A Comprehensive Guide to Camera Flashes and Lights

Photography is the art of capturing light, and in situations where the natural or ambient light isn’t quite sufficient, you might find yourself reaching for a flash or a light. The type of light you use, however, can drastically change the outcome of your photograph. In this article, we will explore different types of flashes and lights, and how to use them effectively to capture stunning images.

1. Small Camera Flash: The Pop-Up Flash

Most digital cameras come equipped with a built-in flash, known as the pop-up flash. Although not always the most desirable light source due to its hard and small nature, it can be used to fill in light when the light source isn’t adequate. Its proximity to the lens can often result in the red-eye effect and it lacks comprehensive control. However, it can be useful to brighten up shadows and give a nice light to the eyes.

To enhance the effect of the pop-up flash, you can diffuse it by placing a diffusion material in front, like a piece of parchment paper. Bouncing the pop-up light to the ceiling with a white business card or anything reflective can also give a more pleasing light source. Remember, use a speedlight if available, as it offers better control.

2. Flash Speedlight

When using your speedlight, setting the flash module to TTL (Through-The-Lens) mode allows the camera and flash to work together to create the best exposure. This mode is especially useful when the subject changes distance quickly, like capturing a couple dancing during a wedding. However, for the most part, it is advisable to stay in manual mode for full control.

3. Flash Sync Speed

A critical aspect of using flashes is understanding your camera’s flash sync speed. Most DSLR’s have a maximum shutter speed of 1/200th to 1/300th of a second. If your shutter speed exceeds this limit, you might end up with dark bars in your image. High-end flashes come with High-Speed Sync (HSS) allowing faster shutter speeds, although the flash’s intensity may be reduced.

4. Balancing Ambient Light with Flash

Ambient light is the natural light in your scene, which you have little control over. Flash photography allows you to balance this ambient light. Expose for the background first, then turn your flash on and begin adjusting its power until you achieve the desired exposure for both the background and the subject.

5. Bouncing Flash

Bouncing your flash off an object to reflect light onto the subject can greatly improve your flash photography. This method produces a more diffuse light than direct flash, giving a more pleasing effect. Keep in mind, bouncing your flash off a colored surface will impart that color onto your subject.

6. Off Camera Flash

Taking your flash off the camera opens up a world of possibilities as you can create your own light source. Devices known as ‘triggers’ transmit instructions from your camera to your remote flash (known as a ‘slave’), and the flash fires off at the appropriate moment. There are several methods of setting up off-camera flashes, including the use of sync cords, optical slave systems, and radio trigger systems.

7. Flash Modifiers

Flash modifiers are tools used to affect the quality of light. From changing the color of the light with Color Temperature (CT) gels to softening the light with umbrellas, softboxes, and beauty dishes, to controlling the direction of light with snoots and flags, modifiers offer a range of possibilities.

8. Combining Slow Shutter Speed and Flash

Flash photography allows us to freeze motion even with slower shutter speeds. By using either ‘First Curtain Flash Sync’ where the flash fires as soon as the shutter opens, or ‘Second Curtain of Slow Sync Flash’ where the flash fires just before the shutter closes, you can create some awesome effects.

9. Stroboscopic Flash

Stroboscopic flash involves firing the flash multiple times during a single long exposure. This technique allows you to create some incredibly creative and intense effects.

10. Fill Light and Bouncing

In addition to the main ‘key light’, a ‘fill light’ can be used to reduce the contrast and fill in unpleasant shadows on the subject. You can create a fill light by bouncing the key light back onto the subject at a 90-degree angle.

11. Lighting Styles

Several lighting styles can be achieved using different patterns and positions of lights, such as:

  • Rembrandt Lighting: This dramatic style creates a triangle of light on the fill side of the face and is particularly effective at accentuating facial texture.
  • Butterfly and Loop Lighting: These flattering and versatile lighting patterns are ideal for portrait photography. Butterfly lighting is perfect for young women, creating a small butterfly shadow under the nose. Loop lighting is a bit softer and suitable for both men and women.
  • Split Lighting: This dramatic style splits the face into a lit side and a dark side, creating a high contrast look.

By understanding the different types of flashes and lights, you can better control your photographic outcomes, producing imagesof the face that is closer to the camera is illuminated by the key light. Broad lighting is ideal for people with slim or narrow faces because it helps to visually widen the face. Broad lighting can make the face look broader and fuller.

Short Lighting

This lighting position is the direct opposite of broad lighting. In short lighting, the side of the face further from the camera gets the most light. This kind of lighting is useful for making wide or round faces appear slimmer. By highlighting only part of the face, short lighting gives a slimming effect, hence it’s great for portraits where the subject is conscious about their size or shape.

Under Lighting

Under lighting refers to lighting coming from below the subject. It casts shadows in unusual places, such as under the nose and eyebrows. While under lighting can be dramatic and can bring out a lot of detail and texture, it’s not usually a flattering look for most people. It is often used in horror photography because it gives a kind of “campfire ghost story” effect.

Top Lighting

Top lighting is when the light source is positioned directly above the subject. This type of lighting casts shadows below the subject, such as under the nose, chin, and eye sockets. Similar to under lighting, top lighting can emphasize textures and details but can also cast unflattering shadows. Top lighting is commonly used in fashion photography where dramatic shadows are desired.

Back Lighting

Backlighting is when the light is behind the subject. This results in the subject appearing as a silhouette. Backlighting can be used creatively to outline or rim the subject with light, which can create a very striking and dramatic image. With the right exposure settings, backlighting can also create a glow effect around the subject, ideal for dreamy and ethereal portraits.

Kicker or Rim Lighting

Kicker or rim lighting is used to separate the subject from the background. It is usually a small, focused light source placed behind and to the side of the subject. This creates a bright outline or “rim” around the edge of the subject. This can add depth and three-dimensionality to a portrait, and it can be especially effective when used in combination with other lighting techniques.

Three-Point Lighting

Three-point lighting involves the use of three light sources, each serving a specific purpose. The key light serves as the main source of illumination. The fill light, usually less intense, fills in the shadows created by the key light. The back or rim light separates the subject from the background. Three-point lighting is a standard technique used in both photography and videography, as it provides a good degree of control over the lighting of a scene.


In conclusion, flashes and lights in photography are not just about illuminating your subject; they are about creating depth, dimension, and emotion in your photos. Understanding and mastering the different types of flashes and light sources and how to modify them will elevate your photography skills to a professional level. Lighting can make or break a photograph, so knowing how to control it is crucial for any photographer. Whether you’re shooting with a small camera flash, a speedlight, or using off-camera flash, understanding how to use and control your light will greatly enhance your photographic capabilities.