The Value of Speedlites and Bouncing Light

So you finally got that amazing new DSLR camera and are filling up your hard drive with 100s or even 1,000s of photos, AWESOME!  That’s so exciting.  But maybe you’re noticing the pop-up flash doesn’t exactly give the most natural or even light.

As a photographer, you are always searching for the perfect light to make your subject look as natural and evenly lit as possible.  In a perfect world this lighting would come from the sun on an overcast day, giving you enough light to use a low ISO with the shutter speed and aperture of your choice, but also having the thin layer of clouds there to diffuse the light perfectly around your subject.  But alas, we do not live in a perfectly overcast world (ok unless you live in Seattle) and sometimes we need to enlist the help of artificial light.

Artificial light can come from a number of sources including strobes, speedlites, or even a table lamp.  For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll be talking about speedlites, how valuable they are, their flexibility, and their accessibility on various budgets.  Below shows my 7D photographing onions with the pop-up flash.  (NOTE:  all images of the onions were shot using a tripod at ISO 400, f/4.0, 1/60 second with the only difference coming from the flash itself. Click on any image to view it larger in a new tab.)

Here is the resulting image.

So it’s not terrible but definitely not great.  You’ll notice the flash wasn’t powerful enough to light the whole scene, and since it was pointed directly at the subject you can also see a hot spot of light on the red onion.  Some may say if you shoot in RAW you can easily adjust the exposure in post processing, which is correct, BUT doing so will usually end in adding noise to your final result.  So, how about we add a 580 EXII to the equation with the flash pointed directly at the subject.

Better.  The external flash allowed for higher power lighting the scene a bit more as well as the ability for more flexibility if you were to choose to use it in manual (for the purpose of this blog I set the flash to the auto setting of ETTL).  However, having the flash fired directly at the onions it still caused hot spots on the reflective skin as well as fairly deep shadows, so let’s try bouncing the light off of my white ceiling.

Much better!  With the flash pointed straight up, the light was fired directly up at the white ceiling. But I also utilized the built in bounce card to reflect some of the light forward to give some front light to the onions as well as the top light that came from the flash spilling down off the ceiling.  What if you have a speedlite that does not have a built in flash card?  That’s no problem a piece of folded computer paper and a rubber band can’t fix!  See this technique utilized below on my smaller 430 EXII flash.

If you were really picky, there are a few things you could do with off camera flashes/strobes, soft boxes, and/or reflectors to make this even better, but for the sake of this post and using only and on camera speedlite…this is pretty good.

The key to good lighting with a speedlite is to first understand the settings (a lot of information that can be different for each flash making it too much info for this post, but always make sure you read your manuals).  Then understanding how to use different surfaces and techniques to bounce and diffuse light.  Most of the time light colored ceilings and walls work great for bouncers, but what happens if you are somewhere with high or dark ceilings/walls?  In that situation it is best to point your speedlite more directly towards your subject; however, also utilizing a flash mounted diffuser.  There are many such diffusers out there, but I have found Gary Fong diffusers to give the best quality of light.  And now with their new collapsible Lightsphere, you do not have to sacrifice as much of your bag space!

There are all kinds of external flashes out there ranging from about $100 to over $1,000.  Don’t be discouraged if your budget is tight!  Often times for personal use you do not need the higher end flashes with extensive power and battery life.  My best suggestion is to think about what you want in regards to ability to shoot in a variety of settings.  If at all possible find one with at least a tilting head so you can have some flexibility in bouncing light.  Then go for it!  Most online photography stores (ie Adorama and B&H) have very good return policies.  If you buy a flash, test it out and don’t like the results, exchange it!  You never know until you try.  Happy shooting!

L~ F~:

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