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Flash Photography Basics: Get Started With Flash for Beautiful Photos

If you’re looking to learn all about flash photography basics, then you’ve come to the right place. 

In this article, I’m going to share with you all of the flash fundamentals–from whether flashes are necessary, to basic flash photography terms, to common lighting patterns for gorgeous results. 

And by the time you’re done, you’ll be well on your way to creating stunning flash photos.

Let’s dive right in.

What Is Flash Photography?

When you hear the word “flash,” you probably think in terms of small, on-camera flashes, like these:

But the device in the image above is actually just one type of flash, called a speedlight, one that can connect to your camera, or can be mounted on light stands and triggered remotely.

You might also think of little pop-up or built-in flashes on digital cameras, and while these are also one type of flash, they’re not the only option out there. 

Because here’s the thing:

Any type of photography that uses quick, pulse-like lighting to illuminate the subject is technically flash photography.

That includes speedlights and pop-up flashes. But it also includes another type of popular lighting equipment:

Strobes, which are far more powerful than pop-up flashes and speedlights. They’re also far bulkier, like this:

If you’re looking to just get into flash photography, then I’d really recommend you go with a speedlight like the one pictured above. 

While strobes are a lot more powerful, they’re also far more expensive and far less portable. 

Plus, you can capture stunning images using a speedlight or two, so an expensive strobe certainly isn’t essential.

So while this article will apply to flash photography of all types, I’m going to focus primarily on speedlights.

Do You Need a Flash?

That depends. 

You see, flashes come with a few advantages and a few disadvantages.

First, flashes allow you to illuminate subjects in areas with poor natural lighting.

Flashes also allow you to carefully direct the light, so that you can achieve complex lighting setups without having to rely on everything coming together in nature. 

However, flashes are far less portable than natural light; they can add extra weight to your camera bag, plus you also have to carry a stand for every flash, generally speaking.

(Whereas natural light is, well, natural light! It presents itself without your help.)

Flashes are also somewhat expensive, and even the cheaper flashes will cost you at least $50 USD a pop. Plus there are other expenses to consider, such as triggers, light stands, and flash modifiers.

Finally, flashes aren’t as powerful as natural light, which means that you can’t use a flash to illuminate an entire landscape or an entire building. But flashes are conspicuous; it’s impossible to fire a flash in a person’s face without being noticed, so whenever you shoot with flash, you’re undoubtedly drawing attention to yourself.

So to answer the question of whether you need a flash:

For some subjects, a flash will help you tremendously. If you’re shooting portraits, then yes, you probably should use flash, or at least know how to use it for times when it’s necessary. It’ll help you give your subject beautiful, soft, controlled lighting at any time of the day. If you’re shooting events, flash will help you capture photos even things get too dark–same with sports photography. Product photographers and still life photographers rarely work without flash, and food photographers are huge fans of flash, as well.

But there are some photography genres that rarely (or never) use flash, such as landscape photography, where a flash just isn’t bright enough to provide much help. Wildlife and bird photographers occasionally use flash, but it’s relatively rare (given how far away the subject is). And street photographers generally don’t use flash, because they don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable (or feel uncomfortable, themselves!).

In other words:

Flash is a mixed bag, and depends heavily on the type of subjects you want to shoot. Sure, flash can be amazingly useful, but it can also be pointless or even harmful.

So before reading further, ask yourself:

Does a flash make sense for my photography? 

If the answer is “yes,” then read on!

Basic Flash Photography Terms

Now let’s take a look at some basic flash photography terms you should be aware of:

Speedlight

As I explained above, a speedlight is a small flash, also known as a flashgun

You can mount it to your camera, or you can place it on a light stand. 

It’s not as powerful as a strobe, but it’s far more portable, and a lot less expensive! 

When photographers start out with flash photography, they often work with speedlights (and plenty of them continue to work with speedlights, even as they become much more serious about their flash photography).

Studio Strobe

A strobe is a larger flash, one that uses a power pack or plugs directly into the wall.

Strobes are very powerful, but they’re also expensive, which is why they’re much less popular among flash photography beginners. Plus, they’re not very portable, which means that you have to have a dedicated flash photography space before working with a strobe.

Hot Shoe

A hot shoe is the metal plate on top of a camera that connects to a speedlight, a trigger, or some other piece of gear. Note that a hot shoe must be able to communicate with the mounted accessory; otherwise, it’s referred to as a cold shoe.

Trigger

A trigger communicates with a flash and allows it to be fired from a distance. Triggers are often mounted to camera hot shoes, and will fire the flash just as you fire off an image.

Flash Modifier

Flash modifiers go over the flash and modify its output. The goal is generally to soften out the light, though some modifiers simply direct it in various ways (for instance, by concentrating the light into a single beam).

