Flash Photography Basics: The Complete Beginners Guide



Welcome to another of the photography lighting tutorial series – flash photography basics. This guide is specially dedicated to helping people know more about their flash equipment. By the end of this tutorial, you should know on-camera, off-camera flash, the manual and TTL modes, as well as to stop flashing people in the face.



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Section A
Flash ABC

Section B

Section C
On-Camera Flash

Section D
Flash Modifiers

Section E
Off-Camera Flash

Section F
Quick Tips

What Next?




Before we even start with the proper lesson, there are a couple of things that you need to know about flash equipment, and these ARE important.

For a start – is it called Flash, Speedlight or Speedlite? This is probably going to be an early confusion among beginners, so hang on. Flash is the universally understood term. Nikon calls their flash “Speedlight”, while Canon calls theirs “Speedlite”. Nothing too confusing… just some branding here.



You should probably know by now that you mount a flash onto the camera’s hot shoe. Yes, this guy –

Camera hot shoe
The camera hot shoe, this is where you mount the flash.

But here’s something else you should be aware of – Nikon, Canon, Olympus, and Pentax adopts the standard ISO hot shoe, but with some their own technology. Meaning, technically, you can use a Canon flash on a Nikon, or Nikon flash on an Olympus. Sony users… You are the odd one out.

That said, we do not need to laugh at the Sony users. Because I have personally used many flashes over the years, and they are not really interchangeable. A certain Canon flash worked on Nikon, but only in full manual mode. A Nikon flash did not work on Canon, but worked on an Olympus. So try to stick to your own brand when buying flash units.



Just in case you have missed out on the first lesson, the power of a flash unit is measured by a guide number (GN). GN = distance X f-number. In the human-readable form – Higher the GN, the brighter the flash.



Flash units don’t just go on like machine guns, they need to charge up in between each shot. This is called the recycle time, and yes, the shorter the better.



  • On-camera flash: Where you use the flash, mounted on the camera’s hot shoe.
  • Off-camera flash: Where you use the flash off the camera, with a wireless trigger.

On-camera flash is pretty much straightforward and fool-proof. Mount the flash onto the camera, switch on the power and it works. But off-camera flash can be a little more tricky, which I shall discuss in-depth below in a dedicated section.



TTL is the last term that you need to know, and you will probably hear it very often. But just what the heck is TTL? To understand this, you need a 1-minute history lesson.

In the days long past, the power of the flash has to be calculated manually. The photographer uses a light meter, calculate the distance between subject and flash, then do some death-defying mathematics to estimate the required power on the flash.

Today, things are a lot easier thanks to technology. TTL or through-the-lens will automatically collect data (through your lens) to estimate how much flash power is required, so you don’t need to do all those crazy calculations and settings. That said, TTL is not perfect. It will still get the wrong settings sometimes, and you may have to manually re-adjust the power.




If you already have a flash, you might want to skip this section. If not, just keep this as a reference for your future purchase. How do we choose a good flash unit? This section will explain a few things you need to note and make a few gear recommendations.



Infographic - Things to consider when choosing a flash

Choosing a flash is actually a lot easier than choosing a lens or camera. There are only a few technical points to consider.

  • Power
    I consider flash with GN20-35 as weak but usable, GN36-50 as decently good, and GN50+ as powerful.
  • Recycle Time
    If you are shooting fast moving subjects, you will want a short recycle time, so you can do burst shots.
  • Battery Life
    Wouldn’t want to run out of juice quickly.
  • Built-in wireless
    Some flash units have built-in wireless triggers, so you don’t have to buy extra wireless triggers. But note – these are usually not universal (e.g. A Godox flash with built-in wireless receiver will not work with a Phottix transmitter). Plan well and stick to one brand if possible.
  • Size & Weight
    Not quite a factor, but look for a smaller flash if you are into lightweight.
  • Compatibility
    The very important factor. Will this flash work with your camera? I.E. If you are using a Nikon camera, buy a flash made for Nikon cameras.



If you are really tight on a budget, and just want some extra lights – I will recommend the CY20 universal flash. Don’t expect much out of these though, they are only GN20 and does not support TTL (you need to manually adjust the flash power). But at $10 a piece, these are the cheapest flash units you can find in the world.



There are plenty of good flash unit manufacturers out there, apart from the “original” Nikon or Canon. The few reputable ones are Godox, YongNuo, Pixel, Phottix, and Neewer. Personally, I started with a YongNuo, and I must say that it is decently good – So good that I am still using it today.

If you have a budget to keep to – I shall recommend the YongNuo YN-685, which has a built-in wireless receiver – For Nikon | For Canon. They do cost a tad bit more, but they are quite powerful and saves you some money from buying extra wireless triggers.



