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In the photography world, there are three types of flash users: those who never use it and avoid it at all cost, those who use it all the time to the detriment of their photos, and those who have mastered when and how to use it.

Which one are you?

At its core, the camera flash is a simple piece of technology that’s deceptively hard to use well. In the right hands it can transform dullness into greatness, but attaining that level of skill will require a bit of know-how and practice.

What is a Speedlight?

Speedlight is actually the brand name that Nikon uses for their camera flash units which are usually mounted to the camera body through the hotshoe. Similarly, Speedlite is the brand name used by Canon for their camera flash units.

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But colloquially speaking, “speedlight” is synonymous with “portable camera-mounted flash unit” and is distinct from built-in flash units. Speedlights can be used externally, but for the most part speedlight photography refers to shots taken with a speedlight attached the actual camera body.

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What’s this “hotshoe” that I mentioned earlier? If you look on top of your camera, you’ll see a metal socket that can be used to connect external accessories to the body. In addition to flash units, other accessory examples include microphones and electronic viewfinders.

Why Use a Speedlight?

At this point you might be wondering, “Why use a speedlight when my camera already has a built-in flash?” It’s a valid question and there are a few caveats that will hopefully convince you of the speedlight’s usefulness.

Improved Strength and Range

Compared to built-in units, speedlights typically produce a stronger flash with farther reach. This is especially useful when trying to bounce light and when using flash as a fill light, two techniques that we’ll explore in the next section.

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Better Camera Battery Life

It takes a lot of energy to produce an intense moment of light, which means that each shot taken with flash will drain your camera’s battery at a faster rate than a shot taken without flash.

The majority of speedlights run off of their own energy source — AA batteries are the most common — and thus won’t affect how many pictures you can take with your camera.

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Greater Flexibility of Angles

Built-in flash units face one huge restriction that kills their versatility: the direction of light. More specifically, they can only flash directly to the front which floods the subject and looks terrible 99% of the time.

Most speedlights don’t have this limitation. Of course, the more money you spend, the more angle flexibility you gain. For example, the Canon 90EX doesn’t have any kind of rotation, the Canon 270EX can only look up and down, and the Canon 430EX can aim pretty much anywhere.

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Portable with No Setup Required

They’re called speedlights because they’re small enough to be carried anywhere and can be fitted to the camera in just a few seconds. This level of portability is crucial for time-critical or impromptu photos, such as those taken during a wedding or when traveling.

Cheaper than stationary lights. While softboxes and umbrellas are the better choice when you need high-quality studio lighting, they also require a deeper monetary investment. Speedlights are an affordable way to introduce versatile flash to your repertoire.

Advanced Speedlight Techniques

Now that you have a speedlight (you did go out and buy one, didn’t you?) you should know a few tricks that will help you get the most mileage out of it. After all, if you just point the flash at the subject, it’s really no different than a built-in unit.

Altering Flash Brightness

The amount of flash you actually need will change depending on the circumstances, which is fine because most speedlights allow you to dial the strength to your needs. Not only is it important for getting the exposure you want The Top 5 Photography Tips For Absolute Beginners The Top 5 Photography Tips For Absolute Beginners Fueled by a desire to take better photos, last year I got myself a nice DSLR for Christmas. I'm certainly no photography expert - but I did take the time learn a few tips I... Read More , but it can also help to conserve your speedlight’s battery life.

Diffusing the Flash

Another way to weaken the flash brightness is to cover it with a diffuser. Rather than flooding your subject with a beam of light, a diffuser scatters the light so that less of it hits the subject. The result? A softer look.

If you look on Amazon, you should be able to find diffusers that fit whatever speedlight model you’re using. Or, you could create your own diffuser 8 Useful Digital Camera Hacks That Don't Cost The Earth 8 Useful Digital Camera Hacks That Don't Cost The Earth You can actually get more out of a photograph with a cheap homemade reflector than an expensive lens when you are on the learning curve with your camera. The good thing is that the photography... Read More with an empty milk jug.

Bouncing the Flash

Light is one of the most important elements to consider when composing a shot. Subjects can look incredibly different from photo to photo simply by changing the location and direction of the light source.

Forget flashing the subject from head-on. Instead, you can bounce the flash off of the ceiling or a wall to alter the lighting and shadows of the subject (assuming your speedlight can rotate to that angle). You can also use a DIY bounce card 5 Essential Digital Photography Accessories You Can Make Yourself 5 Essential Digital Photography Accessories You Can Make Yourself Read More to accomplish a similar effect.

In addition, a bounced flash will be softer than a direct flash because light inherently diffuses when it bounces off an object.

Using Flash as a Fill Light

If you think flash is only for low light photography An Illuminating Guide to Low Light Photography An Illuminating Guide to Low Light Photography If photography is about capturing light, how do you take photos when light is scarce? Read More , think again! A well-placed flash can elevate a photo taken in broad daylight by providing something called “fill light”.

Fill light is particularly useful when the subject is backlit because backlighting tends to create shadows on the frontside; when the shadows are overwhelming, you get something akin to a silhouette How To Create Quick Silhouettes In Photoshop How To Create Quick Silhouettes In Photoshop Read More . Use flash to illuminate those dark spots and to make your exposure less extreme.

Using an Off-Camera Speedlight

Rather than mounting the speedlight on your camera’s hotshoe, you could instead mount a trigger on the hotshoe and a receiver on the speedlight. The flash signal travels from body-to-trigger and trigger-to-speedlight, thus allowing you a quick way to set up an off-camera flash.

Kick it up a notch by adding an umbrella or a cheap softbox 4 Epic Videos About Cheap Video Lighting 4 Epic Videos About Cheap Video Lighting Online video is the way everything is going these days, and along with that, you'll notice that people aren't spending as much money on everything. With that said, you would be hard-pressed to find someone... Read More onto the remote speedlight. Replicate this a few times and you’ll basically have a complete mobile lighting setup (though it won’t be as good as a dedicated studio setup, of course).

Final Thoughts

Long story short: speedlights are extremely versatile and should be a crucial component of any photographer’s bag, but they do have their limitations. Still, once mastered, speedlights can accomplish a lot when you’re on the move or need impromptu lighting.

Are you a newbie wanting to get your feet wet as a photographer? Check out these quick and easy ways to jumpstart a photography hobby now 8 Easy Ways To Get Started With A Photography Habit Today 8 Easy Ways To Get Started With A Photography Habit Today Each day can be a new beginning. A hobby like photography also needs the discipline of a habit, and you can give it an extra motivational push with the help of the Web. Read More .

Do you use speedlights? What tips and tricks do you use to maximize their efficacy? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Image Credits: camera and flash Via Shutterstock, Camera Speedlight Via Shutterstock, Camera Battery Via Shutterstock, Quick Forest Photo Via Shutterstock

  1. Andrew
    May 7, 2016 at 6:26 pm

    I work in a busy salon with no space or time to pull a client aside to photograph their new hairstyle. I recently stuck a speedlite above my mirror, pointed at the clients head, and am able to get a pretty amazing look- just a head surrounded by under exposed blackness, without walking the client to a backdrop. I never knew flash could be used this way and had always thought of it as something you use to take pictures in dark places. Now I use it to make a busy and well lit salon disappear.

    • Joel Lee
      May 13, 2016 at 11:42 pm

      That's awesome! And very clever. It's amazing what kinds of neat tricks you can do with a single speedlight. Glad you found that out and that it works well for you, Andrew. Thanks for sharing!

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