15 top tips for painting with flash

You can transform your favourite photographic locations easily by shooting at night and painting with flash

Dark nights away from stray ambient light can make for some dramatic imagery. Try taking your tripod out on a late night and paint a location with your flash, illuminating it to create shadows and highlights that will result in incredible effects. This guide will show you some common mistakes and take you through how to capture the perfect flash painted shot.

On these warm summer nights its worth staying out late, taking your flashgun along to some of your favourite photographic haunts and painting with flash. Its a great way to inject some drama into your photography.

Youll need somewhere fairly dark so that any stray or ambient light doesnít affect your long exposures. Ideal locations include an unlit park, playground or even a graveyard. Maybe there’s a ruined barn or building near you. Dumped cars in fields and old, twisted fallen trees can also make good subject matter.

Whatever you choose to shoot, make sure it has some fairly light detail that can be illuminated by flash. Black statues hidden among dark trees wont cut the mustard here.

Its amazing just how much you can transform a scene using a long exposure and one flashgun.

Stable gear

As your exposures could run into minutes (and way beyond the 30-second shutter speed of DSLRs), a remote release cable that can be locked open is essential. A strong and sturdy tripod is also crucial to avoid any movement from wind, which will ultimately ruin the image.

Try to avoid extending the leg sections if you can (particular the lower, thinner ones).Its a good idea not to raise the centre column. Stand the tripod on a higher surface if need be and avoid any uneven ground or surfaces.

Trial and error

Theres a bit of science to this art and in the good old film days youd have had to measure the distance the flash was fired from the object then perform lots of difficult calculations according to the flash power setting.

Not with digital! All you need to do is avoid firing the flash within the frame of the shot, unless its hidden behind an object. If you want a little sky colour rather than pitch black, then fire the shutter and leave it open for two minutes. Check the results on your cameras LCD and adjust as necessary.

Double the time if its too dark and reduce by half if its too bright. It may take a few attempts to get things spot on, but remember there are no film-processing costs!

The exciting part is wandering around the frame, firing the flash off towards your subject (in our case, those old gravestones). The technique is simple stand outside the frame, point the flash from above your head, from your waist and near the floor. Do this several times while roaming around the frame. Check the results on the LCD after the exposure as this will tell you if you need more flashes or less for the best exposure.

Camera settings

When shooting in the dark, metering is unnecessary and long shutter speeds require extra digging in the camera menu. Follow our advice on the best possible set up for painting with flash.

Exposure mode

Manual mode is the only one that will work as in- camera metering becomes defunct.


set it to f/22 or f/18 for greater depth of field, sharpness and longer exposure times.

Shutter speed

switch your camera to the Bulb setting and expose for around four minutes.

Focus mode

use AF to focus on the closest object to the camera before switching to Manual.

File format

use RAW for top quality and the smoothest results while tweaking in the digital darkroom.

White Balance

select Sunny or Flash presets for natural-looking results on your LCD.

Mirror lock-up

if your camera has this function, switch it on for the sharpest shots possible.

Noise reduction

– most cameras have this feature, so switch in order to yield smoother results.

Flash settings

Switch your flashgun to manual power and select an output setting around 1/8th of full power. We decided to leave our Stofen Omnibounce fitted as it would provide some extra ambient light and not make the direction of flash too critical.

On our old, battered Nikon SB-28 model we fired the flash several times manually by pressing the flash button.

Common mistakes

Painting with flash involves a degree of trial and error, but its still worth bearing in mind the following tips when youre out: try to avoid firing the flash inside the frame, make sure theres enough overall flash, and ensure you dont vary flash intensity too much.

Graveyards and fields can also be tricky to traverse, so be careful where you step in the dark you cant use a torch because the ambient light will spoil the shot. When things go wrong, dont panic. Youll soon get the hang of it (and remember youre only burning battery power!).

Not enough flash

If your images appear to suffer from imbalanced brightness between different areas of the subject, try moving further away from the bright areas. You can also reduce the number of flashes. Again, this depends on trial and error, but ití’s worth the effort.

Flash in frame

Setting up in daylight helps to define the frame boundary with rocks or branches so you dont poke the flash inside the frame. You can walk across the frame, but if youre firing the flash make sure you hide it behind part of your subject and point it away from you.

Unbalanced flash

Another common error is failing to pump enough light onto your subject through fear of overexposure. Resist upping the power to 1/2 or full power and try flashing more. Using less power creates a more natural, painted look.