Creative Flash

The word is finally out: TTL flash is a powerful tool to improve your photography, and easier to use than ever before. Modern TTL flashes are loaded with useful features and can even work wirelessly from your camera.

One obstacle that has kept many photographers from embracing TTL flash is the lack of accessories available to modify TTL flash. One photographer may need a snoot for a hair light, while another needs a softbox for a portrait. The fashion shooter wants a ring flash for his style of shooting, and the wildlife photographer needs a tool to project the flash long distances. Today, there’s a host of accessories available for TTL flash, no matter what your needs.

Narrow The Flash

Current TTL flashes have the ability to narrow the angle of light by zooming the flash head. Some TTL flashes go all the way out to 200mm, which significantly narrows the angle of light. But some situations require a very small shaft of light, something only a few inches wide, or even smaller. Imagine you want to shoot a narrow shaft of light across a subject’s eyes in a portrait. The only way to accomplish this is by using a snoot. Snoots are flash attachments that narrow the beam of light down to a very small area. Two snoots that are popular with TTL flash are made by LumiQuest and Honl Photo.

LumiQuest makes a wide variety of flash attachments, including a snoot. Their snoot is a flexible plastic tube that uses Velcro® to attach to your flash and comes with a removable Velcro® strap or Velcro® with adhesive that sticks permanently to the flash head. The flash beam is significantly narrowed using this snoot and can be further narrowed by pinching the front of the snoot.

Honl Photo also makes a variety of TTL flash accessories, all very functional and well thought out. The Honl snoot comes in two different lengths, and consists of flexible material that wraps around the flash head and attaches with Velcro®. Honl Photo supplies Velcro® speed straps that are wrapped around your flash head to accept attachments. I prefer the eight-inch Regular snoot from Honl over its five-inch Shorty model—the eight-inch narrows the light more.

With both brands of snoots, I use the removable Velcro® strap to attach accessories to my flash. This keeps my flash head clean, and I’m able to use other accessories that don’t require Velcro®.

What about those times when you need a narrow flash beam, but not as much as a snoot? Honl Photo also makes TTL grids. Grids are flash attachments that narrow the spread of light using a honeycomb cell pattern of metal or other material placed in front of the flash. Honl Photo makes two sizes, 1?4-inch and 1?8-inch. The 1?8-inch will give a narrower beam of light. These grids are useful when you’re trying to create dramatic portraits or control background lights in a multiple flash setup.

Soften The Flash

On the other side of the spectrum are techniques to soften the light. This can be accomplished by bouncing flash or by firing through umbrellas and soft-boxes. Many flashes come with a plastic diffusion dome that fits on the flash head. This will diffuse the light to a degree and is useful in certain situations where you have to shoot fast in large crowds. But here’s the cardinal rule in soft lighting: The larger the light source relative to your subject, the softer the light. Since these diffusion domes are small, they don’t soften the light much.

The next step up in creating soft light is using bounce flash. LumiQuest makes a variety of bounce flash accessories. My favorite is the Quik Bounce. This clever light modifier consists of a white plastic flash card about 5×7 inches that attaches to your flash with Velcro®. What makes this accessory unique is a narrow opening in the middle of the bounce card that can be opened or closed, depending on your situation. If you’re photographing in a room with a white ceiling, you can open this slot on the card to allow your flash to bounce off the ceiling, resulting in pleasant, soft light. If you’re outside with no ceiling for bounce flash, keep this opening closed and all your flash is reflected off the bounce card. Honl Photo makes a simple bounce card that also acts as a gobo; using the black side of this accessory helps shield your lens from flare.

Umbrellas and softboxes have been around a long time, but have been limited in their practical use with TTL flash. This is no longer the case. There’s a variety of umbrella systems and soft-boxes designed specifically for TTL flash, from small single-flash options to solutions for multiple-flash systems.

Some small softbox options are made by LumiQuest. The Softbox III is the largest softbox LumiQuest offers and produces the softest light in its softbox lineup. This softbox is 8×9 inches, attaches directly to the flash head using Velcro®, and is a convenient way to soften light in fast-moving situations. The quality of light from this box is soft, yet edgy—a nice look for portraits. LumiQuest also makes smaller versions of this softbox.

