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What You Need to Know About Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

When you’re getting started in flash photography, it can seem like your flash has a mind of its own. You’ll be surprised to know that in a way it does. However, switching to manual mode can give you the control you really want.

1 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

Using flash in manual mode lets you set the amount of light that you want to fire from your flash to light your subject.

What is manual mode?

External flashes are default set to the ETTL setting. This setting lets the flash meter the light and then give what it thinks is the correct output of light. ETTL is rather inconvenient since each photo you take will have a different output because the flash is constantly metering before each frame, causing a lot of inconsistency from photo to photo.

2 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

Refer to your manual to find out how to change your flash from ETTL to Manual. On Canon, you push the MODE button until you cycle through to M which is manual.

Manual mode is where you take control of the power output of the flash and therefore get more consistently lit photos. For example, if you are in one spot photographing a portrait and don’t need to adjust for ambient light changes constantly, then you can set your flash at 1/4 power and leave it there until you move or want something different.

3 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

When competing with the sun, full power or half power is your best bet.

In manual mode, you override the flash’s metering and have full control. It also allows you to control taking photos at shutter speeds of more than 1/200th of a second, which is the fastest shutter speed in ETTL.

4 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

On this particular flash, hitting the button with the “H” on it will allow you to use a shutter speed faster than 1/200 of a second. Refer to your flash manual to find this option.

You can use manual mode in both outdoor and indoor settings. Practicing using your flash in manual gets easier over time, and eventually, you’ll be able to select the correct output for the ambient light or the effect that you want to achieve.

Manual mode is also really helpful when you ‘slave’ more than one flash. Slaving is when you sync more than one flash so that they go off at the same time. In manual mode, each flash can be set to a different power output so you can choose which is your key light and which is your fill – giving your photos more depth and contrast.

5 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

For these photos, two flashes were used to light the couple and keep the ambient in the background.

Metering output for flash in manual mode

Your camera meters ambient light, however, it does not do the same for flash output. Don’t worry though, with practice and a bit of trial and error, you will get to know your flash and when to use full power or half power, for example.

6 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

Now you’re probably wondering what full power even means. An external flash has power output levels which are read in fractions. Full power output means that the flash is giving everything it has got and this is transcribed as 1/1. From there it can go to 1/64 of its power output.

There is no right way to begin practicing, however, it’s best to meter for the ambient light that you want to achieve in-camera. For example, if you’re photographing a family during sunset, meter for the sunset. Once you have that settled, put your flash in manual mode and begin with a power output of 1/4 power.

7 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

No flash was used for this portrait.


8 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

Same family, location, ambient light and used flash at 1/8 power.

From there, adjust the power of the flash until you get the desired result. This way, you’re guaranteed to have the ambient light metered correctly and use the flash to fill in the light where you want it – in this case, on the family.

You can use your flash on your camera or off-camera in manual mode. Using it off-camera will give you a more angled direction of light and may inspire some creative lighting. On camera, be careful of the power output and angle you have your flash. Outdoors, you’ll probably want to point the flash at your subjects. Indoors, however, you might want to bounce the light off of a ceiling or adjacent wall.

9 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

If you’re using a modifier like a flash diffuser, be aware that the light output will be different than using the flash without a diffuser. The power needed to light your subject also depends on the distance at which the flash is from your subject. When your flash is closer to your subject, it requires less power because the light is closer.

10 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

If you are at a distance, then you’ll need to up the power on the flash in order for it to reach your subject at all. This can be especially tricky outdoors so make sure you are checking your photos after taking some test shots.

When to use your flash in manual mode

You should strive at getting comfortable using your flash in manual mode every time you need to use flash. This can really help you to get consistent photos when you’re not moving around or when the ambient light isn’t changing.

11 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

The left photo is with flash and the right is without flash. Note the blue of the ocean and the sky with the flash versus without flash.

The best times to use flash are when you want to pop some light onto your subject when you’re competing with the sun outdoors, or when you want to control and create light in a studio, to fill in shadows, during sunset or low light, and for indoor settings.

