Flash Photography on Film

Hi all,

I've recently been teaching myself the ins and outs of flash photography, which I briefly mentioned in my previous WHAT I'M WORKING ON article on expired film. After shooting a few rolls with flash, I feel I've now got a basic understanding on how it works, and what effects can be achieved with different techniques.

I've been using a National PE-300SGW hammerhead flashgun from the 1970s, mounted on my Yashica-Mat via flash bracket and PC sync cable. This flash offers 2 automatic non-TTL flash modes and a manual mode. and I use all of these modes in different situations. The flash head is also on a pivot to allow bounce flash photography. Teaching yourself flash with ancient equipment and medium format film is the hard (and very expensive!) way, but the way I felt would be the most enjoyable and, more importantly, I would learn a lot more about the uses of flash.

In flash photography, your shutter speed determines the exposure of the background, where-as your f-stop will determine the exposure of your subject. The ISO determines the overall exposure. To find the correct aperture to set for your flash, on most flashguns, you will set your ISO on a dial on the unit, determine the distance from the flash to your subject, and a graph or dial will tell you what aperture to set for correct subject exposure with that distance and ISO. The shutter speed doesn't matter for your subject's exposure, because the light provided by the flash will more or less be the same as it discharges over the course of your exposure, where-as shooting with natural light is cumulative; the darker it is, the more light you need to go through your lens.

For my first roll of film, the expired boots Panchro film metered at ISO 10, I set my shutter at 1/500, thinking it would provide an interesting effect. Combined with the lack of diffuser, a short distance from the subject and the use of direct flash, it provided a very harsh look which I really didn't like.

I also experimented with self-portraits, using the flash hand-held and holding it over to the side of my face, as well as using it with a bracket with the flash head pointing straight up. This created some interesting effects.

With manual flash, it's best to have a low ISO, as you can open your aperture quite a bit wider and decrease your depth of field. You can then work out the exposure for your background, and set your shutter speed ~1 stop faster than the meter's reading to separate your subject nicely. I learned this while shooting a roll of 1980 expired Kodacolor. I shot this roll at ISO 6 on a portrait shoot, which meant flash was the only option for lighting. As the ISO was so low, I could get closer with my aperture wide open, which gave me lovely separation. I took the flash off the bracket, and held it further to the side of the subject with an extension cable. I felt this was a very effective use of flash.

Using bounce flash is also a skill in itself that I haven't fully grasped, but I feel I have a basic understanding which I will try and share with you. Using flash directly on your subject often produces very harsh lighting, as your light source is very small. This means that every shadow and bump on your subject's complexion will be exaggerated. This is nice for rougher looking portraits, but for more flattering portraits you should find a way to diffuse all that light over a wider area. You could either do this through using a soft-box or diffuser (I don't have one), which is essentially a giant white box that goes over your flash and makes the surface area that emits the flash much greater, softening your light. The other way this can be done is by bouncing your flash off a ceiling or other feature above you that could reflect light. To do this, you must point your flash at the mid-point on the ceiling between you and your subject. I have no idea what the correct formula for setting your aperture in these situations is, but I've found just opening your f-stop one step to compensate works fine. This makes your subject glow nicely.

Thanks for letting me share my experiences in flash photography with you. If you'd like to hear about anything else I'm working on, or you have any questions, drop me a line. My e-mail address is thomgcharlie@gmail.com, or alternatively you can DM me on Instagram @charliethom_.

Bye for now!

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This article is part of the WHAT I’M WORKING ON series. If you’re interested to learn about other YOUR EXHIBITION photographers and their most recent work, check out the other WHAT I’M WORKING ON articles here.