Deal 10: A hot topic, at a hot price!
In this post Tom Pickett (from www.tpickettphotography.com) responds to some of the questions we’ve had lately here at DPS on using External Flash Units. His post was so long and detailed that I thought I’d break it down into two posts. Stay tuned for a follow up one tomorrow.
It never ceases to amaze me. The camera manufacturers have a remarkable staff of engineers and those engineers, based on input or suggestions from actual users throughout the world continue to develop some amazing gear.
The equipment continues to help us produce outstanding images and it makes our jobs easier, makes us better or both.
One of the areas of remarkable and accelerated achievement is in external hot-shoe mounted flash units. Yet, as a professional photographer for 23 years, I can still admit to using at times a MANUAL electronic strobe. More on that later.
One of the most requested subjects at DPS is about “hot-shoe” flash units. After reading the questions, I can see that there is quite an array of inquiries on how to use these units correctly to achieve the desired results. One query even asked about high speed sync on flash units. This is rarely asked about and I was surprised there was interest in that area since I am personally a user of high-speed sync quite often in my work.
This article will focus on the dedicated flash units by the primary manufacturers such as Canon.
Most of the latest units are given the acronym E-TTL which means “Evaluative-Through-The-Lens” operation. There are several other ways to use these newest flashes including manual operation where you decide how much flash it should put out. Even 3rd party companies such as Sigma and Metz make E-TTL flash units that are specific to Canon, Nikon and other name brands.
Before we start, I apologize to those of you that do not have a DSLR as this article is written with those people in mind. Those of you who have any one of the many fine point-and-shoot digital cameras will be covered in the future on how best to use your built in flash units.
The first thing that needs to be addressed is the very common misconception flash output is determined by the how bright the flash gets when you fire a unit. That is not correct. Flash output is determined by the amount of time or duration the flash unit emits light from the strobe unit. So what determines the duration of the flash? That is a complicated algorithm but in simple terms, it is the combination of your aperture, shutter speed and amount of light needed as determined by your camera.
If it is being used outdoors as a fill light, the duration is measured in milliseconds. If it is being used in very dark conditions, the duration will still be in milliseconds but much longer than fill light. So, let us make sure you understand this… the amount of brightness a flash unit puts out stays constant. What determines you getting the correct exposure is the duration of that flash.
Now is a good time as well to mention to use caution at all times using flash units. Do not ever place the unit close to you or any person look directly at the business end of the unit and fire the flash. The light is very intense and will wreak havoc on your eyesight for a while. Point it away from you when testing it at all times. Also, the voltage inside a charged speedlight is extremely high and dangerous. Do not curiously open a unit to see how it works.
The latest offerings of flash units that mount on your hot-shoe are ingenious devices. They are as automatic as one would ever think could be developed. In fact, if you are accustomed to point and shoot cameras, using one of these flashes on your hot-shoe is as easy as pushing shutter release. What happens is an amazing technological achievement. When you have the unit turned on to take a photo and press the shutter release, the flash puts out a pre-flash to the subject you are focused on and sends that information back to the camera. The camera processes the pre-flash data then fires again to take the picture. Mind you, the subjects are totally unaware that there were two flashes firing in their eyes, a pre-flash and then the main flash. All this happens in what is measured not in milliseconds, but in microseconds!
In the pre-flash, the flash unit and camera are working together to determine the ambient light, measured by the sensor in the camera. The sensor compares the ambient light values with the light reflected by the subject. Canon’s E-TTL II even measures the distance to the main subject and that also becomes part of the evaluation taking place. The pre-flash determines how much flash duration will be needed, sends that information to the camera and you are the recipient of a perfectly exposed subject and background. I have purposely typed the last three words boldly since we will talk about that later.
Now let us examine the setting on the camera and how that determines what kind of flash photo you will receive. Every modern DSLR has the following settings on the camera: there is “P”, then “TV”, “AV” and “M” on every camera that I am aware of. Yes, then there are the totally auto modes on the same control….those icons that mean portrait, landscape, close-up, sports and night portrait. For now, I really want everyone to focus on pretending those do not exist so that we can study the use of the P, TV, AV and M modes. These are the modes that once you learn how to use them, you will rarely go back to the “auto modes”.
