Barnet Workshops » Sharing Experience, Information, Inspiration

How To Make Friends With Your On Camera Flash…

Most of us don’t like to use flash. We prefer to use “available light”… Well, I consider available light to be all the light that is available to me, including the light coming out of my SB910 speed lights. The trick, or rather the skill, is to make the light from a speed light look “natural”.

Here are a few quick tips that will help you make better use of your speed lights:

In just a few sentences, here is the real deal about light quality: Soft light is achieved when your light source is large in relationship to your subject… Nothing more.  The size of your light source determines how soft the light hitting your subject is. The larger the light source, the softer the light. This is why studio soft boxes are large. So… How do you make this, approximately 3.5 square inch, light source bigger? You diffuse it or you bounce it… Again, very simple.  All on-flash light modifiers on the market attempt to do just that, from the velcro funnel shaped plastic cards to the Tupperware-like devices you mount on your flash. Me, I prefer to just use a rubber band on my flash head and a 3″x5″ piece of white foam core. If you have Nikon gear, most speed lights come with a small white diffuser (SW-13H for the Nikon SB910). For Canon shooters there are inexpensive, after market equivalents. Those devises are all you need to achieve nice, soft, natural looking light in most indoor situations.

How I do it… If I’m using my flash as the main light source, AND, I can take it off the camera, I’ll fire the flash through a shoot-through white umbrella on a light stand with PocketWizards, OR, I’ll fire the flash through a large translucent panel, always keeping the white diffuser on the flash. There are nice translucent panels available, but an inexpensive, white, shower curtain liner will do the job. You can make the frame out of PVC pipe. Most of the time I keep the flash at least 2′ away from the diffuser and set it to manual mode, using the rheostat feature (like a light dimmer). Manual flash is much more accurate and predictable than TTL. If you prefer TTL, you can use the more expensive PocketWizard Flex TT5 system or the new Canon speed lights with remote TTL built in.

If it’s not possible or practical to take the flash off the camera, you can still achieve great soft, directional light from your on-camera speed light. Just rotate your flash towards a near-by side or rear wall. The wall doesn’t have to be white or very close. You’ll be surprised how much reach that speed light has. Especially if you’re using high ISO (800 to 1600 or higher). When doing this I go to TTL and I don’t use the white diffuser, instead I’ll use the raw flash head with my white card to keep the light AWAY from my subject, that’s one of the little things that make a big difference. This way no direct light from the flash hits your subject, instead, the light bouncing off the LARGE wall on the side or behind the camera, and the ceiling, will bathe your subject with nice wrap around light…

Here’s our assistant Autumn making a quick “soft box” out of a round translucent panel and a speed light. I’m using the PW Flex TT5 system with the AC3 module on the camera unit. The small AC3 unit allows me to very easily increase or decrease the flash power from the camera position and it can control many remote units. In the next photo you can see the resulting image. With a backlight situation like this one, a little flash fill comes in handy.

Next is a typical set up where the main light is coming from the large windows. It’s beautiful soft light from a large source. The problem is that if we have a wide group here, the main light falls pretty fast. The solution is to have a little fill coming from the opposite side. As you can see, the flash is being bounced off the wall to my right with a bounce card keeping direct light out of the flash from hitting the subject. I used the Flex TT5 units here, on manual. Since I was placing the groups in the same area, I didn’t want the fill light to change depending on what my subjects were wearing as TTL would have done. Manual flash works best in this situation. The following photo shows the nice fill I got from bouncing the flash off the wall.

The following 3 images are samples of off-camera flash at receptions. Normally I also have a flash on the camera and both go off at the same time. The camera is usually on manual, the off-camera flash on the stand is also on manual (about 1/8 power) and the flash on the camera is on TTL. At our workshops we cover this technique in detail. There are many different configurations to this kind of lighting, and we vary our set ups depending on the size of the rooms, how high and what color the ceilings are, how dark the room is, what type of images we’re looking for, etc.

Sometimes you have no choice but to use your flash straight on. When you’re dealing with strong mid afternoon sun and backlight, you need all the power you can get. As you can see here and the last image, a small on camera speed light has enough power to illuminate your subjects and keep your skies blue. The solution here is to get very close so you don’t loose too much light. This group was shot with a 14-24 mm wide angle zoom and no diffuser on the flash. The camera was on manual exposure at 250th of a second. The flash was on TTL.

 There are other off camera uses for your speed lights, including the use of several units, we can talk about those next time… Now it’s time to give these techniques a try. Experiment! Don’t wait until your next wedding or portrait session. Play with it now so you’ll be ready.

I hope this post has been helpful!  I’d love to hear your comments and I’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have!


