Speedlite portraits: playing with light on an urban dance shoot

From simple setups to capturing motion with multiple flashguns, photographer David Newton demonstrates how to get creative with the Canon Speedlite EL-5.
Photographer David Newton crouches down to capture a dancer mid-move against a distressed concrete wall.

Photographer David Newton believes flash is a beneficial tool for all photographers, professional or otherwise. "The secret to photography, the goal, is to control light. Everything we do as photographers is dealing with wherever that light is coming from. Whether it's from the sky, an LED or flash, you want to have control of it."

For many photographers, even professionals, there can be a sense of mystery and trepidation about using flash. "Unfortunately, it seems to be a hurdle a lot of people just never get beyond," says professional Canon photographer and flash enthusiast David Newton. "They buy a flash, they use it at all the wrong times, in all the wrong ways, it doesn't give them the results they want and then it languishes in a bag for eternity."

But flash doesn't have to be complicated and can easily be added to a photographer's arsenal, as David knows, having spent years running photography masterclasses across the UK. "The goal of photography is to control light," he says. "Flash is just a very powerful, small, portable light source that gives you control of light in situations where you wouldn't have it otherwise."

To demonstrate why a powerful Speedlite should be in every pro's kitbag, David used the Canon Speedlite EL-5 on a photoshoot with two urban dancers. He wanted to show how flash can be used in a range of setups, from simple to complex, to give photographers complete creative control – even when the light was at its most challenging. Here, David takes us through the shoot, explaining the increasingly intricate lighting setups he used to capture portraits and movement.

A dancer in cargo pants and trainers in a dimly lit warehouse photographed without a flash by David Newton.

To illustrate the benefits of a simple flash setup, David shot this image of the dancer in a dimly lit warehouse without a flash. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 Mark II with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/1.2 and ISO 100. © David Newton

A dancer in cargo pants and trainers photographed by David Newton in a dimly lit warehouse using a single Speedlite EL-5.

Using just a single on-camera Speedlite EL-5, set to E-TTL mode with -1/3 stop FEC (flash exposure compensation), brings the dancer to life. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 Mark II with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens and a Canon Speedlite EL-5 at 1/250 sec, f/1.2 and ISO 100. © David Newton

Scenario 1: Single-zone flash

David's first portraiture setup used a single Canon Speedlite EL-5, mounted on top of his Canon EOS R6 Mark II. "We started very simply," he explains, "testing out what the EL-5 is like on-camera and showing the difference versus no flash, to show people what flash does and why they need to be using it."

While the Speedlite was mounted on top of his camera, David avoided firing the flash directly at his subjects. "On-camera flash is great but limited, because you are firing light from a position that you probably don't want to fire from for a creative result," he explains. "Light coming from directly above the lens is not amazing, because you end up with hard shadows and that 'rabbit in the headlights' look, with potential red-eye because the light is bouncing off the back of the blood-filled retina in the eye."

Instead, David bounced his flash off a wall, diffusing the light that hit his subjects and providing a visually interesting background. "It was an old whitewash that was peeling off, so it wasn't perfectly white, but it gave us a nice side light. It picked up a little bit of colour from the wall, so there was a bit of warmth in there, which was quite pleasant."

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Photographer David Newton crouches down to capture two dancers lit from behind by two rim lights with a main light in front.

David used three Speedlite EL-5s for this shot: a main light on the dancers, plus two rim lights, triggered remotely, positioned behind.

A man and a woman dancing in a warehouse lit by multiple Canon Speedlite EL-5s.

Using Group Firing (Gr) mode, so he could set a different flash mode for each group, David selected E-TTL for the main light and Manual for the rim lights, 1/64 power for the red, and 1/32 for the blue. "The coloured gels create a rim light effect around the subjects, separating the dancers from the background to give the image that urban feel," David says. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 Mark II with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens and Canon Speedlite EL-5s at 22mm, 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 320. © David Newton

Scenario 2: Multi-zone flash

David then progressed to an off-camera multi-flash setup, using a main light on his subjects with two rim lights firing across each other in the rear. "I had a red gel and a blue gel and they crossed over and gave us purple in the middle," he explains.

When shooting with multiple flashes, David recommends selecting flash mode (either automatic E-TTL or Manual) based on what the flash is being fired at, and whether it's static.

For Speedlites aimed at moving subjects, David uses E-TTL mode, which meters and adjusts flash power for each shot. "The dancers are going to be moving around, which means the distance between them and the light is going to change slightly. I want E-TTL to take up that slack," he says. "I use E-TTL a lot in a multi-flash setup where I've got more than one group of light."

E-TTL, often misunderstood, is in reality very simple, says David. "Fundamentally, E-TTL works in the same way as ambient light metering. It fires some light and measures the light reflecting back off the subject. If the subject is brighter than a mid-tone, it's likely to underexpose it. If it's darker than a mid-tone, it's likely to overexpose it."

