Canon flash photography tips

lighting in photography – it does not have to be complicated to start

During a lunch-time conversation, a friend told me that she felt intimidated by the on-location flash photography by other photographers. The way to use multiple-flash setups seemed impenetrable to grasp. How would one go about and where do  you even start. This made me wonder – just how complicated should photography lighting be? I don’t think it has to be complicated. It just has to be enough to be effective or solve a problem.

With on-location photography, my starting point is usually where I consider if I can improve the existing light with flash (or video light). What do I need to add to make it just a little bit better? And does it need something more to make it even better? The final image needs to look good. Tall of this is an iterative thought-process, rather than a compelling desire that I have to use every flash that I own.

This straight-forward portrait of Anelisa,was taken during an individual workshop in New York. It might be a good example where off-camera flash was used for the tiniest bit of sweetening of the light. A bit of rim-lighting to separate her from the black doorway.

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review: Canon ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter and Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites

In my review of the Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT, I’ve already raved about the ease of use of the new speedlite – thanks to a menu system that you can follow without having to decipher it via a manual), but mostly because of the built-in radio control of the flash. This elevates the Canon 600EX-RT to a new level. As mentioned in my review, I really think this flashgun will change things in the photo industry. It’s huge.

The main advantages of the Canon ST-E3 Speedlite Transmitter (vendor), is that you can change the flashes’ output directly from your camera. No need to run to and fro between your speedlights to change a flash’ output. And of course, The Big Thing about the new flash system, is the built-in radio control. You’re not limited by line-of-sight anymore, or compelled to buy radio slaves. It is obvious that Canon has done their homework on this puppy. While it is a complex flash system, the Canon ST-E3-RT isn’t a complicated device to use.

To test this system, I used three Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites (vendor), and a  Canon ST-E3 Speedlite Transmitter (vendor) in a photo-shoot. Check out this behind-the-scenes video clip of how the Canon 600EX-RT speedlites were set up for this photo shoot.

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off-camera flash in low light – choosing your shutter speed

With flash photography, the maximum flash sync speed is an important camera setting. It is the best go-to camera setting when you use flash in bright ambient light. But when we shoot in low ambient light levels, then we need to adjust our shutter speed accordingly. We would most likely be at a shutter speed where the ambient light shows up. We want some of the ambient light to register in our photographs, because it gives us context. Allowing more ambient light to appear in our low-light photos where we use flash, enhances the mood. It also reveals more of where we are. Context!

To remain at max flash sync speed in low light isn’t the immediate best choice, because the background would usually go far too dark. Even black. Our photographs usually look best with our subject in surroundings we can recognize, or complements our subject in some way.

Shutter speed choice when using flash, will vary depending on what we’re photographing, or trying to achieve. In low light, we’re most often dragging the shutter. But we have to be able to adapt what we do, against what we’re trying to achieve with our photos.

As recap example of using flash in low light, let’s have a closer look at the top image:

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example: direct off-camera flash vs softbox (model: Ulorin Vex)

Ulorin Vex posing for us during part of the on-location session of the flash photography workshops which I presented in San Francisco earlier this year. Ulorin Vex is of course absolutely stunning, as always. While I often direct models how they should pose, this one is all her doing . Not even I can improve on that.

The image here at the top was shot with an off-camera softbox – my usual preferred Lastolite Ezybox softbox. The direction of the light here should immediately reveal the approximate position where the light was positioned. Just as comparison, we removed the two baffles of the Lastolite, to see how direct off-camera flash would compare. We kept the softbox hull in place, so it did help contain the spread of light a bit. As you’d expect, the results look more dramatic.

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using multiple speedlights with high-speed flash sync

This photo of Angelique, our model, was taken at 1/8000 @ f2 @ 100 ISO. Yes, an eight-thousand-th of a second.  The accompanying wide aperture (with an ultra-wide angle lens), gives a unique look to the image. The shallow depth-of-field and high shutter speed are mutually dependent effects in shooting in bright light. Working with a fast shutter speed, brought us into high-speed flash sync (HSS) territory.