Umbrella

An umbrella is a very popular flash modifier for beginners, because they’re cheap to get and easy to use. Umbrellas soften the light, creating a broad wash of soft illumination.

Softbox

Softboxes work the same as umbrellas, making the light larger and softer. But softboxes give you more control over the light’s direction–it doesn’t spill over everything the way it does with umbrellas–which is why they’re a favorite for creating more complex lighting patterns.

Reflector

A reflector bounces light from a flash, often back into the shadowy portion of a subject. It’s an easy way to boost the brightness and detail in a darker area, and is very portable. Note that there are several common reflector colors, including white, silver, and gold, with white achieving a softer, neutral look, silver resulting in a poppier, harsher image, and gold producing a warm glow.

Flash Gels

Flash gels mount in front of the flash and “colorize” the light. You can purchase gels of all colors, including orange (for a warm result), blue (for a cold result), or green, yellow, and red (for a neon effect).

Recycle Time

Recycle time refers to the amount of time required between each flash fire. Depending on the flash model, you may be able to work with an ultra-fast recycle time (and take image after image after image), or you may have to wait several seconds before taking another shot.

When to Use a Flash: Common Lighting Patterns

As I explained above, flash is great for controlling the light. 

In particular, you can use a flash to create depth in your images–by carefully creating shadows in one area, and highlights in another area.

Let’s go over a few of the most common flash photography techniques, so that you’re able to test out a few of them the next time you have a flash (or two) on hand.

Loop Lighting

Loop lighting is wildly popular, and for good reason:

It creates portraits that are deeply flattering, while also slimming down more oval faces and giving a generally bright and pleasing result. 

Loop lighting gives you images like this:

Do you see the shadow of the subject’s nose moving across the cheek? That’s the identifying aspect of loop lighting; if there’s no shadow, or if the shadow isn’t pointing off to the side and down, then you’re not working with loop lighting. 

You can create it by placing a flash slightly off to the side and above your subject’s line of sight. Note that you can experiment with different modifiers for harder and softer lighting, but I definitely recommend you work with some form of modification. Otherwise, your shots just won’t turn out that flattering.

Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt lighting is like loop lighting, but slightly more powerful. 

It looks like this:

Dramatic, right? Note the triangular spot of light under the subject’s eye; that’s always present in Rembrandt lighting, and you can’t take a Rembrandt-lit photo without it. 

Rembrandt lighting is great for moodier portraits, but be careful. Some models and clients won’t be interested in a somber, dark result, so make sure that you fit the type of lighting to the subject.

To create Rembrandt lighting, do the same as loop lighting, but just move the light farther to one side. In other words, take the light to around a 45-degree angle from your subject’s nose, then push it up slightly. 

And look for the unbroken triangle on your subject’s cheek.

Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly lighting is very glamorous, and has a way of highlighting cheekbones while slimming down faces. 

It looks like this (and is named due to the butterfly-shaped shadow under your subject’s nose):

To produce butterfly lighting is easy; simply put your light directly in front of your subject, and slightly above your subject’s eyeline. 

You can play with the upward angle in order to create smaller and larger shadows. 

By the way, you can always add a reflector or a second light underneath your subject’s chin, pointing upward. This will reduce the strength of the shadows for a less dramatic effect (and can be nice, depending on what you’re aiming to produce).

Clamshell Lighting

Clamshell lighting is extremely popular, thanks to its relatively flattering, all-purpose result, like this:

Clamshell lighting is produced almost the same as butterfly lighting:

Put a light in front of and above your subject, so that you get the butterfly shadow under the nose.

But then…

Put a second light beneath your subject, pointed up. This should cause the shadows to dissipate, and will give you a stunning result!

Flash Photography Basics: Conclusion

If you’re looking to capture the best possible portraits, still lifes, product shots, and more, you need to master flash photography. 

Hopefully, this article helped you understand all the flash photography basics–and you can confidently start capturing beautiful images with a flash!

What are the main types of flash photography lighting?

Photographers often use clamshell lighting and butterfly lighting (which are two types of effective frontlighting techniques), as well as loop lighting, Rembrandt lighting, and split lighting (which offer gorgeous sidelighting).

How important is a flash?

Flash is very important for situations where you want to add light (because it’s too dark for a strong exposure). It’s also good for situations where you want complete control over the lighting. That said, there are times when flash just won’t help, such as when you’re photographing distant landscapes (because your subject is just too far away to be of use).

Should you get a speedlight or a strobe?

That depends on your goals. A speedlight is very portable, but it’s not especially powerful. Whereas a studio strobe offers a lot of power and a fast recycle time, but it’s very expensive and not at all easy to carry around. So if you’re going to be working in a studio, a strobe is a good choice, whereas if you’re going to work in many locations, you might want to opt for a speedlight.

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