooting, this is also usually true of in-camera flash control

The flash intensity stops are easy to follow as these are just fractions of the actual flash power.

So, for a flash with a GN of 36 at full power, 1/1 would be GN36, 1/2 would be GN18, 1/4 - GN9 etc., etc.

3. Flash Compensation

Flash compensation is slightly more complex and is used in many different situations; however, it is very easy to understand.

To add or subtract from flash compensation is to increase or decrease the flash intensity by exposure stops.

For example, you have the flash perfectly set up, with power and distance, shutter speed and aperture, but it is giving a spotlight effect on the subject.

To disperse the light more efficiently, you add a diffuser or place a small soft box on the flash. You know from experience that this will dull the light slightly and so instead of working out all the flash settings again, you simply adjust the Flash Exposure Compensation.

Part 3 – Why we use flash

There are many reasons we may use a flash, but only a few reasons why we use the flash over other settings (like ISO or shutter speed).

To freeze motion

We would use the flash to freeze our subject instead of just increasing the shutter speed to provide full control of ambient light, freeing up your entire shutter speed range.

This can be useful in two ways you can remove any background whilst maintaining the detail of the subject or allow some ambient light to provide a nice backdrop.

To show motion (Slow-sync)

Also known as front, back, first or second curtain flash; this allows you to use a slow shutter speed and a flash to capture both ambient light and a relatively sharp subject.

Movement in images will also show with a ‘trail’ showing from where it came, or to where it’s going depending on which side of the exposure you use the flash.

To isolate a subject

Sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate the subject from the background. The use of a flash in a number of different positions either bounced or off camera, can provide a distinction that easily isolates the subject from the background.

We will go into lighting and positions in a later tutorial.

To increase in-frame light (fill-in)

When shooting portrait, with a backlight or with various uneven lighting conditions we use a ‘fill-in’ flash to brighten the deeper shadowed areas (filling the shadows) providing an even light without a high contrast or heavy shadow.

Used correctly this can provide a sense of depth but using incorrectly will flatten the image.

Be careful with where you add the fill light.

Part 4 – The Camera and the Flash


The Hot-shoe is a standard size on all consumer cameras; however the connection and communication will vary from manufacturer-to-manufacturer and camera-to-camera.

Flash Sync Port

The sync port for the flash is another standard fitting (push or screw fit) and allows the connection of a flash gun via an extension cable.

Due to the simplicity of the flash sync port, it is likely that each camera manufacturer will provide a specialised cable connection for off camera flash or even a remote function of some kind.

Speedlights & Strobes

There are many different types of flashlights, however, the main two types you’ll hear about are Speedlight, and Strobe. Generally speaking, Speedlights are smaller, mobile devices that fit to the top of your camera via the hot-shoe. They usually require batteries and have a restriction on how many times it can fire before having to wait for it to recharge.

Strobes on the other hand are much larger and use external power sources. Large battery packs are used on location whilst most will also plug directly into the AC power socket for studio work.

Because of their size and build, they are usually much brighter, last longer and fire quicker with far less recycle time between shots (if at all).

The only real downside to a strobe flash is the size, weight and cost (they’re very expensive in comparison).

Ring Lights

Ring lights come in all shapes and sizes, different models use different methods to light the subject, but they all have one thing in common; shape.

The reason a ring light works so well is because it distributes the light around the subject, even at close range. It also provides a nice ‘catch-light’ in the eyes of the subject.

Twin Flash

A Twin flash is exactly what it sounds like, two separate flash heads usually running beside the lens to provide light distribution at various angles to the subject, be it evenly or with bias.


If you type ‘DIY flash diffuser’ into Google, you’ll come up with nearly 5 million ways to make a flash diffuser. Some are very complicated; some involve just wrapping tissue and a plastic bag around your flash head. So what is a diffuser?

It is just something that softens and distributes the light from your flash over a larger area.

Settings and Menus

This topic could go on for ever and has so many variances from flash-to-flash, let alone different manufacturers.

For this reason, I’ll cover just the basics.

Every flash will have a power setting of some kind. It may just be 3 levels I, II and III or it could show you 1/1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4 all the way through to 1/128, or it could show you the actual GN the flash is providing. You could also have Zoom, where the flash will change the angle of coverage (based on the lens focal length) to provide a more accurate light source.

There may be modes to provide, Full Manual, Slave, TTL, Remote, Fast Sync etc...

Much the same as the camera has P mode, TTL will look at what you’re metering and adjust the flash power accordingly.

Fast Sync allows you to use a higher (or lower) shutter speed than the ‘standard’ range with your flash, syncing it so it fires slightly before the shutter, covering the whole range of the exposure, or during the flash covering ‘one end’ of the exposure (slow or fast sync).

You will also generally have a flash compensation option on the flash to provide a light change in power to the flash even in TTL or automated modes. This will allow you to compensate for errors in metering (plain colours etc.).

Part 5 – Types of Flash Photography

There are as many different types/styles of flash photography as there are people who make flash equipment.

We will cover the most popular styles and equipment; however you will find many, many more as you look.


