How to Shoot with your First Flash


Lesson Info

Defining Flash Photography

Well, lets talk about the fundamentals, and this is very technical, there's a lot of-- I'm just going to be throwing out lots of terms, I'm going to try to simplify it as much as I can, and so this is, in my opinion, this is a great time for audience participation. As I come up with, and say something, and you're like, I don't know what that term means, or what does that mean for this type of camera, feel free to ask it. I may not know all the cameras, at least I can generalize. Let's go ahead and start with defining what flash photography is. So flash photography, if you're using a flash like this, I like to think of this as "user-defined light". User, or photographer defined light. You're defining what this part of the light equation does. So you're in control of this. Some people call this artificial light, I think a better term is user-defined light, because you're controlling it. There's nothing artificial about light. Light is light. There's sunlight, there's the lights in this s...

tudio that are shining on me right now. If these shades were open, outside light, window light. This is just light that you define how to use, and that's cool. This puts you in control; flash photography kind of puts you in control of the scenario. You're no longer at the whim of the weather. We're here at Seattle, and at breakfast this morning, we're all talking about the weather, and how hard it is to just function in the rain. Do I go out and shoot, do I not go out and shoot? If I'm gonna photograph my grand-daughter, do we do it inside, or do we do it outside? Well with flash photography, you don't have to worry about that. You can kind of control the lighting situation. It's a strobe. So this is a strobe. I'm gonna call this a flash, I'm gonna call it a strobe, I'm gonna call it speed-light, I'm gonna call it all sorts of terms, that pertain around the term "flash". But the strobe, what that really means is there's a pulse of light. It's an instantaneous pulse, very very quick. So we need to think through that, as your planning your photography. How long is your shutter speed? Well, shutter speeds are a 60th of a second? Maybe a 200th of a second? So let's say your shutter speed is that long, the pulse of light from the flash is like a 1,000th of a second, to maybe a 10,000th of a second. So if your shutter is open this long, your flash is only letting in-- your flash is pulsing for a very short period of time that the shutter is open, okay? And so throughout the day, you're gonna hear me talking about this quite a bit, that flash photography, you have to manage two exposures. You have to manage the ambient light exposure, the lights that are around you, and you have to manage the pulse of light from the flash. And they're separate thought processes. All the cameras try to automate it, and we'll talk about how that's automated, like TTL, but you still have to understand that there's always two exposures, the pulse of light from here, and then the duration of the shutter, and the size of the aperture on your camera. So let's talk about ambient light. Okay, well what are the types of ambient light? What do you guys think? What are-- I've got all the answers there, but-- (laughter) What have we got; we got sunlight, how about inside the house, so you got your kitchen lights, or your living room lights, we call these sometimes artificial lights, the interior lights, artificial. Well, there's really nothing artificial about it, right? They're there, they're part of the equation, and so sometimes, even you have a combination of lights. You've got your, I'll just say your incandescent lights in your living room, and does anyone know what color those are typically? Warmer, cooler? (muffled audience response) Warmer, and then you can also get daylight balanced light, so we have to think about the color of those lights, so if you're trying to combine the ambient light with the flash, that's another thought process we have to go through. And I always talk about it this way, do you want to include the ambient light, or do you want to exclude the ambient light? As Kenna was talking this morning, I'm back here taking photos, and I purposely excluded the ambient light. And so to do that, what I did was I used a fast shutter speed. A fast shutter speed, a low ISO, and then most of the light then comes from the flash. I'm gonna talk through that a lot more today. Some of you are like, quick, write that down! But I'll hit on this multiple times. If I wanted to include the ambient light, I have to have a long shutter speed, right? So if I wanted these beautiful studio lights to be included, I would have a long shutter speed, and then I would still pulse the flash, pop. Okay, so ambient light, we have to think through that ambient, and whether or not you want to include it in the process. So I just kind of talked about this here, balance. Trying to balance all of this. And this is one of the main difficulties of flash photography. People are like, well how do I balance, do I need to balance, do I want to balance, when do I choose to balance the background with the foreground? Some people want that. So, let me throw a couple of scenarios out there. Let's say you're photographing a wedding, okay. And now the bride and the groom are going to be cutting the cake. And in that situation, maybe the background behind them, you've got this really nice ambience. I'm imagining these lights hanging from the trellis, it's evening, maybe the sky is blue, and that type of thing. You're kinda of at the blue hour. In that case, the atmosphere is so beautiful, you want to balance. So you have to setup those two exposures. You have to setup one exposure, that's your shutter speed and aperture, so that you get that nice background light. And then you have to setup your other exposure, which is your flash, so that it balances, so that your flash doesn't blow them out, or that your flash doesn't under expose them. So, see how I'm thinkin'? So there isn't always an answer. There isn't always an answer about, should I always balance, or should I not balance. You have to decide, and that's where your creative vision comes into play here. You should always decide before you take your flash photo, what do you want to do, what light do you want to include, and what light do you want to exclude, okay? That's where it starts, you decide. Later today, when our model is in here, Andre, I'm gonna have to start thinking, do I want this brick wall to be lit up by that house light, do I want to include that? Or do I want to exclude that; do I want Andre to be lit by just the flash, or some combination? So how we do that, I'm gonna go over to the screen here, so how we do that is, we balance shutter speed, we balance aperture, and ISO. And I shouldn't use the word balance for this. We decide shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. We're gonna hit on this in a little bit, but shutter speed really hits on-- shutter speed defines how long the camera stays open to light. Aperture, that's the hole in the lens, right, aperture really defines how much light from the flash comes in. And then ISO, I realize I need another slide here, ISO defines the camera's sensitivity to all the light. And then the last part of the equation is flash power. And this is one of the things people are confused about all the time. If the flash is too bright, if the flash is too dark, well, how do I adjust that flash power? And I'm gonna show you how we do that today. This flash that I'm holding here is a, it's a off-brand flash. I paid about thirty bucks for it, thirty or forty bucks. And the simple approach is you just hit the power button up and down. So if your flash photo ends up being too bright, you just push up with the power button, I'm sorry, you push down with the power button. And if the flash is too dark, you just hit up. It's quite simple, and with digital photography now, you can take a picture, and you look at it, chimping, right, and you look at it and go nope, too dark, (tapping on flash) just make a change. That's the beauty of digital. I was telling a story yesterday about one of my first professional photography shoots, and I shot for client, he had a gym down in Portland, Oregon area, and he hired me to photograph people working out in gyms for advertising. Now, it's probably 18 years ago, my very first flash photography job, and I was terrified, because I didn't know my flashes. So I turned everything on auto, camera on auto, flashes on auto, and it was back in the film days. I couldn't look at the results in real-time, so I'm just taking these photos, and I'm like, "Lord, please, please come out!" Of course I get my film back, and I was very depressed with my photographs. I felt like I let myself down, I felt like I let the client down. He ended up using them, but I'm like, you don't have to put my name on the advertising. (laughter) It was one of those jobs you get paid for, you're like, I'm not real please with it, but after today, you guys will not make that mistake, I can guarantee you.

