Don’t Be Afraid To Use TTL Flash, but Use It in the Correct Way for the Best Results

Don’t Be Afraid To Use TTL Flash, but Use It in the Correct Way for the Best Results

If you dive into flash photography, it is said that manual flash is the only way to go. It offers full control over the amount of light. Although this is true, there are situations when TTL flash measurement is the better choice. I’m talking about on-camera flash photography.

Have you ever used on-camera flash? I’m not talking about the built-in flash, but a full-size flash with a unit that can rotate and tilt. If you did, how were the results? Were you using an on-camera flash as a last resort? Some refuse the use of a flash totally, calling themselves natural light photographers. I know a few personally, and I also know the reason why they refuse to use flash. They don’t know how to use it in the proper way.

Although flash can be used for many kinds of photography, like macro, sports, and nature, it is mostly for studio work. A studio offers full control over light and subject. You can also take your studio outside and combine ambient light with flash.

I love this kind of photography.

Using Flash for Studio and Outside

Studio and outside photography have one thing in common: the distance between the light source and the subject does not change. This means we can set the flash output at the required amount once and keep it there as long as the distance doesn’t change. Only when we change the light setup does a new flash exposure has to be done.

A controlled photo shoot makes it possible to shoot with a flash output that is set manually. If a new composition is made, just take a new flash exposure measurement.

This all changes if the distance between subject and flash will be different for every shot. If we have to measure the flash exposure for every single shot, flash photography would become almost impossible. Weddings, receptions, and similar events are situations when this occurs. A fixed light setup is not possible, so we need to take the flash with us. Since we move through the room, the distance between the flash and the subject will never be the same twice. An automatic flash exposure measurement like TTL flash is the solution.

TTL Flash for Flexibility

If we put a flash onto the camera, TTL comes in handy. The system will measure the required amount of flash output every time right before the photo is taken. It fires off a pre-flash and measures the exposure through the lens; that's what TTL stands for. This way, the system knows exactly how much light is needed for a correct exposure.

With an on-camera flash, the distance between flash and subject can change with every shot. If you need to measure the flash exposure for every shot, you lose a lot of time.

The beauty of the system is its flexibility. You can choose whatever aperture or ISO you want within limits. You can also use any shutter speed you like, even beyond the flash synchronization, if you activate hi-speed sync. As long as the flash unit can deliver the required amount of light, your subject will have a proper exposure.

If the flash exposure isn’t to your liking, there is the flash equivalent for exposure compensation. This way, you can change the flash output by the desired amount of stops. The flash exposure value (FEV) allows you to correct any faulty flash output that is measured and set by the TTL system.

Although the exposure will be correct, it isn't flattering light. After all, you still have direct flash. So, you need to get better light. This is when flash technique comes in.

A good balance between ambient light and flash will increase the quality of light in a lot of situations. TTL flash will help in a situation that don't allow test shots to determine the flash output.

A Proper TTL Flash Technique Is Required

A photo will benefit from good light, always. If you use flash and strobes, you need to be sure this is the case as well. It basically means no direct flash, but from an angle. Unfortunately, there will be situations when you are forced to use direct light. But with the right technique, you can still create the best possible exposure.

Just a recap: if you use flash, it is imperative to know about the difference between ambient exposure and flash exposure. You need to dial in your ambient exposure first by setting the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. Next, you dial in the amount of flash until your subject has a proper exposure. With TTL flash, this is done for you, but you might need to adjust with the flash exposure value (FEV setting). This way, you achieve the best possible balance between exposure of the subject and surroundings.

If a situation occurs where indirect flash is not possible, use flash as fill light by setting a correct ambient exposure. 

If you need to use direct flash, this is also the way to reduce the hideous flash look everyone hates. You will just add the required amount of fill light to highlight the subject. It’s not ideal, but you are no longer dependent on the available light.

A Better Way of Using On-Camera TTL Flash

What makes a good flash photo? Two things, basically. The first is a large light source to get soft light, the second is directional light. This is why studio strobes are often fitted with a large softbox and placed at an angle. It produces great shadows on the subject, creating depth.

By using on-camera flash the proper way, you may not notice flash is used. 

You can achieve this with an on-camera flash by using the rotation and tilting of the flash head. Just turn the head towards a wall nearby and bounce the flash toward the subject. The wall will act as a large softbox, which often turns out to be bigger than the ones used in studios. At the same time, the light will hit the subject from an angle. In one simple act, you create soft and directional light.

White wall all around: it's a perfect softbox for on-camera flash. 

Combine this with a proper ambient exposure and you end up with a photo that looks quite natural. In the ideal situation, you won't notice that flash was used.

Still, as long as the subject can see the flash itself, direct light will spill onto the subject. By adding a flag, you can prevent this spill light. The subject will only be lit by the directional light. If the wall you bounce off is colored in any way, a color cast can occur. In that case, you might want to forget about a flag. A bit of spill light can lift the color cast.

