Tips and tutorials

A flash of improvisation (tutorial)

Having an off-camera flash (or speedlight) is pretty cool, there are plenty of strobe fanatics out there doing fabulous things with them and in some circumstances they are even rivaling and replacing the more traditional lighting setups. Certainly in terms of cost and portability.

That’s great for the professionals and cashed-up enthusiasts, but what about you at home with your DSLR or little micro 4:3rds type camera, trying to take nice photos of your products on a gloomy winter’s day? Well there may be a solution to that if your camera offers manual settings and the ability to change the flash output. The great thing is, it’s not limited to just improving your product photography – known as ‘fill-flash’ it can make a dramatic difference to your portraits too! Instead of a choice of no flash or too much flash, let’s work on the right amount of flash to illuminate your subject and keep things sharp.

Regular followers will know that I am an avid fan of Etsy – the online marketplace for handmade and vintage finds. Being part of the Etsy community as well as being a photographer means that I’m often asked about listing photos and asked for tips on how to take better ones or subject to conversations about the pitiful light conditions due to winter etc.

If you own a DSLR camera, or really any camera with manual settings that allow you to control the built in flash, you may benefit from this post. Why? because I’m going to teach you how to make the most of the little pop up flash.

This tutorial is about experimentation so you can see the changes. You can use light meters etc to gain an exposure, but experimentation is the best way to see the effects and learn about your camera.

First, some examples (if you click they should take you to a larger image).

Built in flash tutorial

Automatic camera setting - 1/125 @ f4.5, ISO 800, focal distance 70mm, no flash, WB = Auto.

Manual setting - 1/60 @ f4.5, 200 ISO, focal distance 70mm, 1:100 flash power, WB = Flash.

Manual setting - 1/60 @ f4.5, 200 ISO, focal distance 70mm, no flash, WB = Auto

Built in flash tutorial

Manual setting - 1/60 @ f4.5, 200 ISO, focal distance 70mm, flash power 1:50, WB = flash.

Why do the manual images look yellower? Well your flash emits a cool light, so the flash white balance setting counteracts this by applying a warmer tone to the image. Out of the images above, I’m leaning towards the second image as my favourite in terms of saturation, crispness etc. Notice how the last image casts a shadow?

Want to have a play? Let’s get started! It will help you to have an assistant.

  • Turn your camera setting dial to Manual (M).
  • Set your camera’s ISO to 200.
  • Set your WB to flash.

Most camera’s flash is set to work within a shutter speed range of ~ 1/60 to 1/200 of a second. Dial in a shutter speed of 125 and an aperture/f-stop of 8.
If you find that these settings make everything too bright or too dark, refer to the cheat sheet again as well as my earlier tutorials on aperture, exposure, and shutter speed.

For the purposes of this tutorial I’ve used my Nikon D90 digital camera and the standard kit lens (18-70mm). The lighting in my room is equivalent to 125w (cool white). My camera’s ISO is set to 200 and the white balance (WB) is set to flash. My backdrop is a piece of white mdf that I picked up from Bunnings. To show you that I’m not using any fancy setup or lights:

To try this out for yourself I suggest you read your camera’s manual and learn how to change the settings for the flash, film sensitivity (ISO) and white balance. It should help you to refer to the cheat sheet here. You will need a piece of paper and a pen to record your changes, as the camera’s EXIF data doesn’t record your flash settings (at least, mine doesn’t seem to). If you’re having trouble trying to change your settings, jump on Youtube and look for your specific camera. Chances are that there’s a video to show you through the menus.

Make yourself some notes about the time of day, lighting etc. These will be handy to refer to for future product shots.

Set up your object with a nice plain background. I’ve chosen the smooth white MDF for a couple of reasons – white backgrounds look better for Etsy as your subject gets the attention it deserves and it also acts as a reflector, bouncing extra light into your shot. A black background would absorb the light. Try to avoid anything too reflective or textured. In the beginning,  stick with as simple as possible.

