Saturday, October 3, 2009

REVIEW: On-Camera Flash – Techniques for Digital Wedding & Portrait Photography

Let me just cut to this chase – this book by Neil van Niekerk is simply fantastic! This is the book you’ve been waiting for, and it should be considered an instant classic! Why? Because everyone knows how hard it is to get good results out of their on-camera flash, so we spend hundreds of dollars on light modifiers to try to get Joe McNally caliber results, yet no matter how hard we try our flash shots still end up sucking! Well my friends, the solution to your problems are here and no rocket science degree or expensive gear is required to get top caliber results. Read on to understand why I like this book so much!

Chapter by Chapter Walkthrough

When writing books the publisher frequently works with the author on an outline first, and they have ideas on what content you should have in your book. However, authors generally have the stuff that they are excited about and then the other stuff they must write about. In this book, it is clear to me that Neil enjoyed writing Sections 2 & 3, and the information in them is FANTASTIC! However, Sections 1 & 4 are “buns” of someone’s “must haves”, but Neil kinda glosses them over with no real depth. It’s a knock on this book, but you can safely ignore it (as well as those sections) because the “meat” of the book (Sections 2 & 3) make it worth every penny!


This is a really short 4 page section that just goes over some basic material. The chapter titles give you some insight as to what this section is about, but there’s not much depth here to worry about.

  • Chapter 1 – What We Want To Achieve
  • Chapter 2 – Looking At The Available Light
  • Chapter 3 - A Few Essential Concepts
  • Chapter 4 – Choosing Equipment

This is the good section that provides just enough of the “how’s” and “why’s” behind what comes later. It will give you some basic understanding on what you need to know so that Section 3 becomes more meaningful.

Chapter 5 – Exposure Metering

This is a great chapter for those who want something more technical than what Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson offered in his book. It provides a very brief mention of the Zone System and does a more in-depth discussion of the histogram for both Nikon and Canon systems. It also includes a good discussion of the different in-camera metering modes as well as exposure compensation. Overall it’s a great chapter for the beginner, and useful to the more advanced for a more in-depth understand of the “why'” behind the results that we get from our in-camera exposure meters.

Chapter 6 – Flash Modes and Exposure

This is a quick discussion of flash exposure compensation, which is something most people seem to fail to understand when they get a flash. There’s also some interesting points about how the Canon and Nikon systems behave differently and their own little quirks.

Chapter 7 – Flash-Sync Speed

When I first took the picture above in May 2007 (shortly after getting my first Digital SLR), it puzzled me as to why the bottom of the frame was black. I had this problem on several frames, and couldn’t understand what was going on. However, the answer was very simple – my shutter speed (1/320 sec) was too fast for my rented studio strobes so the shutter blocked some of the light from the sensor.

In this Chapter Neil does a great job of explaining this issue as well as the pros and cons of Second Curtain Sync (which many in the Scott Kelby circle of friends are advising). He also has the best visual description of high speed sync that I’ve ever seen. Overall I loved this chapter and it was the first chapter that made really appreciate Neil’s style of educating his reader.

Chapter 8 – Adding Flash to Ambient Light

This is a short chapter, but he uses a bunch of images to get the point across quickly. A picture is worth a thousand words, and Neil uses plenty to get his points across quickly and concisely!


This is where the rubber meets the road and Neil starts teaching you about the tricks he’s learned in his many years as a wedding photographer. I loved this section along with Section 2. If you only read two sections, these are the ones!

Chapter 9 – Using Simple Flash Modifiers

Most of us suck at using the flash so like golfers purchasing putters to improve their short game, we spend a fortune on flash modifiers to try to make our images not suck. The problem is that most of us are missing so many fundamentals that no flash modifier in the world can save us – until now. The best part here is that Neil show’s off his fancy flash modifier that allows him to get some fantastic shots, and it’s no more than a thick sheet of black paper with a rubber-band for what amounts to a half-snoot system. He also discusses a few of his gels and the way he (occasionally) uses a Sto-Fen Omnibounce. This is low-tech tips to create high-tech results – woohoo!

