A Step by Step Guide to Using a Speedlight

Let me preface this post by saying I am by no means an expert at using flash. I know people who will use it during the day, or can light a scene in the pitch black using one speedlight and an umbrella, or use several as slaves and masters (?!)

I am not this person. 

I only dig the speed light out when the days get shorter, and natural light indoors becomes less, and I need to supplement the existing light - that's it!

But as I'm willing to bet that is why most lifestyle photographers reach for their speed light, I wanted to give you a guide to use to use flash for this very purpose.  

The other thing to note is that for this to make any sense whatsoever, you really must understand your exposure triangle and how everything goes together - but for the purposes of this article I'm just going to assume that you are confident about what each of the elements does :) 

(Oh, and If you are unsure about why you would even want an external flash unit, i wrote about this recently with some examples here so you can read that first so you have some background!)

With all that caveats neatly out of the way, let's start on how to use flash! 

Photography Lighting Tutorial | How to use a speed light to supplement existing light!

There are three main elements you need to look at when taking an image using flash: the background / ambient light, the amount of flash needed, and where you can bounce the flash off.

It's easier to think of it when you break it down into steps, so that is exactly what I am going to do! 

Step One: Set Camera Exposure for Ambient Light

The strange thing about shooting with flash is that is some ways it is like you are setting two separate exposures - one for the background, and one for your subject.  You use your camera settings to expose for how you want the ambient light / background to look (the more ambient light you let in, the less "flashy" your image will look.  

This is how I do it:

First, I set my ISO as high as I can without introducing noise - this will be different for each camera model and the amount of light available and so on.  

Next, I set my aperture as low as I can for what I am photographing - the lower the better.  I want to let in as much light as I can but still with workable settings. 

Last is my shutter speed. You can afford to have a lower shutter speed than you would normally since flash freezes the motion somewhat (but also bear in mind that you will need to keep your shutter speed slower than you camera's max sync speed - this is usually around 1/200 but varies from camera model - if you don't know, start at 1/125!) If I am indoors with a lot less light, in order to keep my ambient light levels good, I will choose a relatively low shutter speed - less and I might get motion blur from camera shake (I'm naturally shaky!).  You can take a test shot at this point if you want, just to make sure you have your background looking the way you want it. 

If you are not sure what settings you should be using, then be sure to download my FREE manual settings cheat sheet, and you’ll ideas of what aperture, shutter speed and ISO to use generally - and you can adapt these for shooting with flash. Go here to grab it.

The image below has settings of F2.0 / ISO3200 / SS 1/200.  You can see that my subject is still too dark, but I have the ambient light the way I want it, or just a little bit darker (to account for the fact that the flash will brighten it a little) 

Step Two: Set the Flash Exposure for Subject

Now, turn your flash unit on.  We are now going to expose for our subject using flash. If you are new to flash, I think you will be best starting with TTL.  Basically, it's a bit like AUTO for flash: you are letting the camera / flash decide on how much light to add to the scene.  However, you have something called Flash Exposure Compensation which allows you to tell your flash that you need more light or less light than it decided on AUTO.

This is an easy way of controlling the amount of flash used - you just add power to get more light, and less to reduce the amount of light produced, in the same way as using exposure compensation on your camera

Here's the image with the flash power at 0:

Which I then dialled down to -1

This is the steps for adjusting the power on my flash unit (The Canon 430EXII) but if you have a different model you will need to dig out the manual that came with it - they are all pretty similar though. 

Step Three:  Bounce Flash to diffuse light

In order to get a more natural look to your images, it's useful to bounce the flash off something else, rather than pointing it straight at your subject.  So have a look around you and see what would be best to bounce your flash from.  You can either have it pointing up and slightly behind you, or up and slightly in front of you, or to the side.

Bear in mind that if you bounce off a coloured wall, you will get that colour flashed back onto your subject - white or neutral is best to bounce off so keep that in mind when choosing! 

In the first two shots above the flash is pointed above and slightly forward, and this shot below I moved the flash to bounce from the side. 

Step Four:  Test and Adjust!

Once you have your camera settings and flash settings, and bounced your light, take a test shot and see what you need to do. If the flash is looking strong on your subject, move your flash exposure down.  If you are getting shadow behind your subject,  try bringing up the ambient light by reducing your shutter speed. In both cases you can also try moving the angle of your flash, bouncing it elsewhere to see if that helps.  If everything is looking too dark, then adjust your flash power to increase exposure and / or increase your ambient light. Just keep in mind that in some ways you are setting two exposures - one for your subject which is controlled via your flash, and one for your background / ambient light which is controlled via the camera settings, usually by changing your shutter speed. 

Dont’ forget you can download my manual settings cheat sheet (it’s free yo!) that will also help you with your camera settings. Just go here to download it.

This is just a quick introduction to using flash to get you going - there is more to it so if you are interested in getting a more solid understanding, this book is a great option:  On Camera Flash for Digital Wedding and Portrait Photography -  the steps still pertain to other types of photography, including lifestyle, so don't let the title put you off!