Beginner’s Guide to Flash Photography

Marianne Stenger
11th January 2022

Using flash in your photography can be a bit intimidating when you’re first starting out. But knowing how and when to use flash can give you a lot more freedom and flexibility, regardless of the type of ambient light that’s available to you. 

With this in mind, if you’re hoping to start experimenting with flash photography, we’ve lined up some of the most important things you should know, from when to use flash to what sort of equipment you may want to invest in.

Image © Marianne Chua

When to use flash 

Before you begin to use any type of flash in your photoshoots, it’s important that you understand how it will affect your images and in what sort of situations you may want to use it. 

The main times you will want to use flash is when you’re shooting with insufficient ambient light, such as at night or indoors in low-light. Although you could also increase your ISO, slow down your shutter speed or use a wider aperture to let in more light, shooting with flash will make it a lot easier to freeze fast action and avoid the grain or “noise” that tends to appear at high ISOs. 

There may even be times when there is plenty of ambient light and you still need to use flash. For example, on a bright sunny day, using “fill flash” can help you fill in the shadows or dark areas in a scene and separate your subject from the background.

Image © Marianne Chua

On-camera vs. off-camera flash

Understanding the different types of flash and what they do will help you to decide what sort of equipment you’d like to invest in first. When using flash in your photography, you can either choose to use on-camera flash or off-camera flash. 

Many cameras come with a built-in or pop-up flash, and while this can be useful in some situations, it does have limitations. For example, the built-in flash on most cameras can only illuminate subjects that are about one or two meters in front of it, whereas an external flash unit is more powerful and can illuminate subjects that are much further away. 

External flash units can also illuminate a much wider area, which is important if you’re using a wide-angle lens. Additionally, a built-in flash can only throw light on your subject from the front, which can make it appear a bit flat. Many external flashes, on the other hand, can be rotated or angled to throw light on your subject from different directions. 

When a flash unit is mounted on your camera’s hot shoe, it’s considered “on-camera flash.” If you’re using a portable unit that’s not mounted on your camera, it’s considered “off-camera flash.” With off-camera flash, you’ll need a flash trigger to allow the camera to communicate with the flash unit. 

Using flash off-camera gives you more creative control and allows you to more easily change the distance and direction of the light. You’ll also be able to experiment with light modifiers such as soft boxes, umbrellas and beauty dishes.

Image © Marianne Chua

Getting started with flash photography

We asked Marianne Chua, a london-based wedding and family photographer who runs her own flash photography course, to share a few insights on getting started with flash. 

“I’d say from day one until now, my style has been a focus on people and the atmosphere of a wedding. I put a lot of emphasis on the couple and the guests as being of equal importance. I love real raw emotions and moments, and have a bold and colourful editing style.” 

Marianne Chua says she first began teaching flash because many of the women in her photography group admitted they were struggling with flash, but didn’t want to go to a workshop because they were worried they’d feel silly asking questions. 

“I hated the stereotype bandied about at the time that female photographers were less technical, so I said I’d teach them flash with an emphasis on helping people who are ‘flash phobic’ or scared of it,” she explains. 

“I used to teach statistics, and the crucial part of the job was trying to explain really boring technical jargon in an easy to understand way. So I think my past skillset helped my flash workshop stand out. I find it really rewarding when someone comes in saying they know nothing and leaves the class saying they’re excited to try their flash."

Image © Marianne Chua

What’s your own set up like when shooting weddings or family photography? 

I use both on and off-camera flash tailored to the environment and needs. This decision is affected by the walls, what I’m shooting, how many people or what sort of things are about in the space. 

What would you say are some of the most common situations where flash is essential? 

At every wedding, the odds are you may need flash for the dance floor and possibly earlier into the reception. The dance floor lighting is rarely set up to compliment the dancing itself, as no one wants to party in a bright room or under a spotlight. 

What’s your top tip for photographers looking to start using more flash? 

Always get the initial settings on the camera with the flash turned off before you add it to the mix. That way it’ll be easier to understand what each setting is contributing to the finished photo. 

What are some of the problems that photographers might run into when experimenting with flash for the first time? 

People can often get flustered and forget that off-camera flash is the same as on-camera, but you’re just moving and sometimes multiplying the light source. I’d recommend only using triggers and receivers with the option to adjust the settings on the trigger. This lessens any stress of amending the settings in front of clients, as everyone needs to tweak their setting from time to time. 

Want to know more about Marianne Chua’s work or her flash photography course? You can visit her website or follow her on Instagram @marryandchew. If you’re just getting started with photography and would like more tips and advice, check out these Essential Photography Tips for Beginners or our Beginner’s Guide to Depth of Field and Shutter Speed