When you’re just starting out using a flash can seem daunting and confusing. There are so many confusing settings and it seems like there is so much to learn and navigate. So let’s break it down.

The different types of flashes

There are three main types of flashes:

  • The flash built into your camera is called a pop-up flash.
  • Those that sit on top of the camera’s hot shoe, are generally referred to as speedlights. They can also be used off-camera with a trigger.
  • There are also larger studio lights, usually referred to as strobes or monolights.

They are all slightly different and have different uses, but they are all essentially flashes. When it comes to using flash (on or off-camera, speedlight or monolight), there are often two modes you can shoot with — TTL or manual.

So what is TTL?

TTL stands for “Through The Lens.” It’s a little like the Auto mode on your camera, making automatic adjustments based on information from the camera’s exposure relayed to the flash.

TTL automatically uses the camera’s built-in metering system and the distance from the subject to work out appropriate settings. A flash without TTL needs complete input from the photographer.

Utilizing exposure compensation

TTL is easy to use but can be difficult to customize because your flash chooses the settings for you. That is why there is exposure compensation, from a third of a stop to three full stops (plus or negative), allowing you to dial up or down the exposure required.

It’s not quite as customizable as manual mode, but still really helpful. Each flash is a little different — it depends on the brand and trigger used.

Using a manual flash

Manual flash is kind of old school, but still very relevant at the same time. While TTL is easy to use, it is not always the right mode to use. Manual flash can be set to different power modes from 1/1 (full power) to 1/2 (half power), 1/4 (quarter power) and so on down to 1/64 or even 1/250 on some flashes.

Mastering the manual flash takes patience and practice. Some photographers prefer to use a light meter to work out the best settings. Once you are used to your flashes, you may find a preferred range of settings and stick to them.

Getting creative in manual mode

In manual mode, you can get a little more creative. As you are deciding on the settings, you have complete control. Shoot high key or shoot dark and shadowy, or even a spotlight effect. Start with a mid-range power like 1/32 and take a test shot, and go from there, dial it up or down.

It can take a little bit of experimenting and patience, but it is worth the effort. In the end, it’s not quite as scary as it first seemed.

Speedlight IN the box

Aperture and shutter speed

Other things to consider are aperture and shutter speed. Aperture can also make a difference in making your images darker or lighter, so take that into consideration. The other is shutter speed, it is worth mentioning that there is a limit to shutter speed with flash.

Most cameras seem to operate between 1/125s (minimum) and 1/250s (at a maximum) when a flash is connected. Going beyond those limits can cause issues, as the camera loses sync with the flash (unless you can take advantage of high speed sync). Check your camera and flash manuals for recommendations.

Using flash modifiers

Flash modifiers are available for most types of flashes, from diffusers to softboxes. These can be used to create a softer, more flattering light. If you don’t have those you can bounce the light off a ceiling or a wall to soften and flatten the light.

Moving the flash closer to your subject will make it harsher and brighter, whereas moving it away will soften and lower it. Using the edge of the light (called feathering) can also be flattering too.

TTL vs. manual flash

TTL can take the guesswork out of using a flash, by automatically adjusting for your camera’s exposure. However, there are times when that just isn’t working for your current subject. TTL is often an added feature on flashes and occasionally makes them more expensive than the manual only models. But it is becoming more readily available.

While TTL is fabulous, it may not be suitable for some scenarios. If you are new or your subject is moving then TTL might be a less frustrating way to shoot. But it is difficult to re-create the same lighting pattern twice. This is why often manual can give you far more control and allow for continuity in your shooting.

At the end of the day, the choice between TTL and manual isn’t so much a matter of what you prefer — rather it’s about your lighting scenario. To be better at flash photography you really need to master both modes, to enable you to make the most of your gear.