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|| News Item: Posted 2010-11-11

Off-Camera Flash

By James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin

f/5.6 @ 1/60 (ISO 200)
Photo by James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin

f/5.6 @ 1/30 (ISO 200)
Photo by James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin

f/5.6 @ 1/15 (ISO 200)
Photo by James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin

f/5.6 @ 1/5 (ISO 200)
Photo by James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin

f/5.6 @ 1/125 (ISO 200)
Photo by James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin

f/5.6 @ 1/200 (ISO 200)

(Editor’s Note: First in a series)

Using flash effectively and learning about lighting is often the “final frontier” in a photographer’s journey to mastering photography.

For many, the challenge is a step too far. The flash gun you bought lives in the bottom of your bag, or worse – in a cupboard, and to anyone who asks, you are a “natural” or “available light” photographer. If you're anything like I used to be, you really mean that you’re a photographer who knows next to nothing about light! That was me a few years ago, so I’m talking from personal experience.

Until recently, learning about lighting was a hugely involving and time-consuming process. Now, thanks to the instant feedback we get on the back of our camera, it’s easy. It’s just a question of finding out where to go to learn. I’m going to de-mystify this whole thing a little bit and set you on the way to having fun with light.

To paraphrase famous photographer Joe McNally, “I’m an available light photographer. I use any light I can lay my hands on.”

So let’s put our flash onto our hot shoe. This is a great place to start. Yes, the flash is fixed in position relative to the lens and everyone's always talking about off-camera flash these days, but we’ve got to start somewhere.

With the flash set on its TTL setting and your camera set to ISO200, put your camera on f5.6 on AV mode and let the camera decide the shutter speed. Take a photo of something. It’s always fun if you can find something (or someone) beautiful, but anything will do.

Now set your camera mode to M for Manual and fix the same aperture and shutter speed into the camera that you had just now. Take another photo of the same subject with the same positioning as before. Your two photos should look identical.

Here’s where it gets interesting. We’re going to play around with the shutter speed and see what happens. It’s easy to forget the concept of “STOPS” of light thanks to our modern cameras that we can adjust in small increments, but to review, shutter speed ‘stops’ correspond thus:
> 1/4 > 1/8 > 1/15 > 1/30 > 1/60 > 1/125 > 1/250 > 1/500 > 1/1000 > …

You can change your aperture in stops, too, hence the term f-stops, but we’ll come to that later.

So if you started on 1/160, drop your shutter speed to the nearest stop below that; 1/125 and take another photo (same subject, same position). Then a photo at 1/60, 1/30 and so on until your photo is blown out when reviewed in the back of your camera. Then go back to the shutter speed you started with and RAISE the shutter speed, for example to 1/250.

You'll see the background get progressively darker while your subject remains well lit by the flash. Be careful not to exceed your maximum flash synch speed (see your manual for details). What we’re doing here is changing the ratio in the photo of ambient light to flash exposure.

Every time you use flash in a photo, the final image is composed of some ambient light (i.e. light from any source that you can see with your eyes) and flash light (i.e. light cast from the flash(es) you’ve introduced).

You control how much ambient light appears in the photo with the shutter speed. Take a look at the differences in the photos you took in the exercise above and we’ll go over what’s happening in the next installment.

James Madelin is a freelance photographer based in New Zealand, handling a wide range of assignments from news to commercial. He is also the developer of the popular Orbis ringflash: You can see his work at his Sports Shooter member page:

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