I was prompted to write this article in the hope of answering the many questions I get asked about flash photography: “I find flash photography very confusing…What do all those numbers mean at the back of the flash…What does TTL mean…What does flash-sync mean?”
This article isn’t about explaining all the technical ins and outs of flash photography, far from it. Instead, I hope to show you how to get started using off-camera flash, by using ONE flash essentially. Okay, you will need a few other items but I’ll get to that shortly.
I like using speedlights because of their portability. When I use these small flashes, particularly outdoors, I am able to scope and think more on my feet. I am physically moving about and placing the flash, that’s on a light stand, in different positions relative to my subject or object. This allows me to visualise the type of shot I want to achieve. For the purpose of this article, I will use the same gear for all the techniques.
In order to keep things simple, and not get bogged down in too much technicality, your camera settings can only use ONE aperture setting and ONE shutter speed. The flash can only use ONE power level. Flash level is stated in fractions of full power, such as on my flash: 1/128. 1/64, 1/32, 1/16, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, up to full power, or 1/1. The camera and the flash are going to be set to manual mode.
When shooting outside, the ambient exposure, which is the available light (sun) is controlled by the shutter speed (and technically the aperture too). Just remember that the ambient light isn’t fixed (like in a studio setup with continuous lighting) so it’s constantly changing.
The flash, being instantaneous, is controlled by the aperture. I’m going to ignore ISO here. Well, I’m not quite ignoring ISO but I’m going to leave it at 100 for quality. Set your flash sync-speed to its maximum, usually 1/200th or 1/250th depending on the camera you are using (check in the manual for your camera if you aren’t sure). This will allow you to use the widest possible aperture.
You will need to have a good understanding of exposure and how to change aperture, shutter speeds and ISO settings. See Darren Rowse’s article, Learning about Exposure – The Exposure Triangle for a refresher. Bear in mind that this article isn’t aimed at photographers who are new to photography but photographer’s who are new to off-camera flash.
What gear will you need?
- A camera and a lens: For the following shots, I used a Nikon D750 with a 24 – 120mm f/4 lens.
- A stand-alone flash unit that can be adjusted manually.
- Wireless flash triggers: Nikon has the CLS system, which can fire an external flash remotely.
- A light stand: I also used a Joby Gorilla tripod as a light stand.
- A diffuser, or light modifer of your choice: I used a white shoot through umbrella.
I literally grabbed my daughter and went outside our house to take the following shots. The first shot, as you can see, was taken with no flash. This was about 5:20pm in the evening.
For the second shot, I set my flash to 1/8th power, which is where I generally start. I had the flash on a lightstand 2-3 feet away to the left of my model, roughly at 35 degrees angle, with no diffuser on the flash. As you can see, the shadows are too harsh. I wanted to take another shot and move the light stand further back. Unfortunately, the weather changed and it started to rain!
This shot was taken the following day, same time and setup. But I added a white shoot-through umbrella on to the flash, to illustrate how effective this modifier is. Umbrellas are so inexpensive, and work really well to create a soft light. You can see that the shadows have become softer but they are still too strong (dark). However, my daughter’s patience ran out and no amount of bribes would make her stay for more shots!
So I took the advantage of the rain and the low light conditions. Instead of a real model, I improvised with Emmet and put him on top of the hood of the car. I attached my flash to the steering wheel inside of the car with a Joby Gorilla tripod. That way, I wasn’t concerned if it started to rain while I was shooting. I had the flash power set to ¼, as I knew the hood of the car would provide a nice bounce. I had never tried this before so it was an experiment for fun; I was happy with the end result.
Overcast dull days
When days are overcast and dull, it is a good opportunity to get out and start using off-camera flash. The light is even and it acts like a big diffuser. This helps you to concentrate on balancing the ambient light with the flash.
I placed the flash (on a Joby tripod) to the left of Wilson, roughly 4-5 feet away with an opaque plastic diffuser on. I wanted the light from the flash to be directed at the same level as Wilson. By adjusting the shutter speed, I was able to expose the background better. I had the flash set to 1/8th power, I wanted just enough fill light from the flash to give Wilson more depth.
I moved to a different location but it was the same overcast conditions. This time, I wanted to change the direction of the flash and create a different shot. So I put the flash, still attached to the Joby Gorilla tripod, high up on a branch of a tree.
I wanted to appear as if the sun was shining down through the trees on Willson. By placing the flash high above, and behind Wilson, I was able to achieve this effect. I had the flash power set to ½ and took off the plastic opaque diffuser. I had to take a few shots before I was happy with this one. That’s the fun in this type of shooting, you are experimenting and learning as you go.
Bright Sunny Days
I love the sun. Especially when there are blue skies and only a tiny whisper of a white cloud. However, in photography terms, this light is too harsh. In the middle of the day, the sun shines directly overhead and usually casts strong shadows on your subject (usually the face). If you face your subject looking into the sun to eliminate these strong shadows, your subject has to squint from the glare of the sun! So, by placing your subject with the sun behind them, your camera metering exposes the background correctly and your subject is too dark. Hence, you meter your subject for a correct exposure and then your background is overexposed.
This is where your external flash comes in handy. I brought Wilson to the beach. The day was sunny and it was late afternoon. I placed Wilson on the sand with the sun behind him.
The flash was placed to the right of Wilson about four feet away. I had the diffusion plastic dome on the flash.
I didn’t achieve the shot I wanted when I reviewed my photos later on the computer. I noticed a slight hotspot on Wilson which is always a dead giveaway that you have used a flash. I wanted a nice balance between the ambient and the fill-in light from the flash. In hindsight, I should have experimented more by taking shots with the flash moved back or changed the direction slightly. As the day was very bright, I had set the flash power to ½, so I could have dialled it down! A good tip here, would be to take notes of your setup, so that you have a benchmark for similar future setups.
- Experiment with the distance of your flash relative to your subject as well as the direction.
- If you are using an umbrella, get lots of sand bags to weigh the stand down firmly, or preferably get somebody to hold it. This is especially important on a breezy, or windy day. The light stand will take off like a kite with the umbrella attached. This happened to me. The umbrella broke but thankfully my speedlight suffered no damage. After all, umbrellas are way cheaper to replace than flashes.
- Start with a low power level on your flash, such as 1/16 or 1/8th.
- Put the flash sync-speed to the maximum to give you more latitude with your aperture.
- Keep practicing before you’re ready to move on.
I hope that I’ve convinced you that off-camera isn’t as daunting as it may seem. However, it isn’t a one-click effect. It does take a bit of mastering. Don’t be afraid of not getting it right first time. If you can’t get a willing subject or model, go get yourself a Wilson! I chose a ball as it’s round and is a good substitute for a face. (Plus you don’t need to bribe a ball).
Do you use off-camera flash? Have any other tips for beginners? If so please share in the comments below.