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I spent the first three years of my photography career avoiding the use of speedlights off-camera because I couldn’t wrap my head around the concepts and science behind them. I tried to cover it up saying things like “I’m a natural light photographer.” or “I really don’t like the aesthetics of flash photography.”
But then, I reluctantly invested in a flash for my first Nikon. This was the 90s, pre-digital, pre-autofocus, and pre-TTL. I had to calculate how much flash to use via a chart on the top of the flash. The formula was complicated, but if you knew how to split an atom, you were pretty much set.
Each shoot I went on that required flash was preceded by a sleepless night filled with anxious dreams about turning up to the shoot naked. And the thought of having to use flash also had a mild to moderate laxative effect on me.
Luckily those days are long gone and shooting flash has never been easier. In this tutorial, I’ll show you the quick and easy steps I take to shoot portraits using off-camera speedlights.
I use speedlights most often when I’m travelling and need light portable flashes, when I’m working on location without access to power, or when I’m working in small, confined locations where studio flashes would be too powerful or cramped.
I work with two Canon 580EX IIs. A great alternative if you are looking to save a few bucks is the Yongnuo YN-560 II. It has a very similar look to the Canon 580EX II and Nikon’s SB speedlight series.
Remote triggers allow you to fire speedlights when they’re not mounted on your camera and are essential when using flash off-camera.
The cheapest and most reliable way to fire your speedlight off-camera is using a sync cord — basically you connect your speedlight to your camera via a long cable. The drawbacks of using a cable are that it reduces the distance you can be away from your flash, and can create a tripping hazard. Having said that, I still carry a couple of spare sync cables in my kit because remote triggers do fail from time to time, and the cords have saved my butt on a few occasions.
The next option is cheaper infrared triggers. They do the job of setting your flash off remotely, but they’re sensitive to bright sunlight and external factors such as alert lights on emergency vehicles and forklifts, etc., so they can go off without warning. I started out with a $30 set of triggers and used them for a couple of years before trading up to PocketWizards, which I’ve been using for the last eight years. A good entry level flash trigger is the YONGNUO RF-602 (approximatel $30).
There are three options when it comes to mounting speedlights off-camera:
Using a speedlight as a bare light source creates a very hard style of lighting similar to harsh sunlight. This looks great in certain situations, but I prefer to soften and control the light source by using a small or medium soft box over the flash unit. This creates a much softer, more flattering and realistic-looking light source.
A good one to start with is the LumiQuest Mini Softbox. It attaches to your speedlight with Velcro and folds flat for easy storage.
You will need a Camera that works in manual mode with a hot shoe mount. The hot shoe mount is just a sexier way of saying that little square bit of metal on top of the camera that an external flash or wireless trigger slides into.
I used to believe that great portraits needed artificial lighting regardless of the environment. I often added two or three lights to my portrait shoots because I thought anything less was lazy or unprofessional. I actually felt guilty when I shot with natural light because I thought it was cheating.
Fortunately, I’ve gotten over that false notion and now understand that finding great light and being able to use it are learned skills, so is knowing when to use fill-flash in a portrait.
Nowadays, whenever I set up portrait shoots, I always look for opportunities to use great natural lighting first. It’s the most beautiful and flattering light for portraits, so if it ain’t broke, no need to fix it.
Having said that, there are many occasions when natural lighting is only just okay or even complete caca — and sometimes a portrait needs more mood or drama than the available light can provide.
The following is an example of how I used flash off-camera to light a heavily backlit image. My objective was to create an image that looked naturally lit. This technique can be used for any portrait that requires fill-flash using off-camera flash.
A. Here you can see that my model was heavily backlit, which makes a great silhouette, but not such a great portrait.
B. I attempted to correct the lighting by increasing my ISO, which overexposed the background and brings more detail to the motorbike, but leaves the model’s skin tone flat, dull and underexposed. It also added extra noise in the blacks. At this stage, I could also have used a reflector to bounce light back onto the model to help create a better skin tone.
C. A quick fix to this problem would be to shoot flash on-camera using TTL, which uses the camera’s metering system to calculate the correct amount of light needed to create the portrait.
As you can see in my example, the Canon 580EX II did an okay job of lighting my model, given I was about five meters (16′) away using a 200mm lens.
The thing I don’t like about using flash on-camera for portraits is that it tends to make them look unnatural and have flat, lit look. By using my flash off-camera, I can control the direction and amount of light going onto my model to achieve a more natural look.
My speedlight was positioned approximately one meter (three feet) from the model. I set it at a 45 degree angle because I wanted to make my model look like he was lit from the side.
I was working with a 70-200mm zoom lens set at a focal length of 200mm because I wanted to blur all the details in the background and work within a narrow focal range.
My camera was approximately six meters (twenty feet) from my model.
My ISO was set at 100 at f/4. I was working at f/4 rather than wide open at f/2.8 because I find it very difficult to make the eyes look sharp at f/2.8, at that distance, and in that extreme lighting condition.
For this motorbike model shoot, I mounted my speedlight to a light stand via an adaptor and used a small LumiQuest Softbox to soften and shape my light.
To manually adjust the flash output of your speedlight, first switch the setting from its default of TTL to M (manual mode). As a general guide, I start with the following settings:
The above diagram is based on Canon’s 580EX II. For any other camera, check your manual for instructions on how to increase and decrease power. It should be very similar.
Caption: My ambient reading was 4 at 1/125th second.
This is something I strongly urge you to practice with as many patient friends, family, and pets as possible so you can build up your confidence and really get to know your equipment.
Here’s the final image, the new background is from a shoot I did in St Marks Square, Venice last year. I merged the two images together using Photoshop.
What are your experiences of working with off-camera flash? I’m keen to hear about the flashes, modifiers and flash triggers you rate highly and anything you’d like to add to the discussion.
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