The “P” mode is in reality a semi auto mode, that is the P is the first in the line of programmed modes, but in practical use, the camera still continues to do auto exposure. That is what Canon calls Program AE. There is a huge difference in the P mode as compared to the “fully automatic” mode indicated by a rectangle usually colored green on the camera. In P mode, you will be allowed to change shutter speeds. In the fully automatic mode, you cannot change anything.
Try it. Set your camera to P mode, and then point it at a subject in some nice daylight. Notice that perhaps your camera will select, on its own, a shutter speed of 1/125 with an aperture of F11. Then using the wheel selector of top of the camera, you can actually change the shutter speed to 1/250, 1/500 etc but at the same time as you change to faster shutter speeds your camera will open the lens up accordingly to allow the same amount of light to enter.
Moreover, you will notice that if the camera chooses 1/125 shutter speed and F8 as the aperture and you decide to increase shutter speed using that wheel selector and change it to 1/250 you will notice that the camera automatically changes the aperture to F4. That tells you immediately, once you think about it, that 1/125 @ F8 is really the same exposure as 1/250 @F4! The trade off is that F4 will give you a much more narrow depth-of-field compared to F8. On the other hand 1/250 shutter speed might make the difference between a blurred shot and a clean shot since the lower the shutter speed the more difficult it is to hand-hold a camera.
Now let’s go back to flash and how the “P” setting affects the images you take. The following will assume that you are using the center focus point on your camera. Most DSLR’s have many focus points. Set yours to use only the center focus point for now.
Remember above how the flash sends out a pre-flash? In the “P” mode, the camera and flash assume you want ONLY to expose the subject and nothing else around it including the background. (Remember the bold writing five paragraphs above). This is very important because let us take a situation where you are in the wedding reception hall, the lights are turned down, you take a photo of the bride and groom dancing and you are in “P” mode. You will get a great photo of the bride and groom but the background will be dark. Not that this is bad understand but what if you really wanted to light the background as well because about ten feet in back the bride and groom is the brides Mom and Dad? They will not be seen.
At this point, you can “fix” this problem two ways. One is to go back to the icons mentioned above. Go to the icon that means “night portrait”. Take the photo again and suddenly the background is exposed. But there is a price to pay for that. The shutter speed is drastically reduced by the camera in that position. In fact, it may be so slow that the subjects will be blurred if they move. Shutter speeds may go as low as 1/10 second or perhaps 1/20 second…much to slow without having your subject remain very still while you focus and take the shot. But you will light the background!
There is a better way. Every pro knows this. I want you to learn this. You simply put your camera on “M” for manual. Now, with the camera on “M”, you can set the shutter speed and lens opening (aperture) to wherever you desire. The desired and most widely used pro settings are a shutter speed of 1/60 and an aperture of F5.6. I use that one. You might also try 1/60 and aperture of F8. Suddenly, a whole new world of flash photography opens up to you. First, you will not be concerned if someone moves and secondly you will light the background.
This is because in any programmed mode such as TV, AV or M, the camera takes good direction from you and assumes you want the background lighted as well. This is built in by the bright engineers at the factory we talked about.
But please do only try this in the manual mode. Once I enter the reception hall, I automatically set up my camera to “M”, 1/60 @ F5.6 and fire away all night. If I do want a shot with the background dark simply move the dial back to “P” mode and fire away. Nothing else needs to be adjusted.
Read the 2nd part of this series. In it Tom explores Fill Flash, Dragging the Shutter, High Speed Flash Photography, Flash Exposure (FE) and more.
See more of Tom’s work at www.tpickettphotography.com
May 26, 2013 10:00 pm
I have bought recently a Canon Speedlite 430EX11 for use with a Canon 60D. I was hoping to use the 430Ex as a slave unit, I presumed that the cameras built in flash would fire the 430EX, but no !!! However today I came across this very useful article on Introduction to External flash, I am now in the process of reading it, and soon ( I Hope ) I can sort thing out.
Thanks again for a very informative article.
December 7, 2012 01:32 am
What are the best batteries to use?
December 5, 2012 04:17 am
Darren, forgot to ask one more thing -- do you use a diffuser? If so, most of the time, rarely? Thanks again!
