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Flash Modes in Photography: A Beginner’s Guide

Flash modes for beginners

Flash is an extremely powerful photography tool, but it certainly doesn’t excite everyone. I’ve seen plenty of people shy away from using flash, often because they don’t understand the various flash modes or how to make the most of them.

But here’s the deal: While adding flash does bring in a new layer of complexity when taking photos, it isn’t hard to learn – and once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll wish you had started using it years prior!

Note that I seldom use the little built-in camera flash (except as a trigger for my external flashes). Why? It’s small, and the results don’t look great. The smaller the flash, the harsher the light, and harsh light rarely looks good. Therefore, I’m going to focus on using an external flash, either on or off your camera, which offers a bigger light source and is much easier to modify with diffusers.

Ready to delve into a variety of exciting flash modes so you can level up your photos with artificial light? Let’s get started!

Understanding flash modes

Flash modes in photography

Just like your camera, a flash comes with different modes – but in a flash’s case, they’re all about regulating the amount of light that gets sent out by the flash.

In other words, while each mode functions differently, the goal is the same: They’re there to provide the right amount of light to properly illuminate your subject (or other parts of your composition).

When switching between your camera’s exposure modes, if you opt for Auto, you’re giving your camera complete control over the exposure. This is true for flash, too; when using any mode other than Manual, the flash and camera together determine the flash output. The light emitted by the flash is set based on various calculations rather than user input.

Flash modes in photography

When you have both your flash and camera in Manual mode, you get to manage the light from the flash and your camera’s exposure. It’s all in your hands. Working this way is more complex, but it opens up additional avenues for creativity.

Personally, I often lean toward using my flashes in Manual mode because the results are more consistent. But my flash mode choice does depend on what I’m photographing. Manual mode isn’t always practical, and in such cases, I’ll switch to TTL mode (more on this later!) and manage the flash output with the compensation controls.

Flash modes in photography

Different types of flash modes

Flash modes come in various types. In this section, I’ll walk you through the most common types and how they function. Other flash modes can be based on these and are specific to particular brands.

Flash modes in photography

TTL (through-the-lens) flash mode

TTL mode employs through-the-lens metering to figure out the amount of light the flash should emit when activated. In other words, it uses the camera’s built-in light meter to gauge the ambient light reaching the camera lens. Then it sets the flash to produce just the right amount of light to illuminate the composition nicely.

Here’s how TTL works: First, the unit pops a very low-power burst of light; it’s so fast you might miss it. The camera’s exposure meter then “reads” the light reflecting back through the lens. Using this reading, the camera and flash decide on the correct amount of light to optimally illuminate the scene.

Flash modes in photography

This mode works for both on-camera and off-camera flashes as well as most pop-up flashes. In on-camera and off-camera use, TTL mode may behave differently, however – for specifics, you’ll need to look into your camera and flash manuals.

Keep in mind that not every flash unit has TTL capabilities and that the flash and camera need to be compatible. If you’re in the market for a flash and want to use TTL mode, pick the right one. Going with a flash that’s the same brand as your camera usually ensures the TTL mode will work, but if you’re considering a third-party flash, double-check that it’s compatible with your camera before buying.

Flash modes in photography

Auto flash mode

In Auto flash mode, the flash decides the light output based on your camera’s exposure settings. Some camera and flash combinations even consider the focus distance. In this mode, the flash will automatically emit the “right” amount of light depending on your exposure settings and how far the subject is from the camera.

Now, creativity can be a bit limited here. The flash will aim to produce an even light across a scene, but that’s not always what you want. And as with your camera’s Auto mode, the flash won’t always get it right and you can end up with a subpar image. Success hinges on various factors, like the ambient light and the depth of the scene you’re photographing.

Let’s say you snap a picture of someone against a wall. In Auto mode, the flash will likely brighten the scene quite evenly. But if your subject is further from the wall, the flash might give off enough light to brighten the background too, resulting in an overexposed subject.

Flash modes in photography

Manual flash mode

Like your camera, your flash likely features a Manual mode. Setting both your camera and your flash to Manual grants you the most control over your exposure. That means you have more room for creative lighting because you haven’t left everything up to the camera and flash.

You know what your subject is and how you want to light and expose it. But your camera and flash don’t know what you’re thinking. Relying on automatic settings might be easier, but the easy route doesn’t always lead to interesting and creative photos.

With your flash set to Manual, you’re in charge of calculating the amount of light needed for a good exposure. Back when I used film cameras, I’d crunch numbers to figure out the flash settings.

Flash modes in photography

In the digital age, I make educated guesses about flash output, take a shot, and then check the result. I adjust the flash output as needed, and when I’m happy, I’ll start shooting in earnest.

I’ve found this visual way of managing my flash in Manual mode to be precise and much more fun than juggling mathematical calculations. With practice, your initial guesses will get sharper, and you’ll be able to quickly achieve the desired look in your images.

Flash modes in photography

Flash modes: final words

Understanding the various flash modes allows you to make smarter choices when photographing. The secret is to practice with each mode. See where they excel and where they might fall short. When you’ve got that down, you’ll be able to confidently pick the most suitable mode for any scenario.

I often switch to TTL mode during events or when there’s a variety of variables to consider. TTL usually gauges the subject’s distance well and supplies the right amount of light, and if I were to use Manual mode, I’d need to make more adjustments and potentially miss critical shots in the process.

So make friends with your flash. It’s tempting to crank up your ISO setting when light is scarce, but that won’t fix bad lighting. Even a little pop of flash can improve a composition, whether you’re shooting in the day or at night. Having a solid grip on flash modes and knowing when to deploy them will let you capture more vibrant pictures in any lighting situation you come across!

Now over to you:

Which flash mode do you plan to use, and why? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience that he loves to share with others.

Check out his website and his Buy Me a Coffee page.

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