Mastering Canon Flash Photography – Tip 2

Mastering Canon Flash Photography – Tip 2

This photo tip is a review of lesson 1 and 2 and practical thinking for using flash.

Shooting Modes

You want to choose your shooting modes based on what you are photographing. Is it outside or inside? Are there ambient light levels you want to include in your pictures? Is the subject moving? For the following paragraphs, the flash is in ETTL mode.

When to use P mode?

I use P mode for the event when I just want to point and shoot. This would be an indoor party or an outdoor event. If I use it indoors and the ambient light level is low, then backgrounds will be dark because the longest S.S. available in P mode is 1/60th and the indoor light level might require ¼ second for example. Outside, I would use P mode in very bright conditions. The camera will select the S.S. based on that light level and it will be between 1/60 – 1/250th. Here the background will show up because it is so bright, but again, like inside, if the light outside gets to low, then the background will go dark.

When not to use P mode?

I rarely, if ever, use this mode because I want more to my photos. I always like a little background and in low light, P mode does not allow it. AP mode works just fine in just about all situations.

When to use AP mode?

Here you can use this mode inside or outside. This mode is designed to choose an S.S. that exposes the background perfectly. If you choose to use it inside be prepared for long shutter speeds, as the inside light levels for ambient light will be low and the camera will choose long shutter speeds. Outside in bright conditions, the background would expose normally as the camera selects the correct S.S. because it is bright. If outside brightness is low, be prepared again for long shutter speeds because the camera will select S.S. to expose the background perfectly. A sunset for example would require a longer S.S. than bright sun.

When not to use AP mode?

If you are inside and ambient light level is low, you will have long shutter speeds. Is that acceptable for you? Do you have a tripod?


Before choosing AP mode inside, ask yourself “Is there any ambient light in here that I need in my picture?” If not, don’t use AP mode and avoid long shutter speeds. If you want the table lamp to add warm light to your subject, then you need AP mode and its long shutter speed. Most likely you will need a tripod.

(Nikon D80, D200, D2x, don’t forget about slow sync mode in the mix of things here.)

When to use SP mode?

Like AP mode, SP mode is design for you to select one setting and the camera chooses the other. Here you decide on the shutter speed and it selects the correct aperture for a perfect background exposure. You would use SP mode when you need a fast shutter speed and it could be simply so you can hand hold the camera. Or you may be shooting a skateboarder catching some air and want to freeze them in action. Here depth of field would not be a consideration, only stopping the action. You select the S.S. and the camera selects the f/stop.

When not to use SP mode?

The only reason I can think of is, again, when light levels get low. Lets say you are inside and the light level is low and you are hand holding and think - “OK, I need 1/60th S.S. to hand hold.” If you select 1/60th and at your widest f/stop, let’s say f/2.8, the camera’s meter says you are underexposing the background because the ambient light level is low. You are already at your widest f/stop so you have to change the S.S. and keep going until the meter says ok. Now you might be at 1/8th second and would need a tripod. Same problem as AP mode, just a different combination!

Solution: When indoors, do you have the ability to bounce light? Is the ceiling white? Is the ceiling low enough for a bounce? How big is the room? There can be a solution here for some situations. If the room is not that big and the ceiling is low enough and white, you can bounce the flash for a great light quality. It will fill the room with nice light. Here, you don’t care about ambient light, like a lamp or window, and just want a fast enough S.S. and good flash light quality.

When to use Manual Shooting Mode?

Here, the reason is, you like to think about and control everything yourself, OR more important, you want consistent results. Let’s say you are shooting a wedding and the party is now outdoors. You first meter for the sun and determine the best outdoor ambient exposure and then you set that on your camera. I would choose 1/250th (my fastest sync speed) and the appropriate f/stop. Chances are that in bright light the f/stop is around f/8 and that is good depth of field. You could switch to 1/125th @ f/11, the same exposure, different combo. Here you will use a little more juice from your flash batteries, but would still be ok. The nice part of going manual is that the exposure is set in stone as long as you don’t change it. With the flash in ETTL, you just walk around and shoot. You can walk up and shoot the groom and groomsmen in their black tuxes and the bride and bridesmaids in all their white, and all your exposures would be perfect, provided your initial metering was correct when you set the camera. In AP or SP mode, when you walk up to the groom and groomsmen, the camera would see all the black in the tuxes and probably adjust exposure the wrong way. When the camera meter sees all those white gowns on the ladies, it may also adjust the exposure the wrong way. In manual mode, the exposure is set in stone!

When not to use Manual Mode?

So you are out shooting the wedding party in the bright sun getting great exposures and then you see something happening on the covered deck, so you race over and start shooting. After capturing the action on the deck, you take a moment and look at the LCD and all the pictures you just took have dark backgrounds. “What happened?”, you are wondering with a little panic. The light level on the deck, which is covered, is different and darker than in the sun. Because you are in Manual Mode and forgot to re-meter and adjust the camera settings, all the pics have underexposed backgrounds. The subjects will be fine because the flash is in ETTL and always adjusts for correct output. Here you should have metered the scene and adjusted the settings for accurate background exposures before taking pictures. Or, if in a hurry, quickly set the camera to AP mode so you can get right to shooting and not miss the action.

