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10 things you can do to improve your photography today

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In this article I want to look at ten simple tips you can use to start improving your photography today. You don't need to wait for nice weather, you don't need any expensive equipment. You can start putting these tips into practice right now. So let's get to it!

10 things you can do to improve your photography today

Change your perspective

The vast majority of photos are taken from eye level. And I must admit, I take most of my photos at eye level too. However, just because this is the most natural and easiest height to take photos from, doesn't necessarily mean it is best.

A photo taken from a low perspective, or a high perspective can sometimes give a much stronger photograph than just photographing from eye level. Try getting your camera down near the ground, or holding it up above your head and pointing it down towards your subject.

Low angle photo of a swan poking its head over the edge of a wooden walkway at Loch Lomond
Ben Lomond and Loch Lomond and Hello Where did you come from? by Alan Weir on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

If your camera has a flip-out screen, this is brilliant for taking photos from a low or high angle. No flip-out screen? Try holding a small mirror at an angle to the screen to see what the camera is seeing. (Though note the image will be reversed in the mirror).

If your camera can't display a preview image on the screen at all, you'll just need to lie down with the camera so you can look through the viewfinder. Or get up on a ladder or steps for high angle shots. Not so convenient, but certainly doable.

Play with lighting

Lighting is extremely important in photography. Great lighting can make an interesting photo from a boring subject, while poor lighting can make a boring photo from an interesting subject. So mastering lighting can really help with your photography.

If you have an off-camera flash system available to play with, this is a great way to experiment with lighting. If you don't, you can use the sun or a household light as your light source.

The best way to learn is through experience, so try a lighting setup, starting as simple as possible. Then modify one part of the setup, and see how it changes the image. Move your subject (or yourself or the light) so the light hits them at a different angle. Move the light closer to the subject (okay, that might be a bit difficult if you're using sunlight). Add a reflector, diffuser, or another light source. Just play around and see how each small change affects the image.

But be sure to only change one thing at a time. You want to understand how each variable affects the light separately before you go changing multiple things at once.

Portrait photo, experimenting with light and shadow
Patience by Nicholas A. Tonelli on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Don't have any light modifiers? A piece of white card will act as a white reflector, while a bathroom mirror will work as a silver reflector. Tissue paper or translucent white plastic (e.g. shower curtain, cheap plastic tablecloth, plain plastic bag) will work as a diffuser.

You don't need to buy expensive equipment to learn about light, you can always buy better equipment later. But by experimenting with cheap equipment you can gain the knowledge on how to use the more expensive equipment effectively.

Learn your camera

This tip is kind of a two-parter. Read your camera manual to learn how your camera works, and all the different functions and settings the camera has available. But secondly, also try out these different settings as you are reading about them.

Rolleicord Vb camera manual
Rolleicord Vb manual by yoppy on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Today's cameras offer so many different features this may take quite a while. But it certainly helps to know what your camera is capable of, and where in the menus certain settings are hidden.

You may even find some function of your camera really useful that you wouldn't previously have thought of using. For example, I have read reports from some nature photographers praising face-detect autofocus for use in photographing wildlife. If they had never tried it out, they would still be stuck trying to manually position their autofocus point over their subjects.

Get off auto mode

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this tip before, and it's probably mentioned lots of times elsewhere across the web. But it is one of the best ways to learn about photography, and how to get results you want. If you're shooting in auto mode, you'll only ever get results that the camera thinks you want.

Camera mode dial
S5 by Ian Muttoo on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

Put your camera in manual or semi-automatic mode (aperture or shutter priority). Then just as with learning about lighting, try changing just one single setting and see how it affects the image.

Use a small aperture setting, use a large one. Use a slow shutter speed, and use a fast one. Keep the camera steady, try moving the camera during the exposure. What difference do the settings make when you're zoomed in compared to when you're zoomed out?

When you have this knowledge of how the different settings and other factors affect the image, it makes it much easier to choose the correct settings when you want to replicate that effect. (Or conversely, avoid choosing the wrong settings when you don't want a certain effect).

