There’s so much talk about OFF-camera flash these days, hardly anyone explores the nuances of the obvious useful technique of ON-camera flash. After all, every camera and every flash is designed with a convenient “hot-shoe” connector so the flash can be mounted and communicate with the camera. In simplest terms, a flash lights up a scene when it’s too dark. It allows sharp, bright images without the benefit of ambient light. Sometimes it’s the only way to get a photo.
Like all photographic techniques, there’s more to it than that. While most people think of using a flash when there’s no light, it’s also a great way to add light to existing ambient light. Sometimes it’s even possible to overpower or mix it with existing sunlight. Small strobes will also stop fast action with their short flash duration and high-speed sync features. They have special effects like stroboscopic mode and first- and second-curtain sync settings. Some have LED lights for video or stills. The simple on-camera flash can be used creatively for great effect.
It must also be said that today’s on-camera flashes are vastly more feature-laden and sophisticated than the flashes from the olden days. It’s hard to find a flash made now without must-have features like E-TTL, high-speed sync and wireless control.
Even professionals use on-camera flash in situations where multiple, off-camera flashes aren’t possible. News photographers will almost always use on-camera flash when conditions are unpredictable and getting the shot is more important than aesthetics. Wedding photographers use on-camera flash to capture moments in dark reception halls when it’s too crowded to set up multiple light stands. Some professionals use on-camera flash to achieve a signature technique. They work hard to get a stark on-camera, in-your-face, paparazzi-style look. They even use special brackets to move the flash closer to the lens. Speaking of paparazzi, they use on-camera flash for nearly everything they shoot. Nearly every celebrity red-carpet photo in magazines like People and Us are shot with an on-camera flash.
The advantage of on-camera flash is its ability to evenly illuminate the subject with bright, clean light while communicating with the camera to achieve perfect exposure. If set up properly, it’s nearly foolproof. The weight and flexibility advantages are obvious.
If there’s anything to be learned here, it’s that a simple on-camera flash should be considered as much for its creative potential as it is for its obvious use of illuminating a dark subject.
Controlling Background Light By Mixing With Ambient Indoor Light
When using an on-camera flash, or any flash, for that matter, the first and most important consideration is determining how much ambient light should be in the exposure.
If too much ambient light is let in while indoors, there could be ghosting, motion blur or overexposure. If the ambient light is too far under the flash exposure, the background will be black. It’s possible these looks are the desired outcome, but typically we try to achieve a pleasing balance between the exposures. The point is that this a creative decision that must be made by the photographer.
One strategy is shooting a few test photos with the flash powered down to determine the ambient exposure, typically in manual exposure mode. Then turn the flash on and move the flash exposure compensation up and down until the desired exposure appears. This can be done in aperture priority or shutter priority as well, but for indoor shooting when conditions are predictable, manual mode offers more precise and predictable control.
Adding A Second Wireless Flash
Most modern flashes can control other flashes. They allow one to be designated as a “Master” and others as a “Slave.” A second light held either by hand or on a stand creates more dimension and depth. Outdoors it provides more power to balance with sunlight.
Using Light-Shaping Modifiers
There are a vast array of after-market light modifiers on the market that come in the form of reflectors, or modifiers. They all work about the same. The differences are on how they attach to the flash. Some use Velcro® straps, and some have built-in straps; some slip over the top. In a pinch, a recipe card and a rubber band will achieve the same effect. They make the light source larger by bouncing forward and bouncing off the ceiling, making a softer, more diffuse light.
These only work well in dark indoor spaces with low white ceilings. Otherwise, they force the flash to work harder, recycle slower and exhaust batteries. They’re largely ineffective outdoors in full sunlight. They will provide subtle or imperceptible results. Don’t do it. They do work okay when it’s overcast or the sun is low in the sky, however.
On-Camera Flash Outdoors
Using flash outdoors in sunlight is more of a challenge. The principle is the same in that the goal is to balance the strobe light with the sunlight. Small strobes barely have enough power to do this. Modern flashes have built-in high-speed sync, which doesn’t really help much because the higher the shutter speed in high-speed sync mode, the less output out of the strobe. The main reason to use high-speed sync is either to freeze action or to get a shallow depth of field with a wide aperture.
Again, the basic strategy is the same. Based on the Sunny 16 Rule, the exposure will be 1/200 sec. at ƒ/11 at ISO 100. I always start with that setting in sunlight. Then, I turn on the strobe and dial the flash exposure composition to the desired flash exposure. From there, I’ll make adjustments based on what kind of depth of field and background exposure I like.
Setting this exposure is more than just trying to get a useable image; it’s a creative decision with many variables. It’s important to shoot as many tests as possible to make sure the look matches the desired outcome.
