4 Tips for Effective Lighting Using Only One Speedlight

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?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Suzi Pratt is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. She is also a blogger who teaches others how to run a successful photography business.

  • Michael Owens

    People shouldn’t be afraid of flash. Especially a speedlite. On camera flash is a different kettle of fish.

    But I think you should mention that most entry level speedlite’s are not usually TTL, so some understanding of controlling the light coming from the speedlite would be needed to be learnt on how to use it best.

  • Agreed that flash isn’t really that scary as long as one takes the time to experiment with it and see what he or she can achieve with it!

    Also, good point on TTL–I didn’t want to get too technical with this article, but still a very valid thing to consider.

  • Michael Owens

    I forgot to mention. Shooting with a diffuser is my preferred option for indoor flash use, as the catchlight in the eyes looks more natural to me!

    Saying that, I barely use my speedlite’s. I have two bare bones Yungnuos, and honestly, don’t use them as often as I should really.

    I need inspiration! What else can we do with them Suzie?

    Most people are truly afraid of flashguns, especially subjects hehe

    EDIT: followed you on Flickr. Hope you don’t mind.

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  • swalt2493

    Sorry Maria Nelson, but I don’t understand what your comment has to do with the article.

  • Matt Trevillion

    Going to Costa Rica soon and wanting to take photos of frogs at night… any tips for using a flash?

  • Dennis Onstenk

    TTL has been a standard for a very long time and in fact all Canon’s Speedlights and nearly all compatible flashes are TTL. In fact you’d be hard pushed finding decent flashes without remote TTL.

    Annoying how the article refers to Canon Speedlight brand instead of the generic term “flash”.

    Otherwise I concur, you should nearly always bounce a flash!

  • Mister Salty

    Especially since “Speedlight” is Nikon’s brand. Canon’s is “Speedlite.”

  • I combine options 2 and 4: bounce off ceiling with a diffuser on, it makes face lighting more even and natural than just bouncing. This works best when background is relatively far from the subject. With a close background, direct light from the front side of the diffuser produces some shadows.

  • Paul Wilson

    If you’ve got white or light walls, try bouncing off the wall behind you. You look a bit daft with the flash head the wrong way round,, but you get nice even light and no harsh shadows.

  • Gul Jung

    Hi, there! If you’re taking macro shots, your best option would be a ring flash. It would make the frog stand out, while the environment is faded dark. There are some products that modifies your ordinary speedlight into a ring flash by attaching the product on to it.

  • Michael Owens

    Not all of us can afford the £250/$300 for an official speedlite. I have two Yongnuo’s, £40 each. Definitely not TTL.

    So, just because TTL is standard on higher end models, it’s not available on all.

    As for her mentioning canon speedlites, she can only talk about the models she uses. I took her article and applied it to MY speedlites.

    I have to say that your comment almost sounded elitist in tone really. Unintentional, who knows?

  • Michael Owens

    Now you are simply being pedantic surely? Shall I call it what we all should, a flashgun? That way everyone is happy, and can put their toys back in their pram.

  • Michael Owens

    It’s spam. Report that post by clicking the small flag to the right. 🙂
    The DPS mods are good here.

  • Mister Salty

    Call it what you want. Flash, strobe, flashgun. Whatever.

    No one I know calls a flash a “speedlight.” But if you’re going to call it by a legally trademarked name, at least pick the right one.

  • Michael Owens

    Just because one company calls it a speedlite and an other a speedlight doesn’t make a difference to the fact it’s a flashgun.

    I went with speedlite along with the author, but I use flashgun personally.

    But how pedantic do you need to be over it? Move on. I am moving on from you.

  • Michael Owens

    Agreed. Ring flashes are exceptional for macro and for close up portraits.

    You can get a cheap one on Amazon or ebay for about $30

  • Dennis Onstenk

    Seriously, I had a 50 pound Metz flash 10 years ago which did ttl. Elitist, moi?

  • Dennis Onstenk

    Wow there you go, I had no idea canon spelled it wrong. I’m on olympus m43 now, with ttl flash and all. Can really recommend it by the way, great lenses for the money.

  • Michael Owens

    Good for you. Pleased for ya.

  • Mister Salty

    “Flashgun” must be more common in the UK. You don’t hear that in the U.S.