Use a tripod

Okay, I've definitely mentioned this one before. In fact, I even have a whole article on it: Why use a tripod?. It might not fit in quite so well with the subject of improving your photography today if you don't already have a tripod. But using a tripod for many types of photography can bring about a big improvement.

If your photos are dark, blurry, or grainy, (and you're photographing a static subject) then a tripod can solve these issues. These problems typically all come from lack of light. A tripod allows you to position your camera while keeping it still. This allows you to use a longer shutter speed (letting in more light) without the risk of blur from camera shake.

Tripod at Dusk
Tripod at Dusk by Orin Zebest on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

If you have one available, use a remote shutter release to trigger your camera. This avoids you having to press the camera's shutter button, which would introduce a little bit of vibration. Otherwise, use the camera's self timer feature so that the camera has a few seconds for the vibration to dissipate before it takes the photo.

As a bonus, using a tripod forces you to slow down and consider your composition more carefully. A tripod is also (almost) essential if you want to try out techniques such as HDR photography.

If you're photographing indoors with a light-weight camera, then you can probably put this tip into practice today, even if you don't have a tripod. Pop down to the shops - most large stores at least sell cheap tripods. While not very sturdy, if they're away from the wind and vibrations, they should still do the job of allowing you to position your camera and keep it absolutely still.

Critique your work

Look through a selection of your photos and think carefully about how they could be improved. Are there any issues with the composition? Is the horizon level? Are the colors correct / pleasing? Is the subject of the photo clear?

Evaluate the photos as critically as you can. Even if the photo is really good, there are likely some small things that could be improved. Especially look out for any mistakes you are making regularly in your photos.

This technique for improving your photography works particularly well if you can critique images that you can easily re-shoot. Then after critiquing, you can try and put your thoughts into action and re-take the photograph, correcting everything that was wrong (or just not as good as it could have been) with the first photo.

When you have a photo where you can't think of anything that can be improved, then try asking others for critique. It is quite easy for you miss something in your own photos. The meaning of a photograph may be obvious to you, while to others it may be more difficult to decipher.

Boys On Bench - Critique Edit
Boys On Bench - Critique Edit by purplezebra on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

Just remember that when others are critiquing your work, they aren't doing it to shoot you down (most of the time). Rather they are trying to help you improve your craft. So if someone gives you a long list of problems with your photo, you should be thankful, not resentful!

Finally, bear in mind that different people will have different opinions on what makes a good image. It is up to you to take the advice on improving the image and filter it as you see fit. If you have time though, it can still be worth trying out advice given that you think would result in a worse image. You might be surprised at the result.

Practice editing

Many photographers don't like editing their images. Editing photos takes time that they'd rather spend elsewhere. On top of that, learning how to use the various editing tools in the first place can take quite a bit of time.

But even just a small amount of editing can make a big difference to a photo. It can certainly be worthwhile to take some time to practice editing your photos, seeing how they can be improved in the digital darkroom.

Portrait photo before and after editing
before_after-003 by Seth Lemmons on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

With many image editing packages, such as Lightroom, you can save presets. So if you spend some time playing around with editing, and create an effect / style you really like, you can save this as a preset. Then if you want the same effect in the future, just apply the preset. That's fast and painless editing.

The other thing is that the more you practice editing, the better you'll get at it, and the faster too. You'll be able to know more intuitively what editing needs doing to an image to bring it to its best, and how to go about that.

Try a different style

Many of us have one or two types of photography we practice fairly regularly. And generally focusing your time and skills on a specific style will help you get better at that style faster. However, trying out a new style of photography can also be very beneficial.

Red Umbrella - challenge photo
Red Umbrella by Jonathan Kos-Read on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

First, it may force you think about things that you wouldn't normally think about in your style of photography. This can inspire you and give you ideas that you can apply to your photography, even though it may be a completely different type of photography.

For example, you could be a portrait photographer and try out motor racing photography. When photographing the cars you'd likely want to try some shots panning with the moving vehicles. This might give you the idea for your portrait photography of having a moving subject, and panning with the subject while using a slow shutter speed. A creative idea that you may not have thought of otherwise.

