Essential Flash

A Nikon SB-5000 Speedlight and orange gel were used to simulate sunlight on the model’s back and shoulders. Nikon D850, AF-S NIKKOR 85mm ƒ/1.8G, 1/3200 sec., ƒ/1.8, ISO 31

In this day and age of going ultra-lightweight, photographers discriminately minimize their photo kits to the bare essentials. After all, who doesn’t like carrying less weight? From the road-weary assignment photographer lugging a dozen cases of lighting gear through an airport to the fast-moving journalist logging 150,000 miles a year, less weight is good. The real question becomes what should you leave behind.

For many photographers, the first piece of equipment to get axed is their flash. The landscape photographer may never bring a flash, and the travel photographer may only use their flash a few times. Bleached-white headshots leave the portrait photographer thinking available light is better. I’ll admit, when I first started out, I left my speedlight behind on most trips. But now I never leave home without it. Why?

Simply put, adding flash can dramatically improve your images. It doesn’t matter if you photograph landscapes, travel or portraits, flash can transform a mediocre image into a stunning photograph. Using a simple speedlight or hybrid LED/flash system like the Rotolight NEO 2 gives you another tool to bring your creative vision to life. I can already hear the diehards claiming flash looks artificial, and portraits look like a deer in the headlights.

But what’s important is how you use flash and when you use your flash. The learning curve of flash mechanics is fast; today’s speedlights can produce excellent results in TTL mode; all you need to do is turn it on. With LED continuous lights, what you see is what you get; it can’t get any easier. The real craft of flash use is adjusting the quality and angle of light and recognizing scenes where flash will solve a problem or produce a creative effect. Below are five reasons to bring a flash on your next photography trip. You might add a half-pound to your load, but you open up endless creative possibilities.

Improving skin tones and creating background separation with flash. Nikon D850, AF-S NIKKOR 85mm ƒ/1.8G, 1/250 sec., ƒ/1.8, ISO 100

Improve Portraits

When most photographers think about flash, they think about portraits. There’s a good reason for this assumption. For starters, flash improves color and skin tones. Imagine this scenario. You’re photographing a model or local street vendor on an overcast day. Overcast light has some advantages, including your subject doesn’t have to squint looking at the camera. But overcast light is flat and has no contrast, so your subject will have neutral skin tones and muted color. Think about when the sun breaks through the clouds and illuminates a fall landscape. The colors transform from muted and flat to eye-popping and dynamic. Flash will do the same to your portrait! Skin tones will look healthy and warm, and colors will have more snap and vibrance.

Catchlights are another important benefit of using flash with portraits. Just popping a flash at minimal power will result in catchlights in your model’s eyes. I once was photographing kids in the Sinai desert in Egypt, and their eyes were naturally very dark. By using my simple popup on-camera flash, I was able to add catchlights and sparkle to their eyes, creating a much better portrait. Using a continuous LED light like the Rotolight NEO 2 will accomplish the same thing, and you can see the catchlights in real time.

There are three important decisions to make using flash with portraits. First, what flash mode will you use? I normally shoot my speedlight in TTL mode. TTL (through the lens) uses metering information in conjunction with the camera to determine the correct exposure. For most scenarios, TTL will produce good results. TTL mode is especially useful for quick-moving situations where you may not have time to calculate a manual exposure. Manual flash mode works well when you need a consistent flash output and your subject isn’t moving.

The second decision to make is what quality of light will work best for your portrait. If you want soft light, try using an umbrella with a speedlight. With LED sources, the light is more diffused coming right from the LED bulbs. Remember, the larger the light source, the softer the light, and get as close as you can with your flash. I like to use a small umbrella or softbox to create soft light. If all I need to do is add some catchlights, then I may place the diffusion cap on my speedlight and reduce the power to add just a touch of light.

Finally, the direction of light is important. By moving your flash off-camera, you can create shadows and more edgy portraits. Try using a wireless transmitter or flash cable to trigger your flash off-camera. About the only time I use my flash on-camera is when I want to add subtle fill light and catchlights.

Using a speedlight to reduce shadows and add a spotlight to an important part of the image. Nikon D3, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED, 1/200 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 400

Emphasize The Subject

Have you ever noticed how your eye wanders through a photograph? Whether you know it or not, most viewers follow these principles. First, your eye goes to in-focus subjects before blurry ones. Next, you look at bright areas in the image before dark ones. Strong contrast attracts our eye before low contrast, and high color saturation will get our attention before low color saturation.

