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NOTE: We had a mic fail half way through the show and I had to switch to a cheap headset mic. Sorry for the audio quality – it’s been corrected for our next show

Photofocus Episode 6

Show notes by Bruce Clarke ()

This week we are talking about flash photography.

Question One – Lighting Recommendations

@arielko can you recommend any strobes, ring flashes, power packs? but not as expensive as Profoto, broncolor. Is White Lighting good?

Rick: I’m a Canon explorer of light and as far as ring flashes I’ve only tried the MR 14EX and the Macro Twin Lite 24 EX. I like the less expensive 14EX for 2 reasons. It’s easier to use and it gives off a nice diffuse type of lighting.

Scott: I use Elinchrom which is unfortunately very expensive but most of my friends on a budget rave about Alien Bees. Alien Bees also offers a ring flash but the Ray Flash adapter will work with any flash and turn it into a ring flash. When it comes to lighting equipment you do tend to get what you pay for. If you’re going to be hauling it around, the cheaper stuff doesn’t tend to fair so well.

Rick: Another option is Westcott makes the Apollo and the mini-Apollo. You can put any type of flash in them and trigger them with something like a PocketWizard.

Question TwoHow Does E-TTL Work

@mikeabney As a newbie it would be nice to hear a bit about how the E-TTL and other syncing mechanisms work

Rick: E-TTL is through the lens flash metering. The camera and the flash work together to know how far away the subject is and how much of the subject fills the frame. In most cases you can get an accurate exposure without having to think about it.

Scott: Typically you are going to shoot in Aperture priority, select your depth of field and let the camera figure out the shutter speed. The camera is going to meter the scene with help from the flash and meter for the ambient light in the scene. The flash is then going to know how much flash to pour into that scene to expose the subject. Sometimes it is referred to fill flash or balance flash. Think about E-TTL balancing the flash and avoiding that ugly black hole that you see in a lot of beginner’s photos. I-TTL on the Nikon works the same. Read the manual and practice with an object like a doll.

Question Three – Softening Shadows

@gurnam I am getting harsh shadows even with the diffuser on my SB-900. Anything else I can do to soften it without carrying more gear?

Scott: Get the flash closer to the subject. It sound counter intuitive but it works. Why Rick?

Rick: The reason it works is because the closer it is the softer the light.

Scott: The diffuser you’re using could also be the issue. What we really want to encourage is using a larger soft box to get it big and get it closer. Try using things like the Lumiquest 80-20 or the HonL light modifiers.

Rick: Get the flash off the camera and also watch the position of the flash and see where that shadow is going to be.

Question Four – Flash Tips for a New 580 EX II Owner

@BMMImages Just got a 580EX II, so it’s very new to me. Tips on learning how to take best advantage of it would be great. Love the show!

Rick: Play around with the +/- control that you have on the flash. Increase and decrease the exposure. Spend a 1/2 playing around with that one control and you’ll see a big difference in your pictures. Also, if you are shooting a wedding, your photos will come out looking dark so you’ll have to increase your exposure by one.

Scott: Start with reading the manual for the flash. The flash manual for the SB-900 is like a book since there are a ton of features. Also, start with flash compensation set to -1. You’ll have less light output which looks more natural.

Rick: Web sites are also a great resource to check out and be sure to bring your manual with you, particularly if you are going to a workshop on lighting as the instructor may not be familiar with the brand of gear that you own.

Question Five – Getting 2 Flashes to Talk to One Another

@eeilers I have a 580EX II flash, and it doesn’t make the 550EX fire unless I am about 5ft away. What’s best way to get them talking?

Rick: He might be outside. When you’re outdoors, the infrared light can get lost so you’d have to use something like a Pocket Wizard which uses radio frequencies to communicate rather than IR. The flashes also have to be able to see each other so we’d have to know about the position of the flashes.

Scott: Low batteries might be another factor to look into.

Question Six – 3rd Party Flashes on a Canon Rebel XS

Barry Rosier writes:I gave my daughter a Canon Rebel XS for Christmas. She would like a better flash and I was considering the Sunpak PZ42XC Digital Flash for Canon, with E-TTL II Flash Control. We spoke to local camera store and were told that only original Canon Speedlites would work. He said no 3rd party flashes work with the e-TTL on the Canon’s. I find this very hard to believe.

Scott: It’s probably best to use the Canon Speedlights but you don’t have to. A couple that you can use are the Metz 58 AF-1C and the Sunpak PF30X.

Rick: I always say go with the dedicated flash because a lot of R&D goes into having the flash talk to the camera and the flash talk to the camera so if you can afford it it’s better to go with the matching brand over the 3rd party stuff.

