How To Use Flash Photography To Better Expose Your Subjects

Flash photography can be a daunting prospect for many photographers.

Who doesn’t have nightmares about images ruined as a result of red-eye?

But never fear. Follow our 10 simple tips as we shed light on the topic and show you how simple it can be.

What Is Flash Photography?

As the name suggests, flash photography means the creation of images using artificial light. The light source can be a classic Speedlight flash or studio lights.

A photographer holds up a camera with a speedlight flash attached
Buying a Speedlight for your camera is a great way to start flash photography. Photo by Tom Pumford.

The beauty of flash photography is that you are not forced to adapt to the ambient light. Instead, you create and sculpt your own light.

So how can I control light using a flash?

  1. Change the intensity of the light: choose from full output power down to 1/64th or 1/128th of full power;
  2. Adjust light spread (zoom): You can either make the flash beam narrow or wide by zooming-in/out the flash head (measured in mm). As you zoom out the flash head the flash beam becomes more narrow. As you zoom-in, the beam becomes wider.
  3. Change direction of the light: by bouncing the flash off another surface or by entirely moving the flash off-camera
  4. Modify the quality of light: by using different light modifiers.

Flashes are also useful outdoors, to improve your photos in tricky light conditions.

For example, in the photo below, I used a flash to produce fill-light so that my face is well exposed against the bright background light.

A man uses flash on his camera to take a selfie riding an electric scooter in the woods
A flash can help balance the exposure in tricky lighting conditions, such as taking a selfie while riding an electric scooter in the woods. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

Tips on How to Use a Flash

Using flash in your photography may sound intimidating at first. That is why we wanted to give you these tips and tricks to get the best results out of your flash photography.

1. Use Fill Flash Outdoors to Balance Exposure

Do you struggle to get good family photos during outdoor activities?

The main problem, especially on sunny days, is that most of the time you will shoot ‘into’ the light.

A woman, her child and dog by a lake, shot into the sun
A classic family outdoor snapshot. As you can see from the direction of the shadows, the sun is high up in the sky, slightly behind the people, so their faces are in shadow. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

In this case, particularly if you shoot in automatic mode, one of two things will happen. Both of which are undesirable.

  1. The bright background will be properly exposed, but the backlit subject will be underexposed; or
  2. The backlit subject is properly exposed, but the brighter background is overexposed.

2. How to Avoid Red-Eye When Using Flash

The red-eye effect happens when the flash is used to take a shot and the pupils of humans or animals appear red.

A close-up on a person's face showing the red-eye effect
When the flash is used on someone’s face, this can cause red-eye, as shown above.

In low-light, pupils dilate, but the flash occurs so fast they cannot contract. Thus, the camera picks up the light reflected back through the pupil after bouncing off the back of the eye. The main cause of the red color comes from the blood vessels in the eye.

The simplest solution to avoid the red-eye effect is to ask the subject to look away from the camera.

If that is not ideal, most cameras have red-eye reduction capabilities built-in. For example, they can fire the flash twice when the shutter is pressed, causing the pupil to contract. This function will tame the red-eye effect.

Other ways to prevent red eye include:

  • Bounce the flash to change the direction of the light: this ensures only diffused light enters the eyes;
  • Move the flash off-camera: this moves it off axes with the eye
  • Increase the ambient light: this will ensure the subject’s pupils are more constricted.

You can also correct red-eyes in post-production, however, it is to a limited extent, so it’s best to get it right in camera.

3. Bounce Your Flash for a Softer Light

There are two types of light in photography: hard and soft.

  • Hard light creates more contrasted images
  • The soft light gives more balanced images

If you take an image using direct flash, the light is hard and will cast strong, ugly shadows on the background.

An image of a young boy taken using direct flash
An image taken using direct flash. The light is very hard, casting strong shadows on the background. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

However, if you tilt the flash head to bounce the light off the ceiling or a wall next to your subject, the light will be much softer. See below example:

An image of a young boy taken with the flash bounced off the wall

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