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External Flash Techniques for Your Digital SLR

An external flash (the flash unit that you can attach to your dSLR, not where you mount it) is useful and a lot of fun. Although built-in flashes are capable, an external flash: Offers more flexibility, has more power, gives you a greater range of freedom.

These techniques are possible using one external flash. You can add more. The more you add, the more creative you can be.

1

Use a balanced fill flash.

A flash is a useful device to have, even when you don’t think you need one. Forcing the flash to fire, called fill flash, will often make your subjects look better and balance the brightness of the foreground and background better. The flash keeps the subjects face well lit and not in shadow.

If you can't face your subject toward the light, make sure to use the flash. It also helps when you can use high-speed sync (HSS).

2

Use bouncing and diffusing.

Bouncing, the flash softens its light and makes shadows less prominent. To bounce your flash, tilt or swivel the head so that it points at the ceiling or wall.

If you're shooting in an area with high ceilings, switch to a diffuser and point the flash straight at the subject.

The great thing about bouncing the flash is that you can do it even when you have no other gear with you. It's the ultimate fail-safe solution, provided you have an external flash unit attached to your camera with a tilt/swivel head.

3

Use a bounce diffuser/reflector.

Although you can find several types and brands of flash bouncers, LumiQuest is the most notable. This product bounces, reflects, and diffuses light from your flash simultaneously. It attaches to the front of your flash with the help of a hook-and-loop strap, which you aim upward, and has the shape of a fan. Light from the flash hits the surface of the bouncer and is reflected toward the subject.

Here is a Pocket Bouncer. Notice that you rotate the flash head straight up and let the bouncer do the bouncing. The downside to this setup is that you have to ensure enough headroom to use it, and there's the danger of coming across like a superflash freak.

4

Use an umbrella.

Umbrellas are just what you’d expect, except they won’t keep rain off your head. Umbrellas diffuse light from the flash even better than bouncing or using a diffuser. The catch is that you have to set up the umbrella on a stand with the flash. That limits how portable and spontaneous you can be. However, the results are almost always fantastic.

To control your flash on a light stand (which looks something like a tripod, but isn't meant to hold a camera) with an umbrella, you can make it wireless and use your camera's built-in flash for a trigger. Or, you can buy an off-camera cord that extends the range of your hot shoe.

5

Use shadows.

Most of the time you use a flash to remove shadows, but not always. You can have a lot of fun with shadows. The pictures of a Godzilla figure were taken in front of a white background with different colored blocks in the foreground. The room’s ambient lighting was pretty bright, but the flash cast a shadow from left to right. It makes the whole scene feel more alive.

6

Get snoot-y.

Have you ever watched an old Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk sits in the captain’s chair and his eyes are brightly lit but the rest of his face isn’t? They created that effect with a snoot, a tube or rectangle on the end of the flash; it keeps the flash tightly focused on the subject. The longer the snoot, the more focused the lighting.

The shorter the snoot, the more it expands. You can even make your own snoot out of things you have on hand (high-tech things like cardboard and tape).

This photo was taken with Gary Fong's Collapsible snoot with PowerGrid. The flash was moved off-camera to the left of the subjects face. The flash is much farther away than the camera. The result is a portrait that has a lot of close-up detail (impossible to capture with a straight shot of the flash), creative side lighting, interesting shadow, and a dark background.

7

Elevate the flash with a bracket.

Flash brackets make your dSLR look like an old-fashioned press camera with the flash on the side — the type you see in old movies. If you’re skeptical, stick with it. It may surprise you.

Photographers who mainly hold their cameras vertically know that when you attach an external flash to the camera's hot shoe, the flash sticks out to the side, not on top. Even if you can swivel the flash, it's no longer elevated. By putting the flash on a bracket, you can position the flash so that it works more like a traditional flash on the hot shoe.

You need a short flash cord for this to work. Buy one that supports the features you need to work on your flash.

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