Chapter 10 – Bounce Flash

Before reading this chapter, do your best to take the best shot you can with your bounce flash given what you know today. I did, and the result was the image above on the left. Now, read the chapter and apply what you know. The result, the image on the right. Notice a difference? All I did was turn my flash head from the tried and true “bounce off the ceiling” method we all use (shown left above and below) to turning my flash head to get a sideways indirect bounce (shown right above and below). Using this very simple technique, I was able to create dramatically better results without having to spend a penny on yet another light modifier. How cool is that?!!!! This chapter is filled with that kind of goodness, which is why I love it so much.

Chapter 11 – Flash With Tungsten Ambient Lights

I like to call this chapter, “How to not get those ugly yellow flash pictures” as that’s pretty much what he’s teaching you. Most of us struggle with this one, but Neil breaks this problem down into simple concepts along with pictures to demonstrate the words to come up with a great chapter that demystifies this common problem.

Chapter 12 – Using Flash to Control Contrast

This is a good chapter to help you deal with backlighting problems (i.e., bright background and dark subject) you may be facing with your photography today. It’s short, but useful.

Chapter 13 – Controlling Light Falloff

See that crappy shot above? That’s light falloff – the subject is bright, but the background goes to dark (in this case pretty rapidly). These are the kind of flash shots that a lot of us get when we first get our cameras and it is both maddening and embarrassing (as in this case where an important moment wasn’t captured properly). If this is something you’ve dealt with, then this is the chapter you’ll want to read.

Chapter 14 – Flash Techniques Outdoors

Mouse over to see the NO FLASH version, mouse out to see FILL flash version

In photography there’s a lot of “rules” that people insist are true, but seasoned photographers will tell you that the rules are a guide – not an absolute. Outdoors is one of those cases where you forget the indoor rule of never pointing your flash directly at your subject. Here he explains how you can get away with a lot more outside because TTL does a much better job with fewer surfaces for the light to bounce off. In fact the shot above was a case where I had nothing to bounce off of, but was using a 200mm lens so I just pointed the flash directly at the model and the lighting was bang on. Hover over to see what the same results were without a fill flash. Big difference, right? Well Neil uses this chapter to show you some good examples of how to be very subtle and make great improvements to your outdoors shots using a fill flash.


I think this section was one where Neil either ran out of steam or he just didn’t have the time / page count left to go in-depth. These are very shallow chapters on a topic that Strobist covers very well. You can basically skip this section as there’s little value in its two chapters below:

  • Chapter 15 – Off-Camera Wireless TTL Flash
  • Chapter 16 – Off-Camera Manual Flash


This is my #1 pick so far for Photography Book of the Year in 2009 and it earns a spot on my must own photography books in my Which books should I read? article. Thank you Neil van Niekerk for sharing your pearls of wisdom in a way that is easy to understand, without using 47 speedlights or $1000+ in light modifiers! Thank you for not going into geeky theory in an attempt to make yourself look smart. Thank you for showing us the HOW but also providing the WHY for those who need that. I look forward to seeing more books from you in the future.

Skill Level: All
Value: Priceless (especially for people with expensive flashes they don’t know how to operate properly)
Recommendation: Buy it, read it, apply it, and then read it again. Fantastic stuff that is sure to help your photography more than a new lens or camera body!

Neil ( & Amherst Media), if you are reading this I’d LOVE to see you write books on How to Master the Canon Flash System and How to Master the Nikon Flash System (although McNally already did that). If you do, I’m sure the demand would be huge as I’ve found no books to date that adequately cover the subject

After reading this book, you can continue to learn more by following Neil on his blog at Planet Neil where he has more tutorials and other great information from recent photo shoots.

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The opinions provided are of Ron Martinsen alone and do not reflect the view of any other entity


David Gould said...

Ron..I've been thinking about getting Neils book since it came out and I figured I'd purchase it through your blog because your blog is one I have bookmarked and I know it helps out a little.

Ron Martinsen said...

Thanks for supporting the blog David!