Flash, Bang wallop, professional lighting as a photographer

Jun 30, 2023 | Technical

“Show Notes”

This week Marcus takes us through the benefits of using flash (strobe to
Americans) for your photoshoots.

Marcus is passionate about this subject and explains why it’s an essential part of
every photographer’s toolkit. Plus we get an insight into a memorable Fosters
advert from ‘back in the day’

Marcus explains how flash helps you create a visual narrative. you can get more
information about that here.


Marcus also explains that clients’ availability can be limited so sometimes you need
to turn day into night, or night into day using flash. There is some more information
on this here.


We also discuss manufacturers, which to use and why it’s best to choose wisely.
When natural light is good it’s good use it, but, remember if you are in the UK, don’t
rely on it. Modifiers, speed lights, umbrellas and stands all come into the chat. And
finally, how to find a good teacher and the workshops that are best avoided.

Marcus referred to these photographers in the podcast.

Martin Parr- https://www.martinparr.com/

Gregory Crewdson- https://gagosian.com/artists/gregory-crewdson/

Elaine Constantine- https://elaineconstantine.com/

“Show Transcription”

Sam Hollis: Hi Marcus.

Marcus Ahmad:Hi there, Sam.

Sam Hollis: Good for it. See you again. So this week we are looking at seeing the light starting to use flash in your photography. Marcus, can you introduce us to this topic, please?

Marcus Ahmad: I certainly can. Now, flash, first of all, let’s just get the terminology sorted out a little bit because our American cousins call it strobe. For the purpose of this podcast, I’m going to be calling it flash, but they’re the same thing. And it also does apply to bring in other lights, just not using ambient light, which is the natural light. All about us. So I started using flash in my practice, in my photography when I was at university. So a long, long time ago, I Was really influenced by photographers such as Martin Parr, Elaine Constantine and Gregory Crude son. I’ll put their names in the show notes so you can find a little bit more about them. They all use flash as part of their practice. Now, they didn’t use flash just because it was too dark to see properly or for the camera to focus or to take an exposure. They used flash as a means of creating a visual narrative to direct the viewer into a certain area, like Martin Parr might use, or to create a story like Gregory Creech might use. So I think this is a really important thing to understand what flash can do. It’s not just about illuminating because it’s too dark, it’s about creating a story, which in the kind of photography that I do, branding photography, it’s all about creating a story.

Sam Hollis: So how does that this is intriguing to me because a flash for me is something the little thing pops up in my Eosin I’ve never thought of it as being a story. So how does a flash, how does the light create story?

Marcus Ahmad: Okay, that’s a great question. It leads me on to my next point, Sam .So after I graduated university with all this knowledge about flash, I got a fantastic job assisting a photographer who was one of the top advertising photographers at the time. And I worked with him for about four years. He took me on as a lighting assistant. So I was primarily in charge of setting up all the lights and creating a picture that is similar to what the advertising company wanted. So I’ll give you an example. One campaign we did was for a very large Australian lager company beginning with This was back in early 2000 and they wanted an image of a barbecue. But if you can imagine, this image was going to be split in half. One half of the image was going to be freezing cold winter doing a barbecue, and the other side was going to be blazing hot summer doing the barbecue. But both shots were done on the same day, at the same time.

Sam Hollis: And presumably the summer side had the lager. Did they?

Marcus Ahmad: Exactly right. You got it exactly right. I think you got the idea of this campaign and the winter side was all a bit miserable, but they were still cooking the barbecue. Now, the only way we could do this the only way at the time we could do this was by using flash. We used gels on the winter ones, blue gels, so it was all cold and it was all a little bit darker. And then on the summer one, we used warm up gels, we call those CTOs color temperature orange, to make it look warm and sunny and brighter with the flash. So that’s what I mean by a visual narrative. It’s a way of telling a story. With a flash, you can turn and I do this a fair amount, you can turn day into night and night into day. So if I’m working with the client and they work primarily at night time with their client, with their clients, wherever I would make it, try and give it a vibe that it was shot at nighttime, even though he might have shot it early in the morning. Does that sort of make sense?

Sam Hollis: Yeah, that does. That’s really interesting. And so I’m thinking about equipment now. I don’t know if people know my dad was a wedding photographer and did portraits. So I’m thinking back, and I used to remember sticking gold umbrellas into lights and moving them around. So if you’re sort of got a photography business, starting a photography business, what do you think is the basic things you need markets, because now you got, obviously, the ones that sit on top of your camera as the sort of basic hot shoe flashes. And then you’ve got all sorts of crazy lighting. So what do you think is like a basic thing? You need to get started and be able to make a start with the lighting.

