Getting Started With Studio Flash
We’ll explain the reasons later, but if you’re new to studio flash, just follow these simple steps to get started.
- Set the camera to “Manual”. It won’t work with flash on any of the other settings.
2. Set the shutter speed to 1/125th or 1/100th
3. Set the ISO on your camera as low as it will go (typically 100 or 200 ISO) You can increase it later if you need to.
4. Set the lens aperture to f/8
That’s all there is to it, those settings will get you started, although you will need to adjust both flash power and lens aperture to suit individual shots later.
And now for some more detail…
The principles explained below apply to all studio flash units and all digital cameras that are fitted with a hotshoe, but of course the details will vary depending on your camera, so you’ll need to read your camera manual as well as this guide.
The first thing you need to understand is that the metering system in your camera only works with continuous lighting, such as daylight, and can’t measure flash, so it doesn’t help at all if all or most of the light is coming from the flash. Because of this, when you’re shooting in the studio, your camera MUST be set to manual. If it isn’t, the camera will try to set an exposure to suit the ambient light, because it won’t know that you are using flash.
Here are the things that are relevant to studio flash that are different to shooting with continuous light
1. Shutter speed
2. Lens aperture
3. Getting the exposure right
4. White balance
5. Firing the flash
Shutter speed: With continuous light, the shutter speed matters because the choice of shutter speed controls or prevents subject blur and also works in conjunction with the lens aperture to control the exposure.
For example, you might want to choose a fast shutter speed, say 1/2000th second, to get a sharp picture of your child playing on a swing. If you set your camera’s shutter speed to (say 1/2000th in S or TV mode then the camera will measure the light and set a wide aperture that will ensure a correct exposure. But, with studio flash, the only real function of the shutter is to be fully open when the flash is fired. Unless there are abnormally high levels of continuous light present (such as sunlight streaming through a window) the shutter speed won’t affect the exposure, so you need to set your camera to MANUAL and you set the shutter to a speed at which it will be fully open.
Let’s explain that. On point & shoot digital cameras, there is normally no shutter as such, just an electronic function that does the same job. On most point and shoot cameras, you can use any shutter speed available on the camera – but DSLR cameras work differently and have a focal plane shutter (a shutter immediately in front of the sensor) that is, in effect, just two blinds. The first one opens, uncovering the sensor, and the second one then closes, so at slow shutter speeds the sensor is fully exposed to the light for a moment. When using flash, the flash has to fire at that moment.
So far so good, but at faster shutter speeds the second curtain starts to close before the first one has reached the end of its travel, so what you get in effect is a moving slit that travels across the sensor and exposes a bit of it at a time. That’s no good for flash, because flash needs the shutter to be fully open at the time of the flash. If it isn’t fully open then part of the image will be covered by the shutter and you’ll get a black line covering part of it. So, you need a reasonably slow shutter speed – one at which the shutter is fully open at the time of the flash. This varies from camera to camera. Most camera manuals state that their model will work at around 1/250th second but in reality that can be optimistic, because the manufacturers are assuming that you’re using a dedicated hotshoe flash made by them, not a studio flash, which may not work properly at that speed. So, to make sure that your studio flash will work properly with your camera, set a lower speed. 1/125th second is normally safe with a camera that claims to work at 1/250th.We said earlier that using a slower shutter speed won’t affect the exposure in any way. That’s true because, in most indoor shooting situations, the amount of light is insignificant compared to the power of your flash. Don’t take our word for it though, test it for yourself!
1. Set your camera up to work with your flash, at whatever aperture gives the correct exposure, and with the camera set at say 1/125th.
2. Switch off the flash, so the only light available is the continuous light in the room.
3. Take a shot. If the viewing screen is black, or very nearly black, then you can see that there isn’t enough light in the room to affect the shot. Repeat this test at different speeds, say 1/60th and 1/30th. If there is nothing much showing on your camera monitor you’ll know that the shutter speed isn’t too slow and that the shutter isn’t letting in enough ambient light to affect the shot.
Also, it’s worth remembering that the shutter speed has virtually no effect on subject blur either, in a studio shooting situation. The flash of light is extremely brief and it’s the flash that freezes the movement, not the shutter.