    You certainly are bringing a lot of hostility to a post that was simply pointing out a misspelling.

  • Michael Owens

    It’s not a misspelt word. Flashgun, Speedlite or Speedlight. All the same item regardless of make or model.

    You are the one blabbering on about it. Looking at your posting history, you do seem to like arguing simply for the sake of it.

    This will be my last reply. I don’t feed inexcusable trolls on a high horse.

  • PrMaine

    I’d like to reinforce this observation for anyone thinking about buying a flash attachment – like I did earlier this month. Looking at advertisements and even at recommendations from photographers, I was impressed with some nice inexpensive flash units with LCD displays and lots of controls. Why not get one of these? The Nikon flashes started at more than double the price and appeared to be a lot less sophisticated.

    Fortunately, one review I saw observed that “this flash is not for everyone because it does not have TTL”. What is TTL I wondered (with semiconductors, TTL is an old technology, Transistor-Transistor Logic but it probably means something else to photographers) so I started to research it.

    I found out that TTL is extremely important. TTL means “Through The Lens” and if a flash unit has TTL it means that the camera controls the flash unit. If the flash unit does not have TTL it means the photographer has to control the flash manually – and likely with a bit of trial and error. That is why those flash units without TTL need those LED screens and all those fancy controls and that is why those flash units are more difficult to use. If you are not a very experienced photographer you probably should spend the extra money to get TTL support.

  • TheBigS

    That’s what author of the article did. Note in 4: “In this case, the diffuser cap was attached to the flash which was pointed directly up at the ceiling. “

  • Tino

    What makes and models of strobe lights does your organization offer ? Do you do door-to-door delivery and do you offer Paypal service ?

  • Tino

    Suzi, great introduction to the advantages of using a flash / strobe light. However, as already pointed out your article only refers to Through The Lens (TTL) setting which in all cases are expensive flash / strobe lights. You make no mention of the fact that using TTL you do not know what the flash settings were at the time the photo was taken.

    The down side of TTL, besides the fact that the settings are never recorded, is that you only get evenly lit images. Switching to manual you can create far greater striking images than with TTL.

    TTL is mainly used where you need an additional light source where you don’t have the time to go manual like at conferences, weddings, sport events, fashion shows, etc.

    When you do studio work – glamour, fashion, make up, styling, fine art, nudes, etc. the shoot itself is much slower, you have better control over the scene and what you want to achieve. This is where you really want to go manual for that extra striking image and control over the light strength, flash zoom, direction and angle.

    Not everyone here has the budget to afford a TTL compatible flash / strobe light. It would have been great if you combined your article with manual and TTL options and explained the difference between the two options.

    You also neglected to mention Guide Numbers (GN) and what it is used for (or why it exist). Not all flash / strobe lights offer the same light strength or quality of light.

    I fully understand that your article is an “Introduction” but there are some information you must mention in an introductory article unless the heading of the article stated clearly it is “using TTL”.

    As for the technical aspects in the article, that was spot on and excellent image samples.

  • Tino

    I use YongNuo Speedlite YN560-II strobe light instead of the Canon entry levels which are 3x the price tag. However, reviews have shown that the cheaper speedlights do not always get close to the GN specification as printed in the product specifications. You find that a YongNuo with a GN of 39 will produce light at a range of 34 where the Canon speedlite will be very close to the specified GN.

    I never use TTL because I don’t need it in my photography and I prefer to have control over my entire shoot process… that’s why I also shoot in manual mode needless to say. If you shoot in Aperture Priority mode (weddings, venues, conferences, etc) then use TTL because you do not have time to adjust your equipment to capture a specific moment… it is all on the run and you do not have control over the scene.

    I have 4 YongNuo YN560-II speedlite strobes(for the same price I would only be able to afford one Canon speedlite) and hardly ever use more than two strobes at any given time.

    YongNuo offers speedlites with TTL capabilities also at a fraction of the price tag to that of a Canon / Nikon product.

  • PrMaine

    I came very close to buying a YongNuo for around $59 and if I get serious about flash photography I may decide to buy one. But I’m pretty happy with the Nikon SB-N7 that I picked up for $130. It suits my needs for now and it is easy and quick to use.

