Flashes of inspiration
Dedication is the key to easy yet effective flash photography. Matthew Richards reveals the best Nikon-fit buys
Not just there for life’s darker moments, a flashgun can make a massive difference to the quality of lighting, even under
the midday sun. Indeed, they’re particularly useful for softening or eliminating unsightly shadows in sunny-day portraits. However, whether you’re shooting against a backdrop of night-time city lights, stepping indoors for some interior shots, or competing with the beaming sun, successful flash photography is all about balance.
Trying to work out how much flash power you need in any given situation used to demand some mental (and sometimes maddening) arithmetic. Nowadays, thanks to TTL (Through The Lens) flash metering, your camera can team up with a dedicated flashgun to strike a great balance between exposing for ambient light, and applying just the right level of flash power. At least, that’s the theory. In practice, you might often want to tweak the camera’s exposure settings as well as the flash exposure compensation for best results. Even so, fully automatic settings tend to get things right much more often than they used to, thanks to the advent of Nikon’s TTL-BL (Balanced fill-flash) flash metering option. Compared with
regular TTL flash metering, this takes more account of ambient lighting levels. Indeed, TTL-BL is the default flash mode for most of Nikon’s recent flashguns, and is available in all models in this group apart from the Gloxy and Phottix, which only give the option for regular TTL.
Bounce, swivel, stretch
The most direct flash route is to slide your flashgun into your camera’s hotshoe, point and shoot. This can yield decent results, but images tend to have a two-dimensional ‘snapshot’ look. All the flashguns on test have bounce and swivel heads, enabling you to fire the flash at a wall or ceiling instead of directly at the subject (see page 52). When reflected off a large white surface like a wall, the size of the light source effectively becomes very much bigger. This generates a much softer quality of light that’s much more flattering for portraiture.
You can also get much better results by using your flashgun off-camera. The traditional way to do this is to use a flash extension cord which links the flashgun to the camera’s hotshoe via a stretchable curly cable. However, most current flashguns have wireless communications built in, so they can operate in master or slave modes for multi-flashgun set-ups.
A down side of bounce flash, especially in areas with very high ceilings or distant walls, is that the light from the flash has to travel a lot further. The intensity of light drops off according to the inverse square law (here comes that maths again), which basically means that if you double the distance you only get a quarter of the light. You can therefore find your flashgun coming up short on available power if you try to bounce the light too far.
For direct flash, at least, all the flashguns on test apart from the Nikon SB-500 have the advantage of an automatic, motorised zoom head. This means they narrow the flash beam to keep in step with longer zoom settings or when changing to a lens with a longer focal length, typically over a range of 24-105mm (FX cameras), or 16-70mm (DX). After all, there’s no point wasting power illuminating a wide area if you’re only shooting a narrow area with a telephoto lens.