December 5, 2012 04:10 am
Great article! Flash is confusing and you made it clear. Many people struggle with understanding it. Critics, have patience with us, please! And notice, he titled the article "INTRODUCTION to External Flash". And he fulfilled the title's intention very well. Best introduction article I've ever read. Just one question, using the "M" 1/60 @ 5.6 what ISO are you using? Thank you for this excellent intro to external flash, Darren -- I had many 'aha' moments reading it. Life is better now.
February 20, 2012 01:40 am
Regarding shooting manual. Not sure I understand leaving settings at 1/60 @ 5.6. While it seems perfect for a 50mm or even the Sigma 24-60 f/2.8 which I use a lot, but how does this apply using lenses with longer focal lengths? Would you suggest retaining same settings, but use a tripod, or maybe a monopod? I would think the 1/60 setting would give me control for e-ttl flash, or would it be better to use manual settings and adjust?
October 17, 2011 11:47 pm
Thanks for these excellent tips, I can now I hope take good flash shots at functions. I had a feeling there was more to it than fixing the flash to the shoe and clicking away. Regards Mike
September 18, 2011 04:53 am
I have just recently bought a canon 430 ex ii and it does not flash everytime i time i take a picture. i was wondering what kind of batteries i could get that would be better for this?? please help!!
July 11, 2011 07:39 pm
Manjeet, I would suggest you to go with Canon if you are looking high picture quality DSLR camera with the the accessories for few extra bucks. I m using one and its simply superb.
June 21, 2011 11:12 pm
I am from India, and planning to buy a DSLR Camera...Very confused about a specific model., Could you please suggest me a good DSLR as i want to make my career into Photography.. To be frank, money is not an issue, am looking for some where around $200-300 or anything in the same range., Also suggest me few of the accessories along with...
Waiting to hear from you as soon as possible..
November 21, 2010 01:13 am
I have been lookinh for ages for a simple tutorial on how to use an external flash unit.
This really did the trick! It may not cover absolutlety everything there is to know, but it really helps you understand the basics of an external flash unit! Really good and methodical!
Thank you so much! Just what I needed!
November 2, 2010 03:11 am
Thanks for this, its great advice. i frequently use the TV, AV, and M modes on my camera, but never knew what the P mode was! lol ive owned an XTi, a T1i and now a T2i and just purchased a 430EXII speedlite, ive been happy with it, but i think im going to be happier now.
October 13, 2010 01:19 am
i have a? question, since the mounted flash is usually much higher than the subject's face, supposing the lens is in line with the subject's face, would that mean that if it stayed at a 45 deg angle, the flash would be reflected off the head or even higher than that of the subject?
August 3, 2010 03:42 am
Very useful! But what about ISO and white balance? What should these be set at?
June 28, 2010 08:53 pm
Such a well written article for a beginner to flash photography to read. Thank you, it has really helped clarify some things for me and give me a good starting point for camera settings.
December 24, 2009 04:09 pm
this is really informative, thanks.
i was also wondering about the ISO settings.
do you have any recommendations on how to incorporate the right ISo settings?
that would be really helpful..thanks again...
August 20, 2008 04:01 am
I have the Canon 430EX and have not used it much as I did not like the results. I have tested your "M"-tip and am surprised with the results. I simple tip - a massive difference. Thank you.
June 5, 2008 03:36 am
Thanks Tom. This is a great help.
May 5, 2008 07:36 am
â€œYou can enter the search line PREFLASH BLINKS in your favorite search engine and come up with literally hundreds of examples of the phenomena"
Wow, I had no idea that some people were so sensitive, I just didn't think it was possible. You learn something everyday.
BTW. I did enter that search term and this thread was #5 on the list :)
May 3, 2008 09:23 am
I felt like I got undercut on what I read here. You didn't talk about how to use an external flash at all, how it syncs with the camera, and what all the buttons on the back of the flash even mean. All you talked about was P, AV, TV, and M modes, and what they mean.
Additionally, all "pros" do not aim for 5.6 at 1/60. In fact, in banquet halls, you are going to have to crank the ISO to even come close to that. And telling someone to "just switch to P mode" to get a dark background? No. Take an evaluative metering of what you want to expose and adjust accordingly in MANUAL mode. That is how people learn photography, not switching to different modes.
