How to Use a Speedlight Flash

This is part of a series of articles on the basics of flash photography.  To start reading this tutorial from the beginning, click here.

Using a speedlight flash is quite simple–despite the way flash manufacturers make them look.  In this flash photography crash course, I'm going to show you the four functions that every speedlight has that you need to know.  Only four functions.  Know these four settings and you'll know enough about your flash to competently use it.

I'll show you these functions on the YN-560 flash that I recommend, but the exact same functions are available on any speedlight flash.

How to use a YN-560 II Speedlight Flash
The anatomy of a flash. This is the first and last time we use the word “anatomy” on this site. Makes me squeemish 🙂

1. Power on/off Yes, this is one of the functions!  When I said using a speedlight can be simple, I meant it!  The only trick you should know is that most flashes don't instantly turn on when you tap the power button.  You usually have to press and hold the power for a couple seconds.

2. Flash power All flashes allow you to set the light output or intensity, which is the power or brightness of the flash.

One thing you'll quickly realize as you set the flash power is that more power = slower recycle time, or the time between flashes that it takes for the flash to get power from the battery.  When possible, it is best to use your camera settings to gather more light (higher ISO or lower f-stop) and lower your flash power.  Keep in mind, though, that this will affect the ratio of light from the flash to the ambient light.

3. Trigger mode

All flashes allow for at least two triggering methods.  The first is manual, which simply means you are using a trigger/receiver setup to tell the flash when to fire.  The second option is slave mode.

Slave mode, in this sense, means that the flash should fire only when it sees the pop of light from another nearby flash.  This is helpful when you are using multiple flashes and don't have enough receivers for all the flashes. However, slave mode rarely works well outdoors or where there is strong ambient light, and doesn't work well when a flash is tucked behind a lighting modifier that would block the light from the other flash.

As a side-note, you may find that your model of speedlight has more than one slave mode (s1 and s2, for example).  These differ on the particular model of flash you use, but generally one of them is programmed to ignore pre-flashes.  A pre-flash is the tiny nearly invisible pop of light from a flash before the main pop of light.

4. Flash zoom

The zoom of the flash focuses the lens in front of the flash so that it constricts or widens the beam of light that the flash puts out.  When a flash is put in a light modifier, it should always be set for the widest beam possible.  This way the flash will take full use of the light modifier and fill all of it with light.

Using your flash is that simple.  With four functions you can create any photo you want with flash.  Most flashes have more functions than this, but I would encourage you to stick to these for now and only learn the other functions as you need them.

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7 thoughts on “How to Use a Speedlight Flash”

  1. Hello,

    Thanks for your article on using an external flash. I actually received my YN-560-III last week and I just love it ! I am a newbee in photography. I am using the flash on the camera hot shoe (still waiting for the transceiver). Is it normal that the camera flash still pops up although the external flash is mounted on the camera shoe ??? When it pops up, the camera flash hits the external flash and stays open half way…! My camera is a Nikon D5200.

    Any advise will be appreciated !

    Serge Picard

  2. Michael Carter

    Hi Serge,

    The flash will only auto pop-up in Auto-mode or one the scene modes. Try setting your camera to Programmed, Aperture-priority, or Shutter-priority modes (P, A, S).

    Hope this helps.


  3. Great tutorial!

    One question: how do I get my Canon T2i to use rear curtain sync with my YN 560-III? It seems that the camera has disable this feature when the flash is mounted to the hot shoe. Thanks!

  4. Im pretty new to photography & im curious as too how much of a difference the speedlighr makes from being on the camer as to set up off?

    1. Hello,
      There is a couple of differences using flash off the camera depending what effect you want to produce. Usually, for example in portrait photography we do not want that flat look which we get using on camera flash mounted on hot shoe. Using same flash of camera with similar settings, positioning it for instance on 45 degrees angle to your subject and moreover diffusing it a little bit, you get nice soft shadows on subject face with some depth. This is one just one example of using off camera flash, there are many more. ☺️

  5. I am waiting for Yongnuo IV. It should arrive tomorrow. I ordered two. I have really enjoyed this series of articles and I feel less apprehensive to begin using them. Also I will bookmark these articles to refer to. Thank you!

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