Whether to use manual flash or automatic flash is the first question you have to ask yourself in flash photography, and it is not always a clear cut answer. If you read around the internet and read around one of the many photography forums you will see many “die hard” manual flash fans that simply refuse to use the automatic mode.
Some of these people cite that the only way to get “proper” exposure is to set the flash power yourself, some of these people cite that manual flash is the only way to get consistent flash exposures and Some of these people cite the automatic mode is “idiot mode” for people who can’t use a flash. After spending many hours dipping my toes in the water of flash photography and playing around with a variety of flash guns in a variety of situations I have to say that I totally disagree with such views on using automatic flash and the flash in ETTL mode (i-TTL if you shoot a Nikon). Automatic flash does have its place and there are times when it will lead to more accurate exposures than using a flash in manual mode.
In my experience you have to be comfortable with both manual flash and automatic flash, and know when you are going to get the best results with either one. Okay, you can use either manual or ETTL flash for all shooting conditions but, I can guarantee, you will not get the best photographs doing this.
Automatic flash is where the camera uses the information sent form the flash’s pre-fire to calculate the flash power to get the proper exposure, and this is done in a split second. If you think about it for a minute this is very clever and, using ETTL flash you can get a proper exposure very quickly and with minimum fuss.
The ETTL on modern day cameras is very good and, on the whole, you will get decent exposures however you have to remember the camera will make mistakes at times. I mean, there are times when certain conditions will affect your camera’s light meter, such as when shooting very dark or very bright scenes for example, and you have to ‘trick’ the camera using exposure compensation (if using automatic mode, aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode) or making an apparent over or under exposure in manual mode, and the same goes with ETTL flash.
When you photograph highly reflective subjects using ETTL flash mode the camera will want to reduce the flash power because it thinks the subject is well lit, which results in an under exposure. When you photograph very dark subjects using ETTL flash mode the camera will want to increase the flash power because it thinks the subject is poorly lit, which results in over exposure. In these situations you have to trick the camera and adjust the exposure using the flash exposure compensation button.
Manual flash, as I am sure you have already guessed, is where you decide what settings to use. With manual flash you set the zoom and you set the power level needed to get the exposure and the effect you desire.
If you use manual flash there is no flash exposure compensation since there is no “standard setting” which to override.
With manual flash you take total control over the flash exposure and the camera has no input, therefore there is no blaming the camera if you don’t get the type of effect you want.
As previously mentioned in this article, there are many photographers who instantly dismiss ETTL and will take full control over the flash for every image they take. If you want to work like this, that’s fine and it is, after all, your prerogative. That said, there are times when ETTL flash is slicker, more efficient and will produce the result you want.
The best time to use ETTL flash
ETTL flash comes in to its own in dynamic and fluid environments when the distance between the flash and the subject constantly changes and speed is of the essence, such as at wedding receptions, parties and corporate functions.
At these social gatherings it is going to be impossible to get people to stand around waiting whilst you calculate what power you need to set your flash at to get the right exposure.
The guests/attendees aren’t going to want to mingle and socialize, and not hang around for the photographer to set his gear up.
Using ETTL all you need to do is put the camera in manual mode, adjust the settings to expose for the ambient light, set the flash to ETTL, press the shutter button and let the camera decide what power to set the flash. Now how easy is that?
One thing you have to remember is that whilst the camera will do a good job you are going to have to watch out for people wearing very bright and dark clothing, and also highly reflective clothing as this will lead to over or under exposure if you don’t dial in flash exposure compensation as necessary.
Learning what flash exposure to use, i.e. negative or positive, and probably more importantly the amount of flash exposure to dial in, takes time and practice therefore it is worth playing around with your camera and flash and experimenting a lot before attempting to take photos at fast moving and dynamic social events.
The best time to use manual flash
The best time to use manual flash is in static situations where the flash to subject distance doesn’t change and the subject remains in the same spot for each photo. Think about graduation photos, school photos, the photos of children on Santa’s knee in the mall etc. In these situations you have time to set up stool for the subject to sit on, set up a background and set up the flash lights. You can then tweak the power of the flash to give the correct exposure.
It is worth noting that when using a set up like this you do not have to use flash exposure compensation as the flash power needed to light the subject will be exactly the same whether they are wearing white clothing, black clothing, highly reflective clothing or no clothing at all. With this set up you will get consistent and constant flash exposures every time you hit the shutter button.
You can use ETTL flash using this set up, and some photographers do, however using ETTL you will have to think about the tonality of the subject and what they are wearing and use the flash exposure compensation to adjust accordingly. Personally, I find this an unnecessary chore so when face with static shots I will always use manual flash.
If you want to get the best flash photos, and get nail them consistently, you really do need to master both manual and ETTL flash. If you don’t have a flash that has ETTL and are planning to shoot parties, wedding receptions, corporate functions and social events you are going to struggle and the ratio of keepers is going to be low. Sure, you may strike it lucky and nail the flash a few times but you will miss more than you get.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.