Turn your camera setting back to automatic. Take a photo. Write down the photo details on your piece of paper – ie the frame number, picture number and what settings the camera applied. With a dslr, this info usually shows up when you review the photo. If you can’t find it, it’s not a big issue, but it will help you in deciding which settings are best. The reason you’re taking one with the auto setting is so you can see how much of a difference you can make by making some changes.

I am standing about 1m from my subject and zooming all the way in to 70mm. I’m using the traditional full shutter and aperture stops. Your camera may display changes in 1/2 or 1/3 stop increments.

Auto setting - 1/60 @ f4.5, 800 ISO, focal distance 70mm, WB = auto.

The next set of images I took had me switch the camera to manual mode. For those that don’t use it regularly, manual mode can be very intimidating but I do encourage you to try it as it’ll open up so many more possibilities for your photography. When using flash, the camera generally syncs between 1/60 and 1/200 of a second. With your aperture (the size of the hole that the light comes through), f8 is a good middle ground and gives you enough depth of field for things to stay sharp.

We’re going to start by taking a photo at full power flash. Switch your camera to manual mode. You should have dialed in the settings earlier, but just make sure again.

Shutter = 125 (this is 1/125th of a second)
Aperture = 8 (sometimes shows as f8)
ISO = 200
WB = flash

© Kell Rowe 2011

Manual - 1/125 @ f8, 200 ISO, focal distance 70mm, WB = flash, flash power full.

Yuck! Way too overexposed! Let’s change some settings and see how we can fix this.

© Kell Rowe 2011

Manual - 1/125 @ f8, 200 ISO, focal distance 70mm, WB = flash, flash power 1:2 (half)

It’s still looking a bit too bright, and we have some nasty shadows behind.

© Kell Rowe 2011

Manual - 1/125 @f8, 200 ISO, focal distance 70mm, WB = flash, Flash power 1:4 (quarter).

The exposure on my main lily is looking nice but we have some pretty nasty shadows going on here.

© Kell Rowe 2011

Manual - 1/125 @ f8, 200 ISO, focal distance 70mm, WB = flash, flash power 1:8 (eighth)

We’re losing the nice white background here as there isn’t quite enough light.

Ok, so we’ve established that it’s pretty hard not to overexpose the shot without varying the flash output (brightness). Unlike normal manual exposure where you can vary your shutter, aperture or both in order to nail the exposure, you’re limited by the small window allowed for flash synchronisation. That’s where you need to vary the flash’s brightness and work within the limits placed on you.

Let’s try this again. This time I’m going to change my aperture to f5.6 which will let in twice as much light.

© Kell Rowe 2011

I liked the image with 1:4 power the best, but the shadows were harsh. Here I've opened the aperture, allowing more light to flood the background.


The same exposure as the picture at left, however this time I've introduced a reflector at right. Notice how the shadow has softened?

Here I've changed my position, which has altered the shadow a little. The reflector is at right.

Here I've changed my position, which has altered the shadow a little. The reflector is at right.

If you don’t have a reflector, you can cover a biscuit tray or pizza pan with alfoil and reflect light into the shadows. Another useful reflector is polystyrene. Another way you can get light into the shadows is by introducing another light source such as a desk lamp or torch. This is where the assistant comes in – to hold your reflectors and manipulate the light. I didn’t have one at the time unfortunately. You can also change your position or the subject’s position – move it further from the background.

The perfect exposure isn’t shown here. Ideally, it would be found between one of these full-stop settings as I would like the overall exposure to be a little darker than the 1:4 power images, but with softer shadows.

I hope that the examples I’ve shown you give you a better idea of what can be achieved with your flash, some patience and some innovation and I look forward to where it takes you, both with your product and portrait photography.

Wait a sec – portrait photography? Yes! Grab a friend and  try out what you’ve learnt. Varying your flash outside in daylight can help remove harsh shadows and make your subject pop off the background. It can be quite striking!

Have fun!

Kell =)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s