Photographer David Newton leans against a wall in a dimly lit corner of a warehouse to photograph a dancer with four Speedlite EL-5s.

"One of the lovely things about the Speedlite EL-5 is that it has a low power mode that goes below 1/128 power," David explains. "It's true that it might have only limited use cases, but it is really helpful. We used it in a dark corner where there was not much in the way of ambient light."

Two urban dancers photographed mid-routine by David Newton and lit by a single Speedlite EL-5 positioned at a 45° angle just a metre or two away from them.

Here, David has selected E-TTL mode on the Speedlite and triggered it remotely with a Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E10 at -1/3 stop FEC.

Scenario 3: The benefits of the EL-5 low power mode

To demonstrate the fine creative control that's possible with the Canon Speedlite EL-5, David also made use of its low power mode. He again used two rear Speedlites with gels. This time, instead of using them as fill lights, he set them to a fixed 1/64 power and wide zoom in Manual mode, firing them at the rear wall to provide a coloured wash on the background. He positioned his main light, diffused through an octagonal softbox, directly above his subject to softly illuminate the upper part of the body only but leave shadows across the dancer's face. "I didn't want full light down the body, but because the light was coming from above, the face was quite shadowed – there wasn't a lot of light in the eyes; no chin."

Shot without flash, a dancer is barely visible against the dark background.

Shot without flash, the dancer is barely visible against the dark background. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 Mark II with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 52mm, 1/50 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 100. © David Newton

A dancer backlit by two Canon Speedlite EL-5s with coloured gels, lit from above by another Speedlite EL-5 and with another Speedlite EL-5 fired at the face using the low power mode.

Adding a very subtle amount of light using the Speedlite EL-5's low power mode helps to transform the image. The main light is set to E-TTL, the Speedlite used to subtly fill in the face is set to Manual mode at 1/512 power and fired through a grid, and the rear lights are set to Manual mode at 1/64 power. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 Mark II with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens and a Canon Speedlite EL-5 at 52mm, 1/50 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 100. © David Newton

It needed just a very subtle amount of light to bring the face to life, so a fourth Speedlite, fitted with a grid, was set at 1/512 power, providing exactly the right amount of light in this area without compromising the rest of the lighting setup.

"I used a fourth zone of light fired right at the face at very low power, just to put a bit of light into the eyes and make sure that I had that catch-light. Too much power and it would have fired light through to the background and over-washed the effect I was trying to create from above – 1/512 power was just enough to lift that light on the face so the dancer didn't have sunken eyes. I used a small honeycomb grid so that it wasn't a spotlight but a soft beam of light."

A photographer crouches down to photograph a woman dancing in a warehouse, his face obscured by the flare created as the Canon Speedlite EL-5 fires.

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Two urban dancers photographed mid-routine by David Newton lit by a single Speedlite EL-5 - frame 1 of a sequence of 8 frames. © David Newton
Two urban dancers photographed mid-routine by David Newton lit by a single Speedlite EL-5 - frame 2 of a sequence of 8 frames. © David Newton
Two urban dancers photographed mid-routine by David Newton lit by a single Speedlite EL-5 - frame 3 of a sequence of 8 frames. © David Newton
Two urban dancers photographed mid-routine by David Newton lit by a single Speedlite EL-5 - frame 4 of a sequence of 8 frames. © David Newton
Two urban dancers photographed mid-routine by David Newton lit by a single Speedlite EL-5 - frame 5 of a sequence of 8 frames. © David Newton
Two urban dancers photographed mid-routine by David Newton lit by a single Speedlite EL-5 - frame 6 of a sequence of 8 frames. © David Newton
Two urban dancers photographed mid-routine by David Newton lit by a single Speedlite EL-5 - frame 7 of a sequence of 8 frames. © David Newton
Two urban dancers photographed mid-routine by David Newton lit by a single Speedlite EL-5 - frame 8 of a sequence of 8 frames. © David Newton



Scenario 4: Capturing motion with the EL-5

For the fourth setup, David used a single off-camera flash positioned at a 45° angle from the dancers. "I was trying to capture the drama of a dance sequence, the angles that the dancers are pulling," he says, "trying to catch that moment – get them off the ground, get that dynamism, the athleticism." He used a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens, shooting wide open to isolate the dancers from their background, staying further back and utilising the telephoto reach of the lens to ensure his focal plane was still enough to keep the dancers completely in focus. "The flash was a metre or two in front of them, effectively creating a band of light across the warehouse that they could dance in," he says.

To freeze motion and capture every pivotal moment, David relied on the fast 0.1-1.2 sec recycle time of the Canon Speedlite EL-5. "I was really keen to use the power of the Li-ion battery with the EL-5. This rechargeable battery can give out more power more quickly than AA batteries could in the past, which means we can get more images in a burst," he comments.

