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Flash Guide - The Teddy Bears Test

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp)

Keywords: flash, speedlights, sb_28, su_4, studio, lighting, filter, guides, tips, nikon, f100, film


The Nikon®  flash system is a wonderful tool. Notwithstanding, new users seem disconcerted with the names, descriptions and instructions to use it, not to mention how to use it well. Most feel a visual demonstration is imperative, so here it is.

All tests were performed with a Nikon F100 camera on a sturdy tripod with a pro ballhead, SB-28 speedlights, AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8D ED Zoom Nikkor with 81A filter from 8.8 feet (2.7 meters) at 70mm focal length, shot on Fujichrome Provia 100F Professional (RDPIII).

Slides were digitized on a Nikon Coolscan IV ED scanner, without any alteration to color, curves or anything else, except for a slight unsharp mask performed equally on all enlargements.

The teddy bears, preferred subject for this kind of tests due to their non reflective "fur", borrowed from my grandchildren, at their play room.

First conclusion: the bears and the chair scream for thorough spring cleaning.

Teddy Bear Test continued ... Interiors 101

Comparative use of bracket, hot shoe, flash head tilting, white card and diffuser.


Teddy Bear Test - Interiors 102

Flash head angle variations, switch from TTL + Matrix into just TTL ... 


Teddy Bear Test - Interiors 103

Two flashes variations continued ...


Teddy Bear Test - Interiors 104 and some conclusions

Change of angle of the primary flash.



The Nikon flash system managed to provide the best possible lighting for the image on the frame, not of one bear over the other, but for both. And that under various conditions: one flash, two flashes, on hot shoe, on bracket, off camera, on SU-4, at various angles. The more noticeable differences were created by the position of the flash(es) to illuminate the wanted areas -like the chest of the brown bear- and the use or not use of the diffuser or the white card in interiors. These changed the quality of the light and its placement, not the quantity as seen in the images presented.

Many variations were tested, all equivalent in results, not presented here for reasons of space, to avoid plenty of repetitive images and profound lethargy: 

a) Switch from P program mode into A mode, selecting wider apertures for shallower depth of field. This could be desirable on occasions. However, if you want improved DOF it is always better to switch lenses for one with a wider angle.

b) Switch from P program mode into S mode, to insure apparent steadier shooting, like from 1/60 sec to 1/125. If under dark lighting conditions it serves no purpose, there is not enough light to record backgrounds, the actual speed will be that of the speedlight and you loose DOF.

c) Switch from P program mode into full Manual was really useless as it just duplicates the results obtained in A and S modes.

c) Slow Sync. More illuminated backgrounds under the test conditions. Perhaps useful if more surrounding light is available and there is an interest in showing those backgrounds.

Obviously no rule was broken in the tests, that is, shooting outside of the flash range dictated by the Guide Number (GN). If you don't break it, your images should always look well lit. If they don't, ask your photo lab to redo your prints.

So, unless you want to shoot at wider apertures, if you don't want to be concerned about the above rule in interiors, just switch to P mode and set the flash to TTL only, to use your speedlight(s) as main light source. You may say " .. but that is not taking advantage of my 3D Multi-sensor matrix balanced TTL capability with my high end camera and D lenses". Well, in interiors you may not want to since you don't need it as shown here, but you better use it in exteriors where the surrounding light becomes more important.

A tribute note to the photojournalists first using a simple white card attached to the flash with a rubber band. The results of using the white card out were always best, whether the flash head was at 90° (for not too tall ceilings) or at 45° (for tall ceilings) and those are among my favorites. Next best thing if you don't have a Sto-Fen® Omni-Bounce® diffuser at hand. 

Important note: When using two speedlights and the second one is on a SU-4 flash control unit, or is a flash with is own built-in slave capability, you have to make certain pre-flashes do not pre-trigger the second flash. An easy way to do that is -as in these tests- slightly tilt or rotate the head of the main flash. When with two flashes, triggering flash "straight forward" really means "almost straight forward".

Teddy Bear Test - Exteriors 201

Flash compensation and off camera flash.


Strong contrast between the patches of sunlight and shadows, under a canopy of trees.

Result: As good as image 22, but shadows now cast into the right side as a consequence of the change in flash position.

Teddy Bear Test - Exteriors 202


Result: Even subtler flash, almost not existing hint of it, except for shadows.
The magical number has no magic under this type of light. One must understand under what situations it is useful. This is simply not one of them.

Result: Slightly better lighting. 
Diffuser useless.

Teddy Bear Test - Exteriors 203

Flash compensation, diffuser use and program mode variations ...


Teddy Bear Test - Exteriors 204 and some conclusions

Variations on aperture selected



In exteriors is where you use fill flash, balancing exposure for ambient light; as opposed to flash (key, main source of light) under most interiors conditions. Therefore the best flash settings for exteriors are TTL + Matrix.

If you decide to also use Matrix Metering and D lenses and you happen to own a F5, F100, F90s/N90s, F90/N90, F80/N80, or a F70/N70, then you get 3D Multi-Sensor Matrix Balanced fill flash, which is even better, although hard to notice for the untrained eye.

Two flashes are always better than one. I am positive three flashes are always better than two. Diffusers and white cards are useless outside, where the softness of secondary light is overpowered by the natural key light. 

Flash compensation should not be used under strong contrast situations like those illustrated here. Unless all you want is a spark or catch light in the subjects eyes.

When using two flashes make certain the triggering flash is not making pre-flashes. To avoid them, simply tilt or rotate its head a little. When "straight forward" is used here with two flashes, it should be understood as "almost straight forward".  

Again, unless you want to shoot at wider apertures or faster shutter speeds than those under P mode, keep it there and you then don't have to worry much about checking the GN (Guide Number) and flash reach. There is no shame in trusting your camera.


The taking of flash pictures was a dreaded nightmare, seemed reserved for the very few that made their living with it. Efficient slide ruler handling and measuring tape seemed indispensable. It was not until 1988 when the Nikon flash system took "a quantum leap forward" with the introduction of the SB-24, opening the doors to us common mortals -with cameras such as the N8008s or F4s- into full fledged natural looking TTL auto flash. I've been happier ever since.



There are a total of seven possible flash TTL modes with a modern (SB-24 and later models) Nikon speedlight. They do depend on what camera you do have, with what lens and the metering mode of your choice. If you then add slow sync, they become fourteen different flash modes. No wonder the confusion. But, forget about the names. You use the camera and lens(es) you do have and go about selecting the metering mode you think is best for the situation. 

If you do care about the background, change your metering mode to Matrix, set the Flash to TTL + Matrix as in the image below of its LCD (liquid crystal display). You want more background? Add slow sync. It will be better to use two flashes.

Moving subjects and you want them to leave a trail? Rear sync with a slow shutter speed.

Flash compensation? Find your own magical number for specific situations.
In the type of conditions of the tests presented here it was useless. Flash output at zero compensation was perfect.


As I hope to have shown, there is no need to complicate flash photography ourselves. Nikon has made it real easy for us to turn out well lit images, without the "deer under the highlights" look. If your images don't look good, turn into the photo lab to find the culprit, not the Nikon flash system. Learn to trust it.

A final note on P mode: it saves on batteries and therefore allows for faster recycling in successive shoots. I have shot complete weddings (never less than 10 rolls) with a single set of batteries. You want more DOF? Change lenses.

But then, who am I to prevent you from going into A and M flash modes? 
And, of course, into experimentation with repeating flash and FP mode. Take notes.

Whatever you choose, enjoy. 

Have a great time 

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