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How to Get Better Photos Using Flash Photography Techniques

I am passionate about photography and love to teach what I've learned during my 30+ years of working as a professional photographer.

This photo was made using modified flash as a fill light on my subject.

This photo was made using modified flash as a fill light on my subject.

A Guide to Flash Photography

Flash photography is confusing for many people. Not knowing the best flash photography techniques can put you off wanting to add a little extra kick of light to your photos.

Learning to use the best flash photography settings is not so difficult with a little help. In this article, I’ll share with you some of the best tricks for modifying your flash photography so you get the best results.

Harsh light from a flash usually puts people off wanting to use it. With the right flash photography techniques, you’ll be able to take natural-looking photos with your flash—inside and outside.

In This Article

  1. Key techniques for better photos with flash
  2. How to set and use your flash
  3. Tips for using flash outdoors
  4. Tips for using a diffuser

3 Tips for Taking Good Flash Photos

To take good flash photos, you must understand what it means to add another light source. Most people are used to taking photos in natural light. The sun is an amazing light source, but sometimes it doesn’t provide the style of light we want.

Flash photography can alter the look and feel of an image. Most of the time when the wrong flash photography settings are used, the results are unattractive. Learn flash photography techniques and you are well on your way to taking better photos with your flash.

1. Measure the Ambient Light

To take good flash photos, I start by measuring the ambient light. I do this in the daytime or at night, when I am inside and when I am outside. Measuring the ambient light and setting my camera’s exposure gives me a foundation to work on.

2. Balance the Light

I then set my flash to balance with my camera’s exposure settings. I have my camera and my flash set to manual because I like to have control over them. You must learn to balance the light: You cannot control the sun, but you can control the output from your flash. When you find the sweet spot between your flash output and the sunlight, you’ll always take better photos outdoors.

3. Use a Diffuser

Adding some kind of diffuser to your flash gives it a softer, more natural look. You can use:

  • A clip-on diffuser
  • Bounce flash
  • A small softbox or umbrella

As often as I practically can, I will modify my flash so the light is softer. Sometimes this means using the clip-on diffuser with my flash mounted on my camera. Ideally, I will use my softbox with my flash off-camera. This provides the most natural-looking light while remaining reasonably practical.

External flash with a clip-on diffuser

External flash with a clip-on diffuser

How to Set the Camera Flash

The TTL setting on your flash is the easiest one to use most of the time. TTL stands for Through The Lens. With this setting, your camera and flash communicate with one another. Ideally, the flash output will balance with the exposure settings on your camera. The flash provides the right amount of light when it fires. When your flash gives you too much or too little light you can adjust it with the + and - settings.

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  1. Take a test photo and check the exposure. How does your subject look? Is it too bright? Then use the - setting to reduce the amount of light the flash puts out. Is it too dark? Then use the + setting to increase the amount of light.
  2. Your flash may also have one or more Auto modes. I prefer to use TTL or full manual than the auto modes because these settings give me more consistent results.
  3. Flash photography on manual might seem daunting to new photographers. It does take some practice to get used to it. When you can use manual flash photography settings you can be in more control of the output of your flash.
  4. Sometimes TTL doesn’t give you the amount of light you want. Even minor changes in your composition or the ambient light cause fluctuations in flash output with TTL. Using manual settings you are able to be more precise with how much light your flash emits.
  5. Set your flash to manual at about half power. Take a test photo or two and check the results. Dial up the settings if your subject looks too dark. Dial down the settings if there is too much light on your subject.
Simple fill flash with manual settings. Without flash, the drinks would be dark or the background would be very bright.

Simple fill flash with manual settings. Without flash, the drinks would be dark or the background would be very bright.

How Do I Use My Camera Flash?

Many DSLR and mirrorless cameras come with a built-in flash. This is convenient but limited. It is very small and has a limited output capacity that may not be bright enough. It’s also confined to lighting your subject from the same direction you take the photo from.

An external flash gives you a lot more options and flexibility. Off-camera flash can look more natural. An external flash can be modified to soften the light. They are also more powerful than an on-camera flash. Whatever flash you have, use it when there’s not enough light, or the ambient light does not look how you’d like it to.

Many people don’t know when to use flash outdoors. They only think of using flash photography inside where there’s not much light. Basic flash photography outdoors enhances photos because you can add more light on a dull day. You can also use flash photography outdoors to reduce the harsh shadows caused by bright sunshine.

Using flash indoors with a softbox attached to diffuse the light

Using flash indoors with a softbox attached to diffuse the light

How to Use Flash Outdoors

As often as I can, I use a modifier when I am doing outdoor flash photography. A flash is a small-sized light source. The light it emits is very hard unless you diffuse it somehow. Softening the light from your flash using a modifier or technique will produce a more pleasant light.

We’ve all seen photos of lovely subjects with ugly dark shadows behind them caused by a flash. There are three reasons this mistake happens:

  • The flash setting is too high. Dialing down your flash setting will also reduce or eliminate the shadow problem.
  • Too much light is coming from the flash. Softening the flash output will also help get rid of the shadow. Adding a diffuser or bouncing your flash off a nearby surface scatters the light and makes it softer.
  • The subject may also be too close to the background. Moving your subject further from the background will help.
Outdoor flash with the same softbox setup as the previous photo (and the same model)

Outdoor flash with the same softbox setup as the previous photo (and the same model)

Tips for Flash Photography With Diffusion

Pros and Cons of Clip-On Diffusers

Your external flash probably came with a clip-on diffuser. This is the most convenient modifier to use because it’s small. But its small size is also a limiting factor in how effective it is. The smaller your light source is, the harder the light it emits. Every flash without a diffuser to modify it is a small light source. A clip-on diffuser scatters the light from your flash, but its small size means the light will not be as soft as when you use a larger diffuser.

Try Bouncing the Flash or Using a Softbox

Bouncing your flash off a ceiling or wall or some other neutral-colored nearby surface is another option. Tilt the flash head in the direction of the surface. When your flash fires the light will bounce off the surface and onto your subject. The effective light source becomes the size of the ceiling or wall and the light is much softer.

One of my favorite flash photography accessories is a small softbox. The modification this makes to my flash output is lovely. At only 60 cm (2 ft) square, it’s not too big and reasonably portable. I do need a stand or someone to hold it for me.

I place my flash off-camera when I use the softbox. It is ideal for outdoor portraits. It pops in soft, natural light. This is great on a cloudy day when the ambient light is flat and dull. In full sunshine, it reduces the shadows and makes for a softer-looking portrait.

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