Getting Started with Off-Camera Flash

Getting Started with Off-Camera Flash


Does the thought of attempting off-camera flash sound intimidating? If so, you’re not alone! Many photographers gravitate toward natural light or simple flash setups when tackling photo projects, but the truth is that mastering off-camera flash is one way to really make your work stand out from the rest. Best of all, it isn’t as complicated as it might seem. For this demonstration, forget about strobes, soft boxes, beauty dishes, umbrellas, and all of those gadgets. We’re going very basic with a simple speedlight – no light modifiers needed!

Basic off camera flash product photography

Basic Off-Camera Flash Equipment

To get started with off-camera flash, you need a lighting source. Arguably the most portable and convenient flash is a speedlight. When choosing a speedlight, be sure to consider features such as an articulating head that allows you to angle the direction of your flash, and connection ports for external battery packs and pc sync cables. Most flashes require four AA batteries to function and the power of the flash can suck up batteries really quickly; ports to external battery packs offer options to keep the flash powered longer and reduce recycling times. The pc sync port is also important as many trigger options will require this to connect your camera to the flash. Be sure that your flash includes these aforementioned ports. My Canon 430 EXII backup flash, while cheaper and smaller than the 580 EXII, fails in this sense since it lacks the battery port AND pc sync port.

Next, you need a way to sync the flash with the camera. The easiest way to do this is by using an inexpensive sync cord, although depending on your flash and camera models, you may need to purchase adapters such as the universal translator. Another more expensive, yet arguably more convenient option, is to use wireless flash transceivers. PocketWizard is probably the most well known in this department. One transceiver connects to your camera via the hot shoe mount and another connects to your speedlights via the pc sync port. These triggers are very dependable and durable, but they are pricey, costing as much as $149 each for the newest PocketWizard Plus III models.

For those on a budget, there are many cheaper, and just as high quality, transceivers out there. While I’ve been using PocketWizards for a couple of years, I recently invested in four Yongnuo RF-603 II wireless transceivers. Costing just $31 for two triggers, they connect to both the camera AND the speedlight via the hot shoe mount; this makes it much easier to sync flashes without the pc sync port, such as the cheaper 430 EXII. As an added bonus, the Yongnuo transceivers can also double as remote triggers by activating the shutter on your camera. If you’re on a budget or just getting started with flash, the Yongnuo transceivers are a great low-cost investment.

The final piece of gear that you should have is a light stand to support your speedlight. Light stands are lightweight and pretty cheap, but you’ll want to make sure that they include an adapter to hold your flash.

Off-Camera Flash in Action

The following demonstration uses the basic tools mentioned above – a Canon 6D, 580 EXII flash, two PocketWizard Plus III transceivers, and a light stand with a swivel umbrella adapter. The photography subject is a wooden sculpture procured during a vacation in Mexico, sitting on a bamboo mat, with a colorful quilt as a background. The bare flash with no modifier is situated camera left, and there is some natural window light coming from camera right.

Off Camera Flash setup

With the camera set at 1/160 for shutter speed, f/2.8 aperture and ISO 250, the natural light shot as seen below isn’t half bad, but the left side of the product is a bit shadowed.

Basic off camera flash product photography

Enter the speedlight! If you aren’t familiar with a speedlight, all of the buttons and controls on the back can look intimidating, but the first button to be familiar with (besides the “on” switch) is the “Mode” button. This is what you hit to get from ETTL (automatic) to M (Manual) to Multi (for firing repeated flashes during a single long exposure). Leaving the flash on ETTL is fine when the flash is connected to your camera’s hot shoe mount, but it can produce disastrous, blown-out photos when the flash is moved off-camera. I won’t waste a photo showing you the result, but the resulting image is completely blown out and unsalvageable.

In order to adjust the off-camera flash’s output to better sync with your camera settings, it’s time to switch the flash onto Manual mode. Simply press the Mode button until M shows up on the flash LCD. Then, start playing around with the flash’s output. On the bottom portion of the flash, press the middle button that reads SEL/SET that is surrounded by the Select Dial. Numbered fractions will appear blinking in the LCD. Turn the Select Dial clockwise to change the numbers, going from 1/1 down as far as 1/128. The result below is shot at the same camera settings, but the off-camera flash firing at camera left at 1/16 power. The resulting image below is still blown out, but not nearly as bad as when the flash fires on ETTL mode.

Basic off camera flash product photography

Flash power set at 1/16

To continue balancing out the overpowering flash, dial the power down to 1/64. The result is much more balanced.

Basic off camera flash product photography

Flash power set at 1/64

Take the flash power down even lower to 1/128, and the photo subject is a bit more shadowy, adding more edge to it and really separating it from the background.

Basic off camera flash product photography

Flash power set to 1/128

This is just the start to experimenting with off-camera flash; many other variables such as camera settings, modifiers, and multiple light sources can produce similar and superior effects. However, the first thing to realize is how dramatic effects can be by just playing around with a single speedlight flash and its the manual settings.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Suzi Pratt is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. She is also a blogger who teaches others how to run a successful photography business.

  • Keith Starkey

    Thanks! I’ve been studying flash now for several months, but being unemployed I am unable to purchase anything right now. But I am excited about the YN flash heads, and look forward to procuring one sooner or later. Thanks again.

