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Speedlights for Beginners

I remember the first time I tried using a speedlight. It was a daunting task. I had been convincing myself that I would only use natural light mostly because I did not understand flash photography. But speedlights can be an enormously valuable and versatile tool for any photographer. So here is a crash course in speedlights for beginners!

Watch the video and check out the detailed explanations below:

Flash Modes – TTL vs. Manual

When you use Through-The-Lens or TTL mode with your flash, the flash emits a quick, pre-exposure burst of light to meter the scene and then chooses the flash output power appropriately.

ETTL mode speedlights for beginners guide

However, TTL has its drawbacks. For example, your scene can easily be incorrectly metered if there’s a big patch of white in the frame. Think someone wearing a white dress or shirt at an event. It can seriously mess up your flash metering.

Also, TTL uses up more power over time (from those pre-shot flashes) and means you’ll probably have less battery power over time.

A lot of beginners are afraid to use manual flash output, but it can save you a lot of trouble AND means more consistent output.

manual mode speedlight guide for beginners
Manual Mode

Manual can seem frightening, but I suggest giving it a shot (hahahaha, pun intended) when you are practicing or on still life/portrait subjects where you have plenty of time to adjust your set up. Then you can adjust your output accordingly.

Multi Mode (Stroboscopic)

Your flash may have a stroboscopic, or ‘multi’, mode as well. This is for triggering the flash to go off multiple times during a single exposure. It can be a difficult method to figure out as it requires some math AND you have the potential of overheating your flash.

stroboscopic mode speedlights
Not for beginners

It is probably just best to avoid this mode as a beginner until you have a better understanding of how to use flash.

Bounce Flash

When you point your flash directly at your subject, you often end up with flat looking lighting. One of the tricks to mitigating this issue is to bounce your light off of another surface.

no bounce flash
No bounce

You can use a ceiling, a wall, a bounce card – just remember that while your bounce flash will be softer it will not be as powerful since the light will get weaker as it travels both to and from the bounce surface.

bounce flash
Bouncing flash off ceiling

Also, BE CAREFUL!!! The color/hue of your lighting can be effected by the surface you bounce off. You’ll notice that the first time you try to bounce your flash off a wood ceiling or wall and your subjects have a reddish hue to them.

Off-Camera Flash or OCF

Off-Camera Flash, also known as OCF, can seem pretty daunting to beginners but it can be easy to learn the basics.

I will be writing more articles in the future dealing with OCF, but, in the meantime, I will give you a quick summary.

Off-Camera Flash means exactly what it sounds like. You use a flash unit that is not connected to your camera. You just need a transmitter to trigger that flash or flashes to go off.

More than likely, if you have a speedlight that was made recently, it has a transceiver built into it already! That means it can both trigger other flashes to go off and receive a signal from a trigger as well.

More on all of that at a later date.

Sync Speed vs. High Speed Sync

Most flashes have a ‘sync speed’ of less than 1/250 or 1/200 of a second. That means to sync your shutter up with the light coming out of the flash your shutter can’t be going ‘too fast’. 

You may have noticed this if you turn your flash on and suddenly your camera won’t let you set your shutter speed faster than 1/250 or 1/200. Or, if you do manage to set your shutter faster than that, you end up with a black bar across part of your image.

If you need to shoot at a higher shutter speed, you will need to switch to High Speed Sync mode.

high speed sync mode speedlights for beginners
High speed sync mode

High speed sync allows you to sync your flash to much faster shutter speeds, allowing you to freeze movement, but it can also slightly decrease the power output of your flash.

man doing airborne stunt
Photo by Yogendra Singh on

Second Curtain Sync and “Dragging the Shutter”

As opposed to using ‘high speed sync’, you can choose to use a very long shutter and blend the ambient light in your setting with the light from your flash. This is using a process called second curtain sync or ‘dragging the shutter’.

Second curtain sync mode on speedlites
Second Curtain Sync Mode

For example, let’s say you want to capture a subject in front of a dimly lit background. You can expose your photo for the background and use second curtain sync to ‘pop’ on your subjects

second curtain sync flash mode sample

Flash Zoom

When you engage your ‘zoom mode’ on your speedlight, you are narrowing or expanding the flash beam to match the field of view of whichever lens you are using.

flash zoom mode for speedlights

Most flashes will automatically adjust the zoom when they are on camera, but there are times you may want to adjust the zoom manually for whatever your desired effect.


There are as many different types of light modifiers out there as you can think of. They take many different shapes and sizes, and you can even find brackets to use studio light modifiers with your speedlight.

These modifiers include small plastic covers used to soften and disperse a harsh flash as well as larger items like umbrellas, softboxes, and beauty dishes used to shape the light from your flash.

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The Nerdy Photographer

With more than a quarter century as a professional photographer, The Nerdy Photographer's goal is to spread knowledge and laughter throughout the photo industry. Please follow along on social media and subscribe to the podcast.

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