Every photographer encounters situations where the light on their subject is less than ideal. A small flash can have a huge impact on your photos and is easier to use than you think! Photographer Mike Hagen joins CreativeLive to show you how to use your external flash quickly and comfortably. Mike will walk through the different flash options available and how to sync your camera and flash. He’ll walk you through different scenarios and demonstrate how your flash can improve your shots. After this class you’ll walk away knowing: 

  • How to set up your flash with your camera and what to look for when shooting 
  • How to use a flash in scenarios like event photography, portraits and tabletop photography 
  • Which light shapers work best for your work and how to utilize them 
  • How to use your flash off camera, working with TTL cables, wireless triggers and other gear
  • Techniques for using modifiers like umbrellas, softboxes and reflectors with your off camera flash 
Don’t get stuck in a low light scenario without the confidence and tools you need to produce an amazing image. 



  • First of all I am very happy to discover Creative Live and since then I learned, enjoyed many classes! This week for the first time I was in the live audience and their sincerity, hospitality made the experience even more valuable. About this class, it was a pleasure to meet Mike Hagen. Besides his wide knowledge, creative thinking and information sharing, he was a very humble, nice teacher, with great positive energy. Thanks everyone!
  • This class was fantastic. Mike is excellent under pressure when things don't go perfectly, love his style and grace and how encouraging he is to his models, great mentor. I learned so much about using flash, and my pictures are so much better.
  • Mike, is a fantastic instructor. I have taken other flash photography classes, but I find Mikes’ to be the best laid out, clear and concisely demonstrated class, with great detail and not overly "techy" terms to confuse the listener. Though lots of technical information is shared, it is done in a way anyone can understand and follow along. Great examples explained, to help apply what we are learning to real life scenarios. Like Rear Sync Curtain explanation, really helped distinguish the difference and why.
 Great sense of humour too!
 Hope Mike, will be back to teach more classes, maybe a sequel… one on multi flash use? 
~ Christine