Manual Flash Mode

by Johan J Ingles-Le Nobel
Last updated May 13, 2017

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The manual flash mode maybe the most basic of flash modes around used for extreme macro, but it is also the most useful one that's around.

Most flashes come with manual modes nowadays; both my Pentax AF360FGZ and AF540FGZ flashes have it; so does the AF160, but the Metz-58 AF-2 excels with a range down to 1/256 power in 1/3 stop increments. The newest Pentax DSLR also offers manual onboard flash, although its successor the K-3ii opts for a GPS unit over an onboard flash instead.

What is a Manual Flash Mode?

the Metz-58 AF-2 excels with a range down to 1/256 power in 1/3 stop increments

The manual flash mode is a flash setting that lets the photographer decide the power output of the flash when it pops. It is typically set on a scale that halves, ie 1/1 power, 1/2 power, 1/4 power, 1/8 power, 1/16 power and so on. The better the flash the more options you have and the broader the range of the options.

The Sharper Image

Flash Duration

Flashes on manual settings have an extremely short duration: this freezes motion and makes for sharp extreme macro. For example, the Canon 580Ex:

Flash Power Flash Duration
1/1 power 1/1000 second
1/2 power 1/2000 second
1/4 power 1/4000 second
1/8 power 1/9000 second
1/16 power 1/15000 second
1/32 power 1/21000 second
1/64 power 1/30000 second
1/128 power 1/35000 second

For extreme macro, using your flash at a low manual power setting has the immediate benefit that it freezes motion and therefore renders your photograph sharp. It gives you none of the fuzzyness that you might have using continuous lighting on an unstable platform, because the flash pop is so fast that you are effectively using a fast shutter speed.

Although the flash sync speed dictated by your camera maybe 1/250 or 1/180, if all your light comes from the pop of the manual flash, and the duration of your flash is 1/20,000 of a second, then for all intents and purposes your exposure is actually 1/20,000 of a second, the 1/250 or 1/180 doesn't matter. That's happy days.

Of course, if it's very bright out and you need a shutter speed faster than the flash sync speed then you'll need to look at HSS, but that's another story.

Battery Conservation

Using a flash with manual settings at a low power has plenty of other advantages, not the least of which is battery conservation. A flash being used at 1/32 has a much longer battery life than a flash doing pre and main flashes for PTTL. And longer battery life is always welcome. Not only that, but sticking to a low manual power fraction also gives you a nice fast flash recharge time, which is the huge advantage that an external flash unit gives you over using the onboard one. Means you can use bracketing and fast bursts, so you get more keepers.

Rear Sync

One thing to keep an eye on if purchasing a flash unit is to check that the flash unit you intend to buy can do both manual settings and rear sync together without requiring the use of *TTL using the optics of your choice. It is exceptionally annoying, for example, that a Pentax K-7 and Metz 58AF-II can do these together, but for some inexplicable reason the Pentax K-5, the successor to the K-7, cannot. But it's a great relief that the K-3ii behaves in this regard, and lets you have manual rear sync flash.

Consistency

When you're using your flash for an extreme macro stack, lighting consistency is your friend. Although electronic flashes can show some inexplicable inconsistency variation between shots, using the flash at the same manual setting minimises any potential variation between flash pops. Consistency is good.

Flexibility

check that the flash unit you intend to buy can do both manual settings and rear sync together

Manual flash doesn't require the communication between a camera and the flash that PTTL requires. Therefore, it is perfectly possible to use manual flash with PC sync, adding flexibility to the potential flash setups that you can use. The other way of using it would be a cheap eBay radio trigger. This is the way I use manual flash on my K-3ii for some fill in butterfly photography, works a treat.

Comments (6)

Article: Manual Flash
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Harold Gough says...
The practicality is that: Using lower power settings, the flash gun needs to be closer to the subject that at a higher one. Also, the exposure will only be correct for a given magnification/aperture/ISO combination. You could chose equivalents by e.g. opening up the diaphragm by one stop and lowering the ISO by one step at a given magnification. I have done this when I was using fully manual flash. TTL metering cuts out the need for this and, if the light source is near enough to the subject, can give you the same motion-freezing short-duration flash.
9th May 2016 4:05pm
Mark Gaz says...
After a frustrating year of trying to get ETTL working on my Canon 430EXII, and never being able to do burst shots, I worked out that the diffuser was confusing it. ETTL always seemed to judge that it needed *way* more power than necessary. That meant the flash recharge time was absolutely terrible - between 3 and 10secs. A LONG wait between shots! Swapping to manual 1/8 -0.7 has completely transformed my macro flash work. I can now take continuous burst shots with flash on every shot. Stacks are now dead simple, and depend on my camera holding and movement technique instead, like they should. There is one other really important reason that manual flash is better. ETTL does a pre-flash. I just could not work out how the tiny flies could escape whenever I pressed the shutter. Every time. Pre-flash. Manual mode has just one flash - they get no warning - and it's less power - they sometimes stick around. Excellent! Thanks for an excellent article!
20th April 2016 1:20pm
Max Rockbin says...
Small point, but according to this page (with oscilloscope shots!), 1/2 power manual flash is about 1/1000th - not 1/2000th. Full power is longer, but more spiked - with a high initial burst and trailing off a lot after 1/1000th. This is of course specific to the flash unit tested, but likely similar with a lot of models. The article is actually about using High Speed (high shutter speed) flash synch. Not a good option for macro because the flash duration is as long as the normal flash synch shutter speed (e.g. around 1/200th) - http://www.bobatkins.com/photography/technical/canon_speedite_high_speed_sync.html
25th October 2014 6:24pm
Johan says...
Yes fair enough, I vaguely remember I got mine from Canon's own data, and of course this time value depends on what is considered the point at which the flash finishes - which, wouldn't surprise me if it is different from manufacturer to manufacturer...
25th October 2014 6:44pm
Harold Gough says...
I use almost entirely manual flash. This is mainly because I don't want the lightness or darkness of the subject to mislead the flash metering and resulting exposure. To my way of thinking, this is like taking an incident light meter reading in daylight, which tell you how much light is falling on the subject, not how much it is reflecting.

You can think of manual flash as being the nearest you can get to spot metering for flash.
22nd April 2014 3:02pm
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