Secondly, you might find that you actually really enjoy the new type of photography you've decided to practice. In which case, you'll probably want to carry on doing it.

Read / Watch / Learn

There are literally thousands of different resources for learning about photography. Books, website articles, videos, and courses. All can be used to improve your knowledge of photography and how to capture great images.

book city
book city by Magdalena Roeseler on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

The good thing is that many of these resources can be very specialist. So if you particularly want to improve one aspect of your photography, you can get advice focused on just that. For example, if you're interested in portraiture using just one light, you can buy books, watch videos, and read articles on just this.

By focusing your attention like this you should be able to improve your skills in this area quite quickly.

The other good thing about learning this way is that you can usually do it in short gaps of spare time. For example, reading about a technique during your lunch break, and then putting it into practice in the evening. Which brings me onto the last point...

Practice

No matter how much you read or how many videos you watch, it won't improve your photography until you put that knowledge into practice. Practice is very important not only for learning new techniques and trying out new ideas, but also for just making sure your current skills don't get rusty.

Photography Practice - Portrait on white background
Practice - Day 223 by Vox Efx on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

There's a well known phrase - The best camera is the one you have with you. You might not want to take your camera into work, but you still have your phone camera with you. Why not practice your photography with your phone whenever possible?

Okay, so you likely can't practice anything where you need control over shutter speed or aperture. But you can still practice your compositional skills, looking at how lighting affects a subject, shooting from unusual angles, etc. These sorts of skills are the same whatever your camera, and all rely on you rather than the camera.

With these ten tips, particularly critiquing your shots and practicing to avoid making the same mistakes, you should be able to improve your photography simply and quickly. So what are you waiting for?

Urbex Photography Tips

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Urbex Photography is something that has become more popular in recent years. The word urbex is a portmanteau of Urban Exploration. But it is not just exploration of urban areas that come under the description of Urbex Photography. Rather it tends to be photography of any man-made structure that is abandoned, derelict, or generally unused by humans.

Urbex photography typically focuses on the decay of the structure. Photos of abandoned rooms with the previous owner's belongings left behind, covered in dust and cobwebs can appear quite haunting. Many urbex locations are later bulldozed or destroyed by arson, in this case the photographs can act as a historical record of what the building was like.

Whether for artistic or documentation reasons, many people enjoy Urbex photography. In this article I'll share a bit more information on what it involves.

Urbex Photography Tips

Finding suitable locations for Urbex photography

The first stage in Urbex photography is finding a location to photograph. There are numerous ways you can find suitable locations. One way is just walking or driving around an area, looking for old derelict or boarded up buildings. You may already know some suitable locations in your town or city.

Abandoned stadium with graffiti covered seats
URBEX by Kerry Loggins on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

Another common method is using satellite maps such as Google Maps, Bing Maps, or Google Earth. Looking down at the earth you can find out of the way buildings, buildings in areas hidden out of general sight, buildings with shrubs and trees growing up through tarmac, and buildings with large parking areas but no vehicles parked there. You can't tell that the buildings are necessarily abandoned, but you can use this as a starting point.

Use of other map views (rather than the satellite view) can sometimes be helpful. A building / location may sometimes be marked as disused on the map.

Wikimapia can be a useful resource. This website gives a map view that allows users to tag buildings or locations with the building's name and information about it (such as it being abandoned). Even if the only info on Wikimapia is the building's name, that can be used as a base for further research as to whether the building is currently in use or not.

Still on the online map theme, websites featuring geo-coded photos, such as Panoramio are very useful. Note that Panoramio photos are also available within Google earth. This allows you to see photos taken in or around a location.

Viewing photos of an abandoned building in Google Earth
Viewing photos of an abandoned building in Google Earth

If the location you're interested in has a road running alongside it, then Google may have sent one of their cars down that road to take photos for streetview. If Streetview is available for that road, it will allow you see what the view of the location is like from the street, all from the comfort of your home.