Since the small strobes lack the power of larger studio lights, it’s important to keep your distance from the subject close. I usually use flash outdoors with a wide lens that allows me to be within 5 or 6 feet of the subject. Any farther away, and the flash will now show up in the exposure.
While high-speed sync has the ability to freeze action well, it really only works well indoors or with multiple flashes outdoors.
The real benefit is giving photographers the creative choice of controlling depth of field with strobes. I happen to have four of Canon’s latest Speedlites. With that added power, it achieves a very shallow depth of field with a high shutter speed while using a softbox in bright sunlight.
I think most advanced photographers are looking for ways to use multiple off-camera flash, for good reason. It allows a photographer to use large modifiers and create dimension and depth. My sense is that most photographers view using a single on-camera flash as a last resort or a shortcut. It certainly can be that.
However, I would encourage every photographer to experiment with the creative possibilities of on-camera flash. I would argue there are equally creative ways to use that single strobe for great effect.
Bower SFD926N Power Zoom Flash. With a guide number of 148 feet at ISO 100 and 105mm, the Bower SFD926N Power Zoom Flash is powerful. Features include front- and rear-curtain sync modes, along with a red-eye reduction mode. Wireless master and slave TTL functionality is available for control over multiple off-camera flashes from the camera-mounted unit. This unit attaches by using a twist-lock shoe mount, and it runs on four AA batteries, which provide a recycle time of 0.5 to 9 seconds. Compatible with Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Sony, Olympus and Panasonic. Price: $102.70. Website: bowerusa.com.
Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT. The Speedlite 600EX II-RT sits at the top of Canon’s on-camera E-TTL/E-TTL II-compatible flash lineup with a powerful guide number of 197 feet at ISO 100. The 600EX II-RT includes a stroboscopic mode as well as high-speed, first- and second-curtain sync settings. Of course, there’s a first-class built-in radio transmission wireless functionality to trigger multiple units. This revision improves continuous flash performance by 1.1x to 1.5x, or up to 2.0x with the optional battery pack. The two-way 2.4 GHz radio system provides added reliability and a range up to 98.4 feet among up to five groups with a total of 15 individual Speedlites. On the back of the 600EX II-RT is a backlit LCD panel that displays the status and allows users to access and change settings. The flash is durable with a redesigned contact construction and improved dust- and water-resistant sealing. Price: $479. Website: usa.canon.com.
Flashpoint R2 TTL Wireless Flash System. The R2 TTL Wireless Flash System is the advanced 2.4 GHz radio remote that adds camera TTL-dedicated custom functions to your multi-flash experience. Easy-to-use buttons command a full range of functions, like reliable channel triggering, group mode selectivity, HSS, with powerful signal strength and exceptional stability to your selected camera flash language. The LCD panel clearly displays the status of all remote R2-compliant strobes, so you always have control of the group lighting setup. The other advantage is the internal and interchangeable Lithium-ion polymer battery with exponentially more power than AA batteries of any type, while fitting into roughly the same amount of space. Packing 11.1 volts and 2000 mAh, this battery can power your flash long and fast. Full-power recycle times are less than 1.5 seconds, even if you fire five full-power shots in fast succession. One completely charged battery can deliver up to 650 of those full-power shots. Compatible with Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Sony, Olympus and Panasonic. Price: $199. Website: adorama.com.
Fujifilm EF-X500. The Fujifilm EF-X500 flash for X-series cameras features high-speed sync, wireless control and triggering. This weather-resistant flash is compatible with Fujifilm’s TTL system and a great option for the company’s compact mirrorless cameras. It offers a powerful guide number of 164 feet at ISO 100 and 105mm. An LED light offers an alternative fill light option. A major addition to this flash is full wireless master and slave TTL functionality. It uses optical pulse communication to trigger and control remote EF-X500 flashes set up in one of four channels and within three groups. Price: $449.95. Website: fujifilmusa.com.
Godox VING V860II TTL Li-Ion Flash Kit. Power, speed and integrated radio transmission make the VING V860IIN TTL Li-Ion Flash Kit from Godox a hard-to-beat option. Fully compatible with i-TTL systems, the V860IIN supports many advanced functions and features. Also, it features the Godox 2.4GHz X wireless radio system, which provides both master and slave TTL functionality with a range of up to 328 feet. The flash is powerful and versatile, featuring a guide number of 197 feet at ISO 100 and 200mm. And this flash runs off a rechargeable Li-ion battery pack that ensures fast recharge and long-lasting shoots. As an i-TTL-compatible unit, this flash offers support for high-speed sync, flash exposure compensation, and first- and second-curtain sync. Additionally, it can function as an optical master or slave unit, if needed. The wireless system has the ability to choose between 32 channels and set up three groups. The system is compatible with Godox’s X series of transmitters for more advanced functionality and setups. Compatible with Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus and Sony. Price: $199. Website: godox.com.
