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A Beginner’s Guide to Working With Flash Off-Camera

a beginner's guide to off-camera flash

I spent the first three years of my photography career avoiding the use of off-camera flash.

Why?

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.

The gear essentials

If you’re going to use off-camera flash, here’s what you’ll need:

1. Speedlights

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.

2. Remote triggers

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.

Fill Flash Diagram

3. Light stands

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:

  1. First, you can use a light stand. Light stands vary in price from $20 to $200+ dollars, depending on the make and construction.
  2. Second, you can use a GorillaPod and mount your speedlight to a door or place it on top of something near your model.
  3. Third, you can mount your speedlight to an extension pole (or monopod) and have someone hold the light above your model. I like to do this because it gives me more options when shooting, and it also means there aren’t any light stands that get in the way of my shot.

4. Light shapers

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.

5. Camera with a hot shoe

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.

Working with off-camera flash

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.

Daylight 001Daylight 800ISO 001
on-camera flash photo of man on a motorcycle

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:

off-camera flash diagram
Here’s a bird’s-eye view of my 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.

Setting up the gear

off-camera flash setup diagram
Setting up speedlights and radio slaves.

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.

dialing in flash settings
flash remote in action

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:

  • First, if you’re shooting in full sunlight and you need an aperture of f/16 or higher, use a power setting of 1/1 (full).
  • If you are shooting at f/2.8 or f/4, start at around 1/16-1/32 power.

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:

six shots of a man on a motorcycle with increasing flash power
  • Flash set at 1/32 power is underexposed, skin tones look muddy, and there’s no detail in the blacks.
  • Flash set at 1/16 power is starting to look better.
  • Flash set at 1/8 power is looking good, but I prefer slightly brighter skin tones.
  • Flash set at ¼ power is the correct reading for the look I was going for.
  • Flash set at ½ power gives slightly overexposed skin tones, which is perfect for many portraits, as it creates a very flattering light (no model will ever tell you they love seeing all the detail in their pores and skin tones!).
  • Flash set at full power is overexposed; there’s very little detail in the skin tones and the blacks are too light (gray).

A step-by-step guide to how I lit this shot with off-camera flash

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:

man on a motorcycle as a silhouette
My ambient reading was f/4 at 1/125s with ISO 100.
  1. Take an ambient reading to determine the correct exposure for the background (without any flash). In this case, my ambient reading was f/4 at 1/125s and ISO 100. This exposure was set for the entire shoot.
  2. Ask yourself if adding flash will improve or detract from the shot. In this case, the answer is a definite yes – it will improve the shot.
  3. Bring in your flash and set it up as per the diagrams above.
  4. The quickest and easiest way to figure out the best flash power settings is to use a light meter. (If you don’t have a light meter, you can still work with off-camera flash. It will just take a bit longer to work out your exposure.) I believe a light meter is an essential tool in good portrait photography, and I would never leave home without one. When you use a light meter, you know you’ll end up with the most accurate readings and lighting becomes easy. I suggest you set up your lights per the diagram above, start at a power setting of 1/32, and gradually increase your power in small increments (1/32, 1/16, 1/8, 1/4, etc.) until you get your desired result.
  5. Set your light meter to non-sync and press the button on the side of the meter. The non-sync button will flash on and off indicating that it’s ready. If you don’t have an assistant, I suggest taking a radio slave off-camera and using it to test-fire your flash so you can take a reading. Hold the meter in front of your subject’s face and point the sensor dome toward the camera.
  6. Keep increasing or decreasing the amount of light until you have it a half stop to one stop over the ambient setting.
  7. If you want a clean, beauty-style shot with lots of shadow detail, add one stop of fill-flash and shoot at your ambient meter settings.

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:

final image of a man on a motorcycle
Glauco Junior Solleri. Vespa courtesy of Glow Studios.

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.

Working with off-camera flash: Conclusion

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!

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Gina Milicia
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.