  • Tino

    Ring Flash is commonly known as a Ring Light. Also try and get the Ring Light with either 64 / 128 LED’s (double ring) which comes with about different light settings. Most the the ring lights are segmented meaning that you can choose how much light you need and if the light should only be on the left or to the right, top or bottom (single or double ring).

    You also get them in different mounts – flash shoe mount of lens mount.

    To get a butterfly effect on the subject – evenly lit your entire subject there are other macro photography flashes you can use which is not mounted in the center of your camera but instead you have two light sources on each side of your camera. Most professionals use this option for stunning images, especially taken at night.

  • Tino

    I bought a YongNuo ring light and have never been unhappy with the results. Although the LED’s is not pure white and you get a slight blue’ish tone to the image. Easily removed during post processing.

    I think I paid something like $19.00 for mine about a year ago.

  • Tino

    YongNuo offers a very cheap model at around $40 – $50 but I will not go that route. It is very limited in functionality and you can’t really set much on it. That’s why I opted for the YN560-II model. Beautiful little tool and I have never had any misfires on any of the units I have. Their sync speed is all the same at 1/250.

    As with any speedlite you need to use high end rechargeable batteries with a power rating of 2000 or higher. Don’t go cheap on your batteries, it will spoil the experience for you and your model.

    If you can get a cheap Canon / Nikon flash then go that route rather.

  • cnccnc

    The Yuonnuo E-TTLs are less than $100. Good compromise, as far as I’m concerned.

  • Carol Helduser

    I have been shying away from my speedlight but have one and also a diffuser. After reading this article I will start to use them. Thanks for a good article.

  • Tikaro

    You can buy a nice Chinese flash on Amazon now that has full on-camera TTL and wireless off-camera TTL, plus manual modes and high-speed sync for under $70.

  • Michael Owens

    I did say ‘usually’. Jeez.
    I’m happy for you.

  • Lorri A

    Thank you Tino, your opting for the same model speedlight I’ve just purchased gives me the confidence that – with a bit of research and learning, and lots of practice, I too, shall master this new (to me) facet of photography.

  • Josh Allen

    As you have described lighting is one of the most important things when we take pictures. That is why so many people spend so much money on flash attachments for there cameras. The same goes for displaying art, the places art is displayed are always so perfectly lit. Now just imagine having your home that way. Wouldn’t that be nice? http://www.dhillonlighting.com/

  • Thanks Suzi… you taught me something today!

  • Paul, you also taught me something… I gave it a try and the best result was with the head turned around, 25° from straight up, and the light was nice and even. Thanks!

  • Paul, you also taught me something… I gave it a try and the best result was with the head turned around, 25° from straight up, and the light was nice and even. Thanks!

  • My pleasure, John! Always happy to hear positive feedback 🙂

  • My pleasure, John! Always happy to hear positive feedback 🙂

  • RyanMullaney

    Altura makes an external flash that costs $75 and also doubles as a remote shutter.

  • John Rayner

    It’s amazing how quickly folk go off-subject into pettiness. Sigh

  • Mister Salty

    You dug up a two-year-old thread to complain about it?

  • Julian Milano

    You should also be aware that speedlights such as the SB900 will lose the ability to automatically “zoom” the light when you zoom your lens in using the white cap and limits the range of the flash to about 10mm equivalent lens zoom so caps are mainly good for close up subjects.

  • Akay

    ThanX for the opening lines.
    Perhaps U wrote them for me.
    I’m going to read, reread and again read and so on till I understand every word of English used in the article in the fond hope that technicalities covered are also understood in due course, though slowly and gradually.

  • Akay

    When teachers like you advise that “flash is aimed directly up” or as an alternative advise “point directly at a nearby wall” what is the angle of the flash in each case/s ?
    We all know that all present day speedlites, all brands, come with turning facility. up-down and sideways.
    Different angles will give different quantum of reflected light, right ?
    So what to do with intermediate angles ?
    And with the “card” jutting out?
    How good is the wide angle inbuilt screen or when to use it really ? In my extremely limited experience I found this screen to be more of a “diffuser” ! !
    I have Canon 5D III and Speedlite 580 Ex II plus diffusers of both type, the snug type and the plastic dome type.
    There are external type bounce cards also with two different types of surfaces, silver and white. How good can they be ?

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