This photo of a model and a person holding a flash behind a diffuser is from The Flash Book by Scott Kelby.

Getting into Flash Photography

By Scott Kelby

If you're new to off-camera flash photography, you've come to the right place. In this excerpt from The Flash Book (Rocky Nook), you'll learn a few of the basics you need to take better photos.

THE MOST COMMON REASON FLASH SHOTS LOOK BAD

If you’re unhappy with the results you’re getting from your flash photography, and you showed me an example of a shot you didn’t like, it’s almost a lock that I’d say the problem is simply that your flash is too bright (like this shot). 

It is the most common problem I see, and it’s a pretty significant problem because the whole idea behind using flash is not to make it look like you used a flash—it’s supposed to mimic natural light. When your flash power is up too high, it looks like you went to Home Depot, bought a Black & Decker Ultra Bright LED Spotlight, and shined it right on your subject. That flashlight is designed to light things up, not make them beautiful, but that’s the look I see again and again. When you see hot shoe flash done really right, you’re not sure that they used a flash at all, and a big part of that process is using the right amount of light—setting the power of your flash so it looks natural and blends in with the existing light. But, for now, if you do nothing more than just start to pay attention to the power of your flash—in particular, that it’s not too bright (in other words, the power setting isn’t too high)—just that one thing, you’re already on your way to much better photos using flash.

DON’T PUT YOUR FLASH ON TOP OF YOUR CAMERA

There are one or two exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, the worst possible thing you can do with your hot shoe flash is to actually put it in the hot shoe mount on the top of your camera. That is a recipe for awful-looking, harsh, unflattering shots. It’s basically what we do to get even with someone “who done you wrong!” (say that last line with a country drawl). 

Think of it this way: the pop-up flash that is a feature on some consumer cameras (notice that it’s not on professional-level cameras from either Nikon or Canon) creates the most miserable, harsh light on earth (to give you an idea of how harsh it is, it’s where they put the flash when they take your driver’s license photo, so expect similar results). It’s just a mean thing to do to someone who you’re not trying to present with a license to drive. A big part of the problem is its location right on top of your camera, where it can blast straight into your subject’s face. So, if that pop-up flash light is so awful (and it is), what are you doing when you put a larger, more powerful flash right on top of your camera? You’re simply creating a larger and more powerful, harsh, miserable light. It’s like you’re entering the Super Bowl of driver’s license photo lighting. If you want a chance to create beautiful images with your flash, you must, must, must, must, must (there is not a number of “musts” that would be too many here) get your flash off the top of your camera and over to the side, so your photos have shadows, depth, and dimension. Without it, your portraits will look flat, washed out, and awful (but at least your subject will be able to use your photo to buy beer and get into nightclubs).

THE BIG SECRET: BALANCING THE LIGHT

At the end of the day, it all comes down to this: the big secret (and the most important technique you need to master) is balancing the light from your flash with the existing light in the room or outdoors. When you get these two really balanced with each other, the flash doesn’t look like “flash.” It looks like natural light.

It’s all supposed to blend together beautifully—you’re not supposed to look at an image and think, “They used flash.” In fact, if someone, who is not a photographer, looks at your image and says, “Oh, you used a flash,” you probably did it wrong. It’s all supposed to blend together to make your subject look great, without bringing any attention to the lighting at all—unless it’s to have someone look at your photo and say, “You were lucky you had such beautiful light.”  So, how do you pull off this balancing act? What is the technique? Well, you’re going to create this balance using the shutter speed dial (again, to raise and lower the existing light in the room), and the power setting on your flash (you’re going to find that right amount of light from your flash, so it doesn’t look too bright and blends in with the background—as if your subject was near a window with natural light streaming in). I start by getting the flash power where it doesn’t look “too flashy,” then I lower the shutter speed (from 1/125 to, maybe, 1/80 of a second), and then I take a test shot and look to see if it all blends together nicely, or if the flash still sticks out like a sore thumb. If it sticks out, I lower the shutter speed to 1/60 and try again. Once I do this, I might have to raise or lower the power of the flash again, until the balance looks right. It takes a few times doing this “dance,” until it becomes fast and easy, but the good news is: it doesn’t take long until it does become fast and easy. It just takes a little practice, but don’t worry, you’ll get it.

MAKE IT SOFT AND BEAUTIFUL

The light that comes from your flash is some pretty darn harsh light. Think about it: The flash head itself (where the light comes out) is only about 3" long by 1" wide. It’s a nasty, little, bright flash of light—it’s absolutely blinding to look directly at, and on its own, there’s nothing beautiful about it. So, it’s up to us, the photographer, to do something to make it beautiful. That’s a lot of what this chapter is about—how to tame that harsh, angry, spiteful, little light, so it produces gorgeous, soft, wrapping, totally flattering light. To do that, we have to put something between the flash and our subject that softens, spreads, and diffuses the light, so it’s soft and flattering. That’s all we have to do—put something in front of it that softens the light, so it creates soft, flattering shadows and makes people look awesome. There’s a key word tucked in all that, and that is: “spreads.” One reason the light is so harsh and nasty is that it’s physically so small (again, around 1"x3"), and the smaller the light source, the more harsh and awful the light. Take the sun, for example. It’s pretty far away from us, so it’s tiny in the sky. Because it’s so tiny, the light it produces is pretty harsh, and putting your subject in direct sunlight is almost as bad as putting your flash on top of your camera—it’s harsh and awful, and the shadows are hard and just yeech! Now, if a big cloud moves in and gets in front of the sun, suddenly the light is much softer, and the shadows are soft. There’s now something between the light source (the sun) and your subject—those clouds—and they act like a giant diffuser that spreads out the light from the sun and makes it softer. So, we do the same thing. We put something large between the flash and our subject to soften everything up.

