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Off Camera Flash for Your Travel Photography

The creative use of artificial light in travel photography is a powerful tool that can take your images to the next level. While there’s a myriad of information available on getting started with off camera flash, the tutorial here is tailored for you. It will give you a start using these techniques with relatively cheap and portable equipment while on the road. The tutorial will cover the basics of gear you will need, along with real world examples of different techniques you can use to make your images pop.

Image 4 Tom Arnhem Land

It is assumed here that you have a full understanding of how to use your camera in manual mode, and some experience with the basics of flash photography. The techniques covered here are not overly difficult, and with some practice at home you will be able to approach your next trip with a new set of options to inspire your photography.

You may know, that images shot with on camera flash do not usually produce flattering results for your subjects. Moving your flash off camera often means an investment in more gear, though it doesn’t have to be super expensive or add too much bulk to your travel kit. The resulting images you get from this investment will be well worthwhile.

For this tutorial I’ll be covering some different options for putting together a basic one light setup that can be fired off camera remotely and modified through a small softbox or umbrella. This sort of setup is a practical way to travel, especially if you are on the road for an extended period, and don’t have help lugging around more elaborate studio style setups.

There are potentially many elements to your setup, each with wide ranging options in price, bulk and results. These bits of gear can be added to virtually any DSLR with manual functions and used with any lens that suits the type of images you want to produce.

Gear for Off Camera Flash Travel Photography

1. Flash gun or speedlight

There has never been a wider amount of choice when it comes to speedlites, or flash guns on the market. From the top of the range Canon and Nikon speedlights that cost upwards of $500.00, to excellent third party options, it can be a difficult choice to make.

Using off camera flash is best practiced via manual control of both the flash and camera, so higher end options like TTL (Through the Lens) flash metering are not essential, though this is increasingly an option with even cheaper third party flashes.

For a long time I’ve used a Canon 430 EX II, the mid-range option in the Canon Flash line-up, and a relatively affordable bit of gear. When starting out almost any flash will do, as even the cheapest can be fired off camera, and be modified to give you great quality light.

Off Camera Flash for Your Travel Photography

2. Flash Triggers

Once you have decided on which flash or speedlight fits your budget, then comes the maddeningly wide array of choices available to fire your flash remotely.

Radio triggers, which can be set to fire the flash from a small unit that slides into your camera’s hot shoe, and another attached to the flash itself, are amongst the easiest and cheapest way to get started.

You might hear many professionals touting the ownership of expensive ‘Pocket Wizards’ as something of an exclusive way into the mysterious world of off camera flash. They are great products but the market has changed. Cheaper options from Yongnuo or Photix cost a fraction of the price, and will work just as well.

I’m currently using a set of Yongnuo YN-622C Triggers, which have worked perfectly through some very tough travel. These also have the option on my Canon 5D3 of adjusting the flash power through the camera menu, which is really useful, though not essential.

3. Modifier

While bare flash can produce interesting results, this ‘hard light’ is not always desirable for the type of portraits most people will be looking to produce in their travel photography.

A ‘soft light’, produced by using a flash modifier, is the more common way to shoot, as it produces more flattering results for your subjects. Again, there is an endless array of options here. A small softbox or umbrella are the easiest and most versatile ways to get shooting.

A plain white shoot through umbrella is a cheap and compact option, and throws a fairly wide soft light that can be used for a range of portrait shots. The limitation with these umbrellas is that, as a travel photographer, you will more often than not be shooting outdoors. Any kind of wind while shooting with these might have you uttering expletives at the sight of your gear tipping over or the umbrella folding itself inside out.

A more easily managed item is a small softbox. While not as compact to transport or as simple to set up, these stay sturdy and produce a great, soft light that is useful in most portrait situations. I currently use the small Photoflex Light Dome XS, which has lasted a few years now without any damage. There are many similar options, and even DIY projects that you can find online.

4. Light Stand

This is an optional piece of gear that has the potential to be a lifesaver, or just a heavy metal rod in your bag. In most situations you will be able to get somebody to hold the flash or softbox, and roping in friends and family of your subjects to help can be a great way to help people relax.

If you do decide to bring a stand with you, it’s worth spending more over the cheap generic Ebay numbers, which from experience don’t last much past being taken out of the box. The Avenger range of stands are compact and sturdy.

5. Flash Gels

CTO (Colour Temperature Orange) gels are simply bits of plastic that you can place over your flash to vary the color temperature of light that reaches your subject. Use of these, or not, is according to personal taste. Strips of this plastic are cheap and easy to purchase online, with the sample packs offered by many companies a great way to experiment. Attaching a bit of velcro to the sides of the plastic and the flash to keep the gel in place is one way to keep things simple.

6. ND filter

Another optional piece of gear. The use of ND (Neutral Density) filters with off camera flash adds another tool to your creative arsenal. Using ND filters makes it possible to add more drama to your images with underexposed backgrounds and/or shallower depths of field during the day.

I use a range of ND filters, with the Lee 3 stop Solid ND filter, mounted with the Cokin Z Pro Holder the most common choice. Again, this is not an essential part of a flash setup, and something that can be added once you are more comfortable with the basics.

Shooting Off Camera Flash Travel Photography

Once you have your setup sorted it’s worthwhile practicing to get it all working in the quickest time possible. Without treating it like a frantic pit stop, it’s really handy to be able to get everything in order as fast as you can. On the road you don’t want to monopolize somebody’s precious time more than necessary. Being confident with your gear and shooting style, helps put your subjects at ease as well.