If you are serious about flash photography, this is what you should be putting your money into. Personally, I will recommend the Godox AD200 – An interesting pocket-sized “flash” that almost has the power of a studio strobe, and also a built-in wireless receiver.

They do come at around US$300+, but for that power and portability? It is well worth the money spent. If you want, you can consider getting the slightly bigger brother Godox AD360II as well – For Nikon | For Canon.



For those who are totally new to flash photography, I will recommend starting with on-camera flash. Just mount the flash onto the camera, and it works. But even as it is easy to get started, there are some things to note about the flash unit.



Infographic - Quick steps to working with TTL Flash Photography

First off, I am not going to teach “how to set the power or switch mode on the flash”. Every flash unit is different, so you will have to figure this one by yourself. The fastest way to get started with flash photography is to put it into “auto” or the TTL mode. As mentioned, TTL is not perfect, but only “good enough” in most cases. The usual trick when working with TTL is:

  • Take a shot with TTL.
  • If it is too bright, dial in a negative flash compensation on your camera.
  • If it is too dark, dial in a positive flash compensation on your camera.

Yep. It is that quick and convenient with TTL.



Infographic - Quick steps to working with manual flash photography

Working in manual is not as bad as some people think, and it is pretty much the same “guess the flash power game”. However, I do not recommend beginners start with manual flash until they are comfortable with manual exposure… Unless you are using a manual flash and forced to.

In manual flash photography, you will not want to put the camera in the full auto mode. If the exposure settings shift around too much, you are going to have a hard time trying to guess the required flash power. This is what I normally do:

  • Shoot in manual or at least aperture priority mode.
  • Estimate and set the flash power.
  • Take a test shot.
  • Re-adjust the exposure and flash power until things look good.

Manual flash is a little more of a hassle, but it does give you a lot more control over shaping the exposure and lights.



If you mess around with manual flash power, you will notice that you need to set some numbers on the flash – 1/1, 1/4, 1/32, 1/128, etc… I am not going to explain in Maths, but in human terms. 1/1 means “full blast”, and 1/128 means “as little as possible” – The smaller the “fraction”, the less powerful the flash power.



So manual or TTL, which is better? Personally, I have no preference. TTL makes things easier, manual gives you more control. Just try out both, and use whichever that works for you. But you need to understand that having TTL does not make a flash unit better. Nor is a manual flash inferior by any means. The quality of light that it produces is the winning factor.



Before moving into off-camera flash, let us talk about the extra toys for flash photography. These are modifiers that you attach to a flash unit to change the way light works – To soften the light, to add colors, or even to focus it on a single spot.


Diffuser cap
Diffuser Cap
The most commonly used basic modifier and it probably came “by default” when you bought your flash. Simply put this on your flash head, and it will slightly soften the light. Not by much, but it’s better than a bare flash. If you do not have one of these, click here to get one (take note of the size of the cap though, get one that fits your flash). Or alternatively, you can wrap the flash head in a piece of tissue to soften the light.
Diffuser dome
Dome Diffuser
This is what I lovingly call “tuppleware”. The main difference between the dome and other modifiers is that the dome lights everything up 360°. It essentially turns the flash into a “light bulb”, giving you a better all-round-better-distributed lighting. There are 2 versions of this – the dome and the sphere.
Mini softbox
Mini Softbox
This is what I prefer to use even though it looks somewhat stupid. The 9-inch mini softbox increases the surface area and gives you a much nicer plus softer light… Much better than the tiny diffuser cap.
Reflector card
Reflector Card
These foldable reflector cards are also what I call “ping-pong bat”, because it looks like one. It works by bouncing the flash off the reflective card – Remember the equation of bigger area equals softer light? I will rank this as “better than a cap, worse than a softbox”.
This is just the same ping-pong bat above, but rolled up to become a baseball bat. The snoot is used to direct the flash onto one specific spot. Very useful for those product shots with an entirely dark background.
Ring diffuser box
Ring Diffuser Box
These ring diffuser boxes are not really portable, but they are one of the best for portrait photography. Same old “bigger area softer light” equation – This has an even bigger area than the mini softbox, so you can expect some nice lights from this. Beware though – I will not recommend using wide angle lens with the ring box. Use a 50mm or more.
Flash color gel
Color Gel
This pack of transparent paper is cheap, and it adds colors to your shots.



My personal recommendation is :

  • The diffuser cap is a must. It may not do much, but it is lightweight and cheap. A total convenience and lifesaver to have one in your bag.
  • Secondly, the tuppleware may take up a little more space, but it’s a pretty good all-rounder.
  • If you are into portraits and portability is not a concern, forget the tuppleware and go for softboxes instead. The mini or ring will do nicely.
  • Color gels are another must – They are inexpensive and very useful.



Flash does not always have to be mounted on top of the camera, you can use them off camera and use many of them at the same time. We shall explore that in this section, and for the starters, there are 2 ways to trigger an off-camera flash – via slave mode or wireless triggers.



