Flash Photography 101

The word photography originates from the Greek meaning of the words “light” and “drawing”. Together they mean “drawing with light”. Photographers paint a photograph by creating, manipulating, and capturing light using their camera, various lenses, and strobes.

Many photographers tend to avoid using artificial light sources, preferring only to use natural light for their photography. While this choice can make sense as natural light can create phenomenal images, JPA recommends first becoming proficient with using and manipulating artificial light before making this decision. Spending time becoming proficient with a flash will undeniably teach any photographer a great deal about how light behaves, and this skill will only enhance their ability to work with natural light. Additionally, we believe that possessing a solid understanding of the fundamentals of using artificial light, combined with guidance and practice, can convince even long time natural light advocates that a calibrated addition of artificial light can in many circumstances dramatically improve their image.

Many photographers prefer natural light for several reasons. Some of those reasons include: the additional complexity of adding flash seems overwhelming, the extra equipment required is too much of a hassle, they experimented with flash and didn’t like the stroboscopic look, or they felt that using strobes takes away from the shooting experience. While these concerns can have some validity, with proper training and the right equipment they can largely be mitigated. The benefit for dealing with any residual effort, aggravation, and time is a greatly improved final image that is not dependent on the right time of day, or the perfect shooting location to achieve soft even lighting.

Learning to use strobes to enhance an image and produce the desired outcome is a skill that takes time and practice to master. There are many topics related to using flash that must be understood before a photographer can reliably incorporate flash to enhance and not overpower their photograph. These include:

⦁ Balancing color temperature ⦁ How to mix ambient and artificial lighting ⦁ Soft vs hard light ⦁ Different light modifiers i.e. umbrellas, soft boxes, beauty dishes, bare flash, bounce flash,… ⦁ Setting flash power ⦁ Off camera flash placement ⦁ Which kind of flash to use i.e. studio strobes, speedlights, constant lights ⦁ How to trigger flashes

Adding flash to your images has several key benefits. These include, reduced ISO noise, sharper images, and increased color saturation Flash also provides another mechanism to separate the subject from the background, by deliberately underexposing the background one to two stops, while properly exposing the subject using the flash. Finally, flash allows the photographer to add a dramatic look to their photos by placing the flash off center to create strong shadows. This series will provide a comprehensive overview of flash concepts, intended to help anyone new to flash photography to feel comfortable and proficient using strobes.

The first topic in this series addresses the important concept of soft vs hard light. This distinction is one of the major reasons many new photographers quickly get turned off of flash. As the remainder of the article hopes to illustrate, hard light, which is provided by a typical flash, is very unappealing and should be avoided in most cases. Soft light has a beautifying effect, and creates amazing portraits.

Soft versus hard light refers to the transition area where the shadow fades away. If this transition is abrupt, the light is considered hard. If it is gradual, the light is considered soft.

Here the terms Umbra and Penumbra refer to the size of the region in complete shadow, and the region where the shadow is transitioning from shadow to light respectively. As you can see in the hard light case, the Umbra is the area of complete shadow generated by the bunny blocking nearly all of the light. The corresponding Penumbra is a small transition area where complete the shadow transitions to no shadow. The soft light case also has an Umbra which is in complete shadow, but the Penumbra is much larger. This long transition period allows the shadows to gradually fade away.

Similarly with portraits, hard or soft light can be used. In the left photo which used hard light, a well defined shadow is obviously displayed on the wall. Slightly less obvious, but every bit as detrimental to the picture are the shadows created on the models face.

While shadows are often the magic that transforms a dull, flat portrait into a interesting one full of depth and character, these high contrast shadows created by hard light are generally considered undesirable in portrait photography. To further explain this key point, one major reason hard light is avoided is because it deepens shadows, adds contrast, and adds depth. On a models face this accentuates wrinkles and other imperfections, as they will be filled with shadows making them more obvious. Additionally, hard shadows are often distracting, as can be seen in the above photo with the large shadow cast on the wall. The picture on the right with the less distracting plain background helps accentuate the subject of the photo.

However, it should also be noted that while hard light is generally avoided for portraits there are times when it is preferred. Hard light has the effect of adding drama to a photograph. It can also add years to persons age, which can be good if the intent is to make the subject appear weathered and old. Additionally, when photographing an athlete, the high contrast provided by hard light can accentuate muscle tone, adding shadows to the crevices created by muscle and therefore depth.

Flash photography strobe DSLR photography lesson

Armed with an understanding of hard and soft light, now we move to a discussion of how to create one versus the other. It should be noted that there are many in-between cases of the examples we provided here, and the softness of light can be tailored to the situation.

The quality of light is determined by the “apparent size” of the light source. This is a combination of the actual size of the light source multiplied by the distance to the light source. So a light source placed 1 meter away provides equal quality light to one twice the size the size placed 2 meters away. An example of this is the sun. As many photographers know, mid-day sun provides very harsh lighting, even though the sun is an enormous light source. This is because of it's apparent size. Even though it's actual size is very large, it is very far away, in fact you can often block out the sun from your field of vision with something as small as your thumb. It is important to understand the power of the light source has no impact on the quality of the light, i.e. making the light brighter will not improve the look of your shadows, it fact it will likely worsen them.

This is where light modifiers come into use. A bare flash, whether it be a pop-up flash or a studio strobe, provides a very bright, but a small source of light. When this bright point source of light is placed into a softbox, or umbrella, it will spread the light over a much larger area. In addition, most modifiers also diffuse the light, which means rather than all of the light rays propagating the same direction, they will go in many random directions, further helping to soften the light. So in summary, to create soft light, use a large light source, and/or place the light source as close to the subject as possible. To create hard light, use a small light source, and/or move the light away from the subject. As you gain proficiency with using strobes, you will likely find you want a light quality somewhere between the extremes. You will learn to paint with both light and shadow as both are important, light accentuates the subject, while shadow adds drama. By adjusting the intensity, direction, and the quality of the light you will be able to add a new dimension to your photographs.

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