Marcus Ahmad: Well, certainly a great place to start with the one that goes on your hot shoe, the on camera flash, as it were. And these days that you can get there’s lots of different makes to them, and they’re really, really well made. And you can move the head around so you can bounce off the sidewalls branch of the ceiling and you can do all sorts of stuff with it, even when it’s on with the camera. So that’s a great way to start.

Sam Hollis: And then in terms of brand, you’re saying the generics areas good as the real camera brand for the flash?

Marcus Ahmad: I just say James, I don’t recap I don’t mean it’s good to say navy. I don’t know why that is, but it’s something that people do. Yeah, there’s generic camera brands I think are better. IN fact, I would go for a range where there’s lots of different types of lights that you can build up your collection with. So you can start off with your on camera flash, then you can maybe get another one by the same manufacturer. That might be an off camera flash, like  a battery powered, really big battery pad one or mains pad one for the studio. So you keep to all the same manufacturer, then they’ll talk to each other, if that makes sense.

Sam Hollis: Yeah, I was going to ask that. So is it a bit like your camera where once you’ve got the body, you kind of end up using the same brand because you want your lenses, your lenses fit? Is it a similar idea? Once you’ve picked a brand, you pretty much have to stick with that brand if you want your lighting to work together in a coordinated way.

Marcus Ahmad: Yeah, and most definitely that is the best way to do it. And I learned that at my cost. For example, when I was working in America, I had one set of equipment over there. When I was working in the UK, I work with another set. I had the own brand flash on camera and it didn’t talk to each other. When I started rebuilt my stock of flash equipment, I just kept to one manufacturer and it is so much better.

Sam Hollis: Okay, so it’s important, actually, when you get that first flash, to think carefully about what brand you go for, because it might be you’re thinking, yes, that much money, I want to save cost. But actually, you need to think of the bigger picture and think, actually, this is the first in a series and unless this is just like a cheap one and I’m going to get something different, what brand is it good to get and do the research?

Marcus Ahmad: Yeah, indeed. I have used a lot of different ones. I’ve used Proof to I’ve used Ellen Chrome I’ve used Bowens, I’ve used Born color and now I currently use Godox.

Sam Hollis: Brilliantly. Do you want to talk us a bit more then? Sorry I interrupted you earlier, Marcus. A bit more about using lighting in your photography?

Marcus Ahmad: Yeah, definitely. I know some people really don’t like using flash or they give their business value on their businesses if they use natural light. I get that. I can see I mean, natural light when it works well, is you can’t beat it. It’s nothing like it. I mean, when I was working in La, for example, you’d always know if I was on that rare occasion when I’d be outside the studio, I’d know that like 06:00 in the morning on the beach, it’s going to be just a perfect light every day. It’s consistent. That mist is coming it. It’s got a nice great big, soft box type natural light. It looks beautiful. OR if I was shooting in New York, I’d know in the evening that the sun was setting, it would just be beautiful to go into a rooftop and you get an amazing light in our country, in the UK. Not quite so predictable, sadly. And also, even when working inside, I think windows of buildings here are a little bit smaller and there’s less light coming on. I struggle to get a good looking photograph just by using natural light in this country, even though when it is good, I do use it when the lighting is just perfect outside. What I mean by perfect, it could be soft lighting, which might suit a certain subject, or hard lighting, which might be for like a good landscape or whatever, but it’s very rare that I find, and it just works out well for me.

Sam Hollis: So I think if you’re out and about doing, say you’re outside doing a brand shoot, how much sort of equipment do you think you need to take with you? Is it you’re taking vast quantities of flash or is it sort of one or two? And that gives you the key tools you need to get a good shoot?

Marcus Ahmad: Yeah, okay, that’s a great question. One flash, a little speed light taken off your camera, put on a stand with a remote triggering it from your camera to the stat to the speed light is just perfect. You can bounce that off a wall if you’re inside of a ceiling. And you can get a lovely light coming from the side, not just coming from straight on from the camera from the side above or whatever, it looks lovely. You might then next want to think, okay, but sometimes I’m not in the room where in can bounce the light off a wall. So then you might get a modifier, which might be a softbot, an umbrella that you can pop up in seconds edition, all the different little things, all the different things you can get. But certainly a speed light with an umbrella on a stand, with a remote on your camera is not a massive investment. And you will just change the way your photographs look

Sam Hollis: amazing. And then is that kind of small enough so you can take that around with you in your bag?