If I really want to soften the light, I use the 24-inch Lastolite Ezybox. This softbox comes with a TTL bracket that holds the flash and a softbox that pops open when you take it out of the bag (similar to a collapsible reflector). Triggering the flash is done using a wireless transmitter. As do traditional large softboxes, the Ezybox has an internal diffusion panel and an outside panel, diffusing the light significantly. And being 24×24 inches, this large light source dramatically softens the light. Also, the Ezybox comes with diffusers that attach to the front, opening up new possibilities for controlling the light. I’ve used the Ezybox in remote areas, from Africa to Patagonia, resulting in stunning portraits in the middle of nowhere!

Umbrellas are a popular way to soften light. As with softboxes, umbrellas come in a variety of sizes. Some locations require using a small umbrella for quick shooting in tight spaces. But what if you want to soften light and use a three-foot-diameter umbrella? The limitation in the past has been that one TTL flash uses a lot of power to shoot light into this large surface, and flash recycle times are slow. Lastolite has introduced an exciting tool to eliminate this problem: the TriFlash bracket. This bracket holds up to three TTL flashes and has a standard umbrella-rod opening to mount umbrellas. The bracket can be mounted onto a standard light stand. When using three TTL flashes, recycle times are dramatically reduced, and the light is more evenly spread in the umbrella. Flashes are triggered using a wireless transmitter. Using three flashes with this bracket, I found the recycle time very fast, similar to a studio strobe pack.

Project The Flash

When I need a break from portraits and urban shooting, I head out into the wilds of Colorado to photograph the natural world. Since I’m a devoted birder, I always seek out interesting birds to photograph. But a common problem photographing birds is that they need fill-flash to add a catchlight to their eyes and punch up their colorful plumage. Standard flash doesn’t have the power to reach a distant meadowlark on a post. I solve this problem by using a project-a-flash. This item consists of a Fresnel lens that’s attached in front of your flash head, which projects the flash farther than it could normally go. My favorite style is the FX-series Flash X-Tenders from Kirk Enterprises. This flash extender increa
ses the flash output by two stops and attaches with a simple Velcro® system. Anytime I anticipate photographing wildlife, I put a flash extender in my photo bag.

Use A Ring Flash

A ring flash is a specialty type of flash often used in fashion, portraits and macro photography. A ring flash circles the camera lens and produces a unique style of light, often a small shadow circling the subject if they’re close to the background. Ring flash systems are generally specialty flashes and expensive. But now there’s an option to attach a ring flash to your TTL flash.

The Ray Flash from ExpoImaging is a ring flash unit that attaches directly to a TTL flash and fits around a lens like a traditional ring flash. It requires no batteries and maintains your TTL flash functions. Better yet, the Ray Flash is light and easy to carry, unlike traditional studio ring flashes. Photographers often use the ring flash as the main single light with the subject near the background or as a fill light when using other strobes. The Ray Flash produces the same 3D quality of light that traditional studio ring flashes produce.

Gel The Light

Many times, changing the color of your flash is helpful. Sometimes you might need to color-correct your flash to match the existing room lighting. For example, if you were photographing in a room lit by fluorescent lights, you’d use a green gel to give your flash the same color temperature as the fluorescent lights. Other times, you just want to add color to create mood in your image.

Gels are heat-resistant pieces of plastic used in front of your flash. They come in a wide range of colors. Many flashes today come with precut gels and special holders. My Nikon Speedlight SB-900s come with several colors of gels and a special holder that snaps to the front of the flash. My Nikon D3 actually knows what type of gel is being used and can adjust the auto white balance accordingly.

If your flash doesn’t come with gels or a way to attach them, Honl Photo and LumiQuest offer precut gels and a simple Velcro® system. Both offer colors to correct for incandescent and fluorescent light sources, as well as some creative colors.

Putting TTL Accessories To Use

How exciting are these new TTL accessories? I was recently in Kenya photographing Masai warriors. These warriors were polite and soft-spoken, but they weren’t comfortable waiting long as I took close-ups of them. I wanted to make an interesting portrait, something striking and unique.

I quickly set up an Ezybox as my main light and put a second SB-900 on a stand behind a warrior, creating a simple cross-lighting setup. Using a Nikon SU-800 wireless transmitter, I had a friend hold my Ezybox close to the warrior, and I began shooting. From setup to capture took less than 10 minutes, and the portraits turned out great!


Kirk Enterprises
Honl Photo
Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. You can see more of Bol’s photography by visiting his website—go to

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