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4 Tips for Effective Lighting Using Only One Speedlight


If the idea of incorporating flash into your photography work strikes fear in your heart, this is a must read article for you!

The ability to use a portable electronic flash can do wonders for your work by giving you more creative options, and the truth is you don’t need a ton of fancy equipment to begin utilizing flash. In fact, this article is focused purely on the speedlight, the Canon 580 EXII Speedlite to be exact (equivalent to the Nikon SB-900), and how you can get started experimenting with lighting effects using just one speedlight.

Among the smallest, most compact forms of external lighting, speedlights offer consistent, daylight-balanced lighting powered by four AA batteries. They are easy to fully integrate with your DSLR camera, allowing the two units to operate as one. While most speedlights offer manual settings, it is also easy to just leave it on auto (TTL) and let it adjust the light output according to your camera settings. Depending on what kind of camera you own, it might come with its own built-in pop up flash, but a speedlight is still recommended due to its ability to tilt and swivel, giving you more control over where the flash is aimed.

The following examples were photographed using a Canon 5D Mark III and a 580 EXII Speedlite. All included photographs were shot in auto (TTL) setting and received no retouching other than cropping and resizing.

Ambient Light Isn’t Always the Best Light

No Flash

While ambient lighting is often the easiest lighting source to use, it comes with its share of shortcomings. There might be too much or too little ambient lighting, it might be coming from the wrong direction, or it might have a strong color cast. To kick-off this example, let’s see how this Balinese mask photographs using just the ambient light available in the room (see image above). Notice that the colors are dull and the surfaces of the mask are unevenly illuminated. It’s a less than optimal photo, showcasing all of the shortcomings of relying purely on ambient lighting.

If you’re lucky, the ambient light might be able to be moulded using a reflector or simply moving your photo subject. But say you can’t control the ambient light? Here are some tips for using a speedlight in your favor.

Option 1: Shoot with the flash straight on

Straight On

The easiest way to use your speedlight is to aim it directly at your subject. The result is a decently lit subject, similar to the type of photo that a built-in pop up flash would produce. Notice how that colors pop more and the mask is more evenly lit compared to the photo shot in ambient light. However, aiming your flash straight forward can result in some harsh shadows, not to mention cause human photo subjects to be temporarily blinded by light flashing in their faces. It is also very non-directional light making the subject appear flat and lacking dimension.

Option 2: Bounce the flash off the ceiling or wall

Straight UP

Flash bounced straight up off the ceiling

The simplest way to soften the speedlight’s effects is to bounce the flash off of a nearby surface. In this case, the flash is aimed directly up at a white ceiling. When the flash is fired, the light is spread out onto the ceiling and reflected down on the subject. As a result, the front part of the mask from the eyes to the nose are nicely lit, but the mouth, ears, and ornamental headdress are left in the shadows. This is one of the pitfalls of simply bouncing the flash off the ceiling: the image will generally produce shadows on any protruding elements of your subject.

Bounce Off Wall My Left

Bounced of the wall to the left of the camera.

Alternatively, the flash can also be pointed directly at a nearby wall so the light is bounced in another angle. In the above example, the flash was bounced off a white wall to the right of the mask. The result is more dramatic lighting that focuses on one side of the mask, using the shadows to indicate more depth.

Option 3: Use the built-in white bounce card


Straight Up with Whitecard

To solve the problem of shadows produced by bouncing the light off the ceiling, one solution is quite simple. Keep the speedlight pointed at the ceiling, and simply pull up the thin white bounce card that is built into the top of the flash. When the flash is fired, the light not only bounces off the ceiling, but a portion of it is also reflected off the bounce card, as seen in the catchlight of the mask’s eyes.  The resulting image is much more evenly illuminated, all thanks to a thin piece of plastic. However, the eyes do reflect quite a bit of the spilled light from the ceiling.

Option 4: Use a white flash diffuser cap on your speedlight

Flash Cap copy

When it comes to flash modifiers for speedlights alone, there are a ton of options to choose from. One of the most effective modifiers is also incredibly compact and cheap: a translucent white cap or box that fits snugly on your flash. It helps to evenly spread out the light to eliminate harsh shadows. In this case, the diffuser cap was attached to the flash which was pointed directly up at the ceiling. The effect is similar to using the built-in white bounce card in Option 3, but the light is more controlled. The evidence is strongest in the mask’s eyes, which now only have the catch light and not the spilled light bounced from the ceiling.

This is just a very basic introduction to flash photography with a speedlight, intended to simply demonstrate how adding a single external flash can produce dramatically different results. What is your take on flash photography? Do you prefer natural light, speedlights, or strobes?

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Suzi Pratt
Suzi Pratt

is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. When she’s not taking photos, she’s making travel photography and camera gear videos for her YouTube channel.

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