The following examples from recent shoots are broken into two rough styles of shooting with off camera flash. The first is the technique of balancing flash with ambient (available light), producing images where the light from your flash is subtle, and blends with the background of your subject. The second is the technique of underexposing the ambient or background light, and using shallow depth of field to add more drama to your images.

The golden rule to remember with flash photography is that your aperture setting, combined with your flash power, controls the amount of artificial or flash in your photos. Your shutter speed will control the ambient, or background, light.

Technique #1 – balancing flash with ambient

Image 1 Natarajan India

Natarajan, Little Andaman Island, India

I had met this elderly gentleman a few days prior to the shot taken here. At the time of our meeting he was the oldest living man in a remote part of the Andaman Islands Chain which was devastated by the 2004 Tsunami. I wanted to take his picture for a magazine feature I was putting together. By the time I got to his place to take a few shots one evening, it was right on dark, with only dim ambient light left to work with. This was a great time to break out the flash for a simple portrait.

After setting up a small softbox and attaching the radio flash triggers to fire the flash, I first exposed for the ambient light, setting my shutter speed and ISO to ensure a sharp image. I then chose an aperture of f/4, which combined with a telephoto lens, helped throw the background out of focus.

At these settings, without the use of flash, Natarajan’s features were dark and flat. Adding in the flash, fired remotely, allowed for a better portrait by emphasizing his strong features and throwing pleasing catch lights into his eyes (the reflection of the flash in your subjects pupils).

Image 1 Natarajan

I asked my friend Stephan to hold the flash at a downwards 45 degree angle camera left, just out of frame, aimed at the left side of Natarajan’s face (see lighting diagram above). I usually start with the flash in manual mode, set to 1/16 power and work from there. If the flash is too strong you can power down or vice versa.

In this simple portrait, the flash light lends some shape to the subjects face without its use being so obvious.

Image 2 Laura Dance Festival

Laura Dance Festival, Cape York, Queensland, Australia

The picture above was taken of a young boy from the Injanoo tribal group from the far north coast of Queensland, Australia. At the bi-annual Laura Dance Festival, tribal groups gather to dance and celebrate their ancient culture with outsiders.

After shooting the dance action for a few hours I wandered off to find some kids practicing their routines, with light from the setting sun filtering through the eucalyptus trees around the camp lighting up their moves.

With a small army of enthusiastic helpers I broke out the softbox and triggers, working quickly to keep the setting sun as an element to the shot. For this image a fairly heavy CTO gel was used over the flash to give the light the look of the setting sun. It’s not exact but lends a nice warmth to the light that would have otherwise looked more out of place at this time of evening.

I asked the boy to stand with the setting sun positioned behind his head, and then exposed for the background, ambient light. I chose to shoot from a low angle, as this usually works to emphasize strength in your subjects.

The flash was again set to manual and 1/16 power, which was close to the right flash exposure for the subject. This time the flash was held by another young dancer, just over my shoulder camera right (see lighting diagram below).

Image 2 Laura

In the final image the highlights needed some recovery in post, and a slight vignette was added.

Backlighting your subjects this way (with the sun behind the subject) adds some dramatic effect, with the flash exposing a subject that would otherwise have been in near darkness without it.

Technique 2 – Underexposing with ND Filters for Dramatic Effect

Image 3 Adrian Marrinyama Mob

Adrian, The Marrinyama Mob

The image above is from a shoot in a remote part of Queensland, Australia. For part of the year the guys live a traditional lifestyle, hunting, dancing and performing tough initiations on younger boys. It was the height of summer, and I was working alone with searing desert temperatures and strong winds whipping up dust from the red earth around the camps which the group called home.

In these situations being comfortable with your gear, and confident with what you are trying to achieve is really important. A flimsy umbrella or larger modifier for the flash shots would have been difficult to manage on my own. I chose to use my ever reliable little softbox setup, mounted on a decent light stand, and worked towards creating images that I had envisaged before the shoot.

For this shot of Adrian, a slightly more advanced setup was used. I wanted a shallow depth of field and for the portrait to look dramatic. This was achieved with the help of a 3 Stop ND filter to underexpose the background while keeping a shallow depth of field a f/2.8.

Image 3 Adrian

The flash was set to full power camera left, set just out of the frame (see diagram above). The result is that the flash is more noticeable than usual, with the background underexposed and blurred nicely for effect.

The video below is from a recent shoot in remote Arnhem Land, Northern Australia. The softbox – flash – trigger setup mentioned throughout the article is shown towards the end of the footage. Again, the flash setup was used to help out during less than ideal lighting situations on this trip.

The sun filtering through the smoke of a slow burning bush fire behind Tom helped to add some drama to the image, with the flash providing the correct exposure for his face. The flash was held close to Tom, camera right, and fired at 1/16 power.

Hopefully this tutorial has given you a starting point to work from with off camera flash for your travel photography. There’s many tutorials available for every aspect of what has been mentioned here. Happy shooting.

Image 4 Tom Arnhem Land

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Brook Mitchell
Brook Mitchell

is an Australian travel and documentary photographer. His recent work has focused on documenting life in some of Australia’s most remote indigenous communities for Australian Geographic magazine.

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