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Five-Step Plan for Great Flash Photography


Flash photography (especially advanced light modeling with modern iTTL flash systems) has become an art in itself and should be mastered by all aspiring photographers who are often helpless when it comes to using the full potential of these systems. Since it can be very complicated and confusing, photography instructor Mike Hagen created a  five-step plan to follow whenever taking flash photos. This plan is deceptively simple but will add years to your life just by reducing your frustration!

Step 1: Set Camera Shutter Sync

Even though there are five shutter sync modes to choose from (Normal, Normal + Red-eye, Slow, Slow + Red-eye, Slow + Rear), I choose Normal or Slow + Rear for the vast majority of my photography.

 1. Normal (Front Curtain)

• Use for studio lighting setup

• Use for situations with no ambient light

Figure 1

2. Slow + Rear 

• Use for travel/nature/outdoor fill flash

• Use for subtle fill flash

• Use for window portraits for subtle fill flash.

Figure 2

Step 2: Set Flash Mode

There are many flash modes to choose from on the SB-500, SB-600, SB-00, SB-800, SB-900, and SB-910 strobes. Even so, I typically use only two for most of my photography.

• Use for shooting quickly

• Use for sports

• Use for travel/nature/outdoor

Figure 3

2. Manual (figure 4)

• Use for accuracy (with handheld light meter)

• Use for consistency from shot to shot (e.g., photographing for a church directory or school classroom)

• Use for situations where TTL BL breaks down (e.g., very high-contrast scenes or difficult lighting situations that confuse TTL BL)

Manual Mode

Step 3: Set Flash Power Setting

Flash power can be a very subjective decision. Who’s to say a photo will look better if it is brighter or darker? Most of the time I want a “properly” exposed photograph, and that is what my camera tries to deliver in automatic modes like TTL BL, TTL, and AA. Even so, sometimes I want the flash output to be a bit darker or lighter than my camera would normally provide (see below). That’s why I make a fl ash power decision before I take the first shot. Here are some recommended starting points for fl ash power. Remember that they are only recommendations, and your actual choices may vary.

Figure 5

• Travel/Outdoor/Nature: Set power from –0.7 to –1.7 for most scenes to provide a nice subtle fi ll fl ash.

• Portraits by a Window: Set power from 0.0 to –1.7 for most scenes. 0.0 means the fl ash power approximately equals the ambient window light, and –0.7 means the fl ash power is 2/3 of a stop below ambient light, therefore serving as a fill flash.

• Studio Portraits: Set power for 0.0 for medium brightness subjects, +0.7 to +1.3 for brighter subjects, and –0.3 to –1.0 for darker subjects.

• Event Photography (weddings, dances): Set power anywhere from +1.0 to –1.0 depending on the scene.

• In Manual mode: Set power by working with a handheld light meter to judge proper exposure. I like the Sekonic L-385.

Figure 6

Step 4: Take Picture and Review Result

One of the best things about digital photography is the ability to quickly review the results on the camera’s LCD. After taking a flash photograph, I typically check out two items. The first is the Highlights screen to see if there are any blown highlights.

Figure 7

The second is the Histogram screen to see where the overall exposure lies. On the histogram, I just make sure the tonality of the exposure is in the proper range. For example, if I take a picture of a bride in a white dress, then I expect to see a spike of data on the right side of the graph from the white dress. If I take a photo of a groom in a black tuxedo, then I expect to see a spike on the left side of the graph. If I don’t see what I expect to see, then I need to shoot again with new settings.

Figure 8

Step 5: Change Settings as Needed and Shoot Again

The last step is to make the changes outlined in step 4, and then retake the picture. Hopefully, you are done fiddling and can move on to create great flash photographs!

These steps were taken from Mike Hagen’s The Nikon Creative Lighting System, 3rd Edition. To learn more about working with Nikon’s collection of flash systems, check out the full book now!


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