Flash Tips

At a September 2017 wedding assignment in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. I am using my EOS-1D X Mark II with EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens USM with an off-camera umbrella with two Canon 600EX II-RT Speedlites – of course, there is also a good amount of (helpful) available light coming through the windows. Because of the good amount of light, I set to the Av mode and aperture to f/4.5 for the first few frames, then moved to Manual once I landed on the perfect shutter speed to lock it in. To trigger my umbrella lights for added catch light detail in the eyes, I used the trusty Canon ST-E3-RT transmitter which I mounted onto my camera’s hot shoe.©Denis Reggie

Light is, of course, the basis of photography and knowing how to see, use, create or adjust it is a major factor in setting a professional apart. Like many art enthusiasts, I have long admired the work of 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. His iconic painting Girl with a Pearl Earring is not only my smartphone’s background image, but an iconic image that perfectly exhibits the facial lighting pattern that I strive for particularly in my wedding photography whether using available light or flash. The idea of having the side of the subject’s face nearer the camera (or the painter as in Vermeer’s case) in shadow while placing the highlight on the part of the face farther from the camera makes for an unmistakable and highly desirable sense of depth. Side lighting - including beautiful window light - seems a far better way to convey the three-dimensional aspect of a scene often called depth. To be blunt, it’s relatively straight-forward to simply convey the first two dimensions – height and width - without much effort, special equipment or know how. A seasoned professional is likely adept at using either created or found light – or some combination – and is armed with critical know-how to properly illuminate the subject and convey depth and dimensional presence similar to what we see in Vermeer’s legendary work.

This group photograph was taken last year on New Year’s Eve at an Atlanta wedding assignment. I used my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens USM, off-camera umbrella light with two speedlights set for E-TTL and with CTO filters attached, and using the ST-E3-RT transmitter on my camera to trigger off-camera lights. My camera setting was set manually to 1/100 sec. at f/4 at 1250 ISO.

The most typical applications of flash are to (a) directly aim the light toward a subject - the same lighting method used so often with smartphones – or (b) use the popular technique of adding a diffuser or some white surface to the flash intending to send softer light toward the subject. Neither of these techniques provides a side direction of light to create a shadow on the near-side of the face, and therefore neither will convey Vermeer’s presence and depth. One simple observation is that forward-moving light illuminates both sides of the subject’s face evenly – sometimes called “flat lighting” which infers only a two-dimensional result – while side lighting means that one side of the face is lighter (highlight) than the other (shadow) which results in a three-dimensional representation - think Vermeer.

Another Atlanta wedding assignment from November 2016. I used my EOS 5D Mark IV with EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens USM, off-camera umbrella lighting triggered with the Canon ST-E3-RT transmitter.

For my wedding assignments, I first look for a naturally occurring source that already side lights the subject - perhaps a nearby window – that allows me to capture the subject with the desired dimensional effect. In reality, at most of my indoor, evening assignments, the task will likely include use of a flash whether (a) off-camera – using a flash that’s aimed into an umbrella that’s mounted on a light stand and triggered by a transmitting device that is on my camera; this is the typical way I light formal groups, or (b) on-camera - when I place the Speedlite onto the hot shoe of my camera but point or aim the flash head away from the subject, toward some nearby wall so the light bounces off that wall and onto the subject. Becoming an expert in these techniques, especially learning optimum aiming for the flash, as is most always the case in learning, takes time and practice.

I learned early on from trial-and-error to avoid bouncing light off of mirrors, glass and very dark walls. I often embrace the use of color-correcting filters to change the output of my Speedlite from its usual 5500K color temperature to a much warmer 3200K if it better matches the room’s ambient light. Many indoor receptions have warm lighting (some venues have lighting with gels installed to create an inviting mood) and having my flash’s color temperature more closely match that color means that the subject will not have those warm/yellow competing highlights on heads, noses, and shoulders from typical incandescent (or even LED nowadays) canned ceiling lights.

Midtown Atlanta skyline featured in the background of this post-wedding portrait of the newlywed couple. I used my EOS5D Mark IV with EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens USM which I mounted on tripod so I could slow shutter speed to ¼ sec at f/3.5 to increase impact of the evening skyline. Just off camera, my assistant is holding a 600EX II-RT speedlite with CTO filter attached which is aimed toward the subjects and set for E-TTL. A Canon ST-E3 transmitter is on the hot shoe of my camera to trigger the off-camera speedlite.

I use both Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and Canon EOS 5D Mark IV cameras at my wedding assignments along with 600EX II-RT Speedlites. When using off-camera flash techniques, I use the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-R3 device to trigger the off-camera Speedlites which are mounted in an umbrella setup (another hot shoe mounted Speedlite could be used instead to trigger the off-camera flash). Because I work quickly as the wedding is happening in real time, I set my camera for RAW files and AWB (automatic white balance) then plan on fine tuning my images in post-production with Canon Digital Photo Professional or Adobe Lightroom.

This group photograph was also taken last year on New Year’s Eve at an Atlanta wedding assignment. I used my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens USM, off-camera umbrella light with two speedlites with CTO filters attached, using the ST-E3 transmitter. My setting was set manually to 1/100 sec. at f/4 at 1250 ISO.

After hundreds and hundreds of wedding assignments, I have grown more comfortable setting my own shutter and aperture settings for most indoor situations, using M (manual) mode rather than using another mode like Av (Aperture Priority) - which I often use outdoors, that measures ambient light to choose a shutter speed for me. Most dark receptions don’t really have enough light to meter, in my opinion, so I simply choose a setting then add my flash which is set for E-TTL (automated) exposure. A typical setting for a bride and groom entering their evening reception or even as they head down the aisle at the end of the church or synagogue ceremony (if permitted to document by the house rules, of course) might be 1/125 second at f/3.2 at 3200 ISO and with my 600EX-II flash aimed at a (fingers-crossed) light-colored wall with a CTO (Color Temperature Orange) filter snapped onto the flash to emit 3200K lighting if I’ve judged that as the closest color match to the ambient light. (Canon thoughtfully includes a couple of snap-on color filters and a diffuser packaged with the Canon Speedlite 600EX -II-RT units.)

From my September 2017 wedding assignment in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, using my EOS-1D X Mark II with EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens USM and using an off-camera umbrella with two Canon 600EX II-RT Speedlites. To trigger my umbrella lights, I use the trusty Canon ST-E3-RT transmitter which is mounted on my camera’s hot shoe.

A little-known fact about Canon’s intuitive E-TTL flash metering: the system is actually aware of when the flash is pointing straight-ahead toward the subject so it knows to include distance information obtained from the autofocused EF lens in its flash exposure computation. The moment, however, the flash head is turned away – presumably toward a wall or ceiling – the E-TTL system sets flash exposure based on the pre-flash measurement of reflected light rather than using any distance data from the lens/AF function. The exposure accuracy is nothing short of amazing whether using direct or bounced lighting techniques. Bravo, Canon.

To emulate the look of Vermeer, whether using off-camera or on-camera flash technique, I aim to accent the side of the face farthest from the camera, keeping the near-side of the face in shadow. I love the three-dimensional look that instantly separates my work from others who use direct or forward-aimed lighting.

I guess you might say it’s a lighting technique 350 years in the making.