My Take on Flash Photography: Part 3

NB: This series of posts will convey my understanding of flash photography. While I hope it serves a useful purpose, I by no means describe this series as a be-all, end-all resource on flash photography. As ever, if you feel I have made a factual error, please correct me. Also, apologies in advance for this sounding suspiciously like an ad for Metz flashguns. I like their flashguns a lot, and have bought a lot of them as a result…

Three types of flash: the Metz 20 C-2 at lower left is an example of an off-camera flash, aimed from the side directly into the subject; the Olympus T32 at centre represents an on-camera flash aimed directly at the subject head-on; the Metz 45 CT-1 at right is an example of a handle-mounted flashgun that is bouncing off the ceiling to light the subject.
Three flashguns, three different placements and aims: the Metz 20 C-2 at lower left is an example of an off-camera flash, aimed from the side directly into the subject; the Olympus T32 at centre represents an on-camera flash aimed directly at the subject head-on; the Metz 45 CT-1 at right is an example of a handle-mounted flashgun that is bouncing off the ceiling to light the subject.

The way in which you aim and place flashguns is one of the simplest and most powerful ways of changing the results you get when using a flashgun. This post will briefly cover placing and aiming flashguns by looking at four broad aspects: on-camera flash, off-camera flash, direct flash, and indirect flash. The written part this week merely constitutes a description of each; the example pictures and associated captions explain the different effects achieved through varying placement and aim much better than could be achieved in text.

Direct flash (Metz 54), mounted on the Olympus OM-D, with the flash head tilted down to operate at this close range. Note the reflective hotspots on the camera, and the effect reflective background objects have had. For close-ups especially, this is a great risk when using on-camera flash aimed directly at the subject.
Direct flash (Metz 54 MZ-3), mounted on the Olympus OM-D, with the flash head tilted down to operate at this close range. Note the reflective hotspots on the camera, and the effect reflective background objects have had. For close-ups especially, this is a great risk when using on-camera flash aimed directly at the subject. The result is overall harsh and unflattering.

On-camera flash is the most common type seen, be it an integrated flashgun, or an accessory flash that sits in the hot shoe. Off-camera flash is any flash that is not mounted directly to the camera. These were traditionally connected and synchronised with long cables, but nowadays they’re more commonly synchronised wirelessly (by radio waves, infrared signals, or simply triggered by other flashguns firing). Off-camera flashes are fantastic, as they can be placed practically anywhere to create practically any lighting effect. Bracket- and handle-mounted flashguns are physically mounted to the camera, but the actual flash head sits well away; I view them as a hybrid between on-camera and off-camera flash. I favour handle-mounted flash as it combines the convenience of on-camera flash, but gives me a greater degree of flexibility with placement and aim, akin to an off-camera flash.

On-camera Metz 54 MZ-3, aimed up at 60-degrees, facing behind the camera. The flash has bounced off the ceiling, giving a softer, more flattering light. However, the flashgun was not powerful enough (it was a high ceiling) to cover the distance to the ceiling and back: the subject is heavily under-exposed. Had I been able to use a more powerful flashgun for this photo, the subject would have been perfectly exposed.
On-camera (Olympus OM-D) Metz 54 MZ-3, aimed up at 60-degrees, facing behind the camera. The flash has bounced off the ceiling, giving a softer, more flattering light. However, the flashgun was not powerful enough (it was a high ceiling) to cover the distance to the ceiling and back: the subject is heavily under-exposed, and the photo is unusable, save for illustrating this point. Had I been able to use the Metz 76 for this photo, the exposure would have been good. Sadly, all the batteries for it were flat…

Direct flash describes a flash which lights the subject directly from the flashgun, and can apply to both on- and off-camera flash. Indirect flash lights the subject indirectly, often through the use of reflectors or diffusers. Reflectors and diffusers are now commonly available for the majority of flashguns, or may be homemade (but beware of the heat a flash throws out when it fires!). A common type of indirect flash is “bounce flash”, where the flashgun is aimed at a ceiling, wall or reflector, which bounces the light back onto the subject. By bouncing the light, a larger, more diffuse flash is achieved, which results in softened shadows and even illumination. Some flashguns, typically those integrated into cameras, are incapable of being used for bounce flash, as the flash reflector cannot be tilted or swivelled to bounce off a nearby surface.

For this photo, I used the Metz 54 MZ-3 on an off-camera cord. I held the flashgun to the right of camera, slightly above the subject, and aimed it down, directly towards the subject. The background has had less effect than on-camera direct flash, but we have more contrast and greater definition than bounce flash, due to the less diffuse nature of the lighting and stronger shadows it has caused.
For this photo, I used the Metz 54 MZ-3 on an off-camera cord attached to the Olympus OM-D. I held the flashgun to the right of camera, slightly above the subject, and aimed it down, directly towards the subject. The background has had less effect than on-camera direct flash, but we have more contrast and greater definition than bounce flash, due to the less diffuse nature of the lighting and stronger shadows it has caused. Some detail has been lost in the deep shadows, but this adds to the three-dimensionality created by using off-camera direct flash.

As already mentioned, I like a handle mount flash. I tend to use these exclusively on bounce indoors, and off-camera outdoors. To bounce the flash, my preferred method is to aim the flash over my shoulder, with the reflector tilted to a 60-degree angle towards the ceiling. On my Metz 76, I set the smaller reflector on the front of the flash to 1/4 power, which provides a catchlight in the subject’s eye, and provides slightly further isolation from the background by way of increasing contrast. This can also compensate for colour casts caused by off-white ceilings or walls.

This photo was lit with the Metz 54 MZ-3 on an off camera cord, aimed at the side of a bookcase (out of frame to the right of the picture). This has given the diffuse light characteristic of bounce, resulting in more even illumination and softer shadows. Since the bookcase was relatively close, the flash was powerful enough to make the correct exposure. By using the flash off camera to bounce off a smaller surface, this has introduced some three dimensionality, but not as aggressively as off-camera direct flash. The warmer tones are due to the yellowy colour of the fake veneer on the bookcase. Be wary of colour casts that can be caused when bouncing a flash off a non-white surface!
Taken on the Olympus OM-D, this photo was lit with the Metz 54 MZ-3 on an off camera cord, aimed at the side of a bookcase (out of frame to the right of the picture). This has given the diffuse light characteristic of bounce, resulting in more even illumination and softer shadows. Since the bookcase was relatively close, the flash was powerful enough to make the correct exposure. Bouncing off a smaller surface has introduced some three dimensionality, but not as aggressively as off-camera direct flash. The warmer tones are due to the yellowy colour of the fake veneer on the bookcase and reddish tone of the desk. Be wary of colour casts that can be caused when bouncing a flash off a non-white surface!

Placing and aiming flashguns alters the effect of the flash on the photo. This can help in creating a mood, or defining a subject a particular way. I’d recommend playing around with flash to see what you can achieve by changing placement and aim, bearing in mind any constraints (time, space) you have when getting the shot. It’s getting less and less expensive to try out new things with the advent of reasonable quality flashguns at low prices in recent years. I did this with my ring flash, buying a Meike FC-100 off eBay just to see if I liked it. It’s a decent unit, but I feel it’s better as a video light than a flash, which is why it’s being replaced by a Metz 15 MS-1 (surprise, surprise) sometime in the next 18 months.

So, there you have it: one flashgun, four different shots of the same subject. Oh, and the brand Metz mentioned 11 times in the same post.

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