Portable Flash Guide by ALZO Digital

Portable Flash Buyer & User Guide

This guide will help you understand portable flash (speedlight) options, accessories and their application.

A battery powered portable flash (aka speedlight or speedlite) can improve images taken indoors and outdoors, when used with the right accessories. Most modern digital cameras have a built-in flash, but they are typically low powered and lack the ability to modify, bounce or control. Also, most digital SLR cameras lack a built-in flash. Most professional wedding/event photographers prefer a camera-mounted portable flash with some type of light modifier.

Types of Portable Flash
We categorize portable flashes into dedicated TTL and non-dedicated AUTO. We are not considering any flash that does not have an AUTO mode.

A dedicated TTL portable flash is sold specifically for a camera brand and model, and will most likely not work with another brand of camera. It has advanced control features that make it easy to use and produce the best results in most situations.

Non-dedicated AUTO portable flashes are usable across a broad range of camera brands, but they require proper setup and camera re-configuring as the shooting situation changes.

For most digital SLR cameras we recommend only using the most powerful version of the dedicated TTL flash sold by the camera manufacturer or alternative source. A high powered dedicated TTL flash is expensive (about $300 or more), but this guide is about producing professional quality images; you need to spend some cash for quality results and ease of use.

NISSIN is a popular brand of portable TTL flash and there are several models available.

TTL, Auto and Manual Flash

The TTL (Through The Lens) is flash technology that uses the intelligence of the camera to control the flash for producing the correct exposure. This feature greatly simplifies the use of the flash and produces the best results under most shooting conditions. Because the camera is controlling the flash for perfect exposure, the flash can be bounced or diffused (within limits) without affecting the results. Some TTL flashes also include a zoom feature that controls the beam spread of the flash as you adjust the zoom on the camera. This feature automatically concentrates the flash light as you zoom in on the subject, but when using the flash with a light modifier or bounce, this feature is not needed.

A non-dedicated AUTO flash has the ability to adjust the flash for the correct exposure when the settings on the flash are set based on the camera settings. This requires time and thought and is error prone. As the camera settings are adjusted for the environment and intended result, the flash will also require resetting. Under the pressure of photographing a wedding or sporting event, this is unacceptable.

A manual flash does not provide exposure management, but instead has manual adjustable power output. This type of flash is used in multi-flash applications typically as the main (key) light.

Ceiling Bounce That Flash

 A camera-mounted portable flash pointed directly at the scene will typically produce harsh, unattractive images. A common technique to produce more natural results is to aim the flash towards the ceiling and bounce the light down on the subject. This requires the flash head to swivel from pointing forward to pointing straight up, and all angles in-between. The intention of the bounce technique is to reflect most of the flash light (about 80%) off a white ceiling, and to spill about 20% of the flash light directly to the subject as fill light. The effect produces a very natural illumination, as if it were an overcast day. It produces a broad, soft overhead light and some added fill light directed to the subject to fill in the shadows.

This bounce technique is dependent on the ceiling being white and close. The problem with ceiling bounce is that the varying conditions of the room will produce different results, and the photographer must adjust to these varying conditions. Inconsistency is always a challenge to overcome for quality images.

Another consideration with a bounced flash is that you will need a lot of flash power, the more the better. A ceiling bounce with a high ceiling will greatly reduce the light, therefore requiring big power. We recommend a flash guide number of at least 100 for ceiling bounce. A 10 to 12 foot high white ceiling produces the best results.

Bounce Flash Accessories

There are many inexpensive devices available that attach to the head of a portable flash to optimize ceiling bounce and enhance consistency. Lumiquest has a broad product line with inexpensive solutions for almost every shooting condition. Plastic flash diffuser attachments are very inexpensive and available from many suppliers. They are typically sold to fit specific model flashes. These devices aid in splitting the light for the optimal 80%-20% ratio.

Lumiquest 80-20 bouncer
Lumiquest 80-20 bouncer Snap-on diffuser

These accessories are intended to direct some of the light directly to the subject, while most of the light is bounced off the ceiling.

Camera Flash Bracket

A flash bracket is an L-shaped device that attaches to the tripod mount of the camera and has a hot shoe (or screw) to mount a portable flash. This device can raise the flash above the camera to allow for the use of a small umbrellas or softbox to produce near studio quality images. A raised flash also reduces red eye, caused by the reflection of the light off the subject retina.

When the portable flash is attached to the bracket and not the camera, a sync extension cord is required. Keep in mind that the sync extension cord must match the specification of the flash, so a TTL dedicated flash requires a specific dedicated sync cords like this Canon sync cord to the right.

Professional Results with a Portable Flash
For the most professional results we recommend the use of a camera flash bracket with either an umbrella or softbox, because this combination produces reliable, near studio quality results and is much more consistent than ceiling bounce.