"Urban dance is quite fast. You're looking for those moments. If you're waiting for flash to recycle, you're missing so much of what's going on." The sequence of images above demonstrates how rapidly the Speedlite EL-5 can recycle and fire again.

Photographer David Newton stands behind a softbox positioned close to his subjects.

David enjoys using the light from the sun, but, as with any ambient light, it is important to balance it with the flash. "The goal of flash is to look like you didn't use flash," he advises. "You need to make sure you're balancing the flash exposure with the ambient exposure."

A close-up of the settings David used to capture a portrait of two dancers, the flash set to control the light from the sun.

"Think about your ambient light first," David adds. "Getting that right is half the battle. If you're overexposing or underexposing, flash isn't necessarily going to fix that." David sets a very fast shutter speed of 1/3200th sec, with the Speedlite EL-5 in High Speed Sync mode, to be able to counteract the bright sun and balance the exposure.

Scenario 5: Controlling sunlight when shooting outdoors

David then took his subjects outside to take sunlit portraits using the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens. "I really like using the sun as a second light source," he explains. "I position my subjects so they have their backs to the sun, so I'm effectively shooting the unlit side of them. That creates silhouettes but we can use flash to fill that in, so you're gaining control of the sun rather than overpowering it."

It was an incredibly bright day, with extremely harsh light. To compensate, David was shooting wide open at shutter speeds of up to 1/8000 sec (with the Speedlite set to High-speed sync mode). He also positioned a single softbox close to his subjects. "I wanted soft light in an environment where you'd be expecting hard light," he says.

Interestingly, David used two Canon Speedlite EL-5s in his softbox – "not because you necessarily need the power of two flashguns, because one flash has enough power, but because it helps even out E-TTL," he explains. E-TTL works by firing a preliminary flash to meter for the main flash and in high ambient light, it's harder for the camera to tell the difference between ambient and metering light, resulting in overpowered flashes. "You end up with subjects with torched retinas," laughs David. "And they're way overexposed." A second flashgun effectively provides a more powerful metering light for E-TTL to correctly deduce ambient conditions.

A hand adjusting the Group mode settings on the back of a Canon camera with a Canon Speedlite EL-5 attached.

Shortcut buttons can be assigned to directly access the Speedlite menu or Quick Flash Group Control feature on the camera's LCD. Even in a darker space, David could still easily view the controls. "The Canon Speedlite EL-5 screen is nice and clear," he explains. "It's easy to see in a low-light environment. With the joystick, it just feels much easier and quicker to move around and change settings."

Reflecting on the shoot, David says one of his favourite features of the Canon Speedlite EL-5 was its ease of use, "particularly in conjunction with some of the features that you get on the latest mirrorless cameras," he adds. "On the Canon EOS R6 Mark II, I could configure the M-Fn [Multi-function] button to bring up the Quick Flash Group Control settings on the camera screen and make my changes from there.

"Initially, I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to adjust my flashes as quickly, but if anything it was quicker. I didn't have to take the camera away from my eye and look down, I could just take it slightly away, push a button and the screen was right in front of me. That was brilliant."

David also enjoyed using the EL-5's Flash Exposure Memory (FEM) feature, which can be used with compatible cameras to apply E-TTL metering to multiple groups of flashes in Manual mode. Simply take a test shot with all the Speedlites in E-TTL mode and then set them all to Manual to reveal the power levels used on each. Helping to reduce setup times, these settings can be kept for all subsequent shots or fine-tuned to achieve the look you desire.

"You know every picture in a sequence is going to have exactly the same setting – you're not going to get any E-TTL variations as the metering changes slightly, but it's going to be absolutely consistent," David adds.

Camera and flash setups have never been better connected, whether that's controlling up to 15 Speedlites wirelessly with the built-in radio transmitter or using the Canon Camera Connect app, which David found particularly useful. "If you had a remote camera up high, let's say, you can wirelessly control your camera and your flashguns through Canon Camera Connect. Couldn't do that before. Brilliant!"

Pete Wolinski

David Newton's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Three Canon Speedlite EL-5s and a Canon EOS R6 Mark II lined up in a row on top of a silver flight case.



Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM

Dual Nano USM motors bring incredible levels of rapid and silent continuous focusing. The RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM also features 5-stop image stabilisation to capture detail even when light levels drop.

Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

Ideal for portraiture, the 50mm focal length has a similar perspective to that of the human eye, and the super-wide f/1.2 aperture allows for extremely shallow depth of field, perfect for emphasising pin-sharp features such as eyes against a soft, out-of-focus background.


Canon Speedlite EL-5

Key benefits of the EL-5 include a Li-ion battery for class-leading performance; advanced functionality such as wireless second curtain sync, FEM and the ability to go down to 1/1024 power; plus intuitive and quick operation with a simpler menu system and buttons/joystick.

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