(Editor’s Note: This flash photography how-to from professional photographer Joe McNally is part of a monthly series on Digital Photo where top pros from Nikon USA’s Ambassadors program share their simple tips, tricks, and advice on how to be a better photographer.)
Flash is a bedevilment for beginners, and it can remain a mystery for even the most advanced photographers. It’s fairly easy to say, “I only use available light” and that’s wonderful. Some people believe that high ISOs eliminate the need to use flashes. However, higher ISO settings only address the quantity of light, and not the quality.
In reality, the quality of light is the element that grabs the viewers’ attention and directs their focus. Specifically, in a portrait, the quality of light profoundly influences the way we tell the story of “that face in that place.” Here are a few key fundamentals to remember when lighting your subjects, regardless of your experience level.
#1 Get the Flash Off Camera
There are no absolute rules in photography – the guidelines we are taught are meant to be bent and broken. However, the one principle that is always worth observing is getting the flash off the camera. Flash that originates from the intersection of the subject and the film plane can have a strong tendency to be unflattering. Remember that shadows and highlights are your friends and give your subject dimensionality. The best way to embrace these elements is to move the light off the access line of the lens. We all know the big three tenets of light: color, quality and direction – and one of best the ways to establish direction is to get the flash off camera.
#2 Never Stop Experimenting
The use of flash and light is a lifelong series of experiments, realizations and embracing the different qualities of light. Every scene is different, as is every subject. If you want to grow, never stop teaching yourself through experience and never stop experimenting with lighting.
#3 Think of Flash in Human Terms
Visualize and internalize the way light behaves and how you want to use it. Light can be ornate, sensual, angry, slashing, baroque, rounded or voluptuous. Light is our language – it has all of the emotional range and possibilities of the written word. It might sound like we are writing a romance novel but giving real emotional qualities to light allows us to humanize it. Think of light in this way, and it will help you convey your message and your story. Keep in mind that you should use different lights and different energy for different faces. For example, I would not light Clint Eastwood the same as Zendaya.
#4 Light All the Way Through a Photograph (If You Can)
Many people will put a single light up front that dominates the foreground and the subject. However, by doing this, you might lose the exposure on the rest of the scene, rendering it drab or making it become inconsequential. When I say light through, I mean to consider more of a scene. For example, you can walk into a scene and fall in love with the wallpaper. Put a light on it. If you light the environment, you give more information to your viewer, enticing them to stay with your photo longer. While it is sometimes a luxury on a shoot, if you have the time and the resources, additional fillips of light are helpful in framing and shaping an image and adding environmental context. TTL and wireless flash technology has evolved to the point where it recognizes a lot of the scene. The new mirrorless Z system has taken it even further with an AF system that samples more of the frame and collects additional information to assist with flashes.
#5 By Nature, the Eye Is a Hunter
The eye seeks pleasure, enjoyment and information. When you light something effectively, you are giving the viewer a roadmap of the photograph. Lighting is a powerful psychological message that you are sending to the viewer of your photograph. It’s like speaking directly to your viewers even though you have never met them. Ask yourself, “what makes you stop on Instagram?”
Most likely, it’s a vibrant, unique photo that will make a viewer tilt their head, pique their interest or capture their eyeballs. That behavior of someone stopping is directly related to the quality of light.
About Joe McNally
Joe McNally is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning photographer whose career has spanned more than 30 years and included assignments in over 50 countries. He has shot cover stories for TIME, Newsweek, Fortune, New York, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and Men’s Journal. He has been at various times in his career a contract photographer for Sports Illustrated, a staff photographer at LIFE, and, currently, an ongoing 25-year contributor to the National Geographic.
McNally is known internationally for his ability to produce technically and logistically complex assignments with expert use of color and light. As part of his teaching activities, he conducts numerous workshops around the world.
Joe is currently working on a book set for release in the fall of this year, titled, “The Real Deal: Field Notes from the Life of a Working Photographer.” The book will be anecdotal, performative, honest, and irreverent, and will include stories from the field. He has also recently started a YouTube Channel with entertaining and informative videos.