On Camera Speedlight Basics- I just need more light! Nothing fancy, just more light!

It is time to focus our tutorials onto lighting and discussing speedlights (or speed lites, small strobes, flash guns, mount on top flashes, eyeball poppers… whatever you like calling them.) Sorry point-and-shooters, unfortunately  a lot of this tutorial won’t be applicable to you unless there is a hot shoe (that cool little flash mount) on your camera.

Let’s start with just using your speedlight mounted on the camera for some simple, basic shots. Slap that bad boy on, point it at your target and fire away.  You now have an amped up version of your built-in pop-up flash.  Woo-hoo!

***Unfortunately this type of light might not immediately give the creative look most some may desire in our photographs. Of course, normally using one basic speedlight mounted to the camera isn’t going to give you stylistic lighting shots that you see in professional magzines or beautiful cookbooks. But for some situations, we just want light to take a good picture and we need more light when shooting, especially for food bloggers that just want some decent light to take a food shot.

Even we value  and need the availability of some basic light to take a picture, regardless of any creative or stylistic considerations! When used properly, speedlights can are very helpful and can create some stunning shots.

How many of you get frustrated that you don’t have the time to take shots during the day in natural light and just want to be able to take decent shots at night? If your answer is YES, then join the club.

Shooting with speedlights involves some technical skills, the desire to problem solve, PRACTICE,  PATIENCE, PRACTICE & more PATIENCE:

  • The light from speedlights can often be harsh, too “hot” or too bright. However all is not lost.  There are a few things we can do, even with the flash still attached to the camera, which will improve the quality of our light.
  • You must learn how to control the amount of light you want to garner from your speedlight to achieve your desired effects.
  • If you’re getting too much or too little light from your speedlight, you must take the time to make adjustments and practice more.
  • Most importantly, don’t give up.
  • Scream out loud if you need to, but don’t give up !!

So Let’s Get Started!

How the Camera and Flash Talk to Each Other – controlling how much light to get from your speedlight
There are two main options we are going to explore about shooting with speedlights : manual and TTL.  Your camera and flash probably have a few more options, but we’re only focusing on BASIC manual and TTL.

  • Manual – (You determine the power) Basically you are manually determining your light power and dialing in your flash for how much power you want it to fire at. You push buttons on the speedlight to increase and decrease light power (depending on your camera, you may also be able to do this through your camera’s menu.)
    • 1/1 being full power and everything else being a fraction of that.  How gentle it will go depends on your flash, but as an example our Nikon SB 800 drops down to 1/128.
  • TTL – (Your camera determine’s the power) Basically, the camera’s sensors are determining the amount of flash needed for correct exposure and will adjust for you how powerful the flash fires.
    • Your flash fires, hits the subject, comes back through the camera, it reads the light, then fires again with what it thinks is the proper power- all happening at the speed of light.
    • You can adjust the relative amount it fires by changing the flash’s exposure compensation (in camera or in flash’s menu), having it fire more gentle or stronger than what the camera thinks is the “ideal” exposure.
    • This can usually be done either in the camera or on the flash’s menu.  Technology it pretty cool, huh?

Shoot on Manual or TTL? You choose what’s best for your shooting situation. Both of  these options have their pluses and detractions.  Some photographers will swear by their knowledge and control of manual, while other photographers live and die by TTL. We use both depending on the situation.


Turning the Swivel Head to change direction of your light :

above: Left – light directed at subject, Right – light directed above

above: Left- light directed behind camera, Right- light directed to side


Ways to control the quality of the light: softening the light

Bouncing the Flash – shooting away from the subject

  • Here is where the speedlights start to show their versatility over the built-in flash.

By using the swiveling head on the flash, you are able to point the flash somewhere other than your subject, bouncing the light off of something first then using that reflected flash to light up your subject. Most often this will be the ceiling or a nearby wall.




