9 Steps to Get Over Your Fear of Off-Camera Flash

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9 Steps to Get Over Your Fear of Off-Camera Flash

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fastflash_bookIf you want to learn more about using flash for creating portraits, pick up Gina’s brand new dPS ebook: Fast Flash for Portrait Perfection. Now on sale for an introductory price for a limited time only.


For the first three years as a professional photographer I suffered a severe case of Photophobia and Photoaugliaphobia. I tried to cover it up by saying things like, “I’m a natural light photographer” or “I really don’t like the aesthetics of flash photography”. In reality I was scared to death of using flash. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the concepts and science behind it.

Fear: False Evidence Appearing Real

  • Photophobia – Fear of light
  • Photoaugliaphobia – Fear of glaring lights

Each shoot I went on that involved flash was accompanied by a sleepless night, with dreams about turning up to the shoot naked (anxiety dream) and just the thought of having to use flash, also had a mild to moderate laxative effect on me.

Fearflash main

I managed to work out a system where if I shot at f/8, with the flash dialled in to a particular spot, I would end up with a shot that looked half decent. I had a few successful shoots (and by that I mean there was a detectable image on the film, often blown out by two stops) and was feeling pretty confident about my high-tech – stand here, shoot at f/8, and don’t change anything on the dial – approach to flash photography.

I started getting cocky and developed a “geez you’re good you should do this for a living” strut. In my mind, I’d mastered flash. Sure it wasn’t amazing, but I’d convinced myself that I was pretty good at it.

Then everything changed. I botched a few big jobs in a row; a wedding, where only one frame turned out, a corporate shoot where the flash overexposed the logo, and a historic family portrait where 200 members of the same family flew in from around the world to be in one place together. I set the camera to the wrong shutter speed. The only record of the event is now a faded memory.

Gear 11

I blamed Flash. It was the common denominator – it’s unreliable, difficult to use, and completely stupid. Why bother, I’m a natural light photographer and I don’t need this in my life.

I then started to go through all the stages of grief:

  • Denial – this isn’t my fault right? Flash did it. It’s stupid, right?
  • Anger – what do you mean this is my fault?? Are you kidding me?
  • Bargaining – dear God/Universe/Oprah please make this go away. I will never eat Nutella again.
  • Depression – I suck at photography, what was I thinking? Who do I think I am?
  • Acceptance – I suck at photography, what was I thinking? Who do I think I am?

Probably the toughest, and most grown-up thing I did as a professional photographer, was to face up to the fact that I sucked at flash photography. I needed to develop a learning style, a protocol that would help me understand flash, learn how to use it well, and stop being afraid of it.

PG 51 manual mode

Learning a new skill can be overwhelming at first. I can still remember learning to drive stick shift, and bunny hopping my father’s car around the block, stalling at every red light and being frustrated at the number of things I needed to remember. At the time, I thought there was no way I could possibly remember how to do everything. But, little by little, day by day, I started to overcome the shock of the new, and driving became second nature.

I think the reason that many photographers become frustrated with flash, is because they are working with lighting styles, and modifiers that are too complicated and involve too many variables. Most of us are impatient. We want to get to the “good stuff” right away. But the danger is that you never really understand the subtle differences between each lighting style and modifier.

When it comes to teaching flash photography, I like to implement what I call, The Bruce Lee Protocol. Bruce Lee was a master in martial arts, whose training requires participants to master each level, or belt, before they move on to the next. If a white belt in Karate attempted to break a plank of wood with a roundhouse kick, they would probably end up breaking their foot.

Fearflash 2b

We all want to skip straight to the black belt, but doing this before we’re ready usually ends with tears.
Taken for: Japan Karate Association Australia (JKA)

It took me many years to realize that owning every single light modifier and photography gadget, was not going to make me a better photographer. The one thing that would improve my photography was deciding on one lighting style and modifier, and working with it until I felt I’d mastered it.

I use one light with the same modifier for 80% of my fill-flash photography. I can vary the look of my shots by the way I expose my images, and where I position the light. If you’re just starting out, I recommend that you buy only one modifier and one light, then work with that setup until you’re confident, and happy with your style. Here is my stepped approach to learning how to light with flash based on The Bruce Lee Protocol.

The Bruce Lee Protocol to Learning Flash

Just like training for a black belt, I believe it’s a great idea to stay on one level, until you feel 100% ready to move on to the next. A white belt in Karate would never attempt to break a plank of wood in half with a roundhouse kick , a newbie to lighting shouldn’t attempt to work with a beauty dish before they have mastered working with an umbrella.

Step One: White Belt – Laying the foundation

I think it’s a great idea to ease into lighting, by starting with daylight. Work with hard light, soft light, flat light, and contrasty light, until you are confident you can notice the subtle differences.

