Using Flash To Improve Your Photographs

Piet Van den Eynde

In his newest eBook, Light It Up: Techniques for Dramatic Off-Camera Lighting, Piet Van den Eynde teaches you not only how to use a flash, but to get it off your camera, perhaps combine it with another flash or two, and get creative with adding and modifying the light in any scene, anywhere. Light It Up! is 158 pages of Piet's tried-and-true experience, expertise, and education plus three instructional videos and five of Piet's favourite presets. Yep, all that in one beautifully lit package. 

And because we like showing as well as telling, we've made the first video available to you, absolutely free. It's that good. 

People often ask me why I take a flash to destinations like India or Indonesia; do I really need more light in notoriously bright places? The problem lies in mistaking quantity with quality. While it’s true that there’s plenty of sun in Varanasi or Borobudur, there’s often too much of it, especially on those cloudless days these countries are known for. From early in the morning to right before sunset, there is often so much sun that—unless you’re photographing in the shade—the contrast is too much to handle. A flash softens that contrast by opening up the harsh shadows created by the sun. The more powerful the flash, the more options you have: a small speedlight lets you fill in the shadows; a big strobe lets you overpower that sun to turn midday into evening. By using modifiers such as softboxes and umbrellas, you can create soft light wherever you want, even if the available light is less than ideal.

FUJIFILM X-E1 | XF 14mm f/2.8 R @ 14mm | 1/200 sec @ f/8 | ISO 200

A small flash with an umbrella (placed to camera left) filled in the shadows caused by the late afternoon sun.

FUJIFILM X-T1 | XF 10-24mm f/4 R OIS @ 10mm | 1/180 sec @ f/5 | ISO 200

This image of a Rajasthani couple in Jodhpur looks like it was made in the evening, but it was actually photographed around noon. I underexposed the available light heavily by choosing a narrow aperture, a relatively fast shutter speed, and a low ISO. I then directed the flash so it looked like late setting sunlight.

The Jodhpur example shows another advantage of using a flash: having control over the direction of your light. The position of the sun (and other available light sources) is out of your control. You cannot move a street lamp to a position that would better suit the composition of the photo you have in mind. But no matter where you are, you can put a flash upside down on a light stand (or hang it from a house) with a clamp and cover the head with an orange gel to simulate a light bulb.

 FUJIFILM X-T1 | XF 10-24mm f/4 R OIS @ 10mm | 1/3 sec @ f/4 | ISO 800

There was no streetlight where I wanted to photograph the pilgrims going to do their morning bathing rituals in Pushkar Lake, so I created my own using an orange-gelled speedlight I hung from a canopy just outside of the frame.

When discussing the quality of light, we shouldn’t so much think of it as “good” or “bad,” but rather as “hard” or “soft.” Hard light isn’t necessarily bad light; it all depends on what you want your photograph to say. When I set out to photograph the war cemetery in Langemark, Belgium, I wanted the picture of the tombstone to reflect the atrocities of war. But on that particular day, it was very cloudy; there was almost no contrast at all. Technically, ideal light to shoot just about anything, but not for what I had in mind—it was too soft, too pleasing, too . . . flattering. So I put up a flash on a tripod, zoomed the flash head to the maximum and added a grid to get a tight beam of light. The result is more dramatic light that helps to convey the atmosphere of the place much better than the available light did.

A flash and an improvised light stand were all I needed to turn the soft, ambient light (top left) into much more suitable dramatic flash light.

Piet Van den Eynde is a Belgian freelance photographer, author, and trainer specializing in Adobe Lightroom. When he's not teaching or writing, he travels the world on his bicycle photographing the people he meets along the way. See more of Piet's work on his website

Craft & Technique Piet Van den Eynde

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