I really am hoping the second part offers more insight on how to actually use external flash units, as this did not tell me how to use one with my D80. It didn't mention how to sync with the camera, how to change the output of the flash (sorry, duration..), and how or what different colours of light are used inside the external flash unit.
May 2, 2008 12:52 pm
I don't have TV and AV on my Nikon D50. I presume these are the Canon equivalents to S and A (shutter priority and aperture priority)?
I've been hoping to get a hotshoe flash/speedlight (Is it wrong to call a speedlight a flash? Is that just Nikon's name for them?). Does any of the manual information apply to the in-built flash or will the camera reduce the flash to still only expose the foreground? I still don't have a strong understanding of metering and that sort of thing.
May 2, 2008 06:20 am
I'm really looking forward to the really insightful article that I'm sure Dane and Simon are going to write. Or is it just easy to try and look clever from pointing out someone's typographic errors!
Agree with Jeff and Candace - keep it positive. If you haven't got anything useful to say, why feel the need to type!
May 2, 2008 05:46 am
Tom, Thank you for all your hard work in helping many of us to achieve the very best photos. I shoot with the new Canon 40D and am in the market to purchase a flash unit and you have shed a lot of light on the subject, in fact from all angles i can see what i need to purchase and what to look for in choosing the correct flash settings. I am shooting a wedding for a friend soon and i am sure this will be of tremendous help for me to give them the very best photos they could expect. The people who write with negative comments should look at the big picture and remember that not all the people who are here are experts. The more info you give the more we can sift thru and hopefully use it to our advantage. Keep up the GREAT work.
Dave G of ( A Page-N-Thyme Soap Company ) in Anson, Maine
producers of all natural Goat milk soap and all natural body products.
May 2, 2008 05:11 am
Anyone out there from the metro-st. louis area???
May 2, 2008 05:09 am
Anyone out there from the southern Illinois / Metro St. Louis area? Would LOVE to become part of a photography group if you're out there!!!
May 2, 2008 03:00 am
Thanks for this nice article. I bought a Mamiya RB67 last month and it also came with an external flash which baffled me quite a bit, but this article cleared some stuff up for me!
May 2, 2008 02:38 am
Thanks for the info....but what about the ISO setting at 1/60 @ F5.6.
May 2, 2008 01:26 am
1/60 @ F5.6, how about the ISO?
May 1, 2008 03:44 pm
I noticed above that this posting software obviously does not like text placed in angle brackets or between the greater than and the less then signs.
The above reads --
"You can enter the search line in your favorite search engine and come up with literally hundreds of examples of the phenomena."
What it was supposed to say was --
"You can enter the search line PREFLASH BLINKS in your favorite search engine and come up with literally hundreds of examples of the phenomena."
I could not get back to edit the above post so I am correcting it here.
May 1, 2008 03:36 pm
@ HARRY PHILLIPS Said:
"I think what you are refering to is the â€˜red-eyeâ€™ reduction flash. That will fire and then 1-2 seconds later the pre-flash and real flash go off so quickly there is no perceivable gap between them."
No, Harry. I was refering to Preflash not red-eye reduction. I do not ever use red eye reduction. Removing the flash axis from the lens axis is how I go about red-eye avoidance. In other words I either hand hold the flash off camera axis or I use a flash bracket to extend the flash well away from the lens axis when shooting on the fly. After 38 years a professional photographer I hope I know the difference by now.
I read the comments from Mr. Pickett in the second part of this article where he reiterated his statement about the flash and preflash being imperceptible from each other and that he was not clear on the statement made to the contrary. The only difference between our gear is that he uses Canon and I use Nikon. Both excellent camera makers, so please do not take my comment as meaning one is better than another. I do not know the Canon system well enough. Perhaps Canon has something over Nikon in preflash/recording flash interim delays. To the best of my knowledge, both flash systems are based on the same technology and operate in a similar fashion.
You can enter the search line in your favorite search engine and come up with literally hundreds of examples of the phenomena. It is given that there is a problem with some extremely sensitive subjects and preflash. As I stated above I usually go Manual when this occurs. The photographer just has to be cognizant of it and be prepared to adjust accordinglyâ€¦ but then isnâ€™t that what being a pro is all about? The lure of automatic settings is strong but sometimes good, old-fashioned manual operation is the only way to go.
