How to Shoot with your First Flash


Lesson Info

Shoot: Using an Umbrella

It's about time to start taking photos of a model, so Andre! (audience laughing) Andre can entre. Enter stage right, or stage left. Grab a seat, my friend. Welcome back. Thank you. Welcome back to the party. The cool thing about this is Andre and I were talking at break and he's a photographer as well. And he was totally, like, this is awesome, I'm enjoying it. I get to be a model and I get to learn. So this is cool. Okay, so what I'm doing here is I'm preparing for this to be set up so my cable has the path of least resistance, like that. I'll come around this side. And now I have to think, well, he's up on the stool. Now you can see why it's important. What are you, five feet high right now? So you can see why it's important to have an eight foot high light stand. And a lot of times, what I'll do is I'll just kind of guess the direction of this. And then I'll stand back a little bit and I'll kind of sight it, line of sight. Okay, cool. It looks like it's in there. Rule of thumb, ...

you want the distance away from the subject, you want the light source the distance away from the subject to be about the same as the width of your umbrella. So, I'm just making this up, if it's a 40-inch umbrella, you want it to be about 40 inches away from the subject. That's just a general rule of thumb. And so a lot of photographers will, they'll start out like this. Especially when you're beginning, you're thinking, oh, I don't want to be that model and I don't want this thing right in my face. No, no, no, no. Close. Close counts. Get this thing in close, even uncomfortably close. And as we move on with this, as I start bringing other stuff, you're gonna find eventually I've got stuff in here just inches away sometimes just out of the camera frame. Why? Why do we put the stuff in close? 'Cause the closer it is, the bigger it is relative to the face, and light will wrap around and be nice and soft. So the technique is this. If you want soft light, we're like this, okay? If you want harder, more specular light, we're farther away. So the farther away your light source is, the harder and harsher it is. So now you can see why I go with those big, honking umbrellas. The reason why is 'cause I can still get this big, huge light source, but it doesn't have to be so close and feel so constricting to the talent, to Andre. All right, so we'll just start out here like this. And we'll just do a really traditional first photograph. I've got this light set up. It's about 45 degree on angle to the camera. Just like that. I'm always thinking am I gonna pull this thing over, so I'm kind of doing a little test making sure the thing doesn't fall. As your time goes on, you're gonna want to get sandbags for this type of stuff, especially if you're in a home studio. You can also move one of the legs of the stand, point it towards the tripod, and that gives you a little bit extra support. Okay, now we gotta start piecing together the exposure. And this is where all the creative happens. How much ambient house light do I want? How much do I want this to be just flash? That's all your creative decision. For this though, why don't we just say let's cut ambient and let's make it just flash so you can see just how the flash is impacting him. Remember, I'm in manual mode on the flash. Actually, I haven't said that yet, but I am in manual mode on the flash. But why don't we start in TTL mode just to see, to make this as simple as possible. So I'm pushing the mode button and I'm gonna go to TTL. And it's at 0.0. Cool. Camera now. The camera's still in manual mode. So I'm still at F56. I'm still at a 2/50th of a second. And my ISO is still at ISO 400. And I think I'll increase the height of this a little bit. Okay, my friend. Are you ready? I think so. All right, here we go. One, two, three. Cool. Let's see how that comes out. I'll go to full frame, full screen. Okay, pretty good. See just using the umbrella looks pretty good. Let's zoom in on his eye. We were talking about catch lights earlier on. Nice big catch light. That's pretty cool. Nice and big. See how big the catch light is? That's the goal. We always want to have that, versus a little tiny pinprick of light. Okay, let's start deconstructing the photograph. How about the shadow? Notice how the light wraps around his face? That's good. We got a little kiss of light on the dark side of the cheek. This is called Rembrandt lighting. Maybe you've heard of that term before. Rembrandt was famous for when he made these paintings, these portraits. The light would come in on this side and then give a little triangle or a kiss of light on this side of the face to give the face a little bit of shape. So 45 degree lighting. The shaft of the umbrella is right at his face. That's cool. The exposure, how about the exposure? Does it look pretty good? Yeah? Cool. It's TTL, TTL zero. It did a really good job. I'm impressed by that. All right, let's move the light up this way. Okay. So here we're gonna put the light a little bit more on axis with the camera. And I'm gonna shoot, when I shoot, I'm just gonna shoot right down the edge, just very, very close to that. And I'm gonna actually increase the height a little bit here so it's out of the way of the lens. Back to the shaft, I'm gonna aim the shaft at his face. Point it there. And sometimes you can ask your model, does that shaft look like it's pointing at you? Is it off a little bit? Like, straight? Yeah. It's off to the side. Off to the side, okay, cool. So I'm just gonna rotate it like that. Better? A little more. Right there. Okay, cool, cool. Cool, cool. And so now this is a little bit more on axis, right? And