5 ways speed lights can improve your photography

Photography is all about using and shaping light. In fact, the word ‘photography’ actually stems from painting with light. Using flashes, commonly known as speed lights helps us add light, often dramatically improving our photos and are great fun to experiment with.

This shot was taken with a speed light in a home studio showing that you do not necessarily need a fully equipped studio to produce dynamic and interesting images.

Below, I’d like to outline five different ways that a speed light(s) can help improve your photography.

Generally as a rule of thumb as light is being created by a speed light in all of these scenarious, I would advise keeping your ISO as low as possible.

Bouncing Light

Unlike the small pop up flash on many cameras, a speed light has many advantages. It is more powerful, versatile and can be rotated and tilted. This means you can bounce and direct light off surfaces whether a side-wall or a surface above or behind you. Swiveling the speed light to bounce light off surfaces helps diffuse light and create more flattering portraits; most speed lights also have a built in fill card to help you bounce light. However, be careful what type of wall you choose to bounce the light. If you choose one that is too dark, it will suck up a lot of light meaning you’ll have to use a higher power to achieve the desired result draining valuable battery. You also need to bear in mind the colour of the surface you are bouncing the speed light off.  Of course, flash has it’s own colour but, brightly coloured walls will produce a colour cast on your models that you should be wary of. Nevertheless, whatever surface you choose to bounce your speed light off will create a different, dynamic and exciting effect. Don’t be afraid to experiment and most importantly, be creative.

Bettering shots in low light situations

Even with the vast improvement in camera sensor technology and the ability to now increase ISO levels with very little noise creation, there are still times where flash is required whether out of necessity or for creativity. This could be if you’re at a dimly lit event, in a dark room or at a gig. In my career, a common occurrence I often use is to rig flash strobes to the ceilings of dark sporting arenas such as basketball and hockey stadiums. I then remotely trigger these from my camera. This allows me to get take advantage of more light and thus use faster shutter speeds to get the action shots I require. Speed lights also helps greatly when I’m on location, am travelling light and end up in a dimly lit spot.


For example, this portrait was shot in a dark room helped by using a speed light. A black and white conversion helps ones eyes concentrate on the intimacy of the portrait; it’s light and lines are more defined without the distraction of colour.

Capturing High Speed Action Using Flash

Flashes produce rapid and instantaneous bursts of light that can last approximately 1/15,000 or faster. This provides us with ample creative opportunities to capture moving subjects with clarity and sharpness in ways that the human eye can’t see; I am sure many of you are familiar with the shots of bullets flying through exploding apples captured at the precise moment it pierces the fruit and shatters it into hundreds of pieces. However, you don’t necessarily need such an intricate set up. I would encourage you to experiment with different flash settings, positions, colours and backgrounds; you will be amazed at the results you can achieve.


For example, this shot was taken with two speed lights, both off camera and set on manual mode in my home. The blue of the textured jeans provided a contrasted background against the vivid yellow lemon; you may have to play around a few times to get the right settings and the right splash but that’s all part of the fun!

Getting creative by moving the flash off camera

Further, a speed light can be used off your camera, triggered remotely wirelessly or via infrared. Alternatively, a number of speed lights can all be used at the same time in different positions providing endless creative lighting solutions. Blasting light directly at our subject often looks unnatural. Therefore, by getting the speed light off camera (above, below, to the side), you can create more flattering images and also become more creative with your lighting solutions. For example, you can start to use more than one speed light in unison placed behind a model to produce a backlit effect. Moving flashes off camera ultimately leads to you adding a whole new skill to your photographic arsenal and opens up endless possibilities of creativity in your image making. I always like to refer people to strobist.com as a good resource for how to use off camera speed lights.

This photograph was taken on assignment when on a Royal Navy ship where I was limited with the amount of gear I could carry. The versatility and compactness of a speed light meant it was the perfect lighting solution. I positioned it off camera to the left of the frame to add some dynamism, depth and drama as the fireman emerged from the smoking ship…luckily it was only a drill!

 Using Flash In Bright Conditions

When shooting portraiture you may frequently encounter a situation where the bright, harsh sun is behind your subject rendering them in the shade. You therefore need to illuminate the person otherwise they will be dark, flat and underexposed; flash is the perfect answer. Often this requires manually placing the speed light at close to full power to compensate and balance for the strength of the light being emitted by the sun. Depending on the look you wish to create (harder, edgier light or a softer more diffused one) you can opt to shoot with nothing covering the speed light or use a modifier such as a little softbox to go over your speed light.


This shot uses flash to over power and balance the light from the setting sun. This was achieved with just one speed light covered with a small softbox that was set off camera and to manual. I exposed for my background thus underexposing my foreground; this allowed me to use my flash to brighten the model. My camera was also set to as low an ISO as possible. Without the flash, my options would have been to correctly expose the model thus completely overexposing the sky and losing the beautiful sunset or trying to bracket and composite an image. It is far easier to learn, understand and use a speed light as it yields far better, natural and more balanced results, as seen in this portrait.


Adam JacobsOther articles by author

Adam Jacobs is an exciting and innovative photographer whose eclectic portfolio has attracted considerable commercial attention. Adam has extensive experience working in both the editorial and commercial worlds and specializes in shooting dynamic panoramas, architecture, travel, interiors and sports. Adam has photographed collegiate and professional sporting events across the globe including the London 2012 Olympics and World Cup Finals. He is also adept at candid portraiturehaving captured well-known figures including Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama, Andy Murray and Mick Jagger on commissioned assignments.

Adam is represented worldwide by Getty Global Assignments and is also an ambassador for Manfrotto and Gitzo worldwide.

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