Flash Photography Camera Settings for Beginners

In Photo Basics by Matt Gavin7 Comments

Flat Photography example using a three flash setup and modifier.

A three flash setup, two on the house and one on the couple to camera right with a MagMod Sphere Modifier.

Strap on that speedlight and follow me!!

FLash photography is an awesome way to make a step change improvement to your photography.  For me, flash photography was a technique that really improved my images almost instantly, whereas learning other aspects of photography yielded more incremental improvements.  Flash is a great way to add drama to your images and really add a pop to them.  It's also a lot of fun!!

But where do you start?

For the beginner (and even for the more experienced flash photographers amongst us) set your camera up using the following settings as a starting point….

  • Manual Mode
  • Aperture – f8
  • Shutter Speed – 1/200
  • ISO – 200
  • Flash power – 1/16

Then take the shot, you can easily adjust the exposure based on the feedback from that first image (yes, chimping your LCD screen is ok and don't let anyone tell you otherwise). If the ambient light looks too dark, then slow the shutter or widen the aperture.  If the subject looks too bright then drop the flash power.  Any combinations of setting tweaks can lead to a different looking shot.  Experiment and have fun with it.

Step 1: Put your Camera in Manual Mode

I find that when using flash the camera can often get confused with the exposure and give you a result that you didn't really want.  You are also far more in control of the situation in manual mode and can tweak the Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO easily to get the look you are going for and adjust for the conditions.  With flash, you add a 4th element to the exposure triangle, flash power, that needs to be balanced with the other 3 to get the best possible image.   You also need to ensure you balance your flash lighting with the ambient lighting. In manual mode, you have far more control over the overall shot and you will be able to be much more creative with your flash photography.

Don't let the dreaded ‘M' mode scare you though if you are not used to it.  Give it a go.  You will find that with flash you are more in control in M and actually understand whats going on easier than when shooting in natural light.  It sounds crazy, I know, but just try it.  If you are not used to shooting in manual mode then check this article out on mastering the cameras shooting modes.   This is not as difficult as it first seems and I am confident you will soon get to grips with it.

The aperture, shutter, and ISO buttons on a DSLR camera

Select the shooting mode by using this dial on the top of your DSLR

Step 2: Set your Aperture to f8

As a starting point, f8 is always a good aperture to select to begin with.  It means you have a larger depth of field so you won't have to worry about getting your image sharp in most cases, leaving you to focus on the composition and lighting.  You can always tweak the aperture when you know what kind of shot you are getting.  Very often when using flash, a wide open aperture will overexpose your image because you are limited on shutter speed (see next tip for why this is the case).

Using an aperture of f8 will also ensure that your shutter does not need to exceed 1/200 in order to avoid overexposure, more on this in step 3.

Step 3: Set your Shutter Speed to 1/200

1/200 of a second is a good starting shutter speed.  On a lot of cameras, this is the shutter speed which correlates to the flash sync speed, meaning using a faster shutter speed will result in a black band across the image where the light from the flash hasn't exposed correctly.  Some cameras this speed limit is set to 1/250 of a second so you will need to determine what this is in order to remain within it.  To enable faster shutter speeds, you will need flash units that are capable of high-speed sync, but this is a subject on its own so is not covered in this article.  For the time being, look to stay below the sync speed limit.

With a shutter speed of 1/200, you are likely to have a speed fast enough to ensure sharp images of fairly motionless subjects, such as portraits.  Combined with the depth of field achieved with an aperture of f8, you shouldn't have too many issues with sharp images (don't forget good technique and quality glass play a part here too, as do other things).

Step 4: Set your ISO to 200

ISO 200 is a good place to start.  This will ensure you get a really clean image but will give you an extra stop of light to play with from ISO 100.  The advantage of flash photography is you can get into much cleaner ISO ranges for your camera.  This really helps give you a nice sharp image without a lot of noise and all modern cameras are excellent at these low ISO ranges.  Even entry levels do really well here.  Its the really High ISO levels that set the professional full frames bodies apart from the entry level.  You can negate that to some extent if you master flash.

Step 5: Set your Flash Power to 1/16

To start with you don't was to have too much flash firing at your subject.  You are best to start with a lower power and increase from there if you need to.  You will be surprised at how little power you will need and its good to start with a power that won't eat too much battery power and won't take any time to recharge the flash.  1/16 would be a good place to start.