Interfit Strobies Pro-Flash TLi-N/C Speedlight. Powered by a rechargeable Li-ion battery pack, the Strobies Pro-Flash TLi-N/C Speedlight from Interfit simplifies powering your on-camera flash and dramatically speeds up recycle time. The TLi-N features a guide number of 190 feet at ISO 100. Additionally, the battery allows for 650 full-power flashes on a single charge and a recycle time of less than 1.5 seconds. Wireless master and slave TTL control is also possible with an optical trigger and sensor. High-speed, first- and second-curtain sync settings can be used as well as a multi-flash, or stroboscopic, mode. Compatible with Nikon and Canon. Price: $199.99. Website: interfitphotographic.com.
Metz mecablitz 64 AF-1 digital Flash. The Metz mecablitz 64 AF-1 digital flash is a powerful unit with a guide number of 210 feet at ISO 100 and 200mm that works with various brands in i-TTL. This model is equipped with a metal shoe for durability. The 64 AF-1 also has a secondary light reflector with two output levels for achieving even lighting as well as wireless functionality as either a master or slave unit with ratio control options. There’s also a color LCD touch screen on the rear of the flash that allows you to quickly see and change settings. Multiple flash modes are available, including strobe and server with a learning function. High-speed, first- and second-curtain synchronization are possible, and the device has sync, power and USB ports built-in. Compatible with Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Pentax, Sony and Fujifilm. Price: $434.99. Website: manfrotto.us.
Nikon SB-5000 Speedlight. The flagship Nikon SB-5000 has a guide number of 113. The built-in radio control system allows Nikon cameras and other Speedlight units to control the SB-5000 through walls, around corners and at distances up to around 100 feet. Flash duration ranges from 1/980th of a second to an amazing 1/30820th, with full TTL and recycle times as low as 1.8 seconds. A built-in cooling system allows the SB-5000 to operate for 100 continuous shots before overheating. Lights can be arranged in six groups with four channels, from up to 98 feet away, without requiring any line of sight. Also, the SB-5000 and the radio system are fully compatible with the existing optical triggering method of older units and even can be mixed and matched for maximum versatility. Price: $596.95. Website: nikonusa.com.
Nissin i60A. Equipped with a 2.4 GHz Air radio receiver for wireless slave TTL functionality, the i60A flash from Nissin will fulfill the needs of many professional lighting setups. It’s rated with a guide number of 197 feet at ISO 100 and 200mm. Hybrid stills/video shooters can benefit from this flash as well, thanks to a built-in LED video light for constant illumination. Multiple sync features can expand your creative possibilities with slow, high-speed, first- and second-curtain sync. Wireless slave TTL functionality is available using either Nissin’s Air System with a range of 98 feet or Sony’s optical slave capabilities. Nissin Air System is compatible across mount types with Nissin flashes, allowing a flash from one brand to be mixed and matched with other brand mounts as well as other NAS-compatible units. Radio mode allows access to eight channels and three groups. Compatible with Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Sony, Olympus and Panasonic. Price: $339.99. Website: nissindigital.com.
Olympus FL-900R Electronic Flash. Illuminate your scene with the powerful FL-900R Electronic Flash from Olympus, which boasts outstanding IPX1-rated weather resistance and a guide number of 190 feet at ISO 100 and the 100mm setting. Fully compatible with Olympus TTL, the FL-900R offers support for many advanced camera functions, such as High Res Shot and Focus Stacking, which benefit from faster recycle times that speed up the process. Also, for video shooters, this flash is equipped with an LED light with a maximum output of 100 lux. Designed to pair perfectly with Micro Four Thirds system cameras, the FL-900R offers a versatile zoom range of 12-100mm, which is equivalent to 24-200mm in 35mm terms. As expected, this flash boasts full wireless TTL features, including master, slave and commander modes with four flash groups. Additionally, it offers your standard slow, high-speed, first- and second-curtain sync options as well as a stroboscopic mode. Price: $579.99. Website: getolympus.com.
Panasonic LUMIX DMW-FL360L. Balancing size and power, the TTL-compatible LUMIX DMW-FL360L external flash from Panasonic features an effective guide number of 118 feet at ISO 100 and 42mm for stills as well as an LED light with 100 lux output for video. This flash is equipped with wireless master and slave TTL functionality, where it can be used as a remote control or a slave in one of four channels and three groups. The LED light also functions as an AF assist during stills shooting. The flash is capable of high-speed sync, and it has a recycle time of 1.5 to 2 seconds. Price: $226.21. Website: shop.panasonic.com.
