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Photography Course Tips: Use Your Speedlight Creatively

  • Tutorials
  • 12/03/17

There are many different types of light – hard light (midday sun, no clouds), soft light (cloudy day), rim light (back light), different colours, different directions…

Photography Course Tips: Use Your Speedlight Creatively

Developing our understanding of all these kinds of light and how to control them, whether in the studio or out on location, is one of the most challenging and enjoyable aspects of photography.

Speedlights, or flash guns, are fantastic. They are lightweight, so can travel easily. They are relatively cheap. You can buy accessories such as soft boxes for them, and you can link up to 6 or more so that they fire at the same time. You can use them in the studio – although if you are photographing all day it is better to use studio lights – or you can use them on location.

Now, thankfully, you can manipulate speedlights, so they don’t have to be that hard direct, overexposed… can’t… get… the… flash …to…. work frustration that you might have with your popup flash.

The benefit of having a speedlight is that it can go on your camera and you can also have it off camera, create dramatic cinematography light by putting it in interesting positions.

Have a look at Heads by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, who is an American photographer whose work encompasses both documentary and staged photography.

These street portraits are taken in New York City’s Times Square. Each is an unstaged study of passers-by, which follows in the tradition of Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Harry Callahan and Robert Frank. DiCorcia uses flash guns detached from the camera to single out random characters, to make us think who they are, where they are going to, what their dreams are – all with the use of simple flash light.

DiCorcia’s Heads are so interesting, bringing street photography up to the present day. His photographs have been integral to contemporary dialogues on street photography, portraiture and the constructed v the spontaneous.

What speedlights do we use?

At LIoP, we use speedlights from Chinese manufacturer Yongnuo (we use the YN650 IV Kit); the new kid on the block and all the rave among photographers at the moment.

They are very affordable – about £120 for two flashes and the control unit represents incredible value for money.

Most importantly these speedlights are radio-triggered from the camera, which allows you to use them off-camera and position them freely to achieve spectacular effects. You can set up a key light for the face and a backlight for a dramatic, cinematic look.

Speedlight experiment

Start out without flash. Set your camera to manual exposure (M) on the dial and underexpose the ambient light by about 5 stops. This means that your aperture will probably be around F16 or 22, ISO 100, and shutter speed 1/200 or 1/250 – if you go any faster, i.e. 1/500, you will have big black lines in your images, because the shutter curtain will block out parts of the flashlight (look up the term flash sync).

Take a test shot. You should now see only very faint and dark details of the background.

Now position the two speedlights about 2 metres away from the subject – one about 1 metre next to the camera and the other one behind the subject.

Put the speedlights on manual and not E-TTL (reading your exposure on the camera). You can control the intensity of the flash on camera and experiment – often the random and unexpected results are the most exciting!

If you would like to practice these techniques with guidance from a master photographer, we teach using speedlights as part of our London Portrait Photography Course.

Image by Alison Clarke