How To Use Flash: Tips For Beginners

Last Updated on March 21, 2021

man photographing at beach

In this article you will learn actionable tips that will allow you to effectively use an external flash.

Even if you have never even touched a flash before this article will equip you with the skills needed to begin flash photography. The steps will be easy to follow and after learning these tips you will be able to begin capturing great images.

These skills will allow you to do all the basics, for more advanced techniques check out my advanced flash photography guide.

What To Look For In An External Flash

When looking to purchase a speedlight or flash for the first time you should keep the following things in mind to ensure you get the right flash for your needs.

Check Compatibility

First you need to make sure the flash is compatible with your camera. There are tons of flashes available and not all will pair with your camera. There are flashes made by camera makers, such as Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji Film, Olympus, Pentax and more. There are also third party flash makers such as Godox and Yongnuo.

If you go with a major brand flash it will likely be compatible with your camera but not all third party models will work so be sure before spending any money. If you want some help finding the best flash for your camera and style of photography check the links at the bottom of this article with my recommended flashes.

closeup of camera dials

Get A Flash With Head Tilt And Rotation

A flash worth investing in will have a flash head that tilts and rotates. This is a crucial feature as you improve your flash photography skill. Tilt and rotation allow you great creative freedom in producing the most flattering and pleasing lighting possible. Bounce lighting is something you will learn more about in time and tilt and rotation are needed to create bounce lighting.

Know Your Guide Number

You will find a value listed as guide number on all flashes. This tells you how much power output your flash is capable of producing. The higher the guide number is the more power the flash can produce. When first starting out it is best to get a flash that can handle general flash photography. A guide number somewhere around 30 to 60 will be sufficient.

camera mode dial switch

How Much To Spend On A Flash

When purchasing your first flash do not feel like you need to pay top dollar. While you may want to upgrade in the future, you can get excellent performance and features without spending a forture.

Keep in mind that camera brand flashes, like Canon and Nikon, will cost more money. They produce some amazing flashes and I use them myself, but you can get great performance from third party makers like Yongnuo and Godox at a fraction of the cost.

Third party speedlites are not all bottom shelf junk (but there are some models not worth your money) so save a big chunk of change by going third party for your first flash.

How To Use Your Flash On Camera

There are multiple ways to use your flash on camera but beginners should start by attaching it to the hot shoe at the top of your camera.

Keep in mind that your flash can be used off camera but first you want to get the hand of using it attached to your camera.

Attach Your Flash To The Camera

As stated above, you will want to use the hot shoe on the top of your camera to secure the flash.

First make sure that your speedlight is not in lock mode. Now simply slide your flash in the hot shoe.

You will not have to force your flash into place so if it is not gliding into place make sure that the lock mode is not set on.

Once the flash is all the way forward on the hot shoe it is in place. Now you will secure the locking dial. Make sure this step is not skipped or your flash will fall off and get damaged or even land on you!

camera external flash

Flash Modes Explained

Now that you know how to connect your flash to your camera you need to learn what all the modes on your flash are for. There can be tons of options so it is important to know what to use and when to use it.

For this lesson you will learn the most frequently used modes. The rest will be covered in the advanced flash lesson.

The majority of flashes and speedlights have three modes. Selecting a mode generally is accomplished by selecting a button on the flash. For the specific location of your flash do a quick check on your owners manual.

Manual Flash Mode

Manual flash mode will give you the most control over your flash. It is also the one that will take the most thought as you will need to measure the ambient light in the scene you are picturing.

Because of this, it can be frustrating for many beginners. Some instructors ask beginners to avoid manual mode but that is a mistake. While it will take some time to be comfortable with it, the knowledge will significantly improve your overall photography skill.

At first you will get inconsistent results from manual mode but that is to be expected so don’t let it get to you. Remember, anything worth doing is worth working for.

Multi Flash Mode

Multi flash mode is used primarily by more experienced photographers. For that reason do not worry too much about it right now. But be aware that multi mode is when your flash fires a series of light bursts during one exposure. You will learn more about this mode in the future.

TTL Flash Mode

TTL stands for Through The Lens and it functions as a small pre-flash that fires right before the actual flash is fired. This pre-flash is not seen by the naked eye. It allows your internal light meter to gage the lighting in the scene to automatically sets the flash power to achieve proper exposure.

TTL is the mode that beginners should be spending the most time using. For many amateur photographers, this is the only mode used. But remember, you should be getting acquainted with manual mode at the same time.

TTL does work best when your camera settings are optimized for your flash, and you will find that info a little further down.

Learn more about TTL flash vs manual flash

And that’s all the modes a beginner needs to be thinking about right now, let’s move on!

Flash Exposure

The next setting you need to understand to use your flash is the flash exposure compensation (FEC). This setting allows you to adjust the amount of flash exposure you use. You can increase it or decrease it. The amount of adjustment varies by flash.

The majority of the time you will keep your flash exposure compensation set to zero. This setting is operated via button push followed by a dial adjustment on the flash. The button will have a plus/minus symbol on it. Some flashes allow you to set the FEC on the camera, but that is generally only possible when using a camera brand flash.

How To Use Flash Exposure Compensation

When the flash exposure compensation mode is set to a positive number the flash will offer more light. The opposite happens when set to a negative number.

Camera Settings For Flash Photography

Now for a quick overview of the basics of settings for your camera when using a speedlight.

Since most of the time you will be shooting in TTL mode at first, do not set your camera to manual mode. Manual mode will be a lot to handle for a new photographer.

With that out of the way, let’s go over the settings you should be using.

Program Mode Uses

For beginners who have not learned about exposure yet, program mode is a good starting place. But you should not use this mode for long. Study exposure so you can move on to better modes.

Aperture Priority Mode Uses

This is a great mode to use when shooting outdoors without a tripod. This mode does not work as well indoors so use with caution if shooting inside.

Shutter Priority Mode Uses

This is the second mode you will use frequently when using a flash. It works both indoors and outdoors.

nikon external camera flash


Now you know what you need to get started with flash photography. There is still more to learn but focus on these steps until you feel comfortable shooting with your speedlight. Keep it simple and soon you will be ready for the advanced flash photography steps.

For more flash guides and tips check out these articles