Step Two: Yellow Belt – Easing into a new way of thinking

Start by adding fill-flash to your images, using flash on-camera, set to auto. This will give you the confidence to continue working with flash. The next stage is to introduce flash on-camera modifiers, to soften and shape the light.

Step Three: Orange Belt – Expanding your knowledge

FlashPoint Li-on zoom flash and commander set

Umbrella light is a great choice for a fill-light. It closely resembles daylight, making it perfect for lighting large areas. Because the light is very soft and spreads everywhere, this is the easiest light shaper to work with, making it an ideal light modifier to start learning.

Step Four: Green Belt – Developing your skills

Once you have gotten the hang of working with umbrellas, try adding reflectors to your shot, and focus on balancing the daylight and flash.

Step Five: Blue Belt – Confidence

It’s time to ditch the Umbrella and move up to softboxes, umbrellas boxes and octaboxes.

The umbrella box is the most convenient light modifier, because it combines the simplicity of an umbrella, with the control of a softbox. The box design eliminates the complications of using this modifier outdoors. Umbrella boxes are also cheaper than softboxes, so they’re a great choice for your first serious light modifier.

Head 5 200

Softboxes create a soft light that is more contained than that from an umbrella. This makes it a better choice of light modifier if you want to light only certain areas of your image. They are completely enclosed, and are a much better light modifier to use outside, as they are less likely to blow around in windy conditions.

Step Six: Purple Belt – Getting serious now

Once you have mastered soft light, it’s time to start experimenting with hard light. Hard light is tricky to work with, because there is very little room for error. Hard light modifiers include beauty dishes and grid spots.

If you’ve done all the work, adding a beauty dish or grid spot to your lighting setup, will be much easier to manage at this stage.

Fearflash 1

Step Seven: Brown Belt – Bringing everything together

Now you are ready to work with hard and soft light at the same time. The hard light, like a beauty dish or grid spot, can be used as the main light, and the soft light becomes the fill.

Step Eight: Red Belt – Developing your own style

Once you’ve mastered each of the lighting styles individually, and know how to work with them together, you can focus your attention on developing a lighting style that is unique to you.

Step Nine: Black Belt – Enlightenment

A black belt in lighting comes with the realization that we never really stop learning. Most of the best photographers in the world will admit that they are yet to master their craft, and the more they know, the more they realize they have yet to learn.

One of my greatest highlights of the past few years, has been watching the students I have taught overcome their fear of flash, and seeing their styles evolve and develop.

Here are some of my favourite examples of their work, and the steps they took to create these images.

Lisa McTiernan

Lisa McTiernan

Off-camera flash has scared me for a while now. Finally! Simple, easy to understand info, that even after one go has opened up a whole new world for my photography. Gina Milicia you’re my hero. Legit.

I wanted a moody vibe for this shoot in an empty concrete carpark. I wanted the shot to look like it was lit by the fluorescent lights on the walls and ceiling, and not by my speedlight. After setting the exposure for the ambient light, I bounced the flash (with the diffusion dome) off the ceiling at an angle to soften, and bounce it back onto my subject’s face and upper-body to highlight his red shirt. I set the flash to 1/16 power, and adjusted the level until I got the look that worked. Exposure: 1/100th, f/5.6, ISO 500, 27mm lens.

Kristi Louise Herd

This is from a photo shoot I did with an aspiring model, it was my first night shoot and my first using flash. Before I did the shoot I read and re-read your ebook, Portraits, Lighting the Shot. Tricks I learned from you became invaluable. I used the trick with the phone to focus, as the light was pretty dim. It worked fantastic, and the softbox, which I had never used before, was held just above and sightly to the left of the model (I had seen this again in a diagram from your ebook). Camera settings: Nikon D750 f/4.2, 1/30th, ISO 800, focal length 112mm. I would never have achieved this shot without learning from you Gina Milicia.

Erica Rampant

Erica Rampant

Hi Gina, I asked a few weeks ago about placement for lighting for a milk bath shoot. Here is the result! It was taken with a Nikon D610, 50mm Sigma Art lens, ISO 100, f/2.2, 1/160th of a second.

This is my friend Antonette, she just gave birth to a healthy baby boy and I was there to photograph it. She had a home birth and her baby was born in water! I’m still a new photographer and have only been shooting for five months, but have been listening to you, and learned so much!

Natalie Ord

Natalie Ord

This is a shoot a recently did for a client. The day was windy, overcast, and I had limited time. I needed to portray the client as friendly, accessible, and show that she is rural-based, so it was important for me to get the background exposed right. I couldn’t have done that without using off-camera flash.

Settings were 1/320th, ISO 250, f/7.1, using PocketWizards, a Canon Speedlite 600EX without a softbox, as it was windy and I didn’t have anyone to hold the stand, shot on my 70-200mm f/2.8L with a Canon 5D MkII.