More Details

Notice that the above paragraphs talked only about shooting mode? During all these descriptions the flash was in ETTL, outputting enough light for great pictures based on the guidance you gave the flash in shooting modes. We were only talking about manipulating the ambient exposure. Now let’s look at manipulating the flash.

When to use FEC?

You are out shooting the wedding party in the bright sun and the camera is in Manual Shooting Mode, so exposure is locked. You take a picture of the little brat running though the crowd bumping into everybody and then look at your LCD. The ambient exposure is perfect because you tested and set that in stone. But you also notice that the flash is equal in brightness to the ambient light and the kid looks ‘flashed’. The solution is to power down the flash and use it in this situation as flash fill. Here you go to FEC and adjust it. I always start at -1 FEC. On the Canon, you can use the FEC button to power down and on Nikon it is done on the flash. Now, the flash is primarily used to fill in the shadows on the people, and thus, lower the subject’s scene contrast by lightening the shadow side of their faces. You can also race over to the covered deck and keep the -1 flash fill, but don’t forget to either re-meter (if in Manual shooting mode) or quickly set the mode to AP so that the camera chooses the correct ambient and background exposure and the flash is a fill light only.

When not to use FEC?

FEC is designed to adjust the flash’s output for specific results, mostly for flash fill or simply to weaken or strengthen the flash output above or below the cameras exposure settings. If you are indoors and going to snap pictures of family members during the Christmas party, the ambient light level will be low. If you are in P mode because you don’t care about the background and use, say, a -1 FEC setting, you will have just created a dark picture. P mode does not allow for much ambient light into your picture, and this makes flash the main light. Since you told the flash to send -1 stop less output to the people, you just under-flashed them! If the room brightness was very bright and you were going to use that ambient light as your main light source, then -1 FEC would act like a flash fill. Don’t use FEC, at a minus setting, if the flash is the only light source. Even if you want a less flashed look and want the flash to be weak and act as a fill light, you have to have some ambient light as the main light. You can use AP mode to create a properly exposed background, but may need a tripod.

Flash Range:

Each flash has a certain ability to send flash output to a certain distance. The more powerful the flash, the further it can send light. Many flashes have indicators on them to show you how far this distance is, but not all units do. The thing to remember is that if you need to send light further, then use a wider aperture. If your subject is in close, then you can use a smaller aperture.

When to use Manual Flash?

The reason to set your flash on manual output is to maintain a consistent output each and every time the flash fires. You are at the wedding, and inside, because the bride and groom requested formal portraits of all guests and they plan on providing a 5x7 to each. (Big bucks for you!) Here you set up your flashes, to bounce out of umbrellas (Lesson 3), and create a nice portrait light against a nice painted canvas background. The camera is also set on Manual Shooting Mode to eliminate ambient light with a fast shutter speed. You want your flash to output the same amount of light for every single portrait. No fussing, no re-metering, no hassles! Put the flash on full output, manual mode, and bounced out of the umbrellas. Then take a test for setting exposure, and shoot away. Every single shot will be the exactly same exposure.

When not to use Manual Flash?

Let’s look at another scenario. You are back at the wedding and outside. Manual flash output would not be very convenient here because you are moving about taking pictures. With the flash set to Manual Mode, the flashes output is the same for each picture. If your subject was at 10’ in your first picture and looked great when you took a test, then you move to another subject who is only 7’ away, they are getting flash output designed for 10’ (your first picture) and that will over-flash them because they are closer to the camera and flash than the first shot. So you have to re-meter and re-evaluate for every single picture when in manual mode. Hassle?

Flash Key/Flash Fill:

Flash Key is when you want flash to be the main light. Flash Fill is when you want flash to be the secondary light. To make Flash Key effective, you often, although not always, want the background darker than the subject. This is done by using EC, aka Exposure Compensation. EC simply is adjusting the shutter speed. There is no button or anything marked EC, it is just a name to describe a variety of ways to change the shutter speed from what the camera meter says is the best exposure. Here is an example: You meter the scene and are in AP mode. Select f/8 and the camera will assign 1/60th as the correct shutter speed for the perfect picture. The flash is on ETTL and you snap a picture of the skateboarder getting air. The flash exposure is perfect on the skateboarder but the sky behind him is pretty bright, so you want to darken it. In AP mode, you would use the appropriate Dial on the camera to change the shutter speed, to let’s say -1 1/3. This will then change the shutter speed to 1/160th and now the sky is darker. If you are shooting in manual shooting mode, then adjust your shutter speed the same -1 1/3.

Bounce Flash:

Bounce is a very effective method of using flash. It creates a softer light on our subjects and can fill a room with light when direct flash wouldn’t. I use bounce flash often, and always, on ETTL. There is no reason I can think of, to use bounce on manual unless you are creating a setup where you will be shooting many pictures from the same angle and want consistent results. For only a couple shots, ETTL is best for bounce and then move on.

That is a quick review of flash basics. If it wasn’t making a lot of sense earlier, hopefully it will now.

Have fun shooting!

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