Pentax AF540FGZ II Flash. The durable P-TTL-equipped AF540FGZ II flash from Pentax features 28 seals, including the hot-shoe, which enable a reliable weather-resistant digital imaging system. This unit has a guide number of 177 feet at ISO 100 and 85mm along with a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 24-85mm, though the auto zoom function is compatible with smaller-format Q-series mirrorless cameras, APS-C DSLRs and medium-format 645-series digital cameras. The AF540FGZ II has wireless master and slave TTL capabilities with access to four channels. It utilizes an optical pulse to transmit information and trigger flash units up to 13.1 feet away. Also, this unit can be set as a master, control or slave unit, and has access to a contrast control sync setting that enables the adjustment of the output of multiple flashes from a single unit. An added feature is a constant LED light with five output settings for use during video, as an AF assist light, or as simply another light for your subject. Other settings include a multi-flash mode for stroboscopic photography as well as slow, high-speed, first- and second-curtain sync. Price: $469.95. Website: us.ricoh-imaging.com.
Phottix Mitros+ TTL Transceiver Flash. The Phottix Mitros+ TTL Transceiver Flash features a built-in Odin transmitter and receiver as well as full E-TTL/E-TTL II functionality. The Mitros+ has a guide number of 190 feet at ISO 100. Additionally, the flash features wireless transmission via an optical pulse or IR triggering and can access four channels and three groups. This radio transmission and reception is compatible with Strato II transmitters, in addition to full compatibility with the Odin-series wireless devices. The Mitros+ features a recycle time from 0.1 to 5 seconds that can be improved to 2.5 seconds with a quick flash mode. In addition to full manual controls, customizable shooting options include high-speed sync and stroboscopic shooting modes. Radio transmission is compatible with Odin and Strato II wireless triggering systems up to 328 feet away. High-speed synchronization allows you to fire using the fastest shutter speed available on your camera. Compatible with Canon, Nikon and Sony. Price: $299. Website: phottix.com.
Sigma EF-630. Sigma makes the EF-630 electronic flash available with complete compatibility with various brands of TTL systems. Users will have excellent power thanks to a guide number of 207 feet at ISO 100. Also, this unit has multiple wireless functions, including TTL, for off-camera, multi-flash lighting setups. Features built into this unit include a modeling light function. An AF assist light is available for working in dim lighting conditions, and for the opposite scenarios, a high-speed sync function is available for working at shutter speeds faster than 1/250 sec. Compatible with Sigma, Canon and Nikon. Price: $379. Website: sigmaphoto.com.
Sony HVL-F60M Wireless Radio Flash. Sony’s HVL-F60M is designed for still and video shooters alike with an LED video light that has 15 output levels and 1200 lux. Equipped with a built-in 2.4 GHz radio transceiver, the HVL-F60M will help users quickly create portable lighting setups with complete support for P-TTL/ADI metering, including high-speed sync and ratio control. The guide number comes in at 197 feet at ISO 100 with a recycle time of 0.1 to 3.5 seconds. This flash can be set as a commander or a remote that fully supports Sony’s existing radio commanders and receivers; full bounce capabilities are available as well. Price: $548. Website: sony.com.
Vivitar DF-583 Power Zoom TTL Flash. The DF-583 Power Zoom TTL Flash from Vivitar features full TTL support for various branded DSLR cameras, with a bounce, zoom and swivel head. It has a guide number of 177 feet at ISO 100. Eight selectable power levels and an automatic shutter speed grant you precise control over the 10 power zoom positions, from 18-180mm, and high-speed synchronization. It incorporates a built-in reflecting plate and diffuser, which expands the angle of illumination for larger venues. A red focus beam will help you achieve focus in low-light conditions, and power saving circuitry incorporates an auto-off element for longer battery life. Compatible with Canon and Nikon. Price: $129.95. Website: vivitar.com.
Yongnuo YN600EX-RT. Step up your lighting game with the Yongnuo Speedlite YN600EX-RT, which lets you get two flashes off-camera, complete with Canon E-TTL/E-TTL II support and a couple accessories for helping achieve unique effects. The core parts of the kit are the two powerful flashes, each with a guide number of 197 feet at ISO 100 and 200mm as well as an integrated radio system for remote triggering. The Wireless Speedlite Transmitter brings these together for remote control over the flashes, including groups, channels and more. Also included is an EZ-Flip Gel Set for creating colored lighting effects and a bounce dome diffuser for softening the flash’s output. The system is fully compatible with Canon’s 2.4 GHz radio flash trigger system and E-TTL/E-TTL II metering and is designed as a useful accessory for your Canon camera. Price: $299.99. Website: yongnuousa.net.