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