Why Available Light Photographers Should Learn Flash

Before I knew anything about flash, I ranted at everyone about how I was an available light photographer. Now that I understand flash, I can safely say that I understand available light.

This is not an attack on anyone out there; this video only exists because I was that person. You may find yourself hating flash, Photoshop, or raw files before you have tried them; they are daunting, or you simply tried and failed hard. It is what we do when we are scared of the unknown. For years, I told people that I was an available light photographer, but in reality, I could only expose for ambient light, compose, focus, and hit the shutter. I didn’t actually understand light at all. 

A decade after venturing into flash, I started to use it daily for my commercial work. It really is the only answer for the genre of food photography that I work in, especially when dealing with the British sunshine. So, I had no choice but to begin the long process of mastering flash.

Recently, I was asked to photograph an event, which is pretty much my worst nightmare. I sucked it up (it was for a friend) and went along to the venue, where I was told I couldn’t use flash due to some old paintings. I suddenly realized how well I now understood light since working with flash. Before, I would have snapped away nicely composed images; now, I had a purpose for the shots and how I was going to light them.

In this video, I go over my experiences of going from flash hater to daily flash user and how this transition has made be a far better available light photographer than I believe I would have been had I stuck to my guns. 

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21 Comments

Imho, a photographer cant take his creativity to a higher level if he doesnt use flash to have a variety of images. Shooting available light can only do so much. You deal with what you have and its limiting. I have much respect for those who know how to mix available with flash. I dont always use flash but do when I want.

Flash is easy to use and the problem people get stuck with is ttl. Ttl is good for certain situations. But its not consistent because the camera does the calculations. Doing portraits or still image pictures is an easy way to learn flash. With ttl, you can get totally different images even if something minute like a small ray of light creeps in and will make ut think theres backlight or the scene is overexposed. Something I can say about myself is that im very strong in understanding light and light color and mixing them

In an hour of "show and tell" I can teach someone how to integrate flash into available light. Very easy
With all the inexpensive godox/yongnuo/shanny/pixel flashes and transceivers, there has never been a better time to buy and learn to use flash

Michael Holst's picture

While you make great points I would be careful when saying "A photographer". Photography is pretty broad and some types of photography, like landscape or astrophotography, don't really have a need for flash. Many photographers from those categories can carve out a very impressive and consistent portfolio without ever picking up a flash.

Obviously some subjects dont need the use of flash. But every photographer shoots other subjects.

Colin Robertson's picture

You don’t use flash in your astro photography? Pppbbsch. Amateur.

And don't use a lens,tripod or any other tool. Someone who has never heard that every flash ever made has manual settings instead of just TTL. I don't get how not knowing how to use the most common tools i.e. flash, or lightroom,photoshop makes one "better" at photography

We can look at a variety of things. I think people specifically use ps/lr because they lack in getting a good image in camera. They lack technical/artistic skill and try to add that later

Learning to use flash is so easy, within an hour of show and tell I could teach anyone to shoot with flash. The problem is the ttl part that everyone gets confused with.
No technical nonsense

As long as the person understands their camera and the basics of iso/aperture/shutter I can show and teach anyone how to shoot a portrait or to light something . Start with 1 flash then 2 or more. Its so simple

When youre shooting available light you're taking only what you have available but its not always the most aesthetic light for the subject. Sometimes you need flash to get a better picture. We can branch out this conversation endlessly to different areas of using flash. Im focusing on basic lighting to understand how to light something basic and so simple.

That is hilarious considering Ansel Adams himself made photos more in the darkroom than the field. I am so blessed to speak to someone who knows more about image making. Is there any gallery I can see your images in? Maybe buy some prints?

John Dawson's picture

Flash is available light. ;-)

Yep, if you have a flash, it is

michaeljinphoto's picture

In my opinion, self-imposed limitations should best be used as a creative choice rather than a crutch. That means having a basic understanding of flash even if you then choose to never use it.

That doesn't mean that you need to suddenly be able to guess your flash power on the fly based on distance the way an experienced event photographer might. It just means developing a fundamental understanding of things like flash duration, lighting ratios, inverse square law, etc.

michael andrew's picture

Flash or any “supplemental lighting” is used to augment the scene to benefit the scene, if the scene doesn’t need it great, if the scene can be moved to a better location where the available light needs no augmentation great, however, once the scene can’t be moved (for whatever reasons) and is not ideal per lighting than introduce supplemental lighting and you can expanded your tool bag as a photographer. I personally love supplemental lighting as it allows me to work in scenes without the stress of worrying about the poor lighting conditions it may suffer from and that makes me more comfortable, however if you are not experienced with flash, be quick on your feet, move and find scenes that already look good and don’t need to be augmented, that’s ok too.

Fun fact, in a Hollywood world that uses extremely
Extensive supplemental Lighting scenes, the film The Revenant was shot using almost entirely “natural light”. Ofcourse I’m sure the used lots of refeltors and scrims ect... but I just find that pretty incredible.

michaeljinphoto's picture

"The Revenant was shot using almost entirely “natural light”. Ofcourse I’m sure the used lots of refeltors and scrims ect... but I just find that pretty incredible."

I didn't know this, but that's pretty crazy to think about such a high end production pulling that off...

Alex Herbert's picture

I always have at LEAST one flash/strobe with me when I have my camera, therefore they are always 'available'.

Robert Montgomery's picture

Not to say there haven't been great photograpers who used ambient light as a choice. But usually a statement declaring , I only use ambient light is code for I do not understand lighting and do not know how to properly light a subject or use a light/strobe/flash. Like I said it is different not knowing and choosing only what is available . Fill flash can do wonders in broad daylight . Learn the ratios learn what a GN is and how to set it with&w/o TTL. Who knows , it just might improve your work.

Daniel Medley's picture

With few exceptions, having a handle on both flash and available light and being willing and able to use either is probably a wise thing.

Deleted Account's picture

Lost me at 'need' and 'should'
Who are we to tell people to do something?

Deleted Account's picture

It's always good for a chuckle when people shoot fireworks or landscape using a speedlight.

I used to get the biggest laugh watching football games on TV and see a thousand smartphone flash pops go off during the half time show!

[Bugs Bunny] "What a maroon"

I had a photographic mentor who used to say that the difference between a pro and an amateur is… the amateur can bring back a stunning shot with today's cameras but the pro ALWAYS has to bring back a stunning shot.

Having flash skills helps ensure that no matter the conditions, we ALWAYS get our shot.

We dont always have to use flash but when we want something creative/better then the light we have then well use it. And we wont give the "excuse" of "I only shoot available light" because we dont know how to use flash. shooting sunset portraits (warming gel) or even night cityscape portraits, you will need to use flash. Available light can only do so much. I dont always use flash just because there isnt enough light but I will use multiple lights to get something outstanding. Using colored gels at times. Tons of options to do with flash.

Available light photographers Lmao