A Simple Guide to Using Flash on Manual Film Cameras

Achieve Greater Control Over Your Artificially-Lit Photographs

10 min read by Dmitri.
Norah’s portrait is decluttered with a subtle background blur, achievable with rangefinder-focused exposure on ISO 100 film and an aperture of 𝒇5.6. Her shadow looks more natural as the xenon flash is lighting the scene from bottom left, relative to the camera — instead of a typical straight-on beam when built-in or mounted to an accessory shoe.
No light meter, no exposure guesstimates — just zone focus, look up your 𝒇-value, and click. Operating flashguns with no sync at all, like in the photograph above, can be done with any camera that has a “bulb” setting and provides control over the aperture. This guide has all the info and a few novel ideas for you to start shooting with flash on your manual film camera in just 10 minutes.

Note: In this guide, I refer to external on-camera flash devices as flashguns; this is how they used to be called, along with flashcubes. Today they are referred to as speedlights. Mine are simple plastic black boxes you can find for $5 used, with a bunch of numbers on them and no controls other than power and discharge buttons. This article only covers those features (power and discharge) and a few simple sync scenarios.

Getting a proper exposure of your subject in the dark could be challenging. Flash is a great help, although it too can ruin your perfectly-framed shot if it isn’t tamed. Using a manual camera with an external flashgun gives you some additional control and flexibility to produce better images or enable shooting in light conditions previously unsuitable for your vintage camera.

Using external flash, especially with manual exposure cameras, may seem daunting at first, but it isn’t that hard.

Setting expectations.

Scenes lit by simple flashguns do not look natural. This is true, regardless of how modern your camera is. The latest devices may have greater control over the light volume and colour temperature, but it’s still quite easy to tell if the image was artificially illuminated.

Flash tends to create strong shadows, stark highlights, and blue tints, which may make the image seem “flat.” When shot in colour, the eyes can appear bloody-red.

These artifacts are capable of disappointing photographers. Though uncommon and quirky experiments may stand out nicely in some contexts.

Mindfully choosing your scene, camera settings, and film type can reduce or emphasize those effects.

Of course, there are also hard limits to the effectiveness of a small flash. Typically good enough for a room, it won’t do much beyond a few feet/meters away from the camera. It’s practically impossible to see how the light will interact with the scene and you are limited by one strong source with no advanced options like controlling the colour temperature, diffusing, etc.

Norah on expired Portra 400UC, with Rollei 35B and no colour correction in post. No light meter, no exposure guesstimates — just zone focus, set aperture, and click.

When calculating exposure with flash, you may ignore shutter speed.

 ☝︎The altered function of a camera shutter is the key concept to understanding flash photography.

Norah, again, photographed using Rollei 35B on monochrome film. Because the colours are absent, there is no need to correct unnaturally-looking hue shifts. No light meter, no exposure guesstimates — just zone focus, set aperture, and click.

A flashgun is capable of flooding the scene with bright light for a very short period of time. Up to about 1/1000th of a second, depending on the device. During this moment, the camera has a chance to properly expose the film. But before and after the spark, it’s darkness — as far as your film is concerned.

Should the photo be taken in low enough light conditions, the flash will functionally replace the shutter.

In pitch-black, the shutter may be left open indefinitely, as the flashgun is to replace its function of exposing film for a short, controlled slice of time with its illumination. Once the light is gone, the darkness provides the same environment as the closed shutter — the absence of light.

Exposure = aperture~distance.

The timing of the flashbulb is consistent, but the amount of light that returns to your camera isn’t. Even though the bulb has constant luminescent power, the number of photons that get reflected depends on the distance from the illumination point to your subject.

Just like with a flashlight, things close-by are clearly visible, but the stuff that’s far-away is dim.

Even though the flashbulb practically replaces the camera’s shutter, we still need to adjust our settings for correct exposure to compensate for lost light due to distance. With the shutter “out of the picture,” the only tool at our disposal is the aperture since the film’s ISO can not be changed mid-roll.

Note: Older cameras and flash devices may mark film speed in DIN and ASA. DIN is rare to find on film canisters today, but ASA is just a different name for ISO.

You may use a specialized exposure meter to calculate the aperture value you need but, most of the time, it’s not necessary. Flash manufacturers often provide an exposure chart mounted directly on the device. It gives you an aperture value based on the distance between the flashgun and the subject, plus film ISO. If there’s no chart, you can make your own calculations using a guide number (GN), which is: GN = 𝒇/number ✕ distance @ ISO 100.

Flashguns may have exposure charts or dials built-in to help you set up your camera for the shot. For example, ISO/ASA 100 film at 1.5 meters will require an aperture of 𝒇8 with the flash above (the one that has a table) or 𝒇16 with the flash below (the one that has a dial).

All you need to set your camera’s exposure is estimate the distance (from your flashgun) to your subject. Look up the aperture value for that distance and the film speed you’re using. Your shutter speed may remain unchanged.

For added precision, you can focus first and read the meter/ft value off your camera instead of trying to guess it. You may have to eyeball your distance, i.e., zone focus, if it’s too dark for a rangefinder.

Because shooting flash up close will require relatively small aperture values/high 𝒇-numbers, there’s less chance of blurring your subjects.