May 1, 2008 03:31 pm
Wow, I am actually surprised by the "critics".
Many articles have been written on many needed subjects. I appreciate the access of these articles sent straight to my email inbox. I do not always have the time to do the research. Of course I do research and enjoy it immensely as well.
There is so much to learn about photography and not everyone is looking to shoot professionally, but for those of us who are...stay positive people, its a big business, with room for us all! Good article! Useful in many ways and I look forward to the completion!
May 1, 2008 02:06 pm
Thanks for such a fantastic write up. I too will have this article printed out and stick it on my wall.
May 1, 2008 06:02 am
Thanks for the great article. I don't often do photography requiring a flash, but it's nice to be aware of how to do it correctly. Articles like yours really help.
I have the Canon 550EX Speedlight.
May 1, 2008 03:17 am
I have to agree with Dane and point out the mistake in shutter speeds in the article. The statement "1/125 @ F8 is really the same exposure as 1/250 @F4!" is incorrect. It should've said "1/125 @F8 is really the same exposure as 1/250 @5.6!"
May 1, 2008 12:50 am
Thanks for the useful reading... Any plan for a post on using Nikon external flash units in the near future? That would make me extremely happy :) For what I know Nikon flashes have also a setting called BL. I'm just starting using my flash and I'm a LOT confused!
May 1, 2008 12:33 am
Thanks! I am new to digital photography and was looking for just this type of info!
April 30, 2008 11:41 pm
I have put a diffuser over my flash which eliminates the need for the multiple flashes...it works well! I get no red eye situations. I find it necessary when taking shots of children and pets when every second counts in which the shot could be lost.
April 30, 2008 07:57 pm
No offence but I'm not very happy with this article and have to agree with Foppel. At the end of the article I heard a big WTF echoing around my head. Maybe because it's mainly hollow ;-) or maybe because I didn't like the conclusion. I reckon stobist.com spoiled me a bit there :-)
April 30, 2008 03:22 pm
I have a 420EX and have used it on AV with some reasonable results but like everyone else am keen to try 1/60 @ f5.6.
Thanks for part 1, looking forward to part 2.
April 30, 2008 02:40 pm
"Some subjects are very aware of pre-flash. In my experience I have photographed subjects that are extremely sensitive to pre-flash"
The human eye will see anything with less than a 40 millsecond gap (1/25th of a second) as a continuous light, the preflash lasts microseconds and is followed within microseconds by the real flash.
I think what you are refering to is the 'red-eye' reduction flash. That will fire and then 1-2 seconds later the pre-flash and real flash go off so quickly there is no perceivable gap between them.
April 30, 2008 11:57 am
Excellent article, its the perfect introduction to external flash units. The last paragraph in particular brilliant, and so I'm eagerly awaiting the next part and eagerly looking for an external flash unit too!
April 30, 2008 11:37 am
Very good article with some excellent information.
@ TOM PICKETT Says:
"The camera processes the pre-flash data then fires again to take the picture. Mind you, the subjects are totally unaware that there were two flashes firing in their eyes, a pre-flash and then the main flash."
I cannot agree with this statement, Tom.
Some subjects are very aware of pre-flash. In my experience I have photographed subjects that are extremely sensitive to pre-flash, so sensitive in-fact that each shot of certain subjects is recorded with a blink reaction to the pre-flash causing the second flash to illuminate the subject with eyes closed as it is being recorded. This is very difficult to eleminate. You can ask the subject to look away from the lens but in severe cases the only way to overcome this is to shoot manually or use manual studio strobes off the cameraâ€™s axis.
Thanks for allowing my comment.
April 30, 2008 09:35 am
Good tips here. I am a fan of keeping a simple diffuser at hand as well, and using bounce. Once you get hooked on flash, it's hard to go back to none at all and obviously sometimes you need it. With units like the 580ex, avoid lithium batteries, they are great with point and shoots but I have noticed that they don;t last very long with my strobe, I carry 4 extra AAs in my pocket. Nimh batteries are great too, if you have fresh charges.
