Super Simple Flash

My wife and daughter at the Rallye Des Princesses in Paris - the sort of event you might want to "run and gun" with a flash.
My wife and daughter at the Rallye Des Princesses in Paris – the sort of event you might want to “run and gun” with a flash.

If you want to take amazing portraits with complete control over your flash unit, this article is not for you.  That is way beyond what we are going to do here.  Rather, this article is for those that want to “run and gun” with a flash unit (think wedding photographer at the reception).  It is also for those that are unfamiliar with using a flash unit and just want to dip their toe in the water.  In short, it is for those who want to get started with a simple flash method.

In my classes, I try to make flash as simple as possible.  I break it down to 5 simple steps designed for you to make the light look as good as possible while still giving you control over the flash.  I show you how to diffuse the light and even get it off the camera to add some direction.  I show you how to do it manually so you are in control of the process.  It works great, but sometimes it is too much.  If you are just getting started, it is overwhelming.  But even if you know what you are doing, the manual process can often take too long.  When the light is changing and you are moving around so that the distance to your subject is changing, it is really hard to keep up.  So what we are going to do here is make it as absolutely dead simple as possible.  This will be different than what I normally teach, but it is a great way to get started.

Which Flash Unit?

Now, if you are reading this, it is likely that you are brand new to using a flash.  You may not already have a flash unit, so let’s talk about what you should get.  First of all, don’t rely on the pop-up flash on your camera.  It is worse than useless.  High-end cameras don’t even have them, which tells you everything you need to know about them.  Just don’t use it, and don’t think you can get by with it.  Secondly, don’t run out and buy a name-brand flash like a Canon or Nikon.  The prices are insane.  The top Canon flash costs $479.  The top Nikon flash costs $597!  Rather go get an off-brand flash.  I like Yongnuo flashes, although there are other good brands as well.  Get the Yongnuo YN600 for Canon shooters, which costs only $115, or the YN685 for Nikon, which costs only $104.  You aren’t giving up anything by avoiding Canon and Nikon flashes.  They are just bursting out light, and it isn’t like Canon and Nikon flashes are creating higher-quality light.

Graphic - Yongnuo Models

Note that if you are going to take manual control over your flash, you can get even cheaper flashes.  The Yongnuo YN560, for example, costs only $75.  These work great and I own a few of them.  I sometimes recommend them for people taking my classes.  But for the process in this article, we are going to be using the TTL function – which essentially means automatic – and the YN560 doesn’t have this, so you’ll need to get the YN600 or YN685.

What Else Will You Need?

One of the things we are going to be doing here is diffusing the light.  Your flash has a little diffuser flap you can put over the top, but we can do better than that.  All you need is a little diffuser cap.  These typically cost between $5-10.  They are just white pieces of plastic that fit over the top of the flash and help to distribute the light a little broader. That will help diffuse it.  We’ll talk more about that later.

If you are going to be doing a lot of this, a popular system is the Mag Mod system.  This costs about $100 for the basic system.  It comes with a strap that fits tightly around your flash with magnets in it.  A white sphere fits on top of that, which diffuses the light.  It also has a tiny grid.  This will be overkill for many, but if you find yourself using the flash on the go a lot, you will like this.

How Does This Work?

Now that you have the proper gear, here’s the plan: we are going to set everything up so that the camera and flash work almost automatically.  Once you set things up, the only thing you will change is the aperture.  That way you can move around with your flash and get good pictures as conditions change.  At the same time, we will avoid the harsh, artificial light you often see with flash.  We will accomplish that by toning down the amount of light being emitted by the flash.  We will also diffuse the light.  That’s it.  Now let’s get started.

Graphic - Three Steps

Step 1: Set Up Your Flash (Automatic and Diffused)

The first thing we need to do is get your flash set up.  Go ahead and add the diffuser to the top of the flash.  After that, put it on your camera and turn it on.  Once you do that, press the mode button on the flash until it says ETTL.  TTL stands for “Through the Lens,” but you can think of it as “automatic.”  Your camera will now meter the scene and automatically determine how much light to blast out of the flash.

Graphic - Set to TTL

Step 2:  Tone Down Your Flash

Automatic flash typically looks harsh and artificial.  We’ve helped to avoid that problem somewhat by attaching the diffuser to the flash head.  That will disperse the light so it appears softer on your subject.  At the same time, we need to dial down the amount of light coming out of the flash to further avoid the artificial look.  Your flash allows you to do this (your camera does too) but we will use the flash.  All you do is go into the flash and tell it to emit 1 stop less light than it thinks the subject needs.  To do that, press the button labeled +/1 on the flash (2nd button from left on the top row) and then turn the dial to the left.  As you do so, you will see the meter move to the left.  Turn it 3 clicks so that the meter is at -1 then press the button in the center of the dial, labeled Sel/Set.

Graphic - Flash Output Scale

Step 3:  Set Up Your Camera

Your flash is now good to go.  You should not need to touch it anymore.  But now we need to set the exposure controls of your camera.

For this system, we are going to use Manual mode.  That may sound complicated, but it is not.  There are only three exposure settings, and we are going to make two of them ahead of time.  You won’t have to worry about them while you are shooting.  Those settings are:

  • Shutter Speed of 1/16o.  This is the usual and customary shutter speed used by photographers who use flash.  There is a specific reason for it.  First of all, it is a fast enough shutter speed that there won’t be any movement in your subject, which would result in blur.  At the same time, it is about as fast as your camera can really go when using flash (most of the time).  If you set your shutter speed any faster, you’ll start to see black streaks in your pictures at the top and bottom.  What is happening here is that the shutter is working faster than the flash.  The flash is going off while the shutter crosses the frame, and that results in the black areas.  It starts in most cameras at about 1/200, which is why photographers stay at 1/160th.  (We’ll talk about HSS, which is a way around this problem, later).  Just set your shutter speed at 1/160th and leave it there.
  • ISO 100.  When using flash, you generally shoot at ISO 100.  You should have plenty of light, so there is no sense using a higher ISO and risking digital noise entering your picture.  That said, if you want more background light, go ahead and raise your ISO.  But start at 100 and use it unless you need more light.