So, is it worth using a high shutter speed with flash? It may make a difference, but the difference may be too slight to see. So, if you do want to use a high shutter speed, how high can it be? That depends on the type of shutter in your camera, as we’ve already discussed, and the means of firing the flash.
The method used to fire the flash is important too. When camera manufacturers say, for example, that their camera will work with flash at 1/250th second they are assuming that you are using a hotshoe flash made by them, and that it is either plugged into the camera hotshoe or connected to the camera by a hard wire. In either case, the electrical connection has no effective delay because the electrical signal that links the shutter and the flash together travels at the speed of light. But most of us use a radio trigger to fire the flash, and unfortunately, only the very best radio triggers have NO delay in the system, and if there is any delay at all you won’t be able to use the fastest shutter speed that the manufacturer claims for your camera. In fact, some of the cheap and cheerful radio triggers typically sold on auction sites have such a long delay that they will only work at 1/30th second!
Summary of what we’ve got so far
1. It’s the flash, not the shutter speed that freezes action, unless there is enough continuous light present for it to affect the shot.
2. In the studio, the only real function of the shutter is to be fully open when the flash fires.
3. Under normal indoor lighting conditions, there’s no point in using a high shutter speed.
4. Your studio flash may not work properly if you use the fastest theoretical synch speed for your camera.
5. The triggering delay on your radio trigger may prevent the fastest theoretical synch speed for your camera from being used.
Now let’s move on to the other things that matter:
Measuring the flash
If you want to measure the power of your flash, you need a flash meter designed for that job, although it is also possible to check the effect of the flash by looking at your camera histogram. Most photographers today don’t use a flash meter.
Setting the white balance on your camera will tell it the colour temperature of your light source and will set the balance needed to obtain neutral colours. If you’re using continuous lighting you can set auto white balance, which sometimes does a good job of getting the white balance right – but of course this doesn’t work with studio flash because the camera can’t measure the colour of the brief flash of light – and anyway, it doesn’t know whether you want it to measure whatever other light is there or to measure the flash, so you need to set the white balance manually.
Any digital camera will normally allow you to set a ‘custom white balance’. How you do this will be explained in your camera manual.
Another method is to set the colour temperature of your lights on your camera, either by telling the camera to set the white balance to a symbol or by setting an actual colour temperature on your camera. If your camera allows you to set the actual white balance then you would normally set it to 5500K because that’s the theoretical colour temperature of studio flash (although many of the cheaper flash heads produce very variable colour temperature, especially at the lower power settings). With many makes of studio flash, it’s a trial and error thing because, even if the colour temperature is stated, it may not be correct.
If your camera has symbols instead of an actual colour temperature then you’ll just have to find one that produces acceptable results. ‘Flash’ is the obvious one to try but it’s intended for use with hotshoe flashes and is isn’t always right when using studio flash. ‘Hazy sunlight’ and ‘flash’ are usually in the right ball park and are worth trying.
All of these settings apply when you’re shooting JPEG, but if you’re shooting in raw then whatever colour temperature you set on your camera will act as nothing more than a marker, you set the required colour temperature when you process the image from raw. The best way of doing this is to include a colour target in a setup shot – a grey card or, preferably, a Macbeth TM colour checker, then use the eyedrop tool to sample grey on your colour target and adjust the image colour on all shots taken under the same lighting conditions.
Lens aperture: As the shutter speed doesn’t affect the exposure, you control it with the lens aperture. You set the aperture that produces the correct exposure. If you want to use a smaller aperture (higher f/number) you’ll have to turn up the power on your flash heads, or increase the ISO setting on your camera, if you want to use a larger aperture (lower f/number) you just turn the power down, or reduce the power in some other way, for example by putting neutral density gels over your lights or a neutral density filter over your camera lens, or reduce the ISO setting on your camera. Moving the lights further from your subject will reduce the effective power too, but that’s a bad choice because changing the distance will affect the quality and the effect of the light.
Firing the flash: This is the means by which the camera tells the flash to fire at the right time, in other words the method it uses to tell the flash to fire when the shutter is open. There are various ways of doing this. A hotshoe flashgun fitted to your camera can trigger the lights if you wish, provided that you have one that doesn’t fire a pre-flash that can’t be turned off )a pre-flash is a low-energy flash used to measure distance or to reduce redeye, and if it can’t be turned off then it will fire the studio flash before the camera shutter opens)! Some studio flashes, including the entire Lencarta range, can be set to ignore a pre-flash. If you use a hotshoe flash to trigger your studio flash you’ll need to turn the hotshoe flash right down, so that the flash doesn’t affect your lighting too much.
