The Ultimate Guide To Using Speedlights – Part 2

Jo Plumridge by Jo Plumridge on

Now we’ve covered the basics of flash photography in Part 1 of this series, we’re going to take a look at some more advanced flash techniques. So read on for a whole host of creative ways to use your flashgun!

High-speed sync

We touched on this mode briefly in Part 1, but let’s take a further look at how it works. Many speedlights (particularly high-end ones) come with a high-speed sync flash setting. This allows you to work with both faster shutter speeds and wider aperture settings in situations that still need higher shutter speeds.

Nikon SB28 strobe
Image by Julio Aguiar

So, for instance, if you’re shooting fast action, but want a large depth of field, having the option to use high-speed flash can be really useful, as you’ll be able to use the high shutter speeds you need to freeze movement. It can also be really useful for overpowering the sun when shooting outdoors, in order to illuminate a subject.

High-speed sync works in a simple fashion, by firing the flash for a longer duration than in normal flash mode. This means that the flash fires all the way through from the front curtain opening to the rear curtain closing, thus avoiding unexposed areas of the image. The flash is actually firing continuously at many thousands of time per second – effectively merging together to create a continuous stream of flash.

With most speedlights that have this feature, you can leave high-speed sync turned on at all times, as the camera and flash will automatically revert back to standard flash when the shutter speed drops back down to maximum shutter speed or below.

There are a few things that you need to be aware of when using high-speed sync. When you’re using high-speed sync, you immediately lose a stop of flash power and, for every stop increase in shutter speed; you’ll lose another stop of flash power. This may seem like an issue but, in reality, you’re likely to be opening up the lens an f-stop every time you increase the shutter speed, in order to adjust your settings for use with the flash.

High-speed sync also means that you lose the motion freezing ability of the standard flash. This is due to the fact that the flash is on continuously in high-speed mode, as opposed to in standard mode, where the flash fires briefly and extremely quickly.

But, as you’ll only be using high-speed sync at faster shutter speeds, this should negate the issue and keep motion frozen. You also cannot get ghosting when using high-speed sync mode.

Using Your Speedlight Off-Camera

To get the best results from a speedlight, you do need to think creatively! Flash light is very harsh. Of course, there will always be occasions where you have to use the flashgun on camera. And there are some occasions where it’s preferable. One of the examples of where on-camera flash can work well is when you are using your speedlight to provide fill-in flash. Fill-in flash simply refers to situations where your subjects are backlit, or standing in shadow.

So now we know how to get more out of a speedlight, it’s time to start practising with using your flash off-camera.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to use an off-camera cable, which will allow you to hold the speedlight out to one side. You can also attach the speedlight to a stand to further extend possibilities. It takes a little while to get used to shooting in this way, but the results are well worth it. If you start to get really into shooting off camera, you could also consider investing in wireless triggers, which will allow you even more possibilities.

If you want to take your speedlight work further, it’s worth noting that many top of the range flashguns have a slave unit built into them. This means that they can be used to set off other flashguns, opening up the possibilities for using multiple flashes and creating many different lighting effects.

Using your speedlight off camera means that you can bring in extra light at different angles, and reduces the harsh light that flash naturally provides. A way to emphasize this further is by underexposing the natural light by one or two stops, thus meaning that the flash will look even more natural when it’s added in.

Creative Speedlight Techniques

Speedlights don’t just have to be used to light a subject! You can also use them to create different effects. Lets have a look at a couple of them here:

  1. Ghosting

    Using a slow shutter speed with your flashgun can produce memorable ‘ghosted’ images, whereby your subject will have a ghostly tail behind it. It isn’t an exact science, so you will need to test! A ghosted image will only be visible against a grey or dark coloured background – it will be too faint to see on a white background.

    Start with a standard metering – ISO 100, f8, 1/125 and with your flash on a quarter power. Adjust the flash until the exposure for your subject is correct. Now increase the shutter speed to 1 second and test. Your background will now be overexposed so stop down your aperture to compensate. Then test again.

    You may now need to boost your flashlight to ‘freeze the image’.

    For the most effective results, your model should freeze slightly as the flash goes off and then move for the duration of the shot. This effect can also be used on inanimate objects by moving the camera after the flash has fired.

    It is also possible to use this technique with rear curtain sync. Settings for this mode vary in different flashgun models, so please check your manual. This can produce a great result if your model is flicking her hair, for instance!

  2. Painting With Light

    Painting with light essentially means that you can create multiple exposures of your subject using your flashgun. Using a dark room put your camera on a tripod. Set your shutter speed to 8 seconds. (You may need to use an attachment to do this).

    Now, using a light meter place your speedlight on full power and meter for the correct exposure at 1/125. Set this aperture on your camera. If you don’t have a light meter, you’ll need to experiment with different apertures until you get the desired effect.

    Plot out your model’s movements through the shot and then start exposing the image. Fire your flashgun manually, tell the model to move and fire the flash again. Repeat as many times as you wish within your eight second exposure.

  3. Portraits with a speedlight

    Many people incorrectly presume that it’s impossible to get a decent portrait shot with just one speedlight. You can, however, produce very dramatic results by using some simple techniques:

    1. Bounce your flashgun onto your subject at a 45-degree angle, whilst using either a Sto-fen or softbox on your speedlight to help prevent harsh shadows. This technique works best if you place your subject very close to a dark background and make sure most of your flash light hits said background.
    2. Put your flash onto manual power and lower the flash power to around ¼ power, so that you can shoot with a wider aperture and achieve a shallow depth of field. Obviously you can experiment with the power until you achieve the result you want.

In Conclusion

Hopefully, after reading these two articles (part 1 is here), you’ll have a far better understanding of flash and how you can use it creatively to your advantage. Just remember that the key is to keep experimenting!

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