April 30, 2008 08:25 am
Great article. I bought a 580 EXII a month ago, and have had mixed results. I've been insisting on shooting in M so that I learn, but have been fixing the shutter speed way too fast (1/250th on my 40D). Have tried same shots as I had trouble with (over larger distance) at 1/60 and f8.0 and it worked a treat. Looking forward to part II.
April 30, 2008 07:32 am
One thing to note is that in the example of manual shutter speed, if you keep the aperture the same and adjust the shutter speed faster until you reach the max sync speed, you probably won't see much difference in the photo unless you are in a VERY bright place.
With aperture and flash power (and camera ISO sensitivity) equal, shutter speed controls ambient light exposure, not the light from the flash.
But maybe that's really advanced and for the second article :)
April 30, 2008 06:49 am
Fantastic! I just purchased the 580EX II last week and haven't had a lot of opportunity to use it yet, but this article is definitely timely and informative. You've cleared up a few things I was unsure of or misinformed on, and thanks especially for your tip on 1/60 at Æ’/5.6. I'll be sure to try that out!
April 30, 2008 06:22 am
This couldn't have come at a better time for me! You must be psychic, Tom. I'm taking copious notes and eagerly awaiting tomorrows article. Thanks a million.
April 30, 2008 05:57 am
Great article! Until now I've never used the M mode, but now I'm going to try it. I've already been using Aperture Priority, so I can work with the depth of field, and I don't find it any more complicated than P.
April 30, 2008 05:25 am
This is perfect timing as I bought my first flash for my e-500. Great article. Can't wait to see the next update.
April 30, 2008 05:25 am
Thank you! Your article answers questions that I've been wanting to ask! Thanks for sharing!
April 30, 2008 04:57 am
Tom, thanks for the great intro to ext flash -- I just bought my first DSLR and have been wanting to learn about this very topic.
This last bit left me with a question:
"Once I enter the reception hall, I automatically set up my camera to â€œMâ€, 1/60 @ F5.6 and fire away all night."
Anyone care to share their thoughts on what lens this would apply to?
April 30, 2008 04:30 am
"1/125 @ F8 is really the same exposure as 1/250 @F4!"
Not in my experience. I think you mean 1/250@F5.6...right?
April 30, 2008 04:23 am
"aha!" + 1
April 30, 2008 04:17 am
This article has opened up so many opportunities I was unaware of. Echoing tony's comment above, that last paragraph is definitely an "Ah-Ha!" for me as well!
April 30, 2008 03:41 am
cool. that last paragraph was an "aha!" for me.
April 30, 2008 03:30 am
I've bought a Canon 430EX a few weeks ago, and never regreted it. Though I'm happy I didn't pick it the first day I got my camera - oh so many things would have been left unexplored!
April 30, 2008 02:33 am
Wow thanks for this.. I was unaware about some of it.. eagerly awaiting tomorrow's part 2
April 30, 2008 01:45 am
I am sorry, but I want to simply say, thank you for the effort of writing this article, but a buildup of 19 paragraphs (i get to it later why it is important for me to count the paragraphs) to tell people 'learn to shoot in manual, or aperture prio or shutter prio', without telling the promised revelation why you fire your FLASH in manual and the synthesis in the end is 'if you want your background black shoot in P' ... was in my opinion not really wroth my time. I hoped to really get some insight on how to work that piece of equipment on my hotshoe rather than 'use M or forget what you try to do'.
I am sorry if I come over too negative here but I 99% of times really like the articles here, and besides that I would love the quantity of this article as being standard, the quality does not really match (my) expectations.
And as I promised, why the paragraphs are important: it was 6 paragprahs up, not 5.
April 30, 2008 01:41 am
this is a great article!! thank you for sharing.
April 30, 2008 12:56 am
Thank You so much...I have been so confused about the very things you are going over....I am going to print it out and keep it in my notes book!!!!
Receive a FREE SAMPLE of our Portrait Photography Ebook
Receive a FREE SAMPLE of our Portrait Photography Ebook
Receive a FREE SAMPLE of our Portrait Photography Ebook
Sign up to the free DPS PHOTOGRAPHY COURSE
GET DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS Feed