Using Google Streetview to get a view of a derelict building from the road
Using Google Streetview to get a view of a derelict building from the road

If you're visiting an area you're not familiar with, you could try speaking with the locals. They will often know about old factories or other buildings that have since closed down.

See if you can find a register of buildings at risk. A worldwide example of this is the World Monuments Fund. These lists are typically full of decaying derelict buildings, though they tend more towards the old Manor house or Fort type of building than old factories.

Paintball forums can be another source of suitable locations. Larger abandoned areas are sometimes used for paintball games. You may be able to find some suitable locations, while also ensuring that you don't schedule your photography on the same day as a paintball game will be going on there.

There are plenty of Urbex forums around the world. Members on these message boards often organize group visits to locations. You may find someone organizing a trip to somewhere near you. If you've not been urban exploring before, then you should probably look for an expedition organized to be newbie friendly.

Finally, looking for interesting photos on photo sharing websites can give you some ideas. Typically people won't post the exact location of a photo, and are unlikely to reveal the location if you ask them.

The reason for keeping the location secret is generally because the more well known a location is, the more likely it is that vandals / thieves will find out about it and cause damage to the property. Urbex photography is about leaving a location exactly as it was, taking only photos away. So practitioners are very keen that it should not be associated with vandalism or theft at all.

Disused cooling tower interior
Cooling tower by Michal Janček on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Bear in mind that Urbex Photography is about Exploring. If someone else told you where to go, how to get in, and the interesting things to photograph, then it wouldn't really be exploring, would it?

Typically Urbex photography involves photographing on private land without permission to be there. If it is feasible to get permission, then you certainly should. Make sure you let the owner know that you won't hold them liable if you hurt yourself on the property. This is the main reason that a property owner is likely to deny you permission to explore the property.

However, many Urbex photographers find that when they do ask, they are denied permission. And finding the contact details for the owner of a property in order to ask them can be quite a task in itself. So most Urbex photography is done without permission.

Urbex photograph of Michigan Central Station waiting room
These Hallowed Halls by Shane Gorski on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

The law varies between countries, so you should check your local laws before you decide to risk your freedom. In general, exploring private property is breaking the law (trespass), but so long as you do not cause any damage you are unlikely to be charged with anything if you are caught.

If you are caught, it is best to just be honest about what you are doing. When they see that you are just taking photos, you will likely just be told to leave.

When gaining entry to a property you should not cut fence wire or smash a window to get in. As well as being ethically wrong, this is criminal damage. Instead look for holes in the fence, open gates, walls you can climb over or fences you can slide under.

Don't take any souvenirs either - this is theft. Leave the location exactly as you found it for any other Urbexers to find and enjoy in the future.

Urban decay - abandoned hairdressers
never been to a trip to the mind (explored) by Freaktography Urban Exploration and Photography on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Urbex Photography and safety

Walking around abandoned buildings can be quite dangerous. Some buildings may be fenced off because they are unsafe. In terms of footwear you want shoes with soles that can withstand a rusty nail and broken glass. But you don't want the sole to be so hard that you can't feel when a wooden board is bending beneath you.

Building with floor fallen in
Tread Lightly by Dustin Gilbert on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Tread very carefully. With bare wooden floors you need to be aware that the floorboards and rafters can be rotten. Where the support beams are under the floor is likely be safer and hold more weight then walking on the boards in between the beams. You can tell the locations of the beams on a bare wooden floor as the boards will be nailed to the beams.

Similarly, walking around the edge of a room, where the boards and support beams are attached to the wall, is often safer than walking across the middle of a room.

Asbestos dust can be a problem in some buildings. It was used widely in construction between the 1940s and 1970s, and buildings built before and after those dates can certainly contain asbestos too. If you think it's possible that a building may contain asbestos, then it's best to wear an asbestos mask for protection. Note that a standard breathing mask won't filter out asbestos dust.

Asbestos warning sign and peeling faded red paint
Abandoned Art School 3 by Tiffany Bailey on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Make sure you let someone know where you are going and how long you expect to be beforehand (particularly if you are going just by yourself). You don't want to risk falling through a floor and breaking your legs, but no-one knowing where you are.

It is always best to go exploring with at least one other person. That way if one of you does get hurt, the other can still contact the emergency services and let them know exactly where you are. Safety in numbers is also helpful in case you come across others who are at the site for more undesirable reasons.

Urbex Photography Gear

The equipment needed for good urbex photography does vary a bit depending on the location. But generally most Urbex locations are quite dark. For this reason a tripod is very useful. This allows you to keep the camera steady for a clean sharp photo with a low shutter speed.

Tripod use in urbex photography
1D3L37841 by Mikey Jones on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

Choice of tripod is really up to you. You can purchase small, light tripods, which are easy to carry around and easier to get through small gaps with. But they don't extend up so high, and won't be so stable if you're taking photos on a windy roof, for example.

A remote shutter release is useful when using the camera on a tripod, as it allows you to trigger the camera without having to touch it. If you don't have a remote trigger, then use the camera's self timer mode. This gives the camera a couple of seconds to recover from the shake caused by pressing the shutter button.

A torch is useful for seeing where you're going, and essential for some Urban Exploration, such as tunnels. If going to a completely dark location then you should bring a spare torch as well as spare batteries, just in case the first torch fails.

But a torch also has its use for photography too. In dark areas a torch can be used for light painting the scene.

Limestone blocks light painted urbex photo in an abandoned quarry
block walker by freeside510 on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Just set the camera to a long exposure, bulb mode is ideal as it lets you decide when to start and stop the exposure. Then move the torch beam across the scene to light it. Paint some areas more if you want them to be brighter (and draw the viewer's attention). Paint other areas less to make them darker and draw less attention to them.

Bear in mind that if you're lighting up a room in a derelict building at night, it may draw attention to your activities.

If you're using an interchangeable lens camera, then a wide-angle lens and a 'normal' (around 50mm) lens make a good combination. The wide angle lens can be used for getting nice shots that allow most of a room to fit in the shot. The normal lens can be used for detail shots, such as items left behind by the last occupants.

Row of seats in an abandoned theater
Take a site by Kip Soep on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Urbex Photography Tips

Urbex photography typically contains a lot of texture. Paint flaking from walls, rusty metal, scattered pieces of broken brickwork and plaster. As well as making for a detail filled wide-angle shot, these textures can also make for nice close-up shots.

Peeling paint texture in a derelict building
Curly Chips by Shane Gorski on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

Other suitable close-up shots are items left behind, such as old pictures, documents, telephones. It can be surprising just how much is left behind in some abandoned buildings. In abandoned hospitals you may find old beds or medical equipment still left there.

Old medical equipment left at an abandoned hospital
Nurse, please clean up this mess... by Martijn Dehing on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

Exposure inside these old buildings is often very tricky. There may be some very bright areas, such as windows or skylights, while other areas of the room may be very dark. Many Urbex photographers bracket their exposures and then use HDR to blend the exposures into a single image.

When processing an HDR image, settings that give a grunge effect are often used. This brings out a lot of microcontrast and can complement the dirty texture-heavy scenes often found in Urbex photography.

Decaying piano in abandoned building HDR urbex photo
Last song played (c) by zeitfaenger.at on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

On the other hand, some photographers don't use HDR at all, instead preferring images with dark shadows or clipped highlights, or both. While they may not contain as much image 'data' as an HDR image, they can be more aesthetically pleasing. Generally it comes down to personal taste as to whether to use HDR or just a single image.

Abandoned Mansion, Beirut
Abandoned Mansion, Beirut by craigfinlay on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

As with most other photography, shooting from an unusual angle can work well in Urbex photography. Instead of photographing a room from eye level, try getting the camera down low near the floor.

If you're photographing on a roof top, try taking a photo looking down the side of the building. Whatever you do though, don't endanger yourself just for the sake of getting a photo.

Looking down at the street below from a rooftop at night
Man on a Ledge by Freaktography Urban Exploration and Photography on Flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Some popular types of Urbex locations lend themselves very well to symmetrical compositions. Old churches, theaters, and other halls can all work well when centered in the frame to emphasize the symmetry (or lack of symmetry if half the stage has collapsed).

Elevator hall ready to be demolished, symmetrical composition
Elevator hall ready to be demolished by Mzximvs VdB on Flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

Urbex photography is certainly not for everyone. Unless you get permission to explore the property it is illegal in most countries. And some locations can be quite dangerous. But if you are interested in exploring abandoned places or capturing locations slowly being reclaimed by nature, you may well want to give it a try.

Written by Discover Digital Photography

April 6th, 2014 at 5:56 pm

Why would you want an external speedlight flash gun?

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Most DSLR and mirrorless cameras have a hotshoe on top into which you can connect a speedlight flash gun. But why would you want to use a bulky speedlight flash on your camera if the camera already includes a built-in flash?

Why would you want an external speedlight flash gun?

More power

Speedlight flash units are much larger than the flash built into the camera, and require their own batteries. This means that they can give a much greater power output than a small pop-up flash.

With a camera's built-in flash, you might sometimes find that the flash isn't powerful enough to light your subject fully. You have to compromise by using a higher ISO or larger aperture to get the subject lit nicely. With a speedlight flash you are much less likely to have issues with the flash not being powerful enough.

Under exposed photo taken using camera's pop-up flash at full power, aimed at the ceiling for bounce flash
Using the camera's pop-up flash in a bounce position resulted in this image being underexposed despite the flash firing at full power

Correctly exposed photo taken using a hotshoe mounted speedlight flash at ½ power, aimed at the ceiling for bounce flash
A speedlight flash, on the other hand, does have enough power to give a properly exposed image, even when bounced

Having more power in your flash gives you more control in allowing you to overpower ambient lighting. You can use a fast shutter speed and small aperture (or add a neutral density filter), so that ambient light contributes very little to the scene. With the flash set at or near full power, the flash then becomes the dominant light source.

Swimmer portrait, neutral density filter, fast shutter speed, and low ISO used to reduce effect of ambient light (sunlight) and darken background. Speedlight flash fired at full power as main light.
Swimmer by Wesley Nitsckie on flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

(Note that even with a speedlight flash, overpowering bright daylight will be difficult - you may need multiple flashes synchronized together to give enough power for this).

Shoot longer and wider

Another benefit of having more power is that you can light subjects with your flash that are further away. The further away from the flash a subject is, the smaller the amount of light from the flash that actually reaches the subject. (Because the light from the flash spreads out over the distance and so is less concentrated when it reaches the subject). The extra power of a speedlight flash gun allows you to compensate for this.

Many external flashguns also feature a zoom head. This allows you to control how narrow the beam that the flash emits is. By zooming the flash head when shooting a subject further away you can get a well lit subject without having to adjust the flash power.

The zoom of the flash is typically measured in millimeters, corresponding to the 35mm equivalent focal length of the lens you're using. Most flashes with zoom heads go from around 24mm to 100mm. For work with a telephoto lens you can buy add-on accessories that narrow / focus the flash beam even more, such as the [ebay_link_searchResults keywords="Better beamer" category="625"]Better Beamer[/ebay_link_searchResults].

Juvenile Osprey, photographed using a telephoto lens and flash with better beamer flash extender
JUVENILE OSPREY. MANASQUAN NJ by Peter Massas on flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

As well as allowing you to get well lit images of subjects further away, a speedlight flash can also give good coverage for wide-angle lenses. With a pop-up flash, when using a wide-angle focal length you will find that the flash power drops off towards the edge of the frame, giving dark edges. This can be a nice effect sometimes, but other times you will want the scene lit more evenly from left to right.

Most external flashguns allow setting the zoom head of the flash to a relatively wide-angle, then you can flip down a wide-angle diffusion panel and / or add a small diffuser to the flash for even wider coverage.

Power control

Some cameras don't feature manual control over the flash power - they only allow you to apply positive or negative flash exposure compensation. While this is fine for most situations, sometimes a large enough compensation cannot be dialed in to give the lighting you want.