for this one, I'm gonna have you bring your right shoulder towards me. Great. One, two, three. Nice. And just again, move your left shoulder towards me. Same thing but this left shoulder. Cool. Okay, so when I had him bring his right shoulder towards me, the right shoulder was kind of blocking the light. And that was this one. So see the shadow side of his face? I did that on purpose 'cause I wanted to show how to kind of hide part of his face. This one I had him turn more towards the light, kind of open up a little bit. You see how it lights up his whole shirt. This one he looks skinnier 'cause most of his body's on the dark side. This one he looks a little bit more robust. He's facing the light. It's illuminating the whole thing. Again, let's look at the catch lights. Man, I'm always looking at those catch lights. And I'm always checking focus, making sure that we've nailed focus right on the eyes. These are fantastic portraits, by the way. I mean, they really look nice. And remember, this is with a little, inexpensive kit lens and just about any flash. You could do this with a $30 flash, a $50 flash from Amazon or Ebay. Okay, so that's a little bit off axis. We did the 45 degree. Let's see what happens when we go, I don't want to say it's incorrect, 'cause in photography there aren't a lot of incorrect moves. Just some are better than others. Let's say that we were shooting at head height. Like this. So let's think through. What's this gonna look like if it's at head height? Are we gonna get any shadow beneath his nose, are we gonna get any shadow underneath this chin? No, it's gonna illuminate that. So if Andre was a little bit heavier set, when you're on axis, you show this stuff. You show the full-on double chin and all that. And so it's not necessarily a good look per se. Also, the danger is we run into a shadow on the background. So let's just see what happens when we do this what I would say incorrectly. All the settings are still the same. And one, two, three. Cool. I know, I blocked the screen from you. Okay. I mean, it's not horrible. And he doesn't have a double chin, so I didn't get to illustrate that. But if we compare the previous one, where you start to see the shadow. The shadow you can use actually to hide the stuff down here underneath the chin. Whereas this one, it's a little bit more illuminated. So this is before, and this is on axis. And just, again, to keep showing this stuff. I always have fun with this. I can do this for hours, just one light. And I would encourage you to do the same thing. This is how we learn. Sometimes you don't have an Andre with you, so that's why I say get that foam model head. I saw one the other day at Michael's craft store and it was literally $9. And I thought, oh, I should just buy one of those and set it up so my daughter doesn't have to keep rolling her eyes at me as I practice stuff on her. All right, so here we go. Let's see what happens when we go down low. Again, think through. What's it gonna look like? What's illuminating it? Are we gonna get a catch light? Where's the shadow gonna fall? All right, look right here at the camera. One, two, three. Nice job, man. All right, now we start getting Hitchcock, right? (audience laughing) A little bit of ooh, you know, mood. I'm just imagining 1940s cinema, right? Illuminated from down low. And again, it's not necessarily a bad look, it's just a different look. It's not the type of, like, I wouldn't sell him this portrait unless he was auditioning maybe for a show where he had to appear a little bit more sinister. Okay, so let's keep going with this. Another type of lighting I like to do is profile. So for this... Hey, you know, you guys are all thinking the same thing. Like, that's gonna fall over! I'll move this in a little bit. You can see now some of the limitations with cables. Cables, although they're reliable and consistent, they do make it harder to move lights around the studio. Okay. So here, we're just gonna do full-on profile just like that. Okay, think through. What's the light gonna do? Are we gonna get a catch light? Probably not. How about this side of his face, is it gonna get any light? Probably not. Is it gonna look cool? Probably. All right, my friend. And for this one, we'll take two. I'm gonna have you take one aimed the direction you are. And then the other, I'm gonna have you turn away. Sweet. Okay, one, two, three. Awesome. Cool, man. Nice work. Okay, so this one he's into the light. So we get to see his shirt and the texture on his shirt. We also see on the other side of his face it's all dark. And then this is the last one we took. And in this case, he's turned away from it. So it's all shoulder lighting, rim lighting. Cool. Very cool. Fun. So now let's start thinking, well, what other types of modifiers can we add to our one-light setup to maybe even out the lighting on the face? Yeah, I see you guys. Reflector. Cool. So let's do a reflector. For this, just for the sake of speed, I'm gonna grab, could I grab you? Would you hold this for me? Sure. Is that cool? And what I'm gonna have you do is just basically hold that right there. You guys kind of already know what I'm gonna say right now, but I'm still gonna talk about it. Reflectors reflect. All right, you're like, ooh, thanks, Mike, that's really awesome. No, reflectors reflect light based on the incoming angle of light, and then they just flip that thing around and the light goes in the same angle but the other direction. So you want the reflector to pay attention to where that main light is coming from. You don't necessarily want to reflect it right back to the main light, right? You want to do it in such a way that the main light goes here