Speed lights, generically referred to as camera mounted flash units, are highly portable flash lighting sources which fit in a pocket or camera bag and provide additional light for the photographer, usually when studio flash and LED lighting are not available. They can be used indoors where ambient light levels are low and outdoors, usually, but not always, to fill shadow areas and to overcome problems caused by harsh directional sunlight.
The camera without a speed light
Almost all cameras manufactured nowadays have a built-in flash unit, which, on automatic point and shoot cameras, simply fires when the ambient light level is too low. On more expensive digital SLR cameras the built-in flash pops up when needed – see http://www.bdfoto.co.uk/UL/Canon-EOS-60D-DSLR-Flash.jpg
Adding the speed light
Fotogenic supplies three speed lights in the Yongnuo range, all of them providing the benefit of direct or bounce head flash light to the subject. All are supplied with a mini-stand and protective carrying bag, and all can operate directly off a hot shoe attachment on the top of the camera in manual mode. But all three also offer both simple and intelligent optical slave facilities where the latter ignores the first low-power mini-flash from the camera – used for setting the focus and light levels – and fires on the second more powerful flash.
The top-of-the-range YN-565EX adds true ETTL (electronic through-the-lens) control enabling the camera and the speed light to work in full synchronisation, each providing data to the other to ensure that the subject is lit at the correct level, up to the maximum distance the speed light can support depending on the “effective film speed” (the ASA number) set on the camera.
An aside about “effective film speed”
I mention “effective film speed” because, of course, digital cameras do not use film. But the principals of using film remain the same with digital cameras. When I started working as a professional photographer over twenty-five years ago, I always shot on Agfa Pro film, because the 160 ASA colour negative film used for general good daylight and speed light conditions had the benefit of almost exactly the same colour balance as the “faster” 1000 ASA film used for low light conditions. In those days I shot weddings on a Bronica ETRS medium format camera with interchangeable backs pre-loaded with film. So one cartridge back was pre-loaded with 1000 ASA film, and as I walked from the daylight into the church I simply switched backs to provide me with a “faster”, i.e. more light sensitive, film whilst working in the church, and on leaving the church simply switched back to the 160 ASA film.
See http://www.bdfoto.co.uk/Gallery3/index.php/Weddings/IMG_1011 shot on Agfa Pro 160 and also http://www.bdfoto.co.uk/Gallery3/index.php/Weddings/IMG_1012 shot on Agfa Pro 1000 from the same wedding over twenty years ago.
The interior shot is grainier, and the effect with digital cameras is just the same. Nowadays using a Canon 550D I sometimes work in excellent lighting conditions and at other times work indoors just using the more limited available light. I set the camera to a faster “effective film speed” or ASA number to produce apparently the same light level in the image.
See http://www.bdfoto.co.uk/Gallery3/index.php/Dance/IMG_3895 for an image shot at 100 ASA in excellent diffused daylight and http://www.bdfoto.co.uk/Gallery3/index.php/Dance/26 shot at a rock concert with me standing on a stool, on a table, on a sprung floor. There I used Kodak Tri-X film and pushed it in the development tank to 3200 ASA by extending the development time.
Back to speed lights – indoor use
Most people use speed lights for taking photographs of the family, often at celebration events and I am no different. At Christmas 2011 the family met up with my son-in-law’s brother’s family, and I took the opportunity of shooting some portraits with his two beautiful teenage daughters.
IMG_0550 was deliberately shot using a speed light aimed directly at the subject, while IMG_0551 was shot bouncing the light off the near-white ceiling. Notice the difference. The first image has harsh shadows especially from the nose, and the subject’s cheek is over-exposed slightly, losing detail. The second image has a much softer light with the facial features well defined. The third image shows you are not limited to a single subject in this situation.
The top-of-the-range Yongnuo YN-565EX offers great flexibility. The flash light tube will move forward and backward with the changes of lens focus to suit different illumination zones (available on supporting ETTL cameras); or, by pressing “- ZOOM +”, the focal length of the flash will switch through the range 24, 28, 35, 50, 70, 80 or 105mm settings as required. Most of the Canon DSLR range is supported, and is certainly as good as anything Canon offers, but at a much more competitive price.
Using a speed light outdoors
Remember when you were a child and your mum got out her single film throw-away camera, (or in my case a box Brownie, and stood you squinting into the sun to take a picture of you. Believe me, I still see it happening regularly. Professionally, I have only ever done that once – and then only out of necessity where I had the choice between a yacht marina or a rubbish dump as a background; no contest!! The model was very obliging.
Speed lights come in very handy when the sun is both harsh and low in the sky.
I recently photographed a Santa Special day at our local miniature railway. Now remember this was in the UK, where the sun does not even reach an elevation of 20° at mid-day in midwinter. Compare http://www.bdfot.co.uk/Gallery3/index.php/Events/Littlehampton-Railway-Christmas-2011/IMG_9947 and http://www.bdfoto.co.uk/Gallery3/index.php/Events/Littlehampton-Railway-Christmas-2011/IMG_9948, the first with, and the second without a speed light. The difference is very obvious.
If you are using a camera with ETTL metering and a supported speed light like the Yongnuo YN-565EX then the hard work is taken out of the job by the equipment. But if you are using a lower specification camera and / or speed light, then it is still possible to get the right results. Check the exposure of the shadow area of the subject and then set the speed light to 2 stops less powerful. So if the exposure for the shadow area is f8 at 1/160 second set the speed light at f16. Remember to make sure that the shutter speed is within the supported range of the speed light and camera combination. Keeping the shutter speed at 1/160 second is safe for almost all combinations.
Now of course, the light level reaching the camera’s plane is exactly the same whether you are using f8 at 1/160 second, or f5.6 at 1/320 second, (only the depth of field changes – see specific depth of field information in the “macro photography” blog entry), but very few camera / speed light combinations will support that shutter speed. Stick at 1/160 and you should be safe for all eventualities.
A separate blog entry covers the use of speed lights off the camera.
When to use Speed Lights – original article © 2011 Barney Douglas at http://www.bdfoto.co.uk and http://www.bd-shop.co.uk
Article produced for Fotogenic Photographic Equipment of 3a Averill Street, Rhodes, NSW 21380, Australia
The republication or reproduction of any part of this article without the permission of the both Fotogenic and Barney Douglas is a breach of copyright.