People more or less start the same way. Someone somewhere loves us dearly enough so as to send us a camera for Christmas gift. Some of us may have even inherited it from their granddad or maternal uncle. Regardless, of the origin a camera arrives in our lives. That’s the ‘Allspark’ that we needed. Life never remains the same after that seemingly inert incident. We end up getting hooked to our camera and to photography for the rest of our best days.

Photography is probably one of the easiest of vocations to make a startat because all you need is a camera. It is, however, probably the most difficult of all vocations to pursue because the shopping list is endless; and surely the most frustrating of all to master because results are never really quite what is expected.

To begin with there’s never a perfect way to do something in photography. It’s just a continuously evolving set of techniques and a world of different perspectives. Everything is an approximation. There is no right or wrong just what one sees and how s/he decides to project it. One approach is just a step seemingly closer to perfection than the other, without actually reaching that zenith.

Tools, however, help make things easier to achieve, ensure less heartburns and lead more often to satisfactory results at the end of the day,than not. Tools, such as external lights,are a photographer’s best friend – that is after his camera and lens.

External lights can be of many types. Very briefly, they include anything that is not an integral part of the camera. The pop-up flash, being attached to your camera is not counted as an external light source. Anything else, and that includes a flash head is.

To illuminate the subject in a low ambient light situation

The most common reason a photographer needs an external light source is because the ambient light is insufficient for a proper exposure. Let’s say that you are shooting portraits outdoors and it is after sundown. It is dark and you are unable to meter for the face or make it properly exposed. Your only option would be to use an external light.

Some photographers would intentionally shoot after sunset to retain the beautiful warm golden yellow orange hues of the sky while adding just the right amount of light so that the subject is properly exposed. External lights are imperative for such a setup.

To balance an exposure

External lights are sometimes used in tandem with natural light. Let’s say that you want to shoot a bridal portfolio image. The model is sitting wearing a designer bridal outfit and sitting by a large window with abundant sunlight. Ideally the window should have a diffusing cover so that the light isn’t as harsh as you would normally expect direct sunlight to be. Now, one problem that you would notice is the dramatic light fall-off. This happens due to the inverse square law and is something that has the potential to make one side of your images conspicuously darker than the other. The solution is in using a fill light that is balanced to compliment the natural light. The solution, thus, is in using an external light.

To shape light for those unique lighting results

Really, one of the main reasons professional portrait photographers shoot inside a studio (controlled environment) is so that they can control the light. Studio light sources, such as strobes or continuous lights,are compatible with a host of light modifiers which allow photographers to shape the light to achieve a unique result. This is impossible to do with natural light. Some of the modifiers they can use to create a directional light include snoots, grids and gobos. Alternatively, softboxes, umbrellas and reflectors are some of the modifiers that produce a soft wrapping light. Both are necessary for specific looks.

When the built-in flash is less powerful

One of the reasons you need an external light is because the built-in flash isn’t that powerful. The pop-up flash in most entry, enthusiastic and some professional models is there just as a handy source of light. Professionals almost never use these for the simple reason they fire straight on and they can’t be modified easily. The fact that they are not powerful enough and take a long time to recycle also works against them.

To overpower poor ambient light source

External lights can do something that built-in lights never do. They can literally drown out any offending light source if the need be. This is something that may be necessary to be accomplished in an event, where mixed lights are used. Mixed lights create a challenge for photographers to properly set the white balance. Resultantly the images they shoot tend to reflect different color casts. Apart from shooting in RAW the other option is to use artificial lights that can literally drown out the offending light sources.

Ben Novoselsky

Ben Novoselsky

CEO and Founder at
Entrepreneur, geek, photo enthusiast.
Ben Novoselsky