Most (but not all) external speedlight flashes have manual power controls. This gives you much better control over the lighting. If you want to blast your subject with flash to create a high key image, you can set a high flash power. This is much more flexible than being limited to just adjusting a small amount above / below what the camera thinks the flash power should be.

Bounce lighting

The majority of speedlight flashes feature a head that can be titled, and most allow swiveling the head as well. This allows you to tilt or swivel the flash head so that rather than pointing directly at your subject, it is instead pointing at the ceiling or a nearby wall.

When you take a photo, the light from the flash then bounces from the ceiling or wall, and back onto your subject. The ceiling / wall acts like a giant reflector, and this gives much softer and more pleasing lighting than direct flash.

Photo taken using camera's pop-up flash, which gives harsh lighting
Using the camera's pop-up flash gives direct harsh lighting

Photo taken using a speedlight flash aimed at the wall to give soft bounce lighting
Using a speedlight flash in the camera's hot shoe, with the flash head tilted to bounce light from a wall, gives a much softer and more pleasing result

Some of the latest mirrorless cameras do allow you to use bounce flash with their pop-up flashes. But using bounce flash requires quite a bit of power, so a speedlight flash is much more suitable for this type of lighting.

Battery power

The flash built into your camera draws its power from the camera battery. So the more you use your camera's flash, the quicker the camera's battery will run out.

With an external hot shoe flash, the flash will use AA batteries, and so won't deplete the camera battery. This does mean that you need to carry extra batteries with you just for the flash. But spare AA batteries for a flash are typically much cheaper than spare proprietary camera batteries.

Use off camera

This is probably the main reason people buy speedlight flash guns - to use them off camera. Using off camera flash allows you to get much more interesting lighting that is just impossible with on camera lighting.

Off-camera flash forest portrait
Strobist Forest Shoot 26th July 2010 by Algy O'Connell on flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)

I've already written an article Why use off-camera flash? So I don't want to repeat myself too much here. But even if you buy a speedlight with the aim of just using it in the camera's hot-shoe, it's worth giving off-camera flash a try at least once to see the difference it can create in your images.

Re-usable

One of the benefits of interchangeable lens cameras is that you can upgrade the camera body to a newer model, which will work with the lenses you already have for your old model. In the same way, a speedlight flash that you used with your old camera can be used with the newer camera.

Even if you're changing the brand of camera that you use, most flash guns will work with any camera that features an ISO standard hot-shoe. TTL flash and other advanced features won't work, but so long as the flash allows you to manually set the power, it can still be used.

One caveat to that is flashes designed for old film cameras. These can have a high trigger voltage that could fry your digital camera. If you have an old flash from a film camera you'd like to use with your digital camera, make sure that you check the trigger voltage is safe first.

Special modes

Some speedlight flashes feature special modes, such as a stroboscopic mode. This allows the flash to rapidly pulse on and off. Not an effect you often want, but it could come in handy sometime.

Flying playing cards photographed using stroboscopic flash
$ by El Alvi on flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

Some camera manufacturers (Canon) only allow 2nd curtain sync (rear curtain sync) flash when a speedlight is used. 2nd curtain sync can be very handy when you want to capture a moving subject while keeping the subject sharp at the end of the movement. Note though that not all speedlights support 2nd curtain sync - you will need to check before purchasing.

Fire Dancer photographed using rear curtain sync flash
Fire Dancers by D T on flickr (licensed CC-BY)

Use with light modifiers

While there are a few light modifiers designed for use with pop-up flashes, there are many many more designed for speedlight flashes. These modifiers allow you to shape, diffuse, or color the light as you wish.

Flashes with light modifiers
Flashes with light modifiers

You can use snoots for creating a narrow beam of light, bounce cards for creating larger, softer light, or colored gels for coloring the light. In theory all of these things are possible with a pop-up flash too. But the larger size and the shape of most flash guns means that creating and attaching light modifiers to a speedlight flash is much easier.

So, as you can see, there are quite a lot of different benefits to using a speedlight flash rather than the flash built into most cameras. The main disadvantages to speedlight flashes are the cost and size.