Synchronizing flash with the shutter.

The flashgun needs to fire in-sync with the shutter release, precisely when the curtain or blades open and the light can reach the film. Analogue cameras come with a device that closes the contact and triggers precisely synchronized flash discharge.

FED 5b (left) uses a hot shoe accessory to trigger flash — notice the metallic circle inside the bracket. It is also limited to the shutter speed of 1/30th of a second for flash exposures. Ricoh Caddy (right) uses cold shoe — notice the lack of metallic circle inside the bracket. To sync with the flash, it needs a special cable that can connect the camera to the device. Because Caddy uses a leaf shutter, it can sync at practically any shutter speed.

The camera’s triggering mechanism may be connected to your flash via hot shoe — a contact inside the accessory mount on relatively modern models. Older cameras could do the same with a PC (Prontor/Compur) -socket via a special cable.

Synchronizing flash is best done with a leaf-shutter camera. Plane shutters expose film gradually as the slit in the curtain travels across the opening. Because of this, at certain speeds, a part of your frame may be obstructed when the scene is lit by flash. This means that extra care is required with virtually all SLRs and Leica-type rangefinders.

Leaf shutters expose the entire film plane at once, so all you need to do is make sure that this happens at the right time. Modern electronic bulbs are capable of lighting up the scene instantaneously; setting your camera on X “xenon” mode will do the trick. Plane shutters may also sync with your xenon flash but typically at a set speed of either 1/60th or 1/30th of a second (usually marked on cameras with red font or a flash ⚡ symbol), when the slit becomes as wide as the entire frame. This isn’t an issue unless you want to control the amount of ambient/non-flash light reaching your frame.

For plane shutters, you may find special flash devices that can lift the limitation of a set shutter speed. They are FP (flat-peak) and HSS (high-speed sync) -type. The first delivers a longer, controlled burst of light. The latter creates multiple flashes throughout the exposure. Both ensure that there’s ample illumination available, wherever the slit of the plane shutter may be relative to the film plane.

That’s not all. Older bulbs would not reach their peak brightness until a few milliseconds after triggering, which required timed synchronization. This is what S (slow), M (medium), and F (fast) modes on some cameras are made for. Each would delay releasing the shutter a certain amount of time after triggering the flash.

Finally, you may choose to get creative and set your camera into Bulb mode, holding the shutter open, and triggering the flash by-hand before closing the shutter again.

This photograph is taken via “bulb” at about two to three seconds, with Ilford Delta 100 film. The motion blur trails are exposed using the weak indoor illumination, and the main image is the result of a flash burst from the Voigtländer V 200 B flashgun operated separately from the camera.

Mixing light sources.

Flash isn’t just for pitch-black situations. It can be used in the daytime, most commonly to fill the backlit subjects’ shadows. For example, if you’re photographing a person against the sun, you can avoid a dark silhouette in your photo by lighting up their face artificially. This technique is called fill-flash.

Summer hail is easier to see when flash bounces off the reflective ice drops. In this photograph, it also helps to avoid motion blur and illuminates the people’s faces, which would have appeared as dark smudges otherwise.

Another case for flash in the daytime may be the need to use higher shutter speed, i.e. if you’re trying to freeze the motion of a fast-moving object while shooting slow film.

When mixing light, you may want to ensure that your flash does not over-expose your shot by metering for the brightest light. For example, if you determine that your scene calls for 𝒇2.8 at 1/60th of a second while you’re 1.5 meters away, but your flash tells that at this distance, you should set your aperture to 𝒇8 — listen to the flash. Your ambient light will have a limited contribution to your shot, but it’s more likely to get an even exposure.

To increase ambient light’s influence on your image, using the above example, you could change your shutter speed to 1/7th of a second, which will provide an equal amount of ambient and flash’s light. It may be a good idea to use a tripod in this scenario if you don’t want any motion blur. This technique is called “dragging the shutter.”

 ☝︎Further reading: “Continuous light vs. Instantaneous Flash” — A Few Scanning Tips.

Getting cleaner shots with flash.

Depending on the aesthetic of your future photograph, you may want to attempt to correct some of the artifacts characteristic of flashing photography. Studio lights, umbrellas, bounce lights, diffusers, and other elaborate setups will do that and more, but for this simple guide, we can use a few tricks with just one basic flashgun.

One more image, taken via “bulb” exposure at about five seconds, with Ilford Delta 100 film. The flash was in my left hand, about 30cm/1’ behind my camera’s lens.

Because colour rendering in artificial light is complex and prone to gaining an unnatural look, shoot black and white.

Control your shadows by holding the flash away from your camera. This could be achieved either with PC sync cable or by opening your camera’s shutter with bulb and triggering flash with another hand when you want the exposure to happen. The latter technique will introduce some motion blur if you have enough light to expose your film without flash. The direction of your shadows may alter the scene and portraits dramatically. This technique will also help you avoid the dreaded red-eye in your images.

Soften your shadows by lighting your scene from further distances. This is another great reason to hold the flashgun away from your camera if you could help it.

Feel free to experiment and do further research. There’s a lot to learn in the world of artificial lighting — this guide is just the basics. Thankfully, getting started with flash on manual cameras is as easy as measuring the distance and setting the appropriate aperture.