  • April 2, 2013 - 11:11 pm

    John T. - Great information on a variety of flash situations condensed in one brief article. Nice job. Especially liked using the white card as flag, and the Manual vs. TTL situations. Great BTS images too. Thanks.ReplyCancel

    • April 2, 2013 - 11:20 pm

      admin - Thanks John! Glad you liked the post… We’re doing more and more of this kind of lighting on location, after a while, it get’s very intuitive and you can set it up in no time. One thing I forgot to mention… When using speed lights up on a light stand on remote, it’s a good idea to go in the menu and cancel the stand-by mode. That way if you don’t shoot for a while you don’t have to waste the first shot to “wake up” the flash. It uses a bit more power, but if you use a power pack it doesn’t matter… Take care and keep in touch!ReplyCancel

    • April 3, 2013 - 11:20 am

      admin - Thank you Carly, I’m glad you found the information helpful. I used to use self contained AC heads at receptions too, mostly I’ve gone to the smaller flash units with a power pack instead. I’m sure you noticed that we were using a round translucent panel (not a reflector) in front of the flash. Sometimes, like at the beach, we do bounce the flash off a reflector, a totally different technique. I’m glad you mentioned that, I’ll be sure to talk about out door use of speed lights soon. Take care…ReplyCancel

  • April 3, 2013 - 10:58 am

    Carly Street - Very helpful article! At weddings, I use Alien Bee B1600s, and I’ve been wanting to try using my SB910s more instead since they’re so much more compact. I like your trick of holding the reflector in front of the flash. I’ll definitely be trying that this weekend!ReplyCancel

  • April 4, 2013 - 12:32 pm

    Billy Higginbotham - Hello and thank you for the informative article. I am occasionally forced to photograph at high noon settings with very little or no shade available beach settings. Sometimes client wants back lit beach images, so I light them up with a flash. In doing so I get well lit clients with a blown out background which spoils what the client wants in the background. Is the solution just get closer like in your group wedding party shot where you used the wide angle, or is there something else. Also do you have any ideas in this beach or bright scenario if the an onboard flash has to be used for compensation? By the way I am a Nikon user.

    Best wishes,

    Billy HigginbothamReplyCancel

    • April 4, 2013 - 1:41 pm

      admin - Hi Billy! Thanks for your comment… You’re right. When shooting with strong backlight at the beach you need to have the fash close to your subjects. If your flash is mounted on the camera, you can’t use a long lens and achieve the “look” a long lens gives you, especially stopped down. However, if you place your flash on a stand with a remote triggering device, you can back up, use a long lens and still have your flash close. BTW, using the FP setting doesn’t work very well in these cases when you need lots of light from your flash. Firstly, FP won’t work on manual, and even if you used a remote TTL system, FP requires the flash to fire several times during the same exposure. If you’re using lots of power, the flash won’t recycle fast enough to do the job. For those images we use a larger, self contained flash unit, like the Profoto 600 w. or the Elinchrom Ranger, 400 w. I’ve been using the Elinchrom Ranger more lately because even though it’s 200 w less power it’s much lighter and easy to set up and carry. If you use a large flash with a soft box, you should bring an assistant. In the last few images on this slide show from one of our Samy’s camera workshops you can see how this set up works: Take care!ReplyCancel

  • April 6, 2013 - 9:51 am

    mary - This is such valuable information! thank you! Could you comment on how the flash heads are positioned at the reception- on camera bounced off ceiling with card or omni-bounce, flash unit on the stand has card or diffuser? Also, I shoot in manual mode on my nikon D700 but usually have my flash set to TTL. Could you talk a little about Manual mode with the flash? I have no manual mode experience with the SB900. I do own the pocket wizard flex tt5’s. honestly i haven’t used them much. Still haven’t implemented them into my work flow. Lastly, do you ever do workshops in the Chicago area? or midwest? I don’t make is out to the west coast very often. many thanks.ReplyCancel

    • April 12, 2013 - 10:39 am

      admin - Hi Mary; Thanks for your comment! Good questions… We also shoot Nikon, and SB910’s. At a reception, especially indoors where the light is not going to change very much, I use my camera on Manual and the on-camera flash on TTL. In this case, the off camera flash (1 or 2 depending on the room) are set to manual at about 1/8 power. They’re as high as possible on stands near the walls, pointed up and have the large, white snap-on diffuser. The off camera flash is triggered with regular Pocket Wizards (not Flex5’TT5’s).
      The FlexTTS system is great, but not well suited for this use, unless you use them in manual mode (you can do that). At some point I’ll do a post on the FlexTT5’s.
      Workshops in Chicago… We’d love to! My cousin is a photographer in Chicago and we’ve talked about it… If you know enough photographers that might be interested we can put something together…
      In the mean time, our flagship workshop of the year is coming up on Memorial Day: Recharge at Rancho, at Rancho Las Lomas, is a full day portfolio building workshop with classroom instruction and lots of shooting, great models and a fabulous location. A “Day-after” session is also available for those who come from out of town and want to maximize the trip investment. This workshop is a game changer for most participants, in the business, technical and creative aspects of our profession. Feel free to email us if you have any questions. Here’s more info:
      Thanks again Mary! Keep in touch…ReplyCancel

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *