In photography, lighting is the most important element of a photograph. It is essentially the only thing that a picture is truly made of. But it is the quality and type of light which sets a picture apart from the masses of imagery or limits a photo’s ability to become amazingly captivating.
One convenient means of shooting in low-light indoor situations, or to add some fill in light on an outdoor location shoot, is to employ the use of speedlight flashes from different angles using wireless remotes to trigger them. Speedlights can really shine in some instances (no pun intended), but they can also lack in others.
I had written a post in 2013 about the use of speedlights as outdoor fill in lights here, and another post about using speedlight flashes wirelessly on location shoots here however, I often get questions about the general use of speedlights and what they are best suited for.
In this article I am going to cover some of the pros and cons of using speedlights as off-camera light sources as well as discussing the unquestionable limitations of using these types of intermittent photography lights. Throughout this post you will also see a small series of photos I recently shot using just speedlights, which I will also explain further about.
First, in comparison to studio strobes, speedlights emit a very low lighting output and, even set to full power, they can only produce about 25% (or less) than the light emitted by the average studio strobe.
They also produce a very narrow beam of light. This results in hard edged shadows and a rapid falloff of light which does not gradually taper into a nice, soft gradient. Unlike the more aesthetic, long shadows of low angle sunlight or strobes, the light from speedlights always ends up looking more artificial than most other light sources.
And, because of their narrow beams, the light being output from a speedlight often looks rather stark and displeasing. When compared to the softer lighting created by diffused studio strobes, speedlights can make skin and other surfaces appear hard and rough. This is also partly to do with the beam of the light emitted from speedlights being more focused in general.
Furthermore, as a result of their narrow beam, you also have to be very precise with your placement and positioning of speedlights to ensure the light ends up in just the right place. As opposed to studio strobes, which provide a wider throw and softer spread of light, speedlights often require spending a lot more time fiddling, setting up, and then carrying out various test shots until you have your lights in the exact position you want them. There can be a big difference between how the light looks from one spot to another, even when changing their positioning by only just a few inches.
The Kelvin light temperature of speedlights is also “colder” than studio strobes or natural daylight thus, its color cast can give your photos more of a bluish tone or hue. This tonal coolness needs to be taken note of and adjusted for in your white balance settings when you process your RAW files in order to give your photos a more accurate tonal feel. It is an easily correctable issue, but it makes it a bit more difficult to blend speedlights together with other light sources in the same shot that may have a more typical daylight Kelvin.
Based on the above points, speedlights are not the ideal light source for many types of photography. However, because they are so lightweight, portable, and low cost many photographers still like to use them together with flash modifiers in order to try to reduce harshness and widen the coverage of the light throw a bit.
These days there are many types of softboxes, umbrellas, and other attachments made specifically for use with speedlights to help make the light appear more natural. In my opinion though, even with the use of these modifiers, the light never looks soft enough to be used to shoot nice looking portraits, or with other types of photography where you want soft lighting without a lot of hot spots or harsh reflectivity.
The main problem with modifiers though 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 from a flash to start with.
So what are speedlights really good for? For one, they can really add a lot to a photo as a fill-in light when shooting with available light or when in a dark or shaded area where colors are looking a bit drab. This means still using the available light as your main light source but then filling in a bit more light with a speedlight to give your photos that bit of needed pop. This technique was also covered extensively in my other post entitled “The Beauty Of Speedlight Flashes For Outdoor Photography” here.
Another great thing is that there are methods of connecting speedlights to a tripod or light stand so that you can also use them as angular light sources. Then they can be triggered remotely as a more appealing and angular light source. You can also use a group of them together as well to provide light from various angles at once for your shot.
Speedlights can also be very useful when you are on a shooting location with limited access to electrical power or when working in tight spaces where it might be difficult to setup larger strobes.
Despite all the pros and cons, all the photos you see in this post I shot very recently using only a group of three speedlights triggered remotely within a very dimly lit weightlifting gym in order to capture these images of a Thai bodybuilder.
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 lighting to spread out too much as I wanted to isolate the subject as best I could from the environs. So speedlights were the perfect type of lighting for this style of shoot.
And because I was in a weightlifting gym, with people exercising around me, I needed to set things up for a shot fast and then reposition quickly to avoid being disruptive to the overall gym environment. Thus, I would not have been able to bring in my big strobes which require more space, cable connections for power, and which could have potentially interfered with other people’s convenient use of the gym.
For this shoot I was using mainly 3 Yongnuo brand speedlights, which I purchased for around $75 each. I had them placed on lightweight Manfrotto light stands and triggered them remotely with a radio trigger (also made by Yongnuo) which I attached to the hot shoe of my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR camera.
And since these Yongnuo speedlight flashes have built in radio receivers, it made triggering them, even at a distance, a snap. No infrared triggering with line of sight needed anymore like in the old days.
I also brought one older Canon speedlight with me as a fourth light just in case it was needed. And in order to integrate another brand of speedlight into a group of Yongnuo flashes, one can simply connect any other brand of speedlight to the hot shoe mount of one of the inexpensive Yongnuo radio triggers. The Yongnuo triggers are actually known as transceivers which can either act as a trigger or a receiver. A great added plus of the Yongnuo transceivers is being able to seamlessly integrate and sync a whole group of different brands of flash units together on one shoot. At the bottom of this post I will provide links to all the flashes, triggers, and the rest of equipment I used on this shoot.
I managed to capture over 500 exposures on this shoot using only one set of Panasonic Eneloop rechargeable batteries with each flash. I had the flashes set to between 1/4 to 1/8th power output most of the time, so they weren’t using up too much of my battery power on each shot. This helped to shoot the full day on just one set of batteries.
All the shots seen in this post here were shot with a 70-200mm lens, taken between an ISO range of 100 to 200, and an aperture of F/5.6.
For my lighting placement on these shots, I positioned two speedlights either alongside or at the back, 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 in.
So there you have it. If I forgot to cover any points of interest about the shoot, or working with speedlights in general, please feel free to post below. You may also click on any of the pictures seen in this post to enlarge them to a nicer size on your screen.
Equipment Used On This Shoot:
01 – Manfrotto 1052BAC Compact Light Stand
02 – Yongnuo YN-560 IV Speedlite Flash for Canon, Nikon, and Olympus
03 – Yongnuo RF-603C-II-C3 Wireless Remote Flash Trigger Transceiver Set
04 – Canon EOS 5D Mark IV 30MP Full Frame Digital SLR Camera Body
05 – Canon Battery Grip BG-E20 for the Canon 5D Mark IV Digital SLR Camera
06 – Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS USM Lens
07 – Panasonic Eneloop 16 Pack AA NiMH Rechargeable Batteries
08 – Titanium Smart Fast 16 Bay Ni-MH AA/AAA Battery Charger
09 – SanDisk Extreme Pro 64GB UHS-I/U3 SDXC Flash Memory Card
10 – SanDisk Extreme Pro 64GB Compact Flash Memory Card
11 – Speedlight Light Stand Flash Bracket and Umbrella Holder
More Of My Posts On Speedlight Photography:
1- Using Speedlites Wirelessly On Location Shoots
2- The Beauty Of Speedlight Flashes For Outdoor Photography
3- Why I Got Rid Of All My Canon Speedlite Flashes