(WHY) SHOULD I GET A SPEEDLITE FOR MY CAMERA?
A BEGINNER’S GUIDE
Many cameras, including some fairly expensive DSLRs, have a built-in (pop-up) flash unit, as well as a hotshoe for an attached flash unit. Beginners often call us here at Mark Jordan Photography and ask why or if they should buy a separate flash attachment - our tutorial today is designed to specifically answer this question.
Please forgive me for not offering any photographic samples below. The Canon Forum I am adapting this from did not provide any examples, and as much as I would love to, I am exceedingly busy creating family portraits in Orange County and didn't want to allow my hectic schedule to postpone the posting of this important information of flash photography. With that said, we are ready to move ahead.
REASON #1: REDEYE
We’ve all seen pictures of people whose eyes have that diabolical red glow. It can ruin an otherwise very good shot. It is caused by light reflecting off the retina in the back of the eye. This phenomenon is worst when the subject’s pupils are dilated (indoors), and when there is a narrow angle between the light source (flash), eye, and lens. Geometrically, the two factors which affect this angle are the distance between the flash and the lens, and the distance between the camera and the subject’s eyes.
One way to avoid this problem is to move the flash further from the lens. The more distance there is between the flash and the lens, the further away the camera can be from human subjects without causing red eyes. Typically, a hotshoe-mounted flash unit will be twice as far from the lens as a “pop-up” unit. A flash bracket can be utilized to make this distance even greater.
REASON #2: POWER
The effective distance of any flash is dependent upon the aperture and ISO setting used. For example, at f/8 and ISO 100, the built-in flash on today’s DSLRs will be effective only if your subject is within about 5 feet of the camera. Of course, you can increase this range by opening up the lens and/or using a higher ISO setting, but that comes at a cost - less depth-of-field and more digital noise.
A good flash unit has about fifteen times the power of a built-in unit, with perhaps four times the effective distance. This allows the use of smaller apertures (for better depth-of-field) and lower ISO settings (to reduce digital noise). Power is also critical for bounced flash and fill flash in sunny conditions.
REASON #3: BOUNCED FLASH
The ability to point the flash at a wall or ceiling will do more for the quality of flash photographs than just about anything else. It can mean the difference between a harsh-looking “snapshot” and a pleasing photograph that doesn’t even look “flashed”. Illuminating the ceiling has the effect of making the light source much larger, creating softer shadows, a brighter background, and more natural-looking results.
The power required for this technique varies widely according to the height and color of the ceiling and other factors, but even with a low, white ceiling it can require as much as four times the power of direct flash. With direct flash, you’re lighting up your subject. With bounced flash, you’re lighting up the whole room!
REASON #4: FLASH MODIFIERS
There are a wide range of “diffusers” and other attachments which somehow modify the direction of some or all of the photons flying out of the flash unit. They can be as simple as a 3 x 5 index card and rubber band.
Other attachments include the Lumiquest Promax System, mini softboxes, the Sto-Fen Omni-bounce, and the Lightsphere II. They all work a little differently and they each have their place. Generally they are designed to make the light source larger from the subject’s perspective, or to provide some direct illumination with bounced flash.
Another completely different modifier is the Better Beamer, which creates a powerful, narrow beam for long-distance wildlife shooting. When used properly, flash modifiers can dramatically improve flash photographs, but you need a flash unit to use them.
REASON #5: FLASH BRACKETS
Flash brackets come in a variety of styles and serve a dual purpose. In addition to moving the flash unit further from the lens (see reason #1), they also allow the camera to be rotated to vertical orientation while keeping the flash above the lens. This prevents those ugly side shadows on backgrounds which otherwise ruin vertical shots when using a hotshoe-mounted flash indoors.
Some styles work by flipping the flash unit, keeping it oriented the same way as the camera. These allow the flash to be zoomed with the lens to avoid wasting light (and power) with direct flash.
Other styles allow the camera to rotate while the flash remains over the camera. These make it easier to change orientation while mounted on a tripod, and they work better with some flash modifiers such as the Lumiquest Promax System. Use of a flash bracket requires a sync cord to electrically connect the flash to the camera.
REASON #6: BELLS and WHISTLES
Most good flash units have additional features not available with the built-in. They include:
- a focus assist light - This light casts a pattern of lines on your subject to allow the autofocus system to work better in low light situations.
- FP Flash (high speed sync) – This enables the use of high shutter speeds. If you’re using fill flash outdoors and want to use a wide aperture to blur the background, FP Flash is a necessity.
- manual mode – This allows you to set and adjust the flash unit’s power, rather than relying on automatic flash metering, and also enables the use of optical slaves. It’s more of an advanced option, but sooner or later you’ll find it useful.
- wireless E-TTL – Allows the use of multiple flash units at various power ratios in a master/slave arrangement with E-TTL flash metering.
To summarize, today’s Digital SLRs are packed with amazing technology, and with the right lenses they can produce wonderful images. But the built-in flash units on these cameras are lacking in power, too close to the lens, can’t be tilted for bounce flash and can’t be used with flash modifiers. In short, they rarely produce anything better than “snapshot” quality. Their usefulness is so limited that high-end professional camera bodies don’t even have a built-in flash.
My recommendation to people who buy a DSLR is to buy a good flash unit for it as soon as funds allow. While there are many types of photography that don’t require flash, most beginners photograph people more than any other subject. Flash can improve just about any “people” shot, whether indoors or outdoors. Before you buy another lens, before you get that fancy tripod or any other accessory, buy a great speedlite!
Not sure which one to buy? Take a look at Tim's thread: Which flash should I get for my EOS camera?
©Photosical - the photographic and philosophical observations of Orange County Photographer, Mark Jordan
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Orange County Photographer, Mark Jordan Photography, an Rancho Santa Margarita Photographer, specializes in crafting stunning contemporary, traditional, classic, and storytelling family portraits (high school seniors, children portraits, babies, maternity, pregnancy), headshots and pets. Mark Jordan, a Photography Hall of Fame photographer (with a Rancho Santa Margarita portrait studio), and provides portrait photography throughout Orange County and Southern California. Mark Jordan's Orange County portrait studio also serves San Diego County and Inland Empire. Studio Photography Services are also provided in Riverside County and Los Angeles County. Local Cites where Mark Jordan photography studio services are offered are as an Aliso Viejo Photographer, Anaheim Photographer, Costa Mesa Photographer, Coto de Caza Photographer, Dana Point Photographer, Dove Canyon Photographer, Huntington Beach Photographer, Irvine Photographer, Ladera Ranch Photographer, Laguna Beach Photographer, Laguna Hills Photographer, Laguna Niguel Photographer, Lake Forest Photographer, Mission Viejo Photographer, Newport Beach Photographer, Northwood Photographer, Orange Photographer, Orange Park Acres Photographer, San Clemente Photographer, San Juan Capistrano Photographer, Santa Ana Photographer, Tustin Photographer, Villa Park Photographer, Westminster Photographer, Yorba Linda Photographer, Corona del Mar Photographer, Riverside Photographer, Temecula Photographer, Chino Hills Photographer, Loma Linda Photographer, Rancho Bernardo Photographer, Carlsbad Photographer, Coronado Photographer, Del Mar Photographer, Escondido Photographer, San Diego Photographer, San Marcos Photographer, Solana Beach Photographer, Carmel Mountain Ranch Photographer, Rancho San Diego Photographer, Rancho Santa Fe Photographer, and San Diego Country Estates Photographer, Turtle Rock Photographer, Shady Canyon Photographer. Portrait Photographers everywhere (photographers in O.C. as well) are welcome to contact our portrait studio for mentoring/guidance.