For example, when you are photographing family portrait sessions outdoors with the sunset, you may need to use the flash to fill in light so that you can get the beautiful sunset and not have your subjects in the dark.

12 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

Left without flash and right with flash.

Another example is when you are in an indoor setting, like a bride getting ready and you can bounce your flash off the ceiling to add some light into the room.

Using your flash in a studio setting can be a little more tricky since flashes don’t come with modeling lights. If you’re photographing in a dark room, using a flashlight to focus your camera first can be a big help. Some flashes have a fluttering effect to help with focusing, check your manual to turn this function on.

13 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

One flash used for both photos. The left has the flash in front of the couple and the second has the flash behind the couple.

Using more than one flash at different power output levels can also create stunning photos with lots of depth, much like real studio strobe flashes but with more portability and less expensive.

To do this, you’ll need transmitters or some flashes also come with built-in sync transmitters. This means that when one flash sees another go off, it also goes off.

Other important factors when shooting with flash in manual mode

A few things to keep in mind when you’re photographing subjects with flash in manual mode include the batteries, shutter speed, ambient light metering, and high-speed sync.

14 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

Using flash to fill the couple in and capture the sunset.

When you’re photographing at 1/4 power or more, you’ll go through batteries much quicker. A battery pack especially made for flash and professional cameras can come in handy especially if you’re going to be using flash for a long period of time. It can also make recycling the flash much faster.

What is flash recycling? It’s the amount of time that it takes the flash to recycle and be ready to flash again. The more power you set the flash at, the more time it takes to recycle. For example, a flash at 1/2 power takes longer to get ready to fire again than a flash powered at 1/16.

15 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

Using flash at an angle to light your subject creatively.

The flash also takes much longer to recycle when the batteries begin to drain and lose charge. Have at least three or more sets of batteries at the ready in case this begins to happen.

When you’re using a flash in ETTL, the fastest shutter speed that you can use is 1/200th, on some, it can go up to 1/250th of a second. This isn’t too fast if you’re photographing in outdoor light or competing with the sun. Many flashes have the ability for high sync speeds when you’re using the flash in manual mode.

16 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

Using flash indoors bounced off the ceiling at about 1/16 power.

The distance of the flash to your subject can also affect where to set the power on your flash in manual mode. The further away your flash is from your subject, the more power you’ll need in order for the light to reach your subject. The closer you are, the less power you’ll need. Of course, this depends on where you are photographing your subject and if ambient light is a factor.

Practice makes perfect

Using flash can seem really intimidating. However, controlling your flash by using it in manual mode can be just the right move for you to get comfortable using a flash. Practice makes perfect and the more you practice with your flash, the more you’ll understand how to power it in certain lighting situations.

17 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

Flash used at 1/16 power to fill in light and get catchlights in eyes.

Unfortunately, cameras don’t record flash settings in the metadata of your images. It only records if the flash fired or not. This isn’t helpful when you’re trying to practice flash in manual mode.

Carry around a small notebook and record your settings in your camera for each image that you take. This way, you can remember what your flash settings were in that particular set up and light for future reference.

18 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

Using flash at a 45-degree angle toward the subject off camera helps fill in the light.

As time goes on, you’ll be more comfortable setting, testing, and using your flash in manual mode.

In conclusion

19 - Using Manual Mode on Your External Flash

Using flash at 1/2 power indoors off-camera, on a flash pole high and pointed directly at the subject. This imitates the light of the sun for these indoor photos.

If you feel like using your flash sometimes gives your images an inconsistent look, try using your flash in manual mode. Manual mode lets you be in full control of how much light you want the flash to fire giving you more consistent exposures and taking out the guesswork of the flash itself.

Try it out and let us know if these tips helped you out!

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Jackie Lamas
Jackie Lamas

is a destination wedding and portrait photographer based on the beautiful beaches of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. She earned her degree in photography from California State University, Fullerton. Jackie has over 10 years of experience as a professional photographer and teacher. When she’s not on the beach, you can find her writing on her blog and spending time with her baby and husband. See more of her work on Instagram.

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