Night Photography With a Single Flash: Step by Step Guide

Imagine that you need to photograph a large dark space, like a cave, or a church, but you only have a single flash. Is it even possible?

Quite some time ago I saw in a photography magazine photo of a big beautiful cave, perfectly lit, all the beautiful stalactites perfectly visible, and I thought to myself – there is no way photographer could bring powerful studio lighting equipment down there!

Fortunately there was a brief description to this photo – photographer put his camera on tripod and set it to long exposure, then during the exposure time he ran around the cave with small strobe flash and flashed all the areas of the cave. “Simple and Genious” I thought to myself back then.

Genious? Sure. Simple? Well, not really.

Recently I decided to photograph the front of my sister’s house decorated with shiny Christmas lights. Yes they still haven’t took them off, because my three year old nephew likes to turn them on every night before he goes to sleep :).

In order for Christmas lights to be visible, I had to do that after dark, and I only had one flash (not that it matters but it was Canon 430 EX). So I decided to try the technique described above, and it turned out not as simple as I first thought it would.

I’d like to share with you the tips that I learned from this experience, hoping they will make it easier for you should you decide to use this technique. I will do this in the form of step-by-step instructions how to perform this kind of shoot.

Here we go:
1. Set your camera on a tripod and compose your shot.
2. Choose the desired f-stop (here your guide should be only your artistic intentions, and not exposure considerations).
3. Focus your camera where you need to, then switch to manual focus. The reason for switching to manual focus is that in the dark it is hard for automatic focus to work, so each time you’ll press the shutter it may take a long time for camera to focus if at all.
4. Look at the scene and decide which areas need to be lit and which don’t.
5. Set your flash power to about 1/8th of its max power.
6. Press the shutter, and run around the scene with a flash in your hand flashing all the areas that need light. Flash ONCE each area.
7. Take a look at the result, and go over all the areas that needed to be lit. If they are too dark, next time you’ll flash them twice, or increase the flash power. Using low flash power and flashing several times the same area gives you more versatility in case you need different areas to be lit diferently.
8. Repeat the steps 6 and 7 until you are satisfied with the result.

In addition to this process you also need to have in mind the following:

  • When flashing hold the flash pointed outwards from your body, and as far from you as possible so that no light will spill on you (otherwise “ghosts” of you will be visible in the image).
  • Always point the flash away from the camera, so that no direct light from the flash will hit the lens (otherwise you’ll see bright points of light all across the image).
  • Remember that the longer the exposure time, the more noise you’ll have in the photo. Try to complete the shot as quickly as possible, unless you want the noise for artistic purposes.

Here are a few examples of the house that I photographed:

Night Photography With a Single Flash



In the photo above, you can see that I deliberately flashed into the lens a couple of times to create lights in the tree. This is also a good example of what you’ll see in your image if you do it by chance.

And here is another example, this time without the lights, and with better lit right side.

Night Photography With a Single Flash



Feel free to ask questions and share your experiences in the comment section below.

Till the next time, take care!

Greg.

2 thoughts on “Night Photography With a Single Flash: Step by Step Guide

  1. Great! I imagine you running all over the image…but I don’t see you in the image. Interesting.
    As always it’s fun reading your posts. When will you publish a book?

  2. Thanks Stas, I’m glad you like my stuff. You don’t see me because, like I said I am holding flash far from the body and turned away, so no light spills on me.
    I am not famous enough to publish a book just yet 🙂

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