Infra red transmitters are a low technology method of firing the flash, they are more convenient than synch cables and used to be the next step beyond flash synch cords. They simply plug into the hotshoe of your camera and emit a low powered infra red flash when the shutter is fired, which is picked up by the slave sensor on your studio flash. This method can work well provided that the slave sensor is sensitive to infra red light, as long as you’re not too far from the studio flash, as long as the ambient light levels aren’t too high, and as long as you have approximate line of sight between the transmitter on the camera and the sensor on the flash – they don’t work if the flash is behind the photographer and may not work if the flash is behind the subject, depending on the design of the flash head and on whether or not it’s fitted with a modifier such as a softbox, which can block the light from the transmitter.
If the shortcomings of infra red transmitters aren’t inspiring you with confidence, don’t worry because the solution of choice is now radio triggers.
Radio triggers consist of a small transmitter which is plugged into the camera hotshoe and a receiver which is plugged into the studio flash. The transmitter sends a signal to the receiver that will work either with or without line of sight and which will also work if there happens to be a brick wall in the way!
Radio triggers are available in a vast range of different prices and with different specifications and different features, levels of reliability and build quality. It’s a good idea, for most people, to get one that offers a choice of channels – then, if you’re getting interference on one channel you can simply switch channels, just the same as on a two way radio.
Whichever triggering method you use, you’ll only normally need to fire one flash head. Any other flash heads will fire automatically when they ‘see’ the flash from the one fired by the camera. I say ‘normally’ because there may be situations in which you want to turn off the slave sensors on the flash heads so that they don’t fire in response to another flash – for example if you’re a wedding or an event photographer you’ll need to turn off your slave sensors to stop your flashes being fired by other people who are using flash, and the same goes if you’re shooting in a studio in which other photographers are also using flash. In these situations you’ll need to connect a radio receiver to each flash head. If you’re using our Wavesynch radio trigger system, which provides full radio control as well as radio triggering, then it makes sense to have a receiver attached to each flash head, so that you have remote control of all the flash heads too.
Setting up your lighting kit
1. Remove the protective plastic cap from the front of your flash head before you start using the head, it will melt it left in place.
2. Fit a suitable modifier to the front of the flash head, it will lock into place securely with a reassuring ‘click’. If you’re fitting a standard reflector, this can be done easily at any time. If you’re using something larger and heavier such as a beauty dish or softbox, it’s better to put the modifier face down onto carpet and then fit the flash head to it.
3. Fit the flash head to its stand and tighten the locking nut.
4. Fit your Wavesync receiver to the flash head and set the channel to a number that you can remember. For example, when using multiple lights, always have the lights that are lighting the background with the channel set to 0, the key light to 1, the fill light to 2, the hair light to 3 etc. This will avoid accidentally adjusting the wrong light from the Commander Transmitter. If the channels are set to the same number, they will be adjusted together, not individually.
5. Connect the mains lead to your flash head, and plug the mains plug into a suitable socket.
6. Switch your flash head on and press the test button to make sure that it flashes.
7. Fit 2 x AA batteries into your Wavesync Transmitter.
8. Plug your Wavesynch Transmitter into your camera hotshoe. It fits with the LCD screen facing backwards, towards your face when holding the camera. With some cameras, you may need to gently tighten the knurled locking wheel, but don’t over-tighten it.
9. Switch on your Wavesync Transmitter. Look at the LCD display and see what is showing there. If the power display is a fraction, e.g. 1/128 through to 1/1, then it is in Atom/Safari mode and you will need to change it if you are using studio flash. Simply press and hold the SET button for 2 seconds to switch modes.
10. Check that all of the 4 dip switches are on the same settings on each receiver and on the transmitter. These switches only need to be changed if you need to avoid conflicts with another user within range.
11. Set the Group dial to match the group to that of your flash head (repeat using different groups if you are using more than one flash head) and you will find that you can adjust the power, turn the modelling lamp on or off and turn the beep on or off, all from the transmitter). Note that pressing the test button, or pressing the camera shutter release, will fire all flash heads that have a receiver fitted, regardless of the group to which their receiver is set.