Marcus Ahmad: Yes, definitely small enough to take around with you in your bag. And many, many photographers do. This podcast is aimed at commercial photographers, and by that I mean photographers who tend to work b to b, business to business. You’re there to get a photograph and you can’t go and say, oh, it didn’t quite work out with me, the light wasn’t right. You’ve got to go there and consistently come up with images that are going to suit their brand and suit your brand as well. So lighting, flash lighting, ticks those boxes for me.

Sam Hollis: If people want to learn more about lighting, if they’re thinking, I’m not very confident with this, I’m not really sure where to start. Is there some good places people can go to get training or more information?

Marcus Ahmad: There certainly is some, and that’s exactly what I was going to talk about. Obviously, I have taught a lot of people how to use flash photography. When I was a university lecturer, part of my task was to get the students who are all complete beginners, most of them are complete beginners up to a level where they can really understand and use flash. There’s lots of YouTube videos out there which are very good for maybe little details how to use a certain type of flash or how to use a certain modifier. And there’s books as well. But generally I think it’s good to invest with somebody with lessons on a one to one basis or go on avery small workshop with maybe about half a dozen people.The workshops I don’t recommend are the ones where they’ve got a model and you photograph the model with the lighting setup so it looks good for your portfolio. I don’t think you learn as much like that as from a proper structured teaching program

Sam Hollis: because presumably on those programs, you’re not the one setting up the light. And that’s where you learn, isn’t it? You learn by doing it yourself, by getting the light in the wrong place, in the right place and also in the wrong place and learning from that.

Marcus Ahmad: Exactly, Sam, and just talking on that point, I think the great thing about digital photography is you can immediately see what that flashlight is doing. You can immediately see on the back of your camera, you’re always heading it. Yeah.Whereas in the olden days in the old days with film, you had to wait to come back from the lab 24 hours later. So you’re getting instant feedback. So it’s just great to go out there, make a few mistakes, see what doesn’t work, and then find out what does work

Sam Hollis: brilliant. So, Marcus, do you think you can kind of we’re coming towards the end of time. Do you think you can kind of summarize that for us a little bit? Give us a few tips of wisdom to kind of summarize what we’ve talked about?

Marcus Ahmad: Most definitely. I mean, obviously, for me, Flash is the way to go. If you’re going to start working in Flash, buildup a kit that is all from the same manufacturer, so it all talks to each other. And most of all, don’t be scared about using it.Just look in the back of your camera. Is it too bright? Is it too dark? Turn the flash up. Turn the flash down. That is basically it.

Sam Hollis:  Brilliant. And then that one remote Flash on a tripod is a good way to go and a good way to start and a good way to learn about using Flash.

Marcus Ahmad:  Yeah.And for a minimal investment.

Sam Hollis: Brilliant. Thank you, Marcus. Right. I’ve got stat of the day for you.

Sam Hollis: So today, video content on your homepage of your website or on a landing page can increase conversion by 80%.That’s 80%.So video, in terms of marketing, video is just getting more and more and more important. People find video engaging. They’re much more likely to look at a video than read your content.

Marcus Ahmad: Sam, can I ask you a question on that point?

Sam Hollis: Yeah, of course.

Marcus :On my website, I’ve got a video above the fold. The first thing you see is some behind the scenes photographs. Behind the scenes video of me in a photo suit. Yeah.So I really believe in what you’re saying there. I think people do like that. But what worries me is it’s a big file size, is that going to affect my loading time? And what’s the best way to deal with that?

Sam: Oh, yes, it massively would. So don’t host videos on your website. Put your videos on YouTube and embed them into your website. Your website hosting computer is optimized for websites, not for video. And no matter how much they spend, it’s never going to be as YouTube. YouTube are the premium video hosting site, aren’t they? They’re massive. The amount they spend on optimizing their computers to stream video is unbelievable. So there’s no point trying to compete. Host everything there. Embed it on your website. The only time you can’t do that, if it’s background video, then you have to host it on your site. And as soon as you host stuff on your site, those background videos look great, but, yeah, the speed of your site plummets. So as much as possible, YouTube, go with that.

Marcus Ahmad: Got you. I’m going to have to check my website or how I’ve done it.

Sam Hollis: Right, Marcus, it’s been great speaking to you. I’ll see you next week.

Marcus Ahmad: Yeah, see you next week, Sam.Bye bye.