The external flash: how I love it, count the ways

Do you want to improve your relationship with your DSLR camera? Take amazing pictures when there is practically no light in the room? Do you find yourself at parties or family events in the evenings, and every picture is turning out fuzzy because people just can’t sit still enough for your “candid” shots? I could fill up 50 million hard drives with the hideous fuzzy, dark pictures I’ve taken—or the pictures I’ve taken with a direct flash: washed out, red-eyed vamipiric looking people, with an end product that looks like I used a disposable camera (no offense to disposable camera users!). And then I wail: “but that was the amazing diiiiiiiiner with all our extended faaaaamily, and there’s not a single shot in fooooocus!” At which point I realize that whining is a very unappealing thing to do, and I promptly stop for the benefit of my long-suffering husband.

Let’s talk about light for a minute. Yes, natural light is best. Whether it’s faces or shots of delicious food concoctions, natural light just makes it all look good. This causes me much dismay since our apartment’s windows face east and only receive sunlight for a few hours during the morning while I am usually at work. By the time I get home, the apartment is shrouded in shadows. Our kitchen has a window facing west, and it only gets sunlight for about 10 minutes in the evening due to the constraints of the narrow alley out back (otherwise known as “dumpster trashland”). Normally I take my food over to the window ledge to get some pictures—but at some point the winter will come again, which means darkness descends before I even leave the office. Have I painted a grim enough picture for you?

Getting to the heart of it—the external flash will enable you to take amazing pictures in low-light situations. Like parties. Like my sister Heidi’s wedding rehearsal dinner last December. BEFORE THE EXTERNAL FLASH MY LIFE WAS AN EMPTY WASTELAND!

OK, well maybe not an empty wasteland—but I missed some wicked photo-ops. Am I sounding like an advertisement yet? Because this isn’t, really! These are my true emotions shining through.

At this point I would like to introduce you to the brilliant little piece of machinery called the Nikon Speedlight SB-600. I use it on my Nikon D5000. I’m not sure what the Canon external flash is called, but I guarantee they have something similar.

The Nikon Speedlight SB-600

Have you been told not to use a flash in your photography? I certainly have. But that only applies to a flash which fires directly at your subject! Your in-camera flash will tend to create the undesirable, washed-out lighting. Once I tried to take a picture of some delicious Pasta all Carbonara with my flash. It’s already a cream-colored dish, and the flash just made it look like a disgusting pile of pasty and slimy alien-innards. However, an external flash such as this one mounts on top of the camera and swivels. Which means you can point the flash upwards, where it bounces off the ceiling, creating enough light to get a great picture without washing out your subject.

Now I am going to illustrate the magic with two sets of three pictures—the first with no flash, the second with the camera’s built-in flash, and the third with my buddy the Nikon Speedlight SB-600.

Here is the first set:

No flash: fuzzy and not-quite-focused

Direct flash: ugly reflections, washed out colors

External flash. Aaaaaah.

Not yet convinced? Here is set two:

No flash: fuzzy, unfocused

Direct flash: washed out, ugly reflection

External flash: yes, please

Here is a picture of some friends taken with the external flash to just drive the point home. Pure magic!

Aaaah! The external flash is greeeeaaat!


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17 Responses to The external flash: how I love it, count the ways

  1. Tri says:

    perfect! I’m still a novice and don’t actually have a d-SLR yet. However, I’m fast approaching that exciting time in my life where I can almost afford one. Now, thanks to your fabulous examples – I know that I’ll need to buy an external flash with the d-SLR!!! BINGO!!

    Great photos by the way! :)

  2. nadia says:

    Ohhh, so that is the secret! I really love the way you provided examples. Thank you so much. Now I’m off to convince my husband to buy a speedlight asap.

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks for checking out the post–and good luck convincing your husband =). I know all about that.
      I was able to get my flash on craigslist for about $50 cheaper than the listed price, but I in retrospect I might have paid a little more to get the warranty.

      • CityMom2 says:

        At $50 bucks you can throw it out when it breaks! I have had the Canon 550 off cam flash for 5 or 6 years. My student borrows it (he loaned me his Canon 50D – now I have my own). Love your examples. nice work.

  3. Heather says:

    Hi! I followed you over from my blog. Thanks for the comment. I also use the Nikon D5000 and am now, thanks to this post, adding this external flash to my Christmas wish list. Thanks for the info – great post! And great blog too.

  4. Hi Jenna. Thanks for commenting on my blog. I love your photos and was happy to see a section on photography. Do you have any other food blogging tips, or books to recommend on the topic? Your photos are great!

    The external flash sounds like a must have. With the holidays around the corner, I’m going to start dropping hints!

    • Jenna says:

      Thank you Rivki! I don’t know about food blogging tips (since I’ve only been blogging for 5 months)–I guess I’d say the photography is a really important aspect and if you can nail the focus, use natural light (or set your exposure to make it look like natural light), and get the color balance right, that’s most of it. Some of this can be done with post processing using Photoshop or other software, as I’m sure you know. I’d also say that it’s convenient to have a printer-friendly version of the recipe for ease of use. I haven’t read any books on food blogging, but if you have any recommendations, I’m always looking for a good read =).
      On my end, I’m ‘dropping hints’ for a new lens that I’ve been wanting every since I got my camera earlier this year (Nikon 50 mm f/1.8). Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Christina says:

    I have had my camera for a year and am just now realizing how important an external flash is. Especially now that it is getting dark outside! I just ordered the new SB-700 Speedlight but it is on backorder. I am dying for it to come in!

  6. SoupAddict says:

    Okay, I think you’ve convinced me that I just have to accept the fact that I need a flash during the winter months. My north and east-facing kitchen windows are great in the summer, but positively dreary in the winter. I have the Canon version of the Speedlight – I just need to buy a bounce diffuser for it.

  7. Sofya says:

    Hey Jenna – like you I have that flash (SB-600), and my life has not yet allowed me to figure it out. That’s why I was glad to get similarly good results with a built-in flash, as I demonstrated on my blog. But I think the results are just a little better with the external flash.

  8. Hi Jenna,
    thanks for the write up, great before and after shots -especially your friends ;)
    Could you give me some tips about what settings to use? I have the same flash and am not really sure I understand the settings, my pictures come out ok, but it’s just luck at this point. thx, Kim

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Kim! In terms of settings, I usually just play with the intensity of the flash (1/1 being the most intense, and 1/64 being the least intense) to get the effect I want, and the direction the flash is pointing (usually I bounce it off the ceiling). I use it in “TTL” or ‘through the lens’ mode–I haven’t really messed with the other settings. I wish I were more familiar with the settings so that I could give you good advice, but since what I’ve used has worked well for me, I haven’t experiemented that much. Hope that helps!

  9. Venassa says:

    I just got a new lens and I think my next purchase definitely has to be one of these. Built-in flashes are horrible.

  10. Deanna says:

    This is so useful – I got this flash for Christmas, but completely flubbed the Christmas concert pictures with it (I had pointed it up at the ceiling, but the ceiling was so high in the gymnasium it didn’t work…)
    I also have the Nikon D5000, and am mostly frustrated by my attempts – but things like gymnastic competitions and soccer games – are perhaps tough venues.
    I will get out my flash and try, try again!

    • Jenna says:

      Yeah, high ceilings are my bane–in that case, if there’s a white wall nearby, you can bounce the flash off that instead. Gymnastics and soccer events sound like tough places to take good pictures, for sure.

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