  • YN products are actually pretty good! If you don’t already, I would follow the Strobist Facebook group for some inspiration. Lots of posts from other photographers on their off-camera lighting setups and many of them use YN flashes and triggers with amazing results.

  • Jay Doraiswami

    Good article, thank you! I use an older 580 ex off camera, but rather than “full manual” mode, I choose the “auto thyristor” setting under custom settings. This is an older technique that cuts off the flash when the subject is adequately lit. The catch is the flash unit must be at a distance that’s close to the camera-subject distance. For me, this mode yields very good results. For bounce flash I just add an exposure compensation, one time, via the flash’s ISO setting.

    Thanks again, for your informative write-up.
    Jay D

  • Michael Owens

    All I have ever used is Yongnuo flashguns and the RF03 triggers. Excellent for the price.

  • Brian

    I would like to venture now on to some flash photography but I have not bought a flash gun as I find is so confusing but struggle with available light

  • JessieJ

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been meaning to learn my flash for about two years. I’ve been too afraid. But 2015 is the year, and your article has helped!

  • Michael

    Thanks! That’s exactly what to do if you want to end up with pro-quality images. However, I would still modify the Speedlights with bouncing card while flash is pointed up and angled at about 30 degrees down. This will soften the light mixing the bounced light from the ceiling with the light bounced from the card. I use very cheap optical trigger for my old Minolta 360PX set on manual mode and my Canon 580EX is on my Stroboframe flash bracket connected to my camera via short coiled cord. Everything should be on manual mode so the optical trigger does not fire on E-TTL pre-flash. It’s 2 flashes set up producing very soft and equally lightening condition.

  • Rab McLaughlin

    I’ve just ordered a Yongnuo YN565 EX Flash (which will hopefully come tomorrow!) but won’t be able to afford a wireless trigger for a few weeks at least, so was thinking of getting an extension cable to use it off-camera for now.

    My question is this: when using the extension cable, how do I attach the flash to a light stand/tripod? Can’t see to find any info anywhere.

  • Michael O

    Buy a simple light stand, mount it there. I guess that all depends on how long your extension cable is?

    When I use my extension cable (coiled but reaches 2 metres). I use it handheld, at arms length to direct it where I need it.

    But, you can use dirt cheap RF03 triggers from Amazon, or eBay for less than £10 nowadays. Just use the hotshot to mount on the aforementioned light stand, and it you get a cheap stand that doesn’t come with a hotshot connector, just buy a hotshoe mount, again fromm Amazon or eBay for £2 or less.

    I’ve done that too lol

    Hope that helps a little.

  • Michael O

    Where are you based Brian? I have a spare Yongnuo YN560-iii you can have.

  • Brian

    Hi Micheal that is very kind of you , I am based in West Yorkshire England
    I have two DSLEs a Nikon D80 and a Nikon D7100

  • Michael O

    I’ll swap you for the d7100. Hehe. Kidding.
    I’m based in Cheshire, just outside Liverpool.

    Easily sorted!

  • Michael O

    PS. We seem to have the same avatar lol

  • Cheryl Garrity

    I have a good off camera flash, a Nikon 910, but I really don’t know how to use it. I haven’t made much effort so far. I can use the flash off camera by using the built in flash as a master on “P” setting. I don’t even have a light stand. Where do you suggest I go to learn more about off-camera?
    Cheryl Garrity

  • Brian

    Yes we do , I assume you are a Nikon man

  • Michael O

    Yeah. Only a D3200 though. Got eye on the new D5500.

  • Cheryl Garrity


    Thanks for the leads.
    I think the real problem is that my off camera flash intimidates
    me. It is a block that I need to work
    thorough. Maybe these articles will be the key??????

  • Hi Cheryl – I didn’t want to mention it because I didn’t feel promoting myself was right here – but I also have this course and we walk you through it all painlessly. If you use the link you can see more.

  • Cheryl Garrity


  • Haig

    The book “The Nikon Creative Lighting System” by Mike Hagen has tought me a lot on both the use of my SB-900 flash and how to set up the flash system.

  • Cheryl Garrity

    Thanks Haig! Looks like I have multiple options. I just have to get motivated.

  • Col Roper

    You dont need to go to the exspense of triggers, you can use the pop up flash to fire the off camera speed lights, i have both yongnuo and nikon sb900, one little thing caught me out first with the none nikon speedlights was setting them to s2, this way the pre flash doesnt fire the speed lights, pretty niffty really, set speed lights to slave mode and s2 then set your flash power to suit, its lots of fun experimenting.

  • Retha van der Vyver

    I want to ask you something, maybe you can help me. I’ve asked alot of people and they have no clue. I have a canon 60D with a 430exii speedlite. I was playing around with the speedlite, getting to know it. I got my camera and speedlite set up that no matter what shutterspeed i set, it keep changing back to 1/250. Keeping it at max speed sync with the speedlite. But my big problem is, i don’t have a clue how I got it set up like that. Is there a chance that you know how to set it up?

  • I’m not quite sure what the problem might be…perhaps setting both your camera and the speedlite to manual mode? That way it shouldn’t automatically change at all.

  • Retha van der Vyver

    That’s not working, I’ve tried that. The speedlite gets extremely hot and the batteries gets so hot that it burned my hands. Could there be a problem with the speedlite?

  • Sounds like it.

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