Camera Flash Types

Using a camera flash is a very convenient way to achieve the right quality of light for a good image in different lighting conditions

You need the right quality of light for a good image and the camera flash is a very convenient way to achieve that in certain lighting conditions.

Although you can have too much light, the most common problems are that you have too little light, the wrong quality or direction of light, or you just need to be able to shoot in an environment where you can have complete control over the light.

In each of these situations, you need to choose some kind of photographic camera flash or flash attachment to get the right quality of light and thus to get the images you want.

Camera Flash Types and Flash Attachments

Built-in Camera Flash


Many digital cameras have a built-in camera flash that is so convenient and easy to use that you are usually unaware it even fires.

Although built-in flashes are simple to use and convenient, they have an illumination range of up to 10 feet and they do not offer enough professional-level control over the flash exposure. In addition, the light they produce has some characteristics that can result in unflattering images.

Because of that they are mostly used for "snapshot" photos and quick pictures in low-light environments where capturing the shot takes priority over getting a perfectly lit shot.

Nevertheless, knowing the characteristics of a build-in camera flash is important as it allows you to decide in when to use it and when not.

  • Built-in flashes are not very powerful. Their light range is usually limited to eight to ten feet - fifteen feet at most.

  • As a built-in flash is at most, just a few inches away from the lens, the flash unit creates a flash of light that shines almost straight from the lens and that can eliminate much of the natural shadows and texture definition on the subject.

    Alternative approaches, such as using an external camera flash allowing you to bounce light off walls or ceilings, or even just turning the flash off may produce more interesting results.

  • Another disadvantage of a build-in flash is that the direct light it produces often causes red-eye when photographing people.

    With the exception of some single-use types, virtually all digital camera makes nowadays offer red-eye reduction features. They work by firing two flashes to minimize red-eye in the subject—first a pre-flash to shrink the iris, then a flash to expose the image. Such features do not guarantee that red eyes are eliminated but rather the chance of it happening is reduced or minimised.

    There is also a downside to using a redeye reduction feature - many subjects blink during the pre-flash, and then the second flash catches them blinking. Or sometimes subjects think that the first flash means the photo was taken and they move and the second flash fires to capture their movement on the photo. If you were to use a detached or off-camera flash or shoot with existing light only, you would not have either of these problems.

Despite of its disadvantages, there are certain situations where a built-in camera flash can be tremendously useful:

  • Convenience: Built-in camera flash is extremely convenient because it is built in to the camera and is always ready to use when you need it. You will not have to carry extra pieces of equipment, or spend more money to buy them.

  • Reducing exposure range: One of the best uses of a built-in camera flash is to bring your subject's exposure range down to where your camera can capture detail in both shadows and highlights.

  • Stopping motion: The built-in camera flash on your camera produces its light in a super quick burst that can be very useful for freezing action.You will want to shut off red-eye reduction, because it greatly delays the moment of exposure , and makes it difficult to time the exact moment you are trying to capture.

Built-in Flash Advantages
Built-in Flash Disadvantages
Extremely convenient as you do not have to carry extra pieces of equipment
Have small range and cannot be positioned away from the camera to eliminate red eye
Very useful for freezing motion
Images have a characteristic flat shadowless lighting that minimizes surface textures and volumes

Cannot be rotated to bounce flash off a wall or ceiling to soften and thus improve the quality of the lighting

Drain on your camera batteries since they do not have their own source of power

External Flash Units

If you are looking to illuminate subjects further away as well as having greater control over the quality and direction of the light, you may want to look at employing an external camera flash unit. Most External Flash units (often referred to as flashguns) have their own power source and therefore are not a drain on your camera's batteries.

Flash units are differentiated by their power as measured by the maximum distance that they cover. Each flashgun is given a guide number (GN) - a measure of its light output.

The higher the guide number, the greater the intensity and range of the camera flash. So when deciding on purchasing an external flashgun, you should figure out how far you want your flash to reach and for what type of photography you are planning on using it so that you can look for a flashgun with an appropriate guide number.


More powerful flash units with higher guide numbers have a wider range of distances over which they will adjust to maintain correct exposure , faster recycle times, and make bounce flash more effective.

The Guide numbers of flashguns are listed in their specifications and are determined experimentally, usually by the manufacturer.


When looking at the GN number, check whether they are specified in feet or meters. There is a big difference between the two, and you want to make sure that you are comparing the right thing.

External camera flash units are offered by the different camera companies as well as third parties. When purchasing one though make sure that it is a dedicated flash meaning that it is designed to work with your specific camera model.

This will ensure that the flash unit is integrated into your camera's autoexposure system and offers additional features to extend your cameras capabilities.

Flash units that are not dedicated usually have to be operated on manual mode and not worth the savings.


It is best to buy dedicated flash units to ensure integration into your camera's autoexposure system and additional features to extend your cameras capabilities.

