Getting the most from budget flashguns
Next we look at flashguns and how taking control of lighting can be the most important thing you do as a photographer.
Few accessories generate the level of polarised opinion that flashguns can. There are those who fear using them, others who hate the harsh, high-contrast results they can produce, and then there are the ‘strobists’, who use flash at every opportunity.
But with a host of automatic features and instant review to check the results, there’s no reason to be scared of using a flashgun.
However, there’s a little more to getting good results with a flashgun than simply sticking it on top of the camera and firing away on automatic. One of the biggest drawbacks for newcomers to flash is the ugly shadows and flat lighting produced when an on-camera flash is the main light source.
Staying within our £100 budget, you’ll have few alternatives to using the flash on-camera, although we’ve found one flashgun/off-camera combo that’s within our budget, such as
Here we’ll concentrate on one of the most effective ways to use your flashgun on-camera effectively. The best option is to use the on-camera flash as an additional light source in your photos.
Expose for the ambient light
When shooting with flash in daylight you’re dealing with two light sources, which can be confusing, so it’s easiest to think about each of them separately. Before you even think about the flash, you need to decide how you want to record the subject.
For this you need to get the exposure right for the ambient light falling on the background. Set the camera to manual exposure and determine the exposure you need to expose the background correctly.
When deciding on your settings for the exposure, remember that the shutter speed will also determine how much blur there is in your shot, so take a look at the box on the left to see our suggested starting points for the shutter speeds needed for a range of subjects.
Now deal with the flash
There are three main factors to consider when exposing for flash: the aperture you’ve set, the power of the flash, and the distance between the flash and the subject.
The aperture will have been determined by the exposure you set for the ambient light, so you can concentrate on the other two settings. With the flash on the camera the distance will be determined by where you’re shooting from.
Remember that most flashguns under £100 aren’t very powerful; even at f/8 the maximum distance will be around three to four metres, so be realistic about how far you are from the subject. Now all you have to consider is the output of the flash.
With most DSLRs you can set the flash to fully automatic TTL mode and rely on the camera to balance the exposure for your first forays into this technique. If you find that the main subject is too bright, use the flash exposure compensation mode to reduce the output by -1EV; if it’s too dark try setting +1EV.
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Tips for using manual flash
The automatic TTL flash setting is fine as a starting point, but like all automatic settings it can sometimes go awry and produce very bright or dark backgrounds.
So, once you get more confident with your flash you can start to explore the manual flash settings to get more consistent results. This takes a little practice, and to begin with you’ll need to refer to the flashgun’s manual or the rear panel to discover the correct power setting to use depending on the distance between the flash and the subject.
Suggested shutter speeds for blurring motion with flash
Fast-moving action (cars, motorbikes)
1/60 to 1/125 sec with flash
Medium-speed action (bikes, people running)
1/15 to 1/60 sec with flash
Slow-moving subjects (people walking)
1/4 to 1/15 sec with flash
Go one step at a time
Once you start to play around with the settings on your camera it can be difficult to work out how the changes you’ve made affect the image.
Try to change one setting at a time, and when you’ve got time to experiment, try setting manual mode and then adjusting the power manually to see what effect it has on the exposure.
Flash sync speed
When setting your exposure, remember that for most systems there will be a maximum shutter speed you can use with the flash (usually around 1/200 to 1/250 sec). Some flashguns feature so-called high-speed sync, which enables you to shoot at shutter speeds higher than this – see your manual for more.
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