Question Seven – Lighting Ratios & Common Lighting Setups

Jared Burns from Snohomish, WA writes: I listen to a lot of photography podcasts and it seems that exceptional photographers always talk about lighting ratios, but no one is explaining it to those of us still learning. I already know I can get balanced light through trial and error, but that does not always ensure repeatable results. Can give us an overview of how we use lighting ratios through size and distance in a studio and maybe walk us through applying it to a couple common lighting setups?

Rick: If you have 2 lights placed at 45 degree angles at the same power you wouldn’t have a ratio. If you reduce the flash output of one light then you’re getting a ratio between the full power and the lesser power light which gives you more dramatic lighting. Shadows helps define.

Scott: Now, what is the ratio? In a nutshell, the ratio is the difference between the main light and the fill. If your main light were twice as bright as your fill, the ratio would be 2:1. Thinking about exposure factors, a factor of 2 is equal to one stop of exposure, and if you increase your exposure by one stop, you are allowing in twice the amount of light.

Rick: Using ring lights you can also establish ratios and get some neat effects.

Question EightFlash Wide Panel

@garyorenstein When should I use the wide panel on my flash (430EX)?

Rick: Basically what the wide panel does is spread out the beam of light produced by your flash. If you’re indoors and using a wide-angle lens then you’ll want to flip that down.

Scott: If you’re shooting wide angle, the panel spreads it out to the sides rather than it coming directly out of the flash. The opposite of that is when you’re shooting wildlife and need a more concentrated beam. I’ve recently been playing with the HonL adapters and they have a snoot that you wrap around the flash head and if you point it directly at the subject you get just as good a result as you would using something like a Better Beamer.

Question NineAv Mode and ETTL

Scott: Your camera meter could be off or you could be reading the scene wrong. Your biggest bet is that if you’re in manual mode you’re not taking advantage of E-TTL.

Rick: When I’m on a workshop and we go outside shooting and the subject is overexposed, it’s usually because the subject does not fill the frame. The name of the game is to fill the frame. With flash photography, if you fill the frame you should get a good exposure. The less the subject fills the frame the more you have to stop your flash down.

Scott: Answering this question is a bit tricky because of the way it was asked so @razz2 might be confused between manual mode and Av mode. You either have your camera in manual mode or you don’t. To use fill flash you need to set you camera in Av mode and E-TTL or I-TTL. If you are in manual mode, E-TTL will not work the same as the way as it does in Av mode.

Question Ten – Speedlite On or Off Camera?

@DaithiMacCraith For events being shot with a single Speedlite would you recommend off or on camera? Any other tips, techniques or settings?

Rick: The easiest thing to do if you’re working by yourself is to use a flash bracket like the Stroboframe along with a sync cord. You can also use some sort of a flash diffuser like the Lumiquest or a Gary Fong light dome.

Scott: Another option if you’re working indoors is to use a heavy duty rolling light stand. You can set your flash up with a shoot-through umbrella and use a sync cord or wireless transmitter and drag it around like an IV stand.

Question Eleven – Light Placement for Environmental Portraits

@deselweasel asks Are there any rules of thumbs for placement of key lights for environmental portraits, angle, height, etc?

Scott: There is no rule of thumb it just depends on what you want to do creatively. If you’re looking for that traditional Rembrandt style of lighting you put it slightly above the subject and to the left or right side of the subject and shoot down. There are many other types of lighting including butterfly, split, etc.

Rick: As an aside, do you know where the phrase rule of thumb came from? Believe it or not, back in the days of the Pilgrims, husbands were allowed to beat their wives with a stick as long as it wasn’t thicker than their thumb. Back to lighting though, you don’t have to stick to the rules all the time. Watch the background and if you have another flash or a light try to put it behind the subject to create a separation light.

Scott: If you are looking for more information on lighting techniques, a great resource is David Hobby’s web site The Strobist.

Question Twelve – Using Gels

Ross in Boston asks can you use gels over strobes that are in a soft box, shot through an umbrella, or reflected off an umbrella and does it passing through a diffuser change the color of the light?

Rick: It does. I was just in a studio shoot where we used colored gels to change the color of a gray background. You could do it afterwards in Photoshop but it’s easier to do it in camera if you can.

Scott: You can use a gel and a strobe in a soft box. Keep in mind it’s not the diffusion that will change the color but the color of the diffusion material that will affect the color of the light. If it’s translucent then the color of the light should be the color of the gel.

The Blog

Just a reminder that you can visit the blog at for the show notes and plenty of other photography related articles. Please email us your questions at [email protected] or you can follow us on Twitter and leave questions with the hashtag #photoqa. If you can tell us where you’re from and how to pronounce your name that would be great too.

Wrap Up

Rick and Scott will also be teaching together on the final leg of the Aperture Nature Photography Workshop so head on over to for more details.We want themes and questions from you. Be sure to visit the blog at for articles, how-to’s, videos and more. You can also subscribe to the blog on a Kindle. Email us at [email protected] follow us on Twitter. Don’t just take pictures – make pictures.

Show notes by Bruce Clarke