Learning how to use a flash will completely change your photography. I began learning flash two-and-a-half years ago, and I've never looked back.
Do I still create natural light photos? Of course. A good natural light photo can be stunning. This isn't an issue of natural light versus artificial light. This is about being prepared for any situation and for expanding your creativity.
Learning flash photography allows you to create light instead of relying on another source to make good light for you.
Granted, sometimes all you need is a perfect golden-hour setting--no flash necessary. But sometimes you're inside, or sometimes it's cloudy, or sometimes you just don't like the light at your location. If you can use a flash, then you can turn bland light into amazing light.
When I refer to "flash photography," I'm talking about speedlights. I own several Yongnuo 560iv speedlights. They're one of the least expensive versions of a speedlight that you can buy. If you're just starting out, then it's almost a no-brainer to spend just over $60 for a piece of equipment that can drastically change your photography.
With enough experience or depending on your needs, you'll perhaps want to buy constant lights or studio strobes. I want a studio strobe or two, but I don't need one. I can do just about everything I'd like to do with a speedlight. As with any photography purchase, I only buy when I've outgrown my current equipment. I buy if I know I need the new equipment for a specific purpose.
Also, I'm not talking about the built-in flash that some cameras have. That little flash that flips up sometimes, you know? There's little you can do to control that flash. And learning flash photography is all about control. Plus, that little flash makes awful light. Stop using the built-in flash. Once you've learned how to use a speedlight, you'll wonder why you ever used the built-in flash in the first place.
If you're ready to begin learning flash photography, then here are four beginner tips to get you started.
1. Flash Sync Speed
Your camera will have a maximum shutter speed you can use with a speedlight. For most cameras, the fastest you can set your shutter speed is around 1/200. If you set your camera any faster (like 1/400 or 1/800), then your image won't be fully illuminated by the flash. A portion will have a black bar across the entire image. (There is something called high-speed sync that can alleviate this, but not every flash has high-speed sync. And I'd like to keep things simple for now.)
I remember opening the box for my first flash, popping it in the hot shoe on top of my camera, and taking a few photos. All of them had the black bar. I thought, "Are you serious? My brand new gear doesn't work right?!"
Everything was fine. I just didn't know that a speedlight and a camera could only communicate at certain shutter speeds.
Figure out your camera's maximum shutter speed with a speedlight. And don't forget to set your shutter speed each time you use a flash.
2. Direction Matters
When you first slide your flash into the hot shoe, you might be tempted to point the flash head directly at your subject. Resist that urge! If you do that, then you'll have nothing more than a larger version of the built-in flash that I told you to stop using
Instead, use the swivel head to point the flash at a wall or ceiling. Now you're bouncing your flash. Why do this? Because you've just turned the wall or ceiling into your light source. Instead of having light come from your camera, you have light coming from somewhere else, which means you'll be creating different (and better!) shadows on your subject. Shadows create dimension and shape, so your photo won't look flat.
That's the problem with using the built-in flash: since it comes from your camera, the light looks flat and doesn't create pleasing, natural shadows. Good photos are about shadow as much as they are about light.
By swiveling your flash head, you can bounce your light off of a nearby surface. Bouncing your flash allows you to have some control over the direction of your light.
My go-to position for my flash head is to point it over my left shoulder. I point it diagonally, so it's pointed to the left and up. It's not straight up, and it's not completely left. It's equal parts to the left and up. When I'm in a room, it's like I'm pointing to an upper corner. I'm not pointing directly to the ceiling or directly at wall; I'm pointing up to a corner.
If you're taking photos of people, then make sure to check your shadows and the catch-lights in the eyes. If you don't like the shadows you've made, or if the eyes aren't sparkling with life, then swivel your flash head and find a better direction.
For more examples and information, here's a follow-up blog post about bouncing your flash.
3. Size Matters
Another important benefit you get by pointing your flash at a wall or ceiling is that you change the size of your light. Instead of a light the size of a credit card, you now have a light the size of your wall, ceiling, or both!
When you create a bigger light source, you change the quality of your light. The general rule is as follows: the bigger your light source relative to your subject, the softer the light.
Soft light means that the transition from light to shadow is more gradual. Hard light means the transition from light to shadow is more abrupt. With hard light, you get a distinctly outlined shadow. You've seen this on a clear, sunny day. Your shadow on the ground is a distinct outline of your body. But on a cloudy or overcast day, you're shadow is fuzzy. That's soft versus hard light.
For the most part, we tend to like soft light on people. Soft light looks flattering and less harsh.
You can experiment with the size of your bounce flash. First, bounce your flash into a piece of white poster board. Then take the same photo and bounce the flash off of a wall. The poster board is smaller than the wall. That means that the light from the wall will be softer than the light from the poster board.
There are other variables that come into play--direction, distance, flash power--but a big benefit from bouncing your flash is creating a larger light source.
For more examples and information, here's a follow-up blog post about the size of your light source.
4. Don't Delay Learning Off-Camera Flash
For most of this post, I've been referencing your flash in your hot shoe. However, the real fun comes by taking your speedlight off of your camera and using a transmitter to fire the flash off-camera. By learning to use your flash off-camera, you increase your control of the light and you give yourself more creative possibilities.
If you start with the Yongnuo 560iv flash I mentioned above, then you should also get the Yongnuo 560TX transmitter. With the flash and the transmitter, you'll spend about $100, and you'll have everything you need to get as creative as you'd like and to solve any light problem you encounter.
The same light principles apply to off-camera flash: direction and size matter. (Distance matters, too, but I won't go into distance here. There's an important concept called the Inverse-Square Law that explains why you need to be aware of the distance from your light source.)
What's fun about off-camera flash is you can now place your flash anywhere. Put your speedlight behind your subject to create a rim light. Put your flash outside a window on a cloudy day to create better window light. Put on a modifier like an umbrella or softbox to create an at-home studio.
With off-camera flash, the possibilities really are endless. If you're just starting with flash, buy a speedlight and a transmitter.
If you want more details about how to use the Yongnuo 560iv and the Yongnuo 560TX, then visit the two detailed articles I wrote for Improve Photography. In the articles, I not only explain how to use each piece of equipment, but I give even more tips and advice for flash photography.
The first article is called "New YN560 Flash? Now What? 3 Skills to Learn First."
The second article is called "3 Skills Advanced Flash Photographers Should Learn."
One more thing: as you learn about light, you'll inevitably come across the concept of the inverse-square law. I provide a straight-forward explanation with examples here.
If you're looking for more help, check out my mentoring page. I offer one-on-one mentoring for anyone looking to improve their photography skills. Whether you're a beginner or just have a question, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know about your experience with flash photography.