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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.