Use a flag to get rid of direct light spilling onto your subject. This way, you can achieve wonderful directional light.

If you don’t have a wall for bouncing light, try to find something else. A window, a mirror, or even someone else who wears light clothing. Try to prevent bouncing the flash from the ceiling, because you end up with the risk of ugly shadows under the eyebrows, nose, and chin, unless the room you’re in is relatively small, so the light can fill the whole room.

Indirect flash is used to get a proper exposure without losing the ambience.

Do You Use On-Camera Flash With TTL?

I’ve been using my on-camera flash for many years, always with the TTL system activated. There were times when it became difficult to get the best possible results and I had to rely on direct flash, especially in dark rooms, halls, and churches, when there was nothing to bounce the light off.

But with a good balance between ambient light and flash, I managed to get a good result. Thanks to the TTL system, I was flexible and fast enough to capture a lot of great moments.

On-camera flash can be tricky at times, but with TTL and bouncing off every surface that might be available, good results can be achieved.

But when I have time at hand, I do prefer to take the flash off camera and use it in manual mode. It’s using the technology that’s available when the situation asks for it. In the end, it's about getting the best possible result.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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The true master of flash photography is Neil van Niekerk. He has numerous tutorials on the use of on camera flash including the "black foamy thing" you have attached on your flash. A great deal of knowledge on his site. Here is just one.

Thanks for adding the link.
I have a few of his books.
The black foamy thing is based on A Better Bounce Card (ABBC) from Peter Gregg, I believe. Black foamy thing: cheap, easy, and very useful

True story: I was assisting Neil at a very large convention where the walls and ceiling were very high and far. As he always does he started to try to bounce with his "black foamy thing" but couldn't get enough flash power since the walls were too far; I quickly took out my "white foamy thing" and handed it to him and he put it on. Saved the day. I quietly hummed "Ebony and Ivory" just enough for him to hear me.......

Just complement some cons of TTL that the recycle time will take longer and the battery of flash will be drained faster.

THat's new to me. I can't imagine how this would effect battery life or recycle time, except perhaps because the pre-flash that will be used with TTL, although I doubt this would have a big effect.

Can you explain why this would drain the battery faster?

It's just my own experience. I use Godox V860II to shoot weddings and events. Once I used TTL and I had to use the second battery. It never happens if I use manual flash.

That's odd.
How do you work with manual flash during weddings? Are you measuring flash exposure for every shot, or just trail and error? How do you deal with the different distances between flash and subject, if you don't mind me asking?


Nando Harmsen asked,

"Have you ever used on-camera flash? I’m not talking about the built-in flash, but a full-size flash with a unit that can rotate and tilt. If you did, how were the results?"


I have indeed tried to use on-camera flash. But it was frustrating, and I failed.

I put the flash on the hot shoe, like I was supposed to (I'm pretty sure I installed it properly). However, I couldn't get the camera to work right with the flash on it. I think it was the shutter speed that wouldn't allow itself to be set properly. I was trying to shoot in manual, the way I usually do, but when the flash was there the camera kept overriding my settings and insisted on changing the shutter speed. It was horrible. Tried to figure it out for about 20 minutes, then gave up in utter frustration. Never touched the flash again. What a waste of a few hundred dollars!

EDIT: Yes, as you say in the article, I am an "ambient light photographer", and the reason I am is because I can't understand how to get my flash to work.


--- "I think it was the shutter speed that wouldn't allow itself to be set properly."
--- "when the flash was there the camera kept overriding my settings and insisted on changing the shutter speed."

Unless you're using high-speed sync (HSS) on the flash unit, your shutter speed is limited to 1/250s (or less, depends on the camera).

Black Z Eddie . already mentioned it: the flash synchronization time limits the use of faster shutter speeds. Hi-speed sync will solve the issue, but will also reduce power with 60-75%.
I always have my doubts about the use on wildlife photography. I would think flash light is disturbing the animal too much.

I use it 100% of the time when in situations using on-camera flash.

Also, it has the ability to use lower power than 1/128th. There were times when I shot in manual settings that 128th flash was just way way too bright. Either I had stop down the aperture from f2 to f5.6 (or more); or just use TTL.

I've never noticed TTL drain the battery faster. I shoot 4 hours in TTL with my Godox v860ii and battery is pretty much full bars.

Is your minimum flash power settings lower in TTL flash compared to manual flash? That's odd.
Which flash do you use, if I may ask.

In TTL, it doesn't have a flash power setting, just compensation. I usually just set the compensation to 0 (range can be -3 to +3).

I have a Godox v860ii.

TTL does have flash power setting, after all, it will set power based on the TTL measurement. But you don't see the setting displayed on the Godox.
The FEV ranges between -3 and +3, but at the lowest flash power setting -3 FEV won't work: it already reached its minimum output and can't go below that. Just like it can't go beyond the maximum power setting, when +3 FEV is set.