Flashes of in­spi­ra­tion

Ded­i­ca­tion is the key to easy yet ef­fec­tive flash pho­tog­ra­phy. Matthew Richards re­veals the best Nikon-fit buys

NPhoto - - Gear Zone -

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.

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