Now, I wouldn't suggest you always carry a speedlight flash around with your camera. But carrying one when you're expecting that you're going to need flash is a good idea. The extra power of a speedlight flash, and the ability to use it off-camera can be very beneficial.

But if you're not expecting to use flash, then leave the speedlight at home. If you do come across an instance when you need flash, well, you've still got the camera's built-in flash, which should work in a pinch.

Regarding the cost of external flashes, if this is an issue for you, then I'd suggest looking at some of the cheaper third party flashes available on eBay. If all you need is a flash with manual power control that will fire when the camera tells it to, then you can pick up a basic flash pretty cheaply.

Some third party flashes even offer better specifications than the manufacturer branded ones, despite costing less. I would always recommend searching online for user reviews before purchasing though. You want to make sure that the flash is reliable before spending any money.

Written by Discover Digital Photography

March 30th, 2014 at 8:05 pm

Fog & Mist Photography Tips

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Foggy and misty conditions can be great for photography. It lends the photo a certain atmosphere, sometimes melancholy, other times more dreamy. However getting a good photo in fog is not quite as easy as point and shoot. In this article I'll cover tips for finding and photographing in mist and fog.

Fog & Mist Photography Tips

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Written by Discover Digital Photography

March 23rd, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Keeping your camera safe from damage and theft when traveling

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When traveling on vacation, the vast majority of us will want to bring a camera to capture what we see and experience. Many of us want to capture high quality photos, and be ready for most photographic situations we come across. This can mean bringing an expensive camera and accessories with you on vacation.

In this article I want to look at how you can protect your expensive photography gear when traveling, from both damage and theft.

Keeping your camera safe from damage and theft when traveling

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Cropping your photos – Good or Bad?

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Cropping your photos usually refers to the process of editing a photo and cutting away one or more edges of the image. There are multiple reasons why you might want to do this, such as improving the composition, enlarging the subject, or simply changing the aspect ratio of the photo.

But some photographers are dead set against cropping, preferring to get it right in-camera. In this article we'll look at both the benefits and problems with cropping an image in software. (Not to be confused with the crop factor of a camera).

Cropping your photos - Good or Bad?

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Written by Discover Digital Photography

March 9th, 2014 at 1:37 pm

Mountain Photography Tips

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Mountains can make for some great photos, whether they're snow-capped, bare rock, or covered in green foliage. For most of us, we don't regularly get the chance to see or walk up mountains. So when we do get to photograph in a mountain range, we want our shots to look as good as possible and really capture the splendor of the mountain. In this article I'll share some tips that will hopefully help you do just that.

Mountain Photography Tips

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March 2nd, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Minimalist Photography Tips

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Minimalist Photography refers to the process of creating an image with a very simplistic composition. The photo is carefully framed to remove all distracting elements. Often the extraneous aspects of the scene are abstracted away, resulting in a photo capturing shape or form rather than a specific subject.

Minimalist Photography Tips

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Written by Discover Digital Photography

February 23rd, 2014 at 4:14 pm

Making effective use of color in your photography

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There have been lots of books written about black and white photography, but relatively little is written on the subject of color photography. In some aspects this is understandable - black and white can be trickier since we do not see in black and white, thus we need more guidance on it.

However, since we are so used to seeing (and photographing) in color, it can be easy to overlook certain points when creating a color photograph. In this article I want to share a few ideas to help get you thinking more about the use of color in photography, and how it can be used to improve your photos.

Making effective use of color in your photography

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Written by Discover Digital Photography

February 16th, 2014 at 9:02 am

Directional lighting – Front, Back, and Side lighting compared

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Lighting is obviously very important in photography. Without light, there'd be no photo. But what you may not realize is that the direction of the lighting plays a large role in the look of a photo.

There are three main directions of light that are purposefully used in photography - Front Lighting, Back Lighting, and Side Lighting. It is these that I want to take a look at in this article.

Directional lighting - Front, Back, and Side lighting compared

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Written by Discover Digital Photography

February 9th, 2014 at 4:40 pm