Step 6: Bounce Flash vs Off-Camera Flash

As a starting point, using bounce flash will get the best results in the shortest amount of time.  This is where you bounce your flash off of a large surface such as the ceiling or a large wall.  White walls work best as darker walls will tend to swallow your flash power and also has the potential to create a colour cast on your image.  By bouncing flash it's more simple to get a even light on your subject and you have more chance of avoiding flash photography pitfalls, some of which are discussed later in this article.  Using bounce flash you can quickly light a subject with the convenience of the speedlight mounted in your hot shoe.  The downsides to bounce flash is that it's quite difficult to create mood and directional light to create shadows and depth.  This can make the images less dramatic as the effect is that of bringing up the ambient light in the room.  Another difficulty with this method is that there isn't always a white ceiling or wall close by to bounce light off.  The ceilings may be high or covered with beams.  They could be painted a dark colour.  The walls may be painted a dark colour.  In these situations, you may choose to mount your flash off camera.

Example of flash photography in a candid setting using bounce flash.

Bounce flash is a great way to quickly and conveniently light a subject or group of subjects, but you will get fairly even lighting.  Great for when you need to quickly capture those candid moments!

With off-camera flash, it is easy to get more creative.  You can easily change the angle of the light source relative to your subject and create an unlimited range of looks and moods which helps to give your images the wow factor.  Off camera flash gives you the opportunity to deliver more directional light and is not as daunting as it looks.

Off camera flash photography on a sunny day is also useful

Off Camera Flash can really add to the wow factor of an image and create much more interest and drama – even on bright sunny days.  Shot with 2 off camera speedlights, one hair light and a key light with Magmod Sphere modifier.

 

Balancing flash photography with ambient light!!

Using flash can really get your creative juices flowing, in this image I blended ambient and flash lighting to light the subject and also expose correctly for the bright sunset.  This is taken with one speedlight with a MagMod Sphere modifier to camera right.

So your settings are dialled in, now what??

With these starting settings in place, compose and take your shot.  Have a look at the exposure on the LCD screen, if it looks underexposed, you just do the things you would do in natural light.  you can either slow your shutter speed, open your aperture or boost your ISO.  Using speedlights gives you a fourth option which is to increase flash power.    You can do the opposite to this if your image is overexposed.  It is worth having a reminder at this point that increased shutter speed to reduce the overall exposure is limited to the flash sync speed.  Also, shutter speed has little effect on the flash and more on the overall ambient light.

There are a few little bits it's worth knowing to help you get your perfect exposure more quickly.

Check the surrounding ambient exposure of your image.  Does this look ok or is it under or overexposed?  If your ambient exposure looks about right but your subject is not, then alter the exposure with flash power changes.  The other settings would change the ambient light and may under/overexpose those when you change setting for the exposure of your subject.  Check for any hotspots on the image, are these in the background or on the subject.  Dial down your camera settings to reduce hot spots in the background, and dial down flash power for hot spots on your subject.

Note – The Inverse Square Law and Flash Photography

It is worth noting the inverse square rule with flash at this point in relation to the distance between your subject and the background.   As the distance from your flash to the subject increases, the flash power will reduce by the inverse square of the distance.  Clear as mud I know but it is a useful concept to understand.  To explain this another way, if the distance between your flash and you subject doubles (2 times the distance), the flash power will reduce by the inverse square of this distance.  2 squared is 4 so the power will reduce by 1/4 (not a half like many people think).

Why is this important I hear you ask?  Well, in relation to increasing flash power, you need to be aware of the distance to your subject as the light reaching the subject will be much less.  it is also worth noting the distance to the background.  if the background is relatively far away from the flash compared to the subject, then you don't need to worry about your increased flash power really affecting your background.

Flash Photography Equipment you will need

  • You need a camera with a hot shoe – hopefully, this one is obvious.
  • You need a speedlight – Forget the little pop-up flash built into your camera body.  I have no idea why they still put these in.  That small flash is going to give horrible harsh light and smash your subject directly in the face, leading to very poor lighting and unattractive portraits.  This is what leads to deep shadows, red-eye and other basic photography mistakes so just don't use it.  You will need a speedlight but you do not need an expensive one.  Improve Photography recommend the Yongnuo YN-560.  This inexpensive speedlight will give you everything you need to get started.  Even more experienced flash photographers, such as myself, still use these.  I personally have 4 of these speedlights and they perfectly serve my flash photography needs.  You can pick one up for around $50 from most places.  They do not include clever features such as TTL, but I don't recommend using this anyway.  Manually controlling your flash is much more straightforward to understand.  This flash can stand in your cameras hot shoe or be operated off camera (preferable) with the aid of a Yongnuo TX trigger, which is another inexpensive device.
  • That's it!!!! – you heard, to get started this is all you need.  Below of some optional extras that will propel your photography even further but I stress that these are not needed to get going.
  •  A cheap light stand and speedlight bracket – you will certainly progress in flash photography quickly, and before too long you will want to try to experiment with off-camera flash.  Therefore, it is worth investing in a cheap light stand and bracket for your speedlight.  When I say ‘cheap' I mean it.  To get started you don't need to outlay much at all for this.  I went for years on the cheapest light stands and bracket I could find, and they served me well for a long time.
  • A cheap modifier – I will not go too much into why modifying your light is important, in short, it provides a softer light source which leads to more flattering lighting.  This will serve you well, especially with an off camera flash set up.  You can pick up cheap white, shoot through umbrella for about $10 and it is totally worth it.  You can get great images with this setup.    