and then angles it towards the subject. So you're always thinking like billiards, like pool. Like, where is that light coming from and where do I want it to go through? A lot of people make mistakes with reflectors. Let me just borrow this real quick from you. And maybe they put it like this. I'll just do something like that. Oh, well, look. The light's gonna come from here and then zing off to that way. It's not gonna help. So you just want to always pay attention. Where's the light coming from and where do I want it to go to? All right, so back to where you were. So in this case, the light's coming from over his shoulder, and I'm actually gonna reflect it right back towards him. How close should it be? Well, in my experience, you want it to be as close as possible, but just outside of the frame of the camera. So I'll tell you to move forward or backwards. You can come in a little bit. Yeah, cool, right there. One, two, three. Okay. So now what we're gonna see is, ah, filled in a little bit of the shadow on that side of the face. Basically we just got cross-lighting here, light coming in from this side and light coming directly on the other side. Let's move that reflector forward a little bit. So come towards me. A little more. And increase the height a little bit. And then take your left hand and go towards him, yeah. So now you can see what we're doing. We're taking some of the light, bringing it forward, and shining it back on his face. So now maybe we're gonna get the catch light. Okay, here we go. One, two, three. Nice smile, man. Okay, how did that one look? Pretty good. Remember, we're in TTL. I haven't made any flash adjustments right now. So let's compare that one with the previous one. Pretty similar, but the second one, there, is a little bit brighter in the front than the first. I know it's hard to tell. This is very, very difficult to actually see the difference. Let's compare now with this. And we're gonna use the silver side on this one. Just to show the folks. Yep, silver side there. We're gonna use that. It's bigger, so it's gonna reflect more light, and it's silver-er, so it's more shinier. A little bit higher. Let's bring it forward like this. Excellent. All right, here we go. One, two, three. And let's have you turn your right shoulder towards that side. Nice, man. One, two, three. All right, cool. Thank you. Thank you very much. Yes, Elvis is in the house. So basically the same setup. The silver side with him turned away, actually, turned towards the umbrella, and then the silver side turned towards the reflector. And we look at the catch lights in the eye. And it's not perfect. I know a lot of people watching out there in internetland are like, oh, those are horrible catch lights! Okay, well, at least we got them. We can improve on catch lights. Photographers get really into catch lights. A lot of photographers have their own specially designed lighting system that is their kind of, like, iconic catch light. It's a thing. We do weird things. Okay, cool. So with one flash and an umbrella, you get a feel for what that looks like. You can use reflectors to really modify this. I'm gonna use a big umbrella now and a big reflector. So, Kenna, do you have a question as I'm setting this up? I do have a question. This one is from Stuart, who says, is the angle of the flash facing the umbrella important? Yeah, but really you just have to get the flash in there. So in other words, you don't want the flash to be aiming towards that side of the umbrella. So everything is set up, the whole system is set up so that when the flash is mounted on this little bracket, it's all designed to aim in the correct spot. You wouldn't take your flash and go up like that in an umbrella, 'cause then you're wasting all that surface area. Oh, shoot. I shouldn't say wouldn't. You might have a reason to. I mean, it may be a creative choice. Okay, so there we go. And this is why we use metal umbrella brackets for big umbrellas like that. A plastic bracket might even break if you're not careful, so spend the few extra dollars and get a metal bracket. Okay. I just want to make a point here. That's like, that umbrella is as much as that flash in terms of financial commitment. And so the point is is that the quality of flash or the amount of money you spend on a flash isn't really that important. It's most important that you master the use of it. And then spend your money maybe on nicer flash equipment, like the umbrellas or the soft boxes, 'cause that's what makes your photos look really good. It's not necessarily the quality of the flash because light is light is light. And this is just a Nikon SB-910. It would also work with that $30 flash from Amazon. Okay. Whoa, this is great. How does that feel, impressive? It feels large. Big? (audience laughing) Yeah. And If he's a paying client, he's gonna see that and go, oh, this guy knows what he's doing. This feels good. So it's all about impressing clients with big stuff. That's what it's all about. Okay, again, nothing has changed. I'm still in TTL. I'm still at 0.0 exposure. I'm one flash. And look right here in the camera. One, two, three. Cool. And then just turn the shoulders again. Same thing, one, two, three. Awesome. Oh, cool. There's the one where he's turning towards the light, and then here's he one where he's turning away from the light. Look at how that light just wraps around his face. It's really fantastic. It's just a nice, soft look. Let's fill in some shadows. All right, I need my human-powered light stand. Thank you. You can choose, white or silver. What do you think? Hmm, I choose silver. Silver, okay. Done. And why don't you come forward. Yep. Move in. And, again, playing billiards, playing