Lighting is the most important element of a photograph. It is essentially the only thing that a picture is truly made of. And it’s the quality and type of light that really sets a picture apart from the masses of imagery, or limits a photo’s ability to really captivate an audience.
One convenient means of shooting in low-light, indoor situations—or if you want to add some fill light to an outdoor location shoot—is to employ the use of speedlight flashes. Speedlights really shine (no pun intended) in some instances, but they can also lack in others.
In this article, I want to cover some of the pros and cons of using speedlights as off-camera light sources, as well as the unquestionable limitations of using these types of intermittent photography lights. You’ll also see a series of speedlight-only photos I recently shot, which highlight how you can make these portable light sources work for you.
Cons – A weaker, smaller light source with a narrow beam
In comparison to studio strobes, speedlights have a very low lighting output; even set to full power, they can only produce about 1/4 (or less) of the light emitted by the average studio strobe or monolight.
They also produce a very narrow beam of light. This results in hard edged shadows and a rapid falloff of light that doesn’t gradually taper into a nice, soft gradient. Unlike the more aesthetically pleasing, long shadows of low angle sunlight, the light from speedlights often ends up looking more artificial than larger light sources.
Additionally, the light being output from a speedlight often looks rather stark and displeasing (those narrow beams again). When compared to the softer lighting created by studio strobes, speedlights can make skin and other surfaces appear hard and rough.
Finally, you have to be very precise with your placement and positioning of speedlights to ensure the light ends up in the right place.
Pros – There’s a modifier for that
Based on the above points, speedlights are not the ideal light source for many types of photography; however, because they are so light-weight and portable, many photographers still like to use them, combining them with flash modifiers to try to combat the issues I just explained. These days there are many types of softboxes, umbrellas, and other attachments made specifically for use with speedlights.
The main problem with modifiers is that most of them will reduce the net power output by at least 25%. This can be a problem when you already have very little total light output to start with, so keep that in mind.
Speedlights can also add a lot to a photo as a fill light when shooting with ambient light, or when you’re in a dark or shaded area where the colors are looking a bit drab. This means using the available light as your main or “key” light source, and filling in the shadow with a speedlight to give your photos that extra bit of pop.
Finally, speedlights can also be very useful when you are on a shooting location with limited access to electrical power, or when you’re working in tight spaces where it might be difficult to set up larger strobes.
Make It Work
Despite all the cons mentioned above, the photos you see in this post were shot using only a group of 3 speedlights triggered remotely in a very dimly lit weightlifting gym.
For this shoot I was looking for an edgy, high-contrast light source to give the photos that sort of “hardcore” look. I also didn’t want my light to spread out too much, because I needed to isolate the subject as best I could from the environment. In a situation like this, speedlights are the perfect type of lighting.
I placed three speedlights on lightweight light stands and used a radio trigger to fire them. All the shots seen in this post were shot with a 70-200mm lens at an aperture of f/5.6 with ISO set between 100 and 200.
For my lighting placement on these shots, I positioned two speedlights either alongside or behind the subject. Then I positioned a third light high up on a light stand in front of the subject and pointed downwards to obtain a bit of frontal fill.
And there you have it. Using speedlights as your main light source can be very limiting, especially if you’re used to working with more powerful studio strobes, but it can be done. Just pick your situation and techniques carefully, and keep your limitations in mind.
About the author: Marc Schultz is a travel and commercial photographer who writes a blog about various aspects of photography during his free time. To read more of his writing visit the Marc Schultz Photography Blog. A similar version of this article was published on Marc’s blog.