Beginners Guide to External Flash

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Natural light is beautiful and photographers love it, that is a fact. However, there are times when the natural light you have available is not sufficient for what you are trying to capture. That is when having a flash is advantageous.

Will any old flash work, like the one built into your camera? Oh, but no. The flash on your camera is not a great tool. If used at factory settings, it is harsh and will create images with terrible shadows, pin lights in eyes and other less-than-desirable effects to your pictures.

No, the flash I am talking about today is an external flash that you buy separate from your camera and you slide and lock into the “hotshoe” mount on top of your camera.

This post only grazes the top of the very deep pool that is flash. I want to be clear that I am still learning about flash myself and that I do not know all. These are merely some things I’ve learned that may be helpful to others who are just starting out with flash.

Now, disclaimer having been stated, let’s move forward and learn some basics about flash.

There are two ways to use your external flash: TTL – “through the lens” or Manual. I am only discussing TTL today because it’s easiest and best for beginners of flash.

Things to do/remember when using an external flash on your DSLR.

#1 – Although the pictures of external flashes show them pointing forward, seldom should you point them forward.

  • Point your flash straight up to the ceiling, or towards the back or side
  • Light from the flash will reflect off the ceiling or wall and cast lovely light onto your subject

#2 – Put your camera in Manual mode

  • You need to be able to control the ISO and the shutter speed, so manual mode is what you need

#3 – Dial down your ISO to 200 or 250

  • You’re using flash to provide light, so your camera doesn’t need to be sensitive to the ambient light (light already in the room/area)
  • Nice thing about pictures with flash, your ISO is low so your noise is low also

#4 – Make your shutter speed 200 on a Canon and 250 on a Nikon.

  • You will not be metering when using your flash, so you can set the shutter speed and then forget it
  • You will be using the EV button on the flash itself(at least on a Nikon flash it’s set as that) to brighten or darken via the flash
  • Non Canon/Nikon users, I am sorry that I do not know the specifics of your brand of flash.

#5 – Be prepared for some trial and error.

  • In the words of David Hobby, “flash is like soup; it’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that”
  • Start with the settings above, take a shot, then adjust things, especially the EV (like exposure compensation) to make flash stronger or weaker
  • Editing to add that on entry level model cameras you may not be able to make adjustments to the EV and have it affect the image. When I used my flash on my Nikon D60, no matter how I changed the EV, the flash output was the same.
  • You will need to learn your flash some, to know how to adjust the EV, I illustrate doing so on the SB-900, but do not have other flashes to use as examples

Below are three examples of how much the direction of the light can impact your photo. I think in this example the pointed up and back worked best, but there are many times when bouncing off the wall works better (especially if you’re going for more dramatic light).

Now, for some reason I didn’t get a shot of him with a lower EV value with it facing up and back. I think +.3 would have been the best setting.

All images below are SOOC, only resized and sharpened a bit for the web.


Looking to Add a Flash to Your Camera Bag?

If you do not yet own a speedlight, but you are looking to get one soon, you may be wondering which one to get. Each brand has different levels of flash, with the least expensive ones having less options and less user-friendliness as a result. I would recommend NOT getting the lowest priced/level one but get the mid-level or even the top-level depending on your budget.

Why not get the low-level one? Because they tend to be more difficult to use and that will translate into you not using it as much, so the money you spent will be wasted. Pay a bit more and get one that is easier to use, so you will use it.

Also, if you cannot afford the current model of the flash you want, look for USED flashes. People are all the time buying them, then selling because they don’t use them enough or decide that natural light is the only way for them.

Another option still is getting an off-brand flash. My friend Cheryl at TidyMom told me about the Yongnuo flash that is just $70 and gets fantastic reviews. It does not offer TTL, but learning manual is not very difficult. It’s a very affordable flash for those hesitant about investing in a flash when they are uncertain how much they will use it.

About Amanda

I am passionate about helping others learn how to use their DSLR cameras and editing programs. More information about me can be found at my About page, or by visiting my personal blog.


  1. Awesome post! I’ve been thinking about an external flash, I might have to take the plunge.

    • Shirley,
      Thank you! I feel like I just dipped my toe in the water last year, and want to really take the plunge this year, in terms of figuring it out more and utilizing it more often.

      I want to take a moment to say that I love your blog! I stop by often and relish the peacefulness that is there and that is in your photos!

  2. Just Christmas morning, I was getting frustrated with not being able to take action shots due to the lack of proper lighting, and realized that it’s time for an external flash. Thank you for this post; it’s been very helpful for this flash newbie.