Do keep in mind that this shoot was more of a technical exercise to work through the settings and see how the flash behaves when working in bright light, and needing either a faster shutter speed or wider aperture. (Or both.)  In this case, we achieved shallower depth of field and a faster shutter speed. Obviously, in photographing a static model, the advantage of a faster shutter speed is lost. But when you do need the faster shutter speed, this is the solution.

With high-speed flash sync, there is a dramatic loss in effective power, as shown in this previous article. To overcome this, you need to work very close to your subject, or gang up a number of speedlights as a group.

Back to the sequence of images – I wanted to under-expose the city-scape and then use flash to highlight the model against the environment.  So the lighting had to enhance the look of the wide-aperture wide-angle lens. The lens was the beautiful Canon 24mm f1.4 II (B&H). The camera that I used is the classic Canon 5D.

My friend Yishai, of HD PhotoVideo, had shown me his permanent set-up which he uses whenever he has the need of high-speed flash.  His setup consists of four  Canon 580 EX ii speedlights (B&H), held together via a Lightware Foursquare Block. To free himself up from line-of-sight restrictions, and give reliable control of these speedlights, Yishai had connected each speedlight to a RadioPopper PX unit. (They worked with perfect reliability during this shoot.)  To have the speedlights recycle fast enough, they are powered by two Quantum 2×2 batteries (B&H). By ganging up four speedlights like this, we can start overcoming the loss of flash power when going into HSS.

To show me how these work on an actual shoot, we arranged to meet up with Angelique (on this icy cold day) on this pier in Brooklyn, for a photo session. Here is what this setup looks like …

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flash photography tutorial – balancing flash and ambient light

An email I received recently from someone explained how she is struggling with flash. The basic building blocks of photography are all there and understood, but it somehow doesn’t gel when she uses flash. She explains how she understands exposure metering, but “the minute I attach my flash, nothing makes sense.” Having read my book and scoured this blog, she admits that at the point where she uses her flash and needs to set aperture and shutter speed, she is completely lost.

I’m sure this is something many many photographers struggle with – just feeling baffled by where to start. So while this stuff at some level is easy once you understand it, flash photography also seems to be one of those subjects where you have to immediately grasp a whole bunch of things for it all to fall into place the first time.

So I’ve been mulling this over in my mind for a few weeks now. I thought of how to break this down in a different manner that would help with that “aha!” moment shining through. I have written a few other articles on how to balance flash with available light, which are all linked in this off camera flash photography page. But it might be that I need to find another approach in my explanation of balancing flash with ambient light.  Break things down in a different way. And in breaking things down, we can see where we get stuck.  And break that down again. Finally we might get an “oh!?” moment of clarity.  And for other regular readers, this might just be a useful reinforcement of the concepts.

Now, at the very start of this,we have to realize there are two exposures taking place – flash and ambient light. This is the key. Then we have figure out how we’re going to combine them.  The ‘how’ then includes exposure metering, but also includes direction of light.  For this article, we’re just going to look at balancing flash with ambient light. We’re going to use a few simple portraits of our model, Camille, as illustration here for an understanding of how to add flash to ambient light. We’re purposely going to keep it simple to have things fall into place first.

Let’s see where this leads to …

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high-speed flash sync / auto FP .. vs .. normal flash

There have been a number of questions about high-speed flash sync (HSS), and how it affects the output from your flash.  There were also some questions asked about high-speed flash sync with this recent post where we tried to reverse-engineer a photo.

I decided to do a series of comparison photos, so we can actually see what happens before, at and beyond maximum flash sync speed.  And we can also see what happens with high-speed flash sync. To do this, I set up very simple portrait lighting using a single speedlight and a large umbrella.  A simple white paper-roll backdrop, and our model, Rachel. Here is the setup in my dining room …

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