Bouncing the light above, to the side, or behind  to avoid harsh, direct light

Here are a few cool things about bouncing:

  • Fire the flash straight up at a white ceiling and it basically becomes a giant soft box from above.  Make sure the ceiling it white, though.  Colored surfaces will reflect colored light. Super tall ceilings are not very helpful for bouncing the flash.  Neither is the open sky, however white event tents rock it like a soft box!
  • Bouncing is also changing the direction of the light, giving a different angle the shadows.  (Shadows are the true superstars of photography.  They give depth, contrast, and interest to your subject.  The key is in controlling the amount, hardness, and direction of the shadows.)
  • Bounce off of a wall to mimic light coming in through a window (just remember if the wall isn’t white, the colors will be reflected too). A very large person with a white shirt will work to bounce the flash against as well.  Kinda of.
  • Throw a sheet or reflector on the floor and fire the flash against that to get the light coming up from down below.  Not too many instances it is helpful for food photography, but is nice as a fill light for portrait work.
  • Add a mini soft box to the flash and then bounce it.  It will double up on the softening effect of the flash.


Diffusing the Flash – shooting directly on subject

Above : diffusing flash through  mini-soft box or diffusers . Buy at Adorama HERE

The light coming straight out of the flash, directly on your subject is generally fairly hard (giving sharp, distinctive shadows). By putting something translucent between your flash and the subject you can scatter and soften the light.  This can be done with something as simple a white piece of paper or with an attachment you add to your flash. There are mini-soft boxes and puffers that attach onto the flash for instant diffusion.  Diffusing is a method which is also applicable to pop-up flashes.


Examples of different light effects:

Above : our messy house at night & we need light! It’s dark & only available light is ceiling lights. It’s too dark!

So, we mounted speedlight on camera and the results are much better. Let there be light!

Above: (straight off camera, no edits)  Left : speedlight directed at ceiling, bounced off ceiling. The light is spread evenly. Although this give a flatter light, it’s still great because the subject is well lit. Right: speedlight directed toward subject, which gave a very harsh light with back shadows.

Above: (straight off camera, no edits). Left: speedlight directed to left side, bounced off wall. The light is even, with more emphasis on left of subject (on broccoli). Right: Speedlight was directed to left side, bounced off a white board. This light bounced back more light, giving the left side even more light. The bowl has more shadow effect, with the left side of tomatoes and broccoli brighter.

Below: using a white board or placing the subject closer to a white wall bounces more of the light emitted from the speedlight onto the subject.


Photographing your favorite peeps/pups:

Above: The light is aimed directly at  the most-adorable-white-boxer-in-the-world. The light is harsh and too bright.  Too many harsh shadows.

Below: The light is bounced off the ceiling at the most-adorable-white-boxer-in-the-world. The light is more even, and spread out.

Below: A diffuser was placed on top of the speedlight and directed at the ceiling. The light now looks even softer, more even on the-most-adorable-white-boxer-in-the-world .

So, all of this can be done with the flash still attached to the camera.  In the next tutorial we’ll go over using your flash off of your camera and more creative lighting tutorials for your subjects.  That is where your lighting possibilities really take off. Until next time… happy shooting!


Join our photography flickr group! So practice and share your photographs with the speedlight on the camera! We’d all love to see all your results from shooting with your speedlight. We’ll be doing a round up of some of our favorites in a post next week.

Here are some details:

  • Join the WORC Photography Flickr Group
  • Post your favorite picture that was shot with a speedlight mounted to the top of the camera. It can be a photography of anything you want: food, portrait, objects or anything you choose.
  • Also, time of day that you took the shot would be helpful for everyone to know too.
  • Tell us quickly how you shot the subject and the direction of the light. Also if you used any diffusers, let everyone know.
  • Post it by  Monday, January 18th. We’ll be posting some favorites on a blog post here by Wednesday , January 20, 2010.
  • We’ll be posting some cool pictures too that we shot and writing a post about how we got the shot, along with some of your shots!


More Photography Tutorial topics :

1. Exposure
2. Shutter-Speed – “Controlling Motion”
3. Aperture – “Controlling Depth of Field”
4. ISO
5. White Balance


{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }
  1. Aqiyl Aniys

    Great photography tips. I love the veggies and the dog too.