Two of these principles are important in relation to using flash: creating bright areas and adding contrast. I often think of my speedlight as a spotlight. If something is important in my image, I’ll consider adding flash and making it brighter. By adding a “spotlight” in the image, I direct the viewer to my subject and the important part of the shot, not the distracting background. To accomplish this, I may use a snoot to add light to a small scene. If I want to highlight one yellow aspen leaf on the ground, I’ll underexpose my background around one stop and add snooted flash to the leaf. Rogue makes terrific snoots that also double as bounce cards. In other photographs, you may want to add light to larger areas in your scene to better tell the story or highlight an important graphic element.

Adding flash also adds contrast. Highlighting specific areas in your images creates separation from the background and emphasizes the subject to the viewer. Remember, we’re photographing a three-dimensional subject and displaying on two-dimensional formats like prints and monitors. By using flash and adding contrast, we’ll add depth and dimension to the photograph.

A speedlight and gelled flash light a car interior. Nikon D500, AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm ƒ/4G ED VR, 1/30 sec., ƒ/11, ISO 800

Add Color

I just returned from teaching a workshop at Old Car City in Georgia. This location is incredible. Over 4,500 vintage cars are spread out over 34 acres of forest. In addition to the sheer number of cars, many are vintage classics that might have a tree growing right through the hood or vines draped across steering wheel. Many photographers visit this area to photograph the classic cars. We shot many of the popular cars, but we wanted to do something different. To accomplish that task, we used speedlights with colored gels.

Many companies make colored gels for speedlights. I like the Rogue gel sets. They come in a variety of colors and are pre-cut to fit over the flash using a simple rubber band. Choosing a color is the fun part. For the old cars, our group liked using warm orange colored gels to light interiors. Exteriors often looked good with purple highlights. For some cars, we followed complementary color patterns. If the old truck was green, we used red on our flash to create a complementary color pattern.

Speedlight and orange gel simulate sunlight. Nikon D810, AF-S NIKKOR 18-35mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G ED, 1/200 sec., ƒ/2.8, ISO 200

Create Sunlight

How many hours have you waited at a location praying the sun would come out? Sometimes it’s only an hour before the clouds part and beautiful sunlight bathes the landscape in warm light. Other times you might wait days or even weeks hoping for a glimpse of sunlight. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could create your own sunlight? Bring your flash along, and you have that ability. Granted, we’re talking about smaller scenes, but creating “speedlight sun” can save the day. Need some sunlight streaming through the background of your portrait? No problem. How about adding a ray of sun on the forest floor? Check; easy to do with a speedlight.

Here’s how I create sun using a speedlight. First, I zoom the flash head to a narrow beam of light. Generally, we associate sunlight with defined rays of light; zooming your flash head to 100mm or more will produce a narrow shaft of light. Next, I decide how warm I want my “sunlight” to look. Since I really like the warm sunlight of morning and evening, I use one to two CTO gels over my flash. A CTO has a slight orange color, and using two will give you warm light similar to early morning sunshine.

Two situations where I like to use warm sunlight created by my flash are portraits and small landscape scenes. For portraits, I often like to use a softbox as the main light on my subject and use a second flash with two CTO gels aimed at my subject’s back. The background flash creates a warm glow similar to early-morning light. With landscapes, I snoot my gelled flash to create a very narrow beam of light and place it almost on the ground aimed perpendicular to my subject. This low angle creates strong shadows and emphasizes texture, similar to what a beam of sun would do.

A Better Beamer adds fill light in a contrasty scene. Nikon D800, AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 G ED VR, 1/125 sec., ƒ/7.1, ISO 500

Reduce Contrast

Earlier I mentioned an advantage of flash is creating contrast. The opposite is also true; sometimes you want to reduce contrast and add fill-flash to a scene. If you’ve ever tried to photograph subjects wearing hats in bright sun, you know how important this is. Fill-flash will reduce shadows but not overpower the scene or background. Some speedlights have a fill-flash mode; other units may require you to reduce the power output to get the right amount of flash. For nature photographers, this can be very helpful. Photographing birds in a thick forest canopy is difficult. The birds are in shadow while the background sky is very bright, creating disastrous spotty contrast. By adding fill-flash you can bring out the birds in deep shadow and reduce contrast with the bright sky. Try using a Better Beamer flash extender to project your flash long distances from your camera.

Final Thoughts

Simple speedlights and hybrid LED/flash systems offer many creative possibilities for photographers. Sure, they do add weight to your photo backpack, but in the end, would you rather carry a slightly lighter pack and miss a great shot, or carry an extra pound and create an award-winning image? For me, the answer is simple; I’m bringing my flash along.


To see more of Tom Bol’s photography and learn about workshop opportunities, visit his website, tombolphoto.com, and follow him on Instagram @tombolphoto.

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