    • Shelli,
      I totally agree! Natural light is great, but there are so many times that we don’t have the light we need and a flash would make things so much easier/better. It’s been a very handy tool to have in my camera bag and has “saved” me many a time.

      I hope the info in this post proves helpful when you get your flash.

  3. Thanks Amanda, I’ve been wanting an external flash and this helps.

    One question, what do you set WB on for external flash?

    • Cheryl,
      I often forget to change my WB with flash; today’s pics were taken on “cloudy.” The WB Flash setting does pretty well also.

  4. Thanks Amanda. I have been fighting the flash…my D.H. laughs at me all the time about it. But I am going to have to break down and just do it! Did I mention I love your Blog…..

  5. Thanks Amanda: I have purchased the Speedlight 580OEX II for Canon and am just getting started to learn it. V

    • Valerie,
      Yay! That is exciting! I hope this post helps some then! And, please feel welcome to share a few flash shots on EE’s FB page; I’d love to see them!

  6. Thank you! I have been fearing the flash and needed a beginners tute!

  7. Stacy Morin says:

    Thank you so much for this! I have had a flash for 3 years and haven’t “gotten” it-Now I think I do!!!! Or atleast a little bit more than I did! lol

    • Stacy,
      I hope this helps connects some dots for you! Please share some pics with us at EE’s FB page, if you can! I’d love to know/see that the info helped others.

  8. For Canons the maximum shutter speed you can use with flash is 1/200. I’m looking forward to more flash blog posts!

    • Thank you, Andrea, for sharing that. I’ve edited the post to reflect that info.

      I do not have a Canon flash (yet) so I am in the dark (no pun intended). LOL

  9. SuperJenn says:

    Great info! I was so opposed to flash until I started using the off camera flash…. Oh! What a difference! LOL!

    I took a class at our local art center and she suggested setting the camera to f/5.6 and shutter speed 60 for starters since the flash will help freeze motion…. it has been a good rule of thumb so far. You know, in the month I’ve been using a speed light. 😉

    • Jenn,
      Thank you so much for sharing what you learned! I am still working to wrap my brain around flash, so honestly I have only been trying what I learned at the FlashBus workshop. I will try out the settings your teacher suggested!

      I just ordered three books on flash in hopes that I will be able to understand more of the technical side of flash.

  10. Thank you so much for this info, most helpful. Do you have a mid range Nikon speed light to recommend?

  11. You look just fine Amanda! 🙂 I’ve been using my light lately because I needed to overcome my fear of it. Now mind you I am big with natural light as much as possible but there are times that I may really need the flash so I’m using it when I have to. I don’t have a fancy light. In fact the light I have (i won’t say I wasted money) because it does what I need it to do but Mine is just a standard one by Sigma. I did also buy a Gary Fong lightsphere dome. I have a white and amber colored one. I use the white one so far to help diffuse the light. It’s great for getting rid of a shadow behind the person! The amber colored dome I haven’t used yet really.

    I will add a tip here for those that don’t know yet.
    On your external flash, there is a little piece that should slide out and over the flash…look for it. I didn’t know it existed when I first bought my flash. One day I just happen to see it there. LOL ok so those are there to get the catch lights in your subject’s eyes. There…now you know!

    Peace out!

    • Gina,
      Great tips! I bought a type of diffuser and plan to share it in the next post on flash. There is SO much that one could talk about with regards to flash, so much you can do to it and with it. Exciting stuff to learn and experiment with!

  12. Ronda Morris says:

    My DH a 580 EX II speedlite and I don’t have a clue on how to use it. I’ll read your article this evening when I get home…. but from all the positive comments, I’m sure this will give me a great start. Thx bunches & Happy New Year!!

  13. Thanks so much for the info!!!

  14. Thanks for the great tutorial on the external flash. I have a Canon and have been wondering about purchasing an external …. think I’ll be doing it sooner than later! Thanks ….

  15. loved this! Thank you! I am doing a wedding in a dim lit church on the 14th and scared to death of what the pics will look like! This has helped, I hope! lol I would love to hear more about off camera flash too! 🙂

  16. Sarah Ann Hidy says:

    Thanks for the awesome article….can’t wait to dust off my external flash and try some of your suggestions. This has been simple and short yet packed with information! Thanks!

  17. CindyY fm SA says:

    Thank you so much, Amanda, for all you do to help us gain knowledge in all things photography. This post about learning to use an external flash is super! In fact, it has encouraged me to get mine out of its case and onto the camera.

    I was wondering about using the flash in rooms with really high ceilings. I suppose I would just up the EV until I got a result I was happy with. Do I up the EV in the camera, too, or just on the flash?