  2. Veselina Zheleva

    I just found your website and can’t stop reading and exploring it. Your food photography tutorials/tips are very helpful and your work is amazing.
    You both have great talent!
    Keep up with your amazing adventure,

  3. Cookin' Canuck

    Well, I just bought a flash and am so clueless that I’m often rolling my eyes at the photos I take with it. So, thanks so much for this tutorial, you two. Now I have a starting place. It looks as though it’s time to do some serious wall-bouncing.

  4. Clive

    Great tutorial. Im new to flash and this was practical and simple to follow. Time to practice, practice, practice now and hopefully not throw the camera away in the process lol.

  5. Danielle

    A little late to this, but glad that this post is not time-sensitive! Excellent advice about using a speed light. I take all my pictures in the day, resorting to the Lowel Ego only when absolutely necessary, but it doesn’t quite fit on my kitchen counter, which is when a speed light would come in handy. I guess I know what my next purchase from Adorama is going to be! Thanks for taking the time to write this up!

    1. Ron

      Great! thanks

  6. Yum Yucky

    Ditto! you’re website is awesome.

  7. Hummingbird Appetite

    Thank you so much for this tutorial!

  8. 8GB SD Karte

    This is a great post.You have explained very well about camera speed light basics in this tutorial. It is also interesting to know about bouncing the flash.I like those cool things.Thank you very much for this nice post.

  9. Divina

    That speedlight is what I actually need. I need some options when taking photos at night. But I need to find something tha would match my Nikon D40 camera. Still practicing with all the basics of your tutorial. It’s great to see your set up too because I’m having hard time with it. Great tutorial.

  10. Kate @ savour fare

    Thank you so much for this intro! I’d love to have more discussion about manual vs. TTL and determining the correct amount of light, or is it just trial and error?

  11. Steph - Wasabimon

    You guys are awesome

  12. Amy from She Wears Many Hats

    I so needed this. Thanks for taking the time to put this together. Do more please?!? Pretty please?

    1. White On Rice Couple

      Don’t worry, we will be. The tutorials do take a bit more time to do than most of our other posts so be patient with us. We go over them again and again trying to find the best way to explain things. Glad you benefit from them. That’s why we take the time to do it!

  13. Kalynskitchen

    Great, I have been waiting for this one. Bookmarking now, and thank you!

  14. jane maynard (thisweekfordinner)

    great tutorial! thank you! quick question…were you shooting these examples in TTL or manual mode?

    again, thanks!

    1. White On Rice Couple

      For the examples we were using TTL, dropping the exposure compensation 1/2 a stop. Glad you like the tutorial!

  15. Kristina@FormerChef

    Another great tutorial! I have a much smaller speedlight than that one and I’m finding myself a bit frustrated. Now I’m thinking I should have gotten the bigger one. Lesson learned. Keep up the excellent work.
    Oh, and love the new look/features of the blog too!

  16. elizabeth

    As someone with a P&S, most of these tips are not usable…for the time being. My resolution this year is to play with white boards, lighting and the soft white walls around me and make the most of the manual settings of my rather decent Nikon so I can justify spending money on a dSLR.

    That said, I’m saving this for when I get one, because it’s everything I need to know in a wonderfully documented format–it’s no surprise that you are recognized among the best of the best!

    1. White On Rice Couple

      We have one coming up that will help more with the point & shoots, but we wanted to test a couple things first. Thank you so much for the compliments. Happy shooting!

  17. Megan Gordon

    Awesome! I’ve been wanting a speed light for quite some time and this is going to come in handy very soon. So excited to get started! Great photo demos. THANK YOU!

  18. phil

    This was a great write up. It makes me want to go out and get that Nikon SB-900 that I have been drooling over the last couple of weeks.

  19. Phoo-D

    Very helpful tutorial, thank you. And that is one adorable boxer! =)

  20. Frances

    I just found you website — and Love It!!!!!


  21. Erika from The Pastry Chef At Home

    eyeball poppers…ha ha. This is a great tutorial. I really need to learn more about taking good photos!

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