pool with the light. Where's the light gonna be coming from? And where is it gonna be reflecting to? So you want an angle that makes sure that you're counting for that angle of incidence and reflectance. And let's go a little higher. Good. Sweet, man. Here we go, one, two, three. And again, one, two, three. Thank you. Here's these two shots. First one and the second one. We have two catch lights in the eye. Some people get a little bit uptight about having two catch lights. I don't necessarily. In general, you want the catch lights to be a little bit higher in the eye, so I actually might move the umbrella up, and I might actually move the reflector up. We had it basically at head level. I might chose to go a light bit higher. And what that does is it moves the catch lights up a little bit higher in the eyes. Yeah, so even though this is basically a five foot tall umbrella, you can see that the catch lights are still fairly small in the eyes. I sometimes like the catch lights to be half the eye height or even bigger. So to accomplish that, I'd actually have to push this even closer to him. Yeah. So there is a whole discussion using umbrellas. Umbrellas, in my mind, are one of the least expensive ways to get high quality photographs. You can spend anywhere from, like I say, $30 to $300. But just think big, big umbrellas. Yeah, question. The question came from Kim Preston, who said, instead of using that reflector on both the last two umbrellas, could you use another umbrella instead of a reflector, or would that not quite work? Yeah, it's a good question. And I understand why, 'cause you're thinking it's easy 'cause you can put the other umbrella on a stand and it's just gonna stay there. The answer is no. The answer is really no. You could put another umbrella there and it would reflect some light back, but it's not as efficient in the reflection back. So I would not recommend that. I think the best thing to do is to actually use the reflector. And so to her point, I want to show you another little tool I use where you don't have to a human-powered light stand aways standing up with you. This is cool. It's $13, I just bought it. And basically what it is is it mounts on a light stand just like this, and then it rotates around, rotates down, and then you can hang the reflector on the light stand just like this. And now you don't have to have someone holding the reflector for you. The upside is it'll hold it vertically. The downside is you can't really angle it up and angle it down. So let me just show you quickly how that mounts to a different light stand. And I just realized I didn't actually test it out on this industrial light stand first to make sure that it fits. I hope it does. There's another question. Yes, please. Could you talk a little bit about the difference between using an umbrella like this that reflects back versus the shoot through umbrellas, and which one's better. Yeah. So there's basically two types of umbrellas. There's the reflect off, and then there's the shoot through. And I don't even know if those are the technical terms, but that'll work for our conversation. Okay, so this is the reflect off. Think about the way this works. Light goes into it, and it's almost parabolic in shape, right? So parabolas collimate, or they take the light and they focus it. So when you reflect off, like this, the light actually is a little bit harder and harsher versus a shoot through. Now, the shoot through, they're actually translucent, right? So when you shoot through, the light actually escapes the umbrella and goes out that way. So in a shoot through, the light goes through and kind of spreads out, which is better. Well, there's no better. It's just what do you like, what works for you. Here's something else to think about. Think about where you shoot. A lot of photographers don't actually go through this mental process. Where do you shoot? Do you shoot in a small office? Like, if you do corporate photography, you have to go to the CEO's office. You might have to shoot him at his desk. Oh, interesting, so I have to shoot at his desk. Do I actually have enough space physically to mount the umbrella and flash when it hits a reflect off versus a shoot through? So sometimes space considerations matter. And I've had situations where I couldn't actually manage a shoot through because it was a wall, then umbrella, and then subject. And if the wall's this far away, that means the umbrella has to be right here. So you might be forced to go in from a reflect off. Stuff to think about. Okay, so here's our light stand, and here's the little, I'll call it a reflector clamp bracket thing. There's actually a technical term, I don't even know what it is. But it basically holds a reflector on a light stand. And it also is designed in such a way that it actually would also work to hold your umbrella. See there's a little hole in there? You can actually put an umbrella. And you could, if you had another stud, you could put a stud in here and use this also to hold another flash setup. So it's a very versatile little product for under $20. Highly recommend it, especially if you're a one-woman show, if you don't have someone running around with you taking photographs. So we're just gonna end up setting this up about here. Gonna raise the height like that. Any of these reflectors will do. We'll use this one. We'll use the white side this time. Just like that. Sweet. Easy. And increase the height. Go about there. You ready for one more? Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, baby. One, two, three. Look at that smile. He's ready for action. Action Jackson. Sweet. Nice look.

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