On-camera flash is kind of limited, that’s why. With off-camera flash, you can position the lights wherever you want. Plus, with the power to control many lights, off-camera flash just gives you a lot more creative options.



Master and slave setup

The simplest way to get started with off-camera flash is to set it into the “slave mode”, which most decent flash units have by default. How it works is simple – In slave mode, the flash will go off once it detects another bright burst of light.

So yes, you will need at least 2 flashes for this setup. If you have a built-in pop-up flash in your camera, you can use that as the “master” to trigger the “slave”. But a major pain with this master/slave setup is that any light source that is bright enough will trigger the slave. Not a good idea when you are working in a busy place.



Using wireless flash triggers

The second way to do off-camera flash, is to use gadgets called “wireless flash trigger”, and there are 2 parts to that story :

  • Transmitter: This goes onto the camera, and acts as the “master”.
  • Receiver: This goes onto the flash, and acts as the “slave”.

So yes, you will need a transmitter on your camera, and receiver on the flash for this setup to work. But wireless flash triggers are much more reliable since they use radio frequency instead.



There are more things to note about wireless triggers :

  • There is something called a transceiver, which is a mix of both transmitter and receiver. They can be mounted on the camera or flash.
  • Some flash units have a built-in receiver. In such cases, you do not need to attach a receiver to the flash.
  • But a gentle reminder, wireless triggers are generally not cross-brand compatible (Godox transmitter will not trigger YongNuo receiver).
  • While wireless triggers are generally reliable, it does not mean they are totally “safe”. Some of the cheaper triggers may suffer from “misfires” – not triggering when you take a shot.
  • There are chances that triggers may clash with each other. For example, 2 photographers are shooting in the same area, using the same brand of wireless triggers. There is a chance that they can trigger each other’s flash by accident.
  • Which is why decent triggers have a “channel” setting – So there are no clashes when photographer A uses channel A, and photographer B uses channel B.
  • “Regular” wireless triggers will generally play well up to a shutter speed 1/200 sec. Beyond that, you will get wireless sync issues (limitations of technology).
  • If you want “fast and furious”, go for triggers that support high-speed sync (HSS), which generally works even if you shoot at 1/8000 sec.
  • Conclusion, choose and stick with one good brand if you are into off-camera flash.



Which wireless triggers should you go for then? There are over a dozen of brands available, and this is what I recommend :

Simple: If you just need something that works decently well, get yourself a pair of cheap-and-good YongNuo YN603 – Nikon | Canon. But note, these do not support HSS. They will only sync up to a shutter speed of 1/200 sec.

Decent: If you are looking for something better that supports HSS, I will recommend getting the Godox X1 series – Nikon | Canon | Sony.

Expensive: If you have too much money to spare… Go for the Pocket Wizard.



We are not done with off-camera flash nor all the studio equipment yet. Whoever says photography is easy? There are still plenty of other things like reflectors, light stands, and softboxes. But I guess I will keep these for the next lesson – Because this is a little more on the advanced side.



All right, after all the information on equipment, how do we actually flash? Going around with random bursts like a serial flasher is definitely not the way to go. So here is a quick section on how you should proceed.



You need practice to become better. Simply mount the flash on your camera and power it on. Don’t be afraid to try out both TTL and manual modes. Mess around with different settings, and even try turning the flash head around. Getting comfortable with your gear is the first step.



If you are still popping flash while taking landscape photos, you need to stop. Think about it. A tiny little flash will not light up the entire city. Not only is this useless, it is a complete waste of battery and it makes you look stupid…



Stop flashing people directly in-the-face with a bare flash. I call this the “nuclear flash” and it makes people squint. It makes them look ugly sheet white too. At least have the decency to put on a diffuser or use a piece of tissue to soften the light. That will improve your light quality, instantly. Also, remember that must flash heads can be turned for a good reason… Do it and see the difference for yourself.



If you are shooting indoors, you are in luck. You can use walls and ceiling to bounce the flash – they act like huge diffusers. Just imagine as a having a well-lit room. Beware of colored walls and ceilings though. They can “poison” your flash, and give a funky color cast.



That’s it for the flash photography basics, and this should pretty much cover all you need to know about flash photography equipment. I know this is already a handful to digest, which is why I left out a lot of the flash tips and techniques – they will be covered in the next lesson.

But for now, take a break and let the knowledge sink in. Congratulations on coming this far, and you are already many steps ahead of the clueless newbie. If you have any questions, comment below and I will try to answer them.



Want to learn more about flash photography? Here are 3 books that might interest you. I recommend The Flash Book by Scott KelbyGreat Photography with Just One Light by Tilo Gockel, and Creative Flash Photography also by Tilo Gockel.


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