Flash Basics – Photography Basics

Flash Basics - Photography Basics, basicallyUsing a flash or strobe with your camera is a whole industry unto itself. I’m not going thick with this subject, just skimming the surface to let you know what’s out there.

The Many Kinds Of Flash

Strobe. Flash. Speedlight. A big pile of flash powder on a tray above the photographer.

Artificial light comes in many forms. The type we are talking about here are instant light sources, as opposed to ones that are always on.

A strobe is usually one of the items you find in a professional studio with those big reflectors and modifiers on them. We’re going to ignore those for this basics post.

Speedlights and flashes are essentially the same thing: smaller, usually battery powered units on or near your camera.  They look like this:

On-Camera Flash

That image above is an on-camera flash. Just like its name implies, it’s on the camera. The flash on your phone is also on-camera. Point and shoots usually have one too.

Having the flash so close to the lens means light is often flat against the subject and can cause red eyes to show.

On-camera flashes can be pop-up units as well.

Off-Camera Flash

An off-camera flash is something like this image by Howard Stanbury:

Often connected by a cable, but more and more controlled by a remote on the camera (or by the camera itself), off-camera flashes offer more flexibility.

With an off-camera flash you can place the light just where you want. You can create interesting effects and shadows and moods. They can be a lot of fun. Also, you can make the light more ‘realistic’ in many case and not as flat as on-camera.

Here then, is a list of 11 great resources on the web for off-camera flash.

What Are They Good For?

With these flashes in mind, what are they good for? A number of things!

Filling In

The number one thing the flash on your camera or phone is good for is filling in the dark areas. While the power of a flash (and its subsequent output) depends on its size, almost all flashes can put out enough light to fill in areas.

This is especially helpful when your subject’s eyes might be shaded or the shadows might be heavy.

Fill flash is used in conjunction with available light to complete a scene. For instance, fill flash was used to light just the foreground juniper in this sunset image of Canyonlands National Park:

And another case when fill was used to balance out the light in a portrait.

Adding Lots Of Light

Then are the times when the scene is very dark and you just need more light!

This is what most of us think of when we think of flash: something that provides most of the light, like so:

You may notice there is something in the bird’s eye. A little speck. That’s called a catchlight. It’s a natural occurrence and another thing flashes are good at adding. Think of it as a sparkle in your subject’s eye.


Bouncing a light involves aiming your flash straight, or almost straight, up to give the impression that the light is coming from above, like it would from the sun.

This method is helpful in making an even light, but it is important that your subject is not too close nor too far.

Here’s a very meta picture of a camera without a flash, lit by a camera with a bounce flash (off the nice white canopy you can see behind it). The bounce helped give a full light without harsh shadows to the camera.

Flash Bounce and camera, yoRed-Eye

No one likes red eyes in their photos. This happens when the light source is too close to the lens. The light goes right in the eyes and BANG! bounces right back out, discolored by blood.

Freaky, I know.

The best way to rid yourself of red eyes is to either use an off-camera flash or use the red eye reduction mode on your camera. This fire the flash once right before taking a photo for real.

That pre-flash is meant to help pupils close down and not reflect so much. Thankfully there are ample computer programs available if you need to clean up those red eyes later.

Modify Your Light

There’s a whole world out there of flash modifiers. These are things you stick on your flash (or use with studio strobes) to shape, filter, flatten, lengthen, and modify your light.

I found a great post by Jim Doty on this subject that covers most of the modifiers someone starting out might be interested in.


Flashes are helpful tools in photography. You can’t take photos without light and sometimes the light you have isn’t the best. Learning to use a flash take a lot of practice and would frankly be a whole other series on this blog. If there is enough interest I’ll getting to writing that series as soon as I finish with this one.


We are done with the basics! Thank you for hanging in there these past three weeks.

Coming up next we have the fun stuff for two weeks.

  • Sunsets
  • Fun With Light Trails & Light Painting
  • Waterfalls 
  • Get Close, Go Wide
  • Panning Blurrrrrr
  • Shooting Photos At Night
  • Moon Photos
  • Fill Flash and good times to use it
  • Cityscapes
  • Low Angles
  • Travel Portraits
  • Bounce Flash
  • How I Edited It
  • Photography: Doing It With A Drone

And then some bonus material not on the original list of 43 Days, like

  • Multiple exposure
  • Negative Space
  • Storytelling in 3 pictures
  • Shooting abstracts
  • Do’s and Don’t’s

Block off the next 2.5 weeks (and maybe more by the time it’s done) for some creative ideas and plenty of opportunities to use them! Subscribe here to receive all the updates.

Questions?  Pop ’em like Pez in the comments section below. or email me at peter@peterwestcarey.com.

Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure, and its companion 40 Photography Experiments, are series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey. The series are designed to unravel the mysteries of photography, helping you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

Photo ToursIf you enjoy the series, consider learning photography first-hand on a professionally led international photo tour in Nepal or Bhutan. More information can be found at Far Horizon Photo Tours

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