  18. You always have the best tips!! My Hubby just got me the SB700 for Christmas, and I’m trrrrryyyying to learn it. This is SO helpful, thank you!

  19. Thank you, Amanda! I’ve had an external flash for some time, but am very intimidated by it.

  20. I’m so excited to see that you are covering the area of flash in your tutorials. Thank you!

  21. Thank you so much for this write up. I love using my OCF. I really get so very tired of reading “I am ONLY a natural light photographer.” Photography is all about learning to control the light and the OCF is just another tool that a good photographer should learn to control. IMHO

  22. Thank you so much for posting this! I have been contemplating doing a spendy class on this topic but am confident that I can play around for awhile first without spending the money now. Thanks!

  23. Thanks for the tips! I just got an External Flash for my Cannon EOS for Christmas and can’t wait to use it and learn more about it! Thanks for sharing!

  24. Leah Landry says:

    This is great! I was so frustrated Christmas morning because I didn’t have the light I needed to get some great shots of my kids opening their presents. I saw this on your blog the other day, and I vowed to get an external flash. I guess my husband saw my frustration, so he bought me one for my birthday! These are great tips to help me get started. I can’t wait to learn more!

  25. I’m going to have to break down and get one. I often run outta of light at the worst times. What would you suggest for a $300 or less budget, Amanda? I’m a cannon gal.

  26. I’m scared to buy without a direct okay from you, lol

  27. I a bit today. I WANT the 500 model but I might have to be happy with the 300$plans version 🙂

  28. Great tips but what if you are using outside at night and there is nothing to bounce the flash off of? What are the settings and the approach to use then?

  29. Cant wait for the next blog on external flash. Just got the YN560. Thank you.

  30. Regina Ellison says:

    Thanks for the post Amanda! I’m looking at purchasing a flash maybe in October for my birthday.

  31. Would love to see more about external flash in 2013!

  32. This is a great post!

    I also found that using old flashes from the 1990s/1980s will work as well. I shoot on a Canon 60D and I use the old Canon 199A flash with a few adjustments (with the camera to flash contacts). Its slower than new flashes but works like a charm! It was virtually free…and I almost gave it away! 🙂

    PS: I stumbled on your page through TidyMom (first time visiting that site as well).

  33. I honestly definitely enjoy this motion picture! So excellent and amazing. Really enjoy to view it once more and once again.

  34. For some reason only fifty percent of of the post is being displayed, is it my on-line browser or the site?

  35. Maintain all the nice work going by posting more informative posts. Thank you. Time properly spent on this post.

  36. It is very interesting article and quite impressive too.I like the way you describe all the things and the examples.Thanks

  37. I just recently got the 430EX II for Christmas. Now I’m looking on suggestions for what is the best equipment to get for my camera to “talk” to the flash so that my on camera flash doesn’t have to go off. I’ve done some research, but I’m not sure what to get.

  38. Oh the horrors of people posting on subjects they know so little about. For starters, the shutter speed has nothing to do with the flash. It has to do with the amount of time before or after the flash fires that allows for the ambient light in the scene to expose. The aperture has all to do with the amount light the flash will generate. A wider aperture, more light and less depth of field. Your use of Ev up and down can be reduced greatly just by using the correct aperture for the scene to be illuminated.

    Bouncing flash is what photographers do when they don’t understand how to control the power of the flash. Did you know that on many flash units the TTL falters when you bounce it? That’s because the flash is sending the signal of distance from the flash to the ceiling, and not the subject. You need to compensate for the exposure when bouncing TTL.

    Your disclaimer about just beginning in flash photography should be a warning to yourself that you’re just ready to spew mis-information to the world. People are much better off buying a book like “Understanding Flash Photography” by Bryan Peterson and getting the right information the first time.

  39. Pauline Funiciello says:

    Thank you so much! This was very helpful…. Will you be doing any more posts on external flash? Thanks!

  40. Great job!

  41. Cindy Lynn says:

    Thank you! I took a bunch of family photos with flash at Christmas. I wish I’d read this first. I had to do a lot of noise reduction. I did not set my iso low like you said. On auto it went to 1600 I see now. No wonder I had so much grain in some. New ideas for me to try.


  1. […] I had brought my flash and a slew of reflectors. I positioned my sister behind me, holding the reflector in the air a bit. […]

  2. […] I have made some progress. First, I found this article from Everyday Elements: Beginner’s Guide to Using External Flash. Next was this article on making your own bounce flash. What finally did me in was this post on […]

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