Lighting 101 - Understanding Your Flash

Abstract: How to tell if your current flash is appropriate for off-camera lighting.

(Photo by Strobist reader GreggBK)

We're assuming you already have an adjustable, digital camera and a lens. Your camera needs to have manual controls, meaning you can adjust the aperture and shutter speeds.

You'll also need a detachable (not "pop-up") flash. If you don't yet have one, we'll point you to a modestly priced flash that is ideal for studio-style lighting when we talk more about gear. Most, but not all, detachable flashes can be used for off-camera lighting.

The Bare Essentials: What Your Flash Needs to Have

Take a look at your flash and see if it has a manual mode ("M") that allows you to work at different power settings — i.e., full power, ½ power, ¼ power, etc. If your flash is detachable, and has a manual mode with different power settings, your flash will be fine for now.

Most detachable flashes have this "manual power" capability. And that's the only thing that is mandatory, because you are going to learn how to light in manual mode. If your flash has that, skip buying another flash for right now until you have a chance to play with the gear you already have. Good news: moving into off-camera lighting is going to be very inexpensive for you.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you have a "vintage" flash (more than, say, 10-15 years old) do a little research to make sure it is safe to directly hook up to a modern digital camera. Some old flashes can fry the electronics of a digital camera. And once that little bit of magic smoke escapes your camera, it is almost impossible to get it back in…

If You Do Need a Flash

If you don't have a flash, I recommend the much-loved LumoPro LP180 for more reasons than it makes sense to state in this short space. You can read much more about it, and why it is our current recommendation, here.

Suffice to say that the LP180 is specifically designed for lighting photographers, built like a tank and has some really neat unique features. It is also has double the warranty (at under half the price) of the Nikon and Canon offerings.

NOTE: If you do not have a flash, hold off on purchasing one until you have read about the other gear you'll need on the next page. It makes sense to buy everything together, as they are much cheaper as a kit.

That's everything you need to know about your flash for right now. Next, we'll learn about the gear you'll need to turn it into your own little portable lighting studio.

NEXT: Your Studio-to-Go: A Basic Kit


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