This will ensure that the flash unit is integrated into your camera's autoexposure system and offers additional features to extend your cameras capabilities.

External or off-camera flashes are synced to the shutter release via a hot-shoe bracket or PC terminal.


A hot shoe bracket is a space on top of your camera into which you can secure a flash and it provides electrical connections between the flash and camera. Using a hot shoe enables your camera to control many aspects of the flash from the camera's flash options, such as flash exposure compensation.

To mount the camera flash unit, you just slip it into the shoe and tighten a wheel to lock it in place.

If you are after a more dramatic side lighting or trying to eliminate red-eye effect, you can also use hot shoe cords that let you mount or hold the flash away from the lens.


If your camera does not have a hot shoe or you want to move the flash off your camera, you can utilise a PC (Prontor-Compur) terminal which lets you use a cable to connect to the flash.


The cable that attaches to the PC terminal is called a sync cord and makes the same electrical connection that the hot shoe does.

Slave Flash Units


If your camera does not have a hot shoe or other flash connector, and many pocket cameras do not, you can use a slave flash unit. These flashes have a sensor that fires the flash when it senses the burst of flash from the camera's built-in flash unit. Since many digital cameras fire the flash twice for each picture (the first is to set white balance and perhaps focus), these units are designed so they fire when the camera's second flash goes off.


A small slave flash unit can be attached to a compact camera to give you an increased flash range.

Studio Strobes

You need to use a studio strobe (flash), if you need more light and control than you are getting from flash units mounted on a camera's hot shoe.

These lights are not only more powerful lights, but they usually have modelling lights and lots of advanced controls. A modelling light is useful as it shines on your subject so you can see how the flash will light your subject when the flash fires. Modelling lights also make using your camera's auto-focus easy for you because they stay on except during the exact moment of exposure.

Studio strobes come in two variations: monolights and powerpack/head systems.

  • A monolight is a single strobe in which the power


    supply and flash head are contained in the same unit. These are nice for location work because you don't have have a lot of cables running around.

  • A powerpack/head system is completely different, in that all


    the 'works' are in a separate floor-mounted unit, connected by high-voltage cable to a lighting head that contains only the flash tube, modelling light and (sometimes) a cooling fan. You can adjust the lighting power and the overall light output to the head. These are the most flexible and most commonly used studio flash systems.

Studio Strobes

Hot lights are unlike strobes in that they are 'hot' to work under because they do not flash; rather, they are continuous tungsten or Metal Halide Iodide (HMI) lights that remain on until you turn them off. Many of the powerful tungsten lights are rated at 500–600 watts. They are simple to use but they consume lots of power, while putting out lots of heat.

Ring Flashes

A ring flash is a special kind of flash, ideal for use in macro or close-up photography as it allows for use of smaller apertures for greater depth of field and prevents camera or subject movement from causing blur.

Ring flashes are also very popular in portrait and fashion photography since they not only soften shadows but also give the model a shadowy halo which is a common feature of fashion photography.


These units usually consist of two parts. A shoe-mount unit is used to mount the flash on the camera's hot-shoe, and a circular flash unit is fitted around the lens which fires a circle of light on the subject.

Within the circular flash unit, there can be one or more flash tubes, each of which can be turned on or off individually.

You might ask why do you need multiple flash tubes ? The reason is that ring flashes produce very even and flat (shadowless) illumination to the subject, the unit can be set to fire just one side of the ring, or one side of the ring can be fired with more intensity than the other so to create a more three-dimensional feeling to the image.

Tips for Minimizing Flash Delays

The camera's flash can cause delays when you're forced to wait for it to build up a full charge between shots. Different flashes have different recycling cycles as well as some cameras have a useful option of locking the camera to prevent taking a photo before the flash is recharged.

Here are a couple of useful tips to keep in mind when you want to keep shooting flash images without pausing:

  • Close-up shots use less power - If you are taking close-up photos, you can probably shoot quicker and with fewer delays than if you are using up your flash's maximum power with every shot.

  • Close-up shots use less power: If you are taking close-up photos, you can probably shoot quicker and with fewer delays than if you are using up your flash's maximum power with every shot.

  • Reduce the flash power: For images taken at a closer distances, you can reduce the power setting of your flash so that you enjoy a faster recycling time. Many built-in flashes and external units can be set to 1/2, 1/4, or 1/8 power, or can reduce power for you automatically at closer distances.

  • Use an external flash: As we discussed earlier built-in flashes are a drain on your camera batteries since they do not have their own source of power and so has been designed to use the minimum amount of power necessary to do the job. This conservative approach can mean slower recycling. External flash units that fit on your camera's hot shoe or use a connecting cable usually have beefier batteries and recycle much more quickly.

  • Use an add-on battery pack: You might be able to connect your external flash to an add-on battery pack that offers really fast recycling, on the order of a second or less.

Camera Flash Types

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