The only remaining exposure control is aperture.  This is the only exposure control you are going to change while you are shooting.  When you are ready, take a few test shots and get your exposure the way you want it, changing the aperture between shots.  Don’t change the shutter speed or the ISO – just the aperture.  When you have it the way you want it, you are good to go.  Unless your background light changes significantly, you won’t have to change anything.  If it does, you just change the aperture.

Graphic - Camera Controls

Ready Set Go

Believe it or not, you are now 100% set up and ready to go.  Your flash is set to automatically light your subject, but the light will be toned down and diffused.  How so?  Recall that you set the flash to ETTL, which is essentially automatic mode for flash.  You dialed down the flash one stop to keep the light from appearing harsh and overpowering.  You also added the diffuser cap to the flash to soften the light.  After that, you set standard exposure settings (for when you are using flash) of 1/160th of a second and ISO 100.  Everything is set up so that you can control the exposure via the Aperture if necessary.  You are good to go.  Go take some pictures!


Ah, but there are always problems, aren’t there?  Nothing is ever quite right.  In this case, your problems are likely to boil down to there either being too much light or not enough light.  Let’s take a look at both of those scenarios.

Not Enough Light

When we talk about this, we are talking about the background (or ambient light).  You are probably pretty used to dealing with the problem of there not being enough light.  You may be inclined to adjust shutter speed, but avoid doing that.  Start by opening up the aperture.  That will let more light into the camera, but it will decrease your depth of field.  It is likely that you are only interested in your subject, and in fact blurring the background might actually help isolate your subject, so the large aperture doesn’t really have a downside.  Keep opening it up until your exposure is the way you want it or you are wide open.

After that, if you still need more light, increase your ISO.  Move it up to 200, 400, 800, or even 1600 to get the exposure values you want.  The normal downside of increasing the ISO is an increase in digital noise, but modern digital cameras are so good that this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.  In any event, post-processing software is very good at eliminating this digital noise, so you can raise the ISO a bit without worrying too much about it.

If all else fails, you have no choice but to increase your shutter speed.  This is referred to as “dragging the shutter” by photographers that use flash a lot, and is generally to be avoided.  Still, it is the only exposure control we have left at this point, so there is no real choice.  Hold this off until last though, and usually you won’t need to do it.

Too Much Light

The next potential problem is too much light, so that you cannot use the exposure settings you want.  I’ll bet you aren’t used to this being a problem, are you?  It is unusual for many of us.  It happens though, on bright sunny days when you want to use a large aperture.  When you are using flash, it is generally because you are photographing a person or a defined subject.  In these situations, some background blur generally looks best.  You achieve that, of course, by opening up the aperture.  But on a bright sunny day where you are also using a flash, that might overexpose the image.  Is there anything you can do about it?  Yes, two things.

The first thing is not really the one I recommend, but I want to mention it.  You can use a neutral density filter to block some light coming into your lens.  When you do that, you will be able to compensate by opening up your aperture.  It works, but it isn’t the way most photographers solve the problem.

Rather, they use a feature called High Speed Sync, or HSS.  What happens here is that instead of emitting one blast of light, the flash instead pulses the flash throughout the exposure.  That’s one of the reasons why I recommended the Yongnuo YN600 flash – it supports HSS.  Normally, when you have a flash on your camera, your camera will limit your shutter speed to 1/200th.  For me, once I press the Sync button on the flash, it allows faster shutter speeds.  It will allow you to use a faster shutter speed.  Using that faster shutter speed allows less light into your camera.  That allows you to make an offsetting move, which is opening up your aperture.  That’s what you wanted, because it gets you the shallower depth of field that you wanted, so now you have the nice background blur.

There is no free lunch, however, and HSS uses a lot of power.  This will require longer recycle times (the time between flashes) and will drain your battery faster.  Still, it works, and it solves your problem.

Putting This Simple Flash Method to Work

By now you have the gist of it.  You use TTL to let the flash do most of the work for you, but you dial it down and diffuse the light.  This lets you use your flash without it looking harsh and artificial.  What’s more, the camera will adapt as you move around and the lighting change.  This shouldn’t be understated because your distance to your subject has a huge impact on how flash appears (it is called the inverse square rule, if you are interested).  You have move 5 feet from your subject and have it cost you two stops of light.  Trying to make adjustments while you are walking around is crazy.

At the same time, I want to make it clear that this isn’t the be-all, end-all of flash.  Far from it.  This is something to get you started.  No portrait photographer would ever use this system.  Your ultimate goal, if you start going that sort of thing, is for you to get the flash off the camera onto its own stand, use real diffusers (softboxes, umbrellas, etc.), and take control over all elements of the exposure.  This is just meant to get you going.  Flash is tricky, and if you try to dive straight in, you are destined for frustration.

After you’ve done this for a while, you’ll get more comfortable with flash.  You can start taking a little more control.  As you do, you might want to start incorporating parts of my 5-steps for using flash.  Here is a snapshot of how I do it, but I do into more detail in my classes, if you are interested in that.  For now though, just work with this automatic system and get comfortable with flash.  It will put you ahead of 99% of the other shooters out there.