Gary Lun

 

Gary-Lun-3

Canon 5D MkII with Canon 16-35mm f2.8 at 18mm, f/4.5, 1/125th, ISO 1600. Flash was Yongnuo YN560III at 1/8 power, positioned at camera right. Softbox was using SMDV SpeedBox-60.

Quick story: I was doing an engagement shoot at a typical location in town for many photographers. It was packed with photographers that day! Anyway, in order to get a unique photo I knew I must use flash. So I waited until all other photographers were gone, because the sun is going down (since most of them were using natural light), took my flash out, asked the couple to stand near something with texture, and took the shot.

Phil Enn

Phil Enn

Canon 7D, 17-85mm at 17mm, f1/6, ISO 200, six speed lights held in a bunch, off to camera right.

Andrew McNamara

Andrew McNamara

Canon 5D MkII, 24-70mm at 24mm, f/9.0, ISO 100, 1/50th with a camera-mounted Canon 480exII Speedlite. As stated in the original story, shot from inside a training element for the Southern Cross Search Dogs photoshoot. I had a diffuser on the flash, just for the safety of the dogs eyes, and bounced it just a little.

P.S. I’m one of those people who are afraid of flash so this was a big step!

Rahim Mastafa

Rahim Mas
Inspired by one of your ebooks, I used one studio strobe as a key light to the front of him, and a speed light as a kicker, over his shoulder on the backrest. Settings were: f/2, 1/1500th, ISO 100, Sony a77, 50mm lens.

Matt Zahn

Matt Zahn

This was part of my self portrait challenge. Since it was nighttime, and obviously no natural light to shoot with, I attempted to create the illusion that this was natural light coming through a window. I used my Canon 430exII Speedlite on my T5i. I slid a home-made snoot over the end, and used some electrical tape to create some of the shadows. This shot was taken at 1/400th, f/5.0, ISO 400. I also placed a gold reflector to camera left, behind me.

Scott Stokhaug

Scott Stockhaug

With the help of your ebook, Flashfast for Portrait Perfection, I made a minimal investment to get that speedlight off my camera, and open many new doors! This photo is my Rembrandt lighting, along with black background that was shot in my home, in broad daylight, with no backdrop. I love this technique!

Next step

So where are you on The Bruce Lee Protocol steps? Do you have a fear of flash? Have you overcome and mastered it already? Please share with us where you are, and what you’ve done to conquer your fears.


fastflash_bookIf you want to learn more about using flash for creating portraits, pick up Gina’s brand new dPS ebook: Fast Flash for Portrait Perfection. Now on sale for an introductory price for a limited time only.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Gina Milicia has been a professional photographer for more than 25 years. She has photographed some of the world’s most high-profile people including royalty, billionaires and A-list celebrities. Often travelling the world, Gina also runs photography workshops and private mentoring sessions. You can sign up for her free ebook on "Portrait and Post Production Essentials" and see more of her work here. Check out her podcast “So you want to be a photographer” on iTunes.

  • naseer

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  • Aleeya Hargrove

    Thank you for coming out with your fear. I also have had a fear of flash since I started photography. I have pretty much quit and gave up on my own business because I was getting more clients that wanted me to photograph events that would potentially require flash. I’ve watched tutorial after tutorial, YouTube videos but I come out more confused than before. I am going to overcome this. Thank you for your post.

  • Here you have discuses very important things related with camera flash. In general most of photographer really fear with flash. But now i can use all these new techniques for better nature photography, i hope by adapting all of then can create better photograph than previous one.

  • tom rose

    The example images all were obviously taken with flash and all look unnatural. This article has persuaded me to stick with making good use of natural light!

  • FerociousFlower

    Interesting article. I always knew I had flash-fear since picking-up my first digital camera years ago. With the old 35mm …not so much, although I’m not sure why?
    I photograph in every environment, light source or lack thereof – most being action/at the moment shots which I will not ever get a chance for a do-over. Currently I am using a Canon EOS 1-DX (beautiful camera, but heavy as heck), with the Canon 580exii flash. It’s taken some time to half-way master the thing, and most times I’m very disappointed. However, I push-on, and when time permits – I ALWAYS arrive earlier than need be, and try to circle-in (with test shots) of where I need to be with settings, flash angle, diffuser, etc. However, again … when you add people and other elements to the location – all bets are off!
    Studio setup I have (I work for a federal agency, so they provide/pay for all of it) is wonderful, with ProFoto B1 and D1 lighting, with softboxes and beauty-dish. I cannot take a bad portrait with those. Easy to master, beautiful lighting, and I can count on those to make my subjects (and me) look good every time!
    Good Luck Everyone!
    Don’t give up.

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