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Using external flash

Written by Daven Mathies

An external flash is a great way to improve the quality of your photographs, and not just those taken indoors or in low light. I think many people shy away from flash because they know how horrible a smartphone or point-and-shoot camera flash is. You know, that blinding point of light that washes out your subject and leaves your background completely black. Luckily, it doesn't have to be this way.

The basics: external vs. built-in flash

More power may be the first thing people think of when looking at an external flash, but it isn't everything. Yes, an external flash can be many times more powerful than what's built into your camera, but its real benefits come in how you can use it. The articulating flash head means you can direct the light anywhere, bounce it off a wall or a ceiling, and keep it from blinding your subjects. Light bouncing off a large white surface will also be much softer and more natural than direct flash. And, of course, there are many diffusion accessories available for external flashes to help soften the light even more. (I like the Rogue FlashBender, personally.)

Fill flash: balancing flash and ambient light


A flash isn't just for providing light when there isn't enough already there. Sometimes, there may be plenty of ambient light in a scene, but it is simply coming from the wrong direction. In the above photo, the room was flooded with light from the window in the upper left corner of the frame, but due to the dark walls, the light didn't bounce around very much. Without a flash, the backlighting was so harsh that it was difficult to get a decent exposure. Using a camera-mounted flash fired into the ceiling, the exposure is much more even. In this particular case, it also had the benefit of making the Uno cards pop nicely thanks to their bright colors. So remember, when you find yourself being hired to photograph a fierce game of Uno, don't forget your flash.

When you really just need more light

And of course there are those times when you simply find yourself somewhere dark. A wedding reception lit only by low-wattage, decorative lights is one such place. Again, using a diffusion accessory or bouncing the light is important here, but another trick to making the scene look natural is to let in as much of the available light as you can. To do this, set your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to expose the background how you want it. Then turn on the flash and it will do the rest. The above photo was shot with the flash set to TTL (automatic) mode at an aperture of f/2.2, shutter speed of 1/50, and ISO of 3200.

Obviously, this is just a brief overview of what can be done using external flash (we didn't even get to rear-curtain sync or off-camera flash) but hopefully this was a useful introduction. And don't forget: you can test out Canon and Nikon flashes through our rental department if you're not ready to buy one just yet.

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