Introduction

A bounced, on-camera flash was a quick way for me to take some photo booth snaps in a very dark room without having to set anything up off-camera.

When people really get into photography and start saving their pennies for new gear, one of the first things they buy tends to be a lens, like a telephoto or a fast prime. However, if you've already got a lens or two and you're thinking you'd want another, let me suggest that you pick up an external flash instead.

Why, you ask? What's wrong with natural light? After all, those insert-name-brand-here flashes are just way too expensive.

With the abundance of cheap flashes pouring out of China these days, you should be able to get a TTL, or 'through the lens' metering flash for around $50 US. If it's your first flash, a cheapie one will do just fine, and TTL metering will help you get out and get shooting with it in no time.

If you're 'into photography' enough to have a couple of lenses, then it's time to consider one of these as well.

Even a 'natural light' shooter can benefit immensely from a better understanding of how light works, and what better way to experiment with light than controlling your own? You may even find that, using artificial lights, you can spend less time looking for shade or big bay windows, and sometimes, you can get away with shooting at the 'wrong' time of day.

'Even a 'natural light' shooter can benefit immensely from a better understanding of how light works, and what better way to experiment with light than controlling your own?'

Lastly, having a flash simply provides you with another tool with which to create images. It's just another option you didn't have before. It can open up new possibilities, and perhaps lead you in a creative direction you never expected. And as you grow, you may find there are some situations that you'd simply never get away with not using strobes.

Getting started using TTL

Even if you tend to use your camera in 'Auto' or 'P' modes, you can gain instant benefits from a small, inexpensive flash. As stated earlier, it'll be important to get TTL capability, which is kind of like 'Auto' or 'P' for flash.

Room a bit dim? A ceiling-bounced flash is one of the easiest ways to brighten it up without looking too unnatural.

So how does TTL work? Before taking the photo, the flash fires a quick burst that reflects off your subject and travels through the lens to the imaging or metering sensor in the camera, which then takes a reading and tells the flash what power it should use. And because this is all happening at the speed of light, there is no perceptible lag in this process.

The best part is that if you're finding your flash is looking too bright or too dim, you can dial in exposure compensation on the flash itself, just like you can on your camera. These are two separate exposure compensations; the flash exposure compensation value will only affect the flash output.

And TTL isn't just to be pooh-pooh'd as the 'amateur' option either, as it can work incredibly well. Many of Joe McNally's excellent shoots with both speedlights and bigger strobes are controlled using TTL and biasing them up or down with exposure compensation.

On-camera flash Bounce flash
Taken on a Nikon D3400 in full auto.

One of the best ways to get instantly better pictures as a result of your new flash is to mount it to the top of you camera, point it up at the ceiling, and photograph some friends indoors. Instead of producing portraits with very bright faces and an almost black background, which built-in flashes tend to do, you're bouncing the light off the ceiling, where it cascades down and lights everything a little more softly.

It's like the difference between shooting in direct sunlight versus shooting on a cloudy day. In direct sunlight (like with direct flash pointed at your subject), you get pretty harsh shadows and more contrast between those shadows and the highlights. With the flash pointed at the ceiling, it's spread out more, similar to how clouds will diffuse sunlight, and shadows are much softer as a result.

A practical case for TTL, or 'How I Shoot Dimly Lit Events'

One of my favorite aspects of TTL metering actually involves keeping my camera in full manual, with the flash doing all of the 'automatic' work for me. This is particularly useful at dimly lit events and wedding receptions, where I'm moving around quickly and almost always using bounce flash, as described just above.

Ambient lighting only.

This first shot is a good example of an approximate base exposure for the ambient lighting in the room. By that I mean that the ambient lights aren't totally blown out, and the background is a little dark but still provides a bit of context. This is important as I mostly want the flash to bring out my main subject without the entire rest of the frame looking horribly under-or-overexposed.

In this particular case, I actually like this dark, moody look for the sax player. But these sorts of ambient, 'moody' shots won't work for everyone all the time. So let's see what difference a flash can make, and how I like to incorporate it in these situations.

Added bounce-flash with TTL.

This second image has some exposure adjustments to bring up the ambient a little more, but I've added a flash mounted to the top of the camera. It was bounced at the ceiling in TTL mode and the flash exposure compensation was adjusted to underexpose slightly.

Of course, these images are extremely different in terms of 'mood,' but I've found that this method of adding 'pops' of bounce flash to subjects at events can allow me to more effectively freeze motion without raising my shutter speed, as well as shoot my lenses a little more stopped down to give me some leeway for focus errors.

What about you?

Image taken with a single off-camera flash through an umbrella.

Are you a flash shooter, or a natural light purist? TTL or all manual, all the time? Let us know in the comments if you've got any strobe tips or tricks that have made a difference to the types of photography you enjoy.