This photo was taken using a single off-camera flash on a really cheap stand with a really cheap shoot through umbrella but the light is soft and makes the image pop!!   Shot at 1/200 at f6.3, ISO 100, Flash power 1/16.

Flash Photography Quick Tips and Tricks

Below are some quick tips and things to look out for, with flash photography, I learnt some of these the hard way:

  • Always have spare batteries, and spares for your spares
  • Start with a lower flash power to start with, increase if necessary. This will increase battery life and flash recycle time
  • Watch those hotspot highlights
  • Keep an eye on the background exposure
  • Watch out for  creating shadows across the subject, especially in group shots
  • Modify your light, make it big (and hence soft)
  • You don't need expensive speedlights
  • You don't need expensive light stands or modifiers
  • Don't fire your light straight at the subject, bounce it or get it off camera

Check Out Lighting in a Flash and Other IP Resources

If you'd like to learn more about lighting and flash photography, I'd love for you to take a look at the Lighting in a Flash tutorial.  It's the ultimate video workshop for photographers who want to learn to control the lighting in their portraits, create amazing conceptual portraits ANYWHERE, and learn how to use two simple light modifiers to recreate most any lighting setup.  It's where I started and I can definitely recommend it.

There are some great resources on Improve Photography so go ahead and search for more detail on some of the topics in this article.  I personally recommend this Photo Taco episode which will give you additional help.  You can always contact me and I can help to point you in the right direction so feel free to reach out.

Conclusion

Flash photography is not as difficult as it first seems.  There are challenges no doubt, and when you first start there is a little bit of theory to learn and remember but much of it can be figured out through a trial and error approach.  The results can be amazing and will contribute to a significant improvement in your photography.  It's also a lot of fun experimenting with different camera settings, flash settings, light positions and the number of speedlights.  You can really stretch your creativity and experiment with endless combinations.  Have fun with it and let it take you on a new photographic journey.

Give it a go and let me know how you fair!!


About the Author

Matt Gavin

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Matt started his obsession with photography in 2013. At the time his motivation for buying a 'good camera' was to take 'good pictures' of his son who was due to arrive a few months later. This started his love affair with photography and a passion for learning and growing as a photographer. Matt is based in the UK and works as a Mechanical Engineer by day and spends every other waking minute on his family and photography. You can learn more about Matt at his website http://www.54photography.co.uk or visit his Facebook Page

Comments

  1. Большое спасибо! Ваши статьи очень интересны и полезны не только для меня, и для многих, кто хочет узнать больше в любимом деле фотографии.

  2. A perfeect tutorial, precise and uncomplicated. Most easy to follow basic guide to flash that I have read. Cant wait to give it a go.

  3. Many thanks! Your articles are very interesting and useful not only for me, and for many who want to learn more in their favorite photography business.

  4. Right now I only have 1 speed-light and it’s a nikon brand. I need to purchase a transmitter to obtain off of camera flash for when I do use it, as I don’t always use flash. Can a nikon transmitter be used with other flashes? Say I buy a couple cheaper Yongnuo’s in the future, those probably can’t be programmed with the transmitter, but one could still use them set up in a way that they flash when the other flash goes off? I’m kinda fresh to the flash world. I don’t really want to spend the money on 2 SB-910 (which is what I have now).

  5. Great Article for beginner and professional photographer both. Its really helpful knowledge, all steps are very interesting. This is useful to start a business in photography.

  6. You will need a speedlight but you do not need an expensive one. Improve Photography recommend the Yongnuo YN-560. This inexpensive speedlight will give you everything you need to get started.

  7. who was due to arrive a few months later. This started his love affair with photography and a passion for learning and growing as a photographer. Matt is based in the UK and works as a Mechanical Engineer by day and spends every other waking minute on his family and photography.

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