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5 Reasons to Use Flash to Improve Your Travel Photography

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When it comes to travel photography, I am all in for carrying less. However, a good flash is always within reach in my everyday camera bag. I strongly believe that a flash helps to achieve much better results in a number of situations, and here are five reasons and examples:

1) Fill the shadows

Fishing on the Cau River

The alleyway that protects these fishing villagers from the heat in Vietnam makes it almost impossible to have a good balance between the bright sunlight on the river, and the walls of the alley. The use of flash, in a controlled way, over the foreground helps to open up the shadows and show some detail on the otherwise totally dark foreground.

2) Under-expose your background

Farmer in Van Ha

When making portraits, it is always good to have decent separation between your main subject and the background. Granted, one of the most popular ways is to use a shallow depth of field and blur the background while keeping the principal element of your photo sharp. Another way is to intentionally under-expose your photo one or two stops, and light your subject with flash to compensate.

3) Freeze motion

For the love of the kids

If you are working with moving subjects, the use of flash will help to freeze some of the motion if you intend to do so. This depends on a number of factors, including what shutter speed you are shooting at and the length of the flash duration. But, if you notice in the example above, the flash is only being used to achieve points one and two of this article, meaning I am also underexposing the image a tad, and opening up the shadows in the main subject to bring more attention to them.

4) Dark interiors

Old Black Hmong man

This artisan from the Hmong minorities in North Vietnam was working his craft inside his house where no lights are available. Despite being close to a window, it was way too dark to photograph, even at high ISO. If you encounter a similar condition, the use of flash will not only make a big difference, but could also be the reason you get the shot at all.

5) Keep shooting at night

Street performer at night in New Orleans

Some places are meant to be enjoyed at night. All kind of photos are possible during this time. Cityscapes and lights trails are certainly compelling propositions, but when it comes to capturing street life there is no better way than with the aid of flash. That extra pop of light will make your subjects come alive and stand out.

The key to doing this is to practice and learn how to manage and balance ratios. Every moment is different and sometimes your key light will be your flash, and other times you’ll be using it just to fill. My personal preference is to do it manually. I think you have much better control by dialling in the power of your speedlights manually, rather than letting the camera figure it out. It takes practice, but it is not difficult to master.

In terms of equipment, I really like the Yongnuo YN 560-III, the main reason is the integrated radio trigger. The units are inexpensive, but well made, which doesn’t hurt either. But as I always use it off-camera, the fact that I don’t need to attach cables or be worried about optical slaves is something that I appreciate. That radio signal goes everywhere, even behind walls, making it very easy to trigger.

What about you? Do you use any flash in your travel photos or in situations like these? Share your images and comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Daniel Korzeniewski is a Miami based, travel photographer. His work appeared in several publications and contributes to various stock photography outlets. He often leads photography travel tours, find more about his work, travel adventures, and upcoming tours at his website by clicking here. You can also follow his Instagram account.

  • Anubis

    Thanks for th kick up the a#% – I need to learn that it’s OKAY to use your flashgun.

    Mine is generally always say in my lowepro when out and about and underused immensely.

    I’m gonna mount it, and angle it. It’s fun to experiment!

    So thanks 🙂

  • Jay Doraiswami

    Nice article. How do you balance the flash’s color temperature with natural light, especially in the evening’s warmer light?

  • Isabella@newborn baby photogra

    I must say that these are very good tips and I liked the freeze motion point.

  • You can use gels to change the color of your light. They come in different colors. Take a look at this article http://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-color-balance-your-flash-with-gels/

  • Anubis

    Or more simply, you shoot in RAW and edit the temperature in your raw editor of choice.

  • Jay Doraiswami

    Thank you both, for the valuable suggestions (gel and RAW)

  • Michael

    Thanks Daniel! That’s exactly what I do regardless I am indoors or outdoors my Canon 580EX is always with me. It’s attached to my flash bracket about a foot above the camera lens axis so I don’t get these shadows behind my subjects as they fall down.
    Unfortunately, a lot of photographers avoid using flashes just because they are still intimidated with flash photography. I always modified my flash especially indoor to create soft lightening on the subject and never would use just bare flash.

  • I generally shoot raw and I don’t correct it other than in post when needed.

  • Thanks, I agree with you, it takes some practice but is not difficult to master. I sometimes carry a small umbrella to diffuse it and if indoors bounce it as long as ceiling and walls are white or similar.

  • Kerry

    thanks always been to scared to use flash – not seen as artistic enough but your examples are so true

  • Fadzilah

    I love tips especially to freeze the motions. I have flash but never use it because of the fear. And because of yes… i am not good at using it. But somehow your article has made made me want to learn to use flash in during my next travel. Time to learn and practice now!

  • Marlon R.

    Notice how I say “I” because it’s my personal opinion nothing more…Though I agree that flash can help in a lot of situations, I don’t believe it should be used In a lot travel photography. It takes away the documentary feel of it (if not used correctly). I feel like ND filter, if used correctly can help you take a better picture and still get that natural documentary look. The first picture… They are hiding from the sun… You add a flash and you can take note of that anymore…. Add an ND filter to the highlited areas open your lens and boom you are still able to see that they are fishing hiding from the sun not taking away anything really. Night photography can be tricky without a flash as well, but once again using a flash takes away the natural feel of it. Practice using natural lighting don’t go the easy way out. You will be happier with your result once you have master using natural lighting. Anyone else agree with me?

  • Marlon R.

    Forgot to mention… You are telling a story in one frame… Will using a flash change the story? Natural lighting will tell the story like it is… Haha ok I’m done

  • Marlon, I understand your point. But I don’t understand how an ND filter would help to compensate bright and dark areas in your image, how an ND would help me to fill shadows. An ND filter will only make the whole image darker which of course you’ll compensate with exposure… but nothing will change in terms of having the photo a “more documentary look”. Maybe you can expand and share with us some examples so we can better appreciate your suggestion.

  • Bill Jaynes

    Flash scared me to death for so long but sometimes it’s the only way that anything is going to happen photographically. The Miami based band, “Dangerflow” visited Pohnpei, Micronesia last year and I was privileged to hang out with them on a sunset cruise on their first day. This photo, taken aboard a boat would not have happened with a reflectors. Only flash would do.

  • Bill Jaynes

    “oops” on the horizon! Hadn’t noticed it before I posted it and have fixed it. This one is from the same trip with a better horizon…

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