An introduction to lighting
Creating light with flash can be as simple or complex as you like, this is just a very basic guide to help people who are new to flash to get started, please be sure to read through the lighting tutorials on our lighting blog, where we go into a lot of detail that may help you to grow your knowledge.
- When you set up your lighting stands, make sure that the legs are fully spread, and locked into position, so that the stand is as stable as possible.
- As far as possible, ensure that people can’t trip over power cables
- Always switch off all electrical equipment, and unplug it from the mains, when not in use. Never leave flash heads switched on when you are not in the room.
Artificial lighting (including flash) is basically just an alternative to natural light, it allows you to create any lighting effects, any simulated weather conditions you wish, from bright noonday sun to a cloudy day, and the lighting can be at least as contrasty or flat as any natural light as can be. There are no rules, no rights or wrongs, any kind of lighting effect can be created to suit your own requirements, so ignore what other people may consider to be ‘right’ and work towards creating shots that you personally like, if you are the only person who needs to be happy with the results.
“Soft” light is lighting that doesn’t create strong shadows, and soft light is created by using light sources that are larger than the subject, and the bigger they are (relative to the size of the subject) the softer the light will be. If you want soft lighting, use the biggest softboxes or umbrellas you can, and place them as close to the subject as you can, because when you move them further away, the light becomes harder. In fact, if you move a light source to twice the distance, in effect it becomes just a quarter of its size! “Hard” light is the exact opposite, if you want hard lighting with strong and clearly defined shadows then use small light sources, such as the standard reflector, and if that isn’t hard enough, move the light further away from the subject.
“Natural” lighting is light that looks natural. Typically, if you take a shot outdoors using the sun as the light source, the sun will be fairly high in the sky so the light will come from more or less above and the shadows will angle downwards. Indoors, much the same applies, because typical room lighting is positioned high. Therefore, if you want your flash shots to look natural, place the light high in relation to your subject. There can be practical limitations to this if your ceiling is low, and the easy way to get around this is to avoid shots of people standing, because you may not always be able to get the light high enough. Always remember that, regardless of how many lights you have, just one light does nearly all the work (usually between 80 – 90%) and that any other lights that you use are just making relatively small changes. The light that does nearly all the work is called the Key Light, and this is the one that is normally set high up, to create the natural look, and it is typically placed directly in front of where your subject is facing. This means that if your subject is facing your camera, the starting point for the key light is likely to be directly above your camera, and if the person is at an angle to the camera then the light will typically be in front of where their head is pointing.
Never, ever, use a ‘standard lighting setup’ because it can never produce anything better than mediocre results – the lighting needs to be arranged to suit both the effect that you want it to produce and the qualities of your subject. For example, lighting that suits a beautiful woman with perfect skin isn’t likely to be work well on an old man who has spent his life working outdoors in all weather conditions…
It doesn’t matter how many lights you have, what your subject is, how much space you have or how much experience you have, the process to follow is:
1. Decide on the look you want to achieve
2. Get your subject in the right place and in the pose that you’re going to start with
3. Get yourself (your camera) in the right place, with the lens that’s going to place you at the distance that will produce the right perspective for you, and at the height that you’re going to shoot at
4. The lighting is left until last because, although it may be the most important ingredient, the positioning needed for the lighting is affected by everything else. So, at this point you should arrange the key light in the place where it produces the qualities you want, ignore any ‘faults’ for now.
5. Adjust exposure, using flash power and/or lens aperture and/or ISO setting at this stage, because severe under or overexposure will exaggerate or hide lighting problems.
6. If you want an effect light, for example a hair light, introduce that now. Adjust it’s position and power and take test shots until you’re happy with the result.
7. If you need a fill light (because although the shadows are in the right places, they are too strong for your taste) introduce it now. Typically, a fill light is best when it is an on axis fill, i.e. in line with your camera lens, not off to one side.
8. Start with the fill light at far less power than the key light, take a test shot and if necessary increase the power and then take another test shot. Keep doing that until you’re happy, this is much better than having a fill light that’s too powerful.
9. Adjust power until either your flash meter or camera histogram tells you that the exposure is where it needs to be.
Job done, or at least the lighting is now functional, but don’t be afraid to experiment with different lighting to get different effects.