A bounce flash technique is one of the most used types of flash photography because it means you can work by yourself and without having multiple remote flashguns, assistants or ghastly looking reflectors dotted around. You’ll find photographers using it at weddings around clubs and special events.

Bounce flash will be a little trial and error before you get used to your surroundings and how the flash will work, but it can provide some much needed light without the flattening effect of direct light.

Bouncing the flash off the floor is great for Halloween projects


A diffused flash technique is usually used when bouncing a flash is not an option; you can even use the two together however a diffuser is most used in large spaces, outdoors and in areas that do not reflect light too well.

It can also be used to reduce the effect of natural light, such as beach pictures or when shooting with a direct overhead sun, however this would require a lot more power from your flash...

Remote/Off Camera

In controlled environments, sets or studio, an off camera flash system may be very helpful to gain control over both ambient, reflective and hair light (see the ‘Studio’ section below).

When using a remote trigger, or remote control via your camera you will be able to trigger a flash not attached to your camera.

Remote triggers come in many forms (such as the Profoto wireless trigger pictured). Although they may all work in different ways, most will use the same basic theory.

You will have channels and groups. The channel will connect the flash gun(s) to the camera and the group will allow you to set different functions to each flash gun.

For or example, 2 photographers working in the same studio, one will use channel 1 and the other channel 2.

This will stop them from setting off each other’s flash guns. Each photographer wants to use 3 flash guns at different powers, so they’ll set one flash on group A at full power, one on group B at half power and the last on group C with a +1EV stop.

Be very aware, some triggers use a wireless signal, whilst others will use an optical trigger (pre-flash). It is important to know which you use as the flash may need to be within line of sight of the camera.


In a studio setting, you have complete control over your lighting. This often leads to far more complex lighting situations, using both on and off camera flash, strobes, reflectors, diffusers and constant light sources.

The type of photography will also dictate the type of lighting you require. Although it may seem more difficult, it doesn’t have to be, nor does it have to be expensive to light your studio.

Firstly, a studio can be anything from a hallway, to the kitchen table, or a spare bedroom. Anywhere you have space for what you need to shoot.

Product photography requires a good eye. The reason behind this is usually because your subject will need to be crisp, tack sharp and is usually against a plain background for maximum effect.

The subject in these cases will be the only place for concentration and correct lighting will be required to stop it from looking dull, or flat (see “Part 6 - Lighting” below).

Portrait work can be as simple or complex as you like. The usual studio setup will have between 1 and 3 lights and use reflectors to give a softer feel.


Macro flash photography sounds very simple; get a light source as close to the front of the lens as possible and disperse as evenly as possible.

Lighting macro shots can be difficult and so there are specialist flash units available for this type of photography.

These range from ring lights positioned around the front element, to twin lights and L.E.D. spots.

The light around the lens allows you to get really close to the subject, whilst acting like an AF illuminator. Being that close to the subject will block most normal or natural light so the flash and AF light is very important.

Please don’t think that just because there specialist lighting for Macro, means you will get naturally good effects. Flash photography is all about knowing from where and how much light to use. You will still need good positioning, good exposure and maybe even reflectors to bounce some additional, softer light.

With a little practice, luck and a good model, you’ll be able to pull off the perfect shot, and feel good about knowing how you did it.

Then you can just sit back, poor a drink and enjoy.

Part 6 – Lighting

This subject can go on and on, with every photographer having a preferred setup. There are no right answers on how to set up your lighting, it is all down to experience, technique and your personal opinion.

This said, light is the most important part of photography; without it, you cannot make a picture.

Take a minute to look around you. Don’t look at objects or people, look at the shadows and highlights that provide depth and feeling, atmosphere and mood.

There are reasons shopping centres and casinos are well lit, whilst bars and clubs are darker.

A Single Flash

Having one flash in your bag means you need to think simply about your shot.

Will you bounce it, diffuse it, use it off camera, reflect a little back?

One flash is awesome for giving a hard light, for use in defining attitude and emotion.

Look at the shadow and how it changes just a single face. Imagine how much you can do with just one flash.

Twin Flash / Dual Flash

With two flash guns you are able to control both ambient light and separate any subject from the background or you can get artistic with your creations.

In the picture, you can see examples of how two flash guns can be set up. You’ll notice in all of these there is the use of a reflector to bounce some ambience.

Small flash is above, large at eye level.


When using a flash of any sort, you need to be aware of what and where light will be reflected.

Reflected light isn’t always a bad thing, unless it’s in the wrong place.

As I state above, reflectors are usually used in the studio but even when out and on location you’ll use them to redirect a little light to another area it’s needed.

Reflections in the eye are also something to be aware of as a ‘Catch-light’ can make or break a portrait image.

You will need to watch though as someone wearing glasses may not benefit from catch-light for obvious reasons.

These ‘bad examples’ are not ‘bad pictures’, but the reflection may not be what you want to see in the finished image.

This Tutorial was rather long, there was a lot of information to get into it.

It is by no means definitive and there are still so many areas to Flash Photography and lighting that could be covered

Look out for more tutorials coming soon and let me know if there’s anything specific you’d like to cover.

Thanks for reading,

Created By
David Munns

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