- Guaranteed for 2 full months
- Pay by PayPal or Credit Card
- Instant Digital Download
I spent the first three years of my photography career avoiding the use of off-camera flash.
Because I couldn’t wrap my head around the concepts and science behind it.
I tried to cover up my struggles by saying things like “I’m a natural light photographer,” or “I really don’t like the aesthetics of flash photography.”
But I eventually – 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 power to use via a chart on top of the flash.
Each photoshoot 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 off-camera 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.
If you’re going to use off-camera flash, here’s what you’ll need:
I use speedlights most often when I’m traveling 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 speedlights. A great alternative if you are looking to save a few bucks is the Yongnuo YN560 IV. It has a very similar look to Canon speedlights as well as Nikon’s SB speedlight series.
Remote triggers allow you to fire speedlights when they’re not mounted to your camera. As you can imagine, this is essential when using off-camera flash.
The cheapest and most reliable way to fire your speedlights off-camera is by 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 it can create a tripping hazard. That said, I still carry a couple of spare sync cables in my kit; remote triggers do fail from time to time, and the sync cords have saved me on a few occasions.
The next option for firing off-camera flashes is cheap infrared triggers. These do the job of setting your flash off remotely, but they’re sensitive to bright sunlight and affected by 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.
Speedlights don’t float in the air – which means you need something to hold them up!
Now, 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 with a small or medium softbox. This creates a much softer, more flattering, and more realistic-looking light source.
A good softbox to start with is the LumiQuest Mini Softbox. It’ll attach to your speedlight with velcro and can fold flat for easy storage.
Finally, you will need a camera that works in Manual mode. It must also have a hot shoe.
Note that the “hot shoe” is just a square bit of metal on top of the camera that an external flash or wireless trigger slides into.
Once I got over my fear of off-camera flash, I started 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 that 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 those thoughts. Here’s what I know now:
Finding great light and being able to use it are learned skills – and 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 times when natural lighting is only just okay or even terrible – and sometimes a portrait needs more mood or drama than the available light can provide.
The following is an example of how I used off-camera flash to light a heavily backlit image. My objective was to create a shot that looked naturally lit. This technique can be used for any portrait that requires off-camera fill flash.
In the first shot (A), you can see that my model was heavily backlit, which makes a great silhouette but not such a great portrait.
For the second shot (B), I attempted to correct the lighting by increasing my ISO, which overexposed the background and brought more detail to the motorbike, but leaves the model’s skin tones flat, dull, and underexposed. It also added extra noise to the shadows. At this stage, I could have used a reflector to bounce light back onto the model to help create better skin tones.
Finally, for the third shot (C), I used an on-camera flash. As you can see in my example, the Canon speedlight did an okay job of lighting my model, given that I was about five meters (sixteen feet) away using a 200mm lens.
But the thing I don’t like about using flash on-camera for portraits is that it tends to make the subject look unnatural and have a flat appearance. On the other hand, by using a flash off-camera, you can control the direction and amount of light going onto your model to achieve a more natural look.
Which leads me to my off-camera flash setup:
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 to a focal length of 200mm because I wanted to blur all the details in the background.
My camera was approximately six meters (20 feet) from my model.
My ISO was set at 100, and my aperture was set to f/4. I was working at f/4 rather than wide open at f/2.8 because I find it very difficult to make eyes look sharp at f/2.8 at that distance and in such extreme lighting conditions.
For this motorbike model shoot, I mounted my speedlight to a light stand via an adapter 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). I recommend you start with the following settings:
The diagram above is based on Canon’s 580EX II speedlight. For any other flash, check your manual for instructions on how to increase and decrease power. It should be very similar.
Now take a look at how I set my flash power:
Now that you know how to set up your flash and how to determine a good exposure, I’d like to run through my motorcycle photoshoot.
How did I get a nice final result?
Let me take you through the step-by-step process:
This is something I strongly urge you to practice with as many patient friends, family members, and pets as possible. That way, you can build up your confidence and really get to know your equipment.
And here’s my final image:
Notice the different background? It’s from a shoot I did in St Mark’s Square, Venice last year. I merged the two images together using Photoshop.
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be ready to capture some beautiful shots using off-camera flash!
So make sure you have the right equipment. And make sure you follow my process carefully.
You’ll come away with amazing results.
What are your experiences working with off-camera flash? Have you tried it? Does it intimidate you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!