THIS HELPS A LITTLE, BUT IT'S NOT A SOFTBOX

The reason why putting a diffusion dome over your flash won’t help much is because it’s really small, too! It’s about the same size as your flash head—it fits right over it, snug up against it—so, it doesn't make your light source bigger. Now, if you had a 3-foot diffusion dome (there’s no such thing, but let’s pretend), and you held it a few feet in front of your flash, then the beam of light from your flash would have space to grow and fill that 3-foot space with light.

It wouldn't be a 1"x3", nasty, little beam of light anymore, it would be a big, 3-foot, diffuser-sized light, and at that larger size, it looks much softer, more diffuse, and flattering. So, are you seeing where we’re going here? It’s not just about putting something in front of your flash, it’s about putting something big, and a ways out in front of your flash, to make the light beam spread out and become beautiful.

YOU CAN MAKE BEAUTIFUL LIGHT FOR JUST $20

Pretty cheap, right? Yeah, it is. Pick up a Westcott 30" collapsible 1-stop diffuser for $19.90 (B&H Photo price; you can find others even cheaper on Amazon), and simply hold that in front of your flash and you’re in business! 

Well, you’ll probably have to have a friend hold that diffuser in front of your flash for you. In fact, they can even hold your flash in one hand, and the diffuser out in front with the other hand, and easily put enough distance between the two to let the flash beam spread to create that soft, diffused, beautiful light. That’s it—stick a 1-stop diffuser between the flash and your subject, and you’re “there.” Twenty bucks. That’s all that’s standing between you and a tremendously better result from your flash.

THE MOST POPULAR PLACE TO POSITION YOUR FLASH

The most popular place to position your flash for portraits is at about a 45° angle from your subject. The reason this position is so popular is that it creates a very flattering look, with some soft shadows to add depth and dimension (well, as long as you made sure to soften the light with a softbox of some kind). 

To help with envisioning the position, think of it this way: if your subject was at the center of a clock, and you were standing in front of them at the 12 o’clock position, you’d put the light halfway between the 1 and 2 o’clock position (or halfway between 10 and 11 o’clock, if you want to light them from the other side). Of course, with it off to the side like this, one side of the face will be fully lit, and the other will have some shadows, which is actually what we’re trying to achieve, so that’s a good thing.

ADDING A SECOND FLASH

If you feel you need to add a second flash (maybe to light the background, or as a hair light or kicker light to provide some separation from a dark background), it’s really easy, but there’s something you’ll definitely want to do to help yourself be successful with a second flash. 

First, let’s look at how to set it up: Once you turn on the second flash, you have to decide if you need to control it separately from your main flash (my guess is you’ll want to), and if that’s the case, then you’ll just need to assign it to a different group on the flash unit itself. Once it’s assigned to that other group (we’ll say it’s now on Group B, for example), here’s that important thing you need to do: the secret to multiple flash success is positioning and testing the lights one-by-one. So, when you set up that second flash, turn off your main flash, so can you actually see what this second flash it doing all by itself. Is it bright enough? Is it aimed to where it looks good? It’s hard to tell if you have both flashes firing at the same time, so turning off your first flash is really important. Once you have that second flash all set (the proper amount of brightness, angle, etc.), then turn on both, and you’re ready to rock.

USE FALL-OFF FOR MORE PROFESSIONAL-LOOKING PORTRAITS

Unless you’re shooting full-length fashion, where the clothes are the main subject, in- stead of the person, for the most part, we want our subject’s face to be the brightest part of the image. Our eyes are naturally drawn to the brightest part of the photo, so our subject’s face should draw our eye first. 

From there, the light should “fall off” as it goes lower. So, their chest should be a little darker, then their stomach and hips, and so on, until the light from your flash falls off. If it’s a location shot, it can fall off to the existing room or outdoor light, or it can fall off to black in the studio, if you want it to. But, the most important part is: it falls off. There are two ways to create fall-off, and the most natural way to create it is to place your softbox very close to your subject. The closer the softbox is to your subject, the faster the light will fall off to shadows. Think about it this way: when the softbox is very close, it’s a very tight light, right on your subject. When you move it farther away, the light covers a lot larger space, and the light doesn’t fall off much—it spreads out over every- thing. So, now you know the trick to making light fall off fast—get it nice and close to your subject. 

Excerpted from The Flash Book by Scott Kelby and used with the permission of Rocky Nook.