Why Off-Camera Flash Isn’t as Scary as you Think

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Flash

The word alone has the potential to cause dread, even among experienced photographers, bringing to mind images of overexposed faces and red eyes. Because of this, many photographers avoid flash altogether, keeping a safe distance at all times. I think that’s too bad.

It’s a missed opportunity. Sure, flash may not always be applicable to your situation – but it’s very helpful to have another tool in your bag of tricks if and when it is needed.

Portrait

Off-camera flash gives you an incredible amount of control. Yes, understanding natural light is an important part of being a photographer – but working with off-camera flash lets you create your own lighting conditions. You can even mimic the elusive golden hour.

This guide will explain off-camera flash in its simplest components, giving you the knowledge to begin to experiment, and to explore how it could help your photography.

What you need to start

When I talk about off-camera flash, you might be picturing something like this:

? ?? / Chris Lim

By ? ?? / Chris Lim

If that’s the case, I don’t blame you for being a bit nervous. In reality, all you need to get started with off-camera flash photography is:

  • A camera
  • An independent flash unit
  • A way to make them fire simultaneously
  • Something to hold your flash, like a light stand or a friend
light-stand-1 light-stand-2

Once you take your flash unit off of the camera, it won’t know that it is supposed to fire when you hit the shutter button. Fortunately, there are several ways that you can sync your flash.

Built-In Flash Control: Some cameras have a built-in setting that uses the pop-up flash to tell your off-camera flash to fire. Most flash units have a sensor on the front that recognizes the sudden burst of light (optical sensor), and fires accordingly.

pop-up-flash

Flash Sync Cord: This is a cord that runs from your camera to the flash. Think of it like an extension cord. These are useful and reliable, but it also limits how far away the flash can be from your camera.

Wireless Radio Transmitters: The preferred option, radio transmitters can sync your flash to your shutter even if they are at a significant distance away.

bts-6859-edit

One remote goes on the camera, the other attaches to the flash. When the camera fires the one on the camera sends a signal to the other remote to fire the flash.

Editor’s note: for more great tips read, A Beginner’s Guide to Working With Flash Off-Camera

The basics – controlling your off-camera flash

When you use a flash on-camera, it can determine the correct power settings and fire accordingly (TTL). Once you take the flash off the camera, however, you’re going to need to tell both the camera and the flash what to do manually.

bts-6851-edit

M is Manual mode, and 1/1 is full power. Zoom level shows 35mm. Read the user manual for your flash to see how to adjust these items.

If that sounds scary, just take a deep breath – we’ll get through this together.

Fortunately, controlling flashes is quite simple. In manual mode (on the flash), you choose the amount of power at which the flash fires. This is expressed as a fraction: 1/1 means the flash is firing at full power, ¼ means the flash is firing at a quarter of its total power, and so on. Easy, right?

Alright, so now we know how to control the flash. What about the settings on your camera?

This is the cool part. You can control the effects of the flash using your ISO and aperture. Adjusting these two settings controls how sensitive your camera sensor is, and how much light it can collect.

So here are the four ways to make the flash in your image stronger (more flash):

  • Turn up the flash power
  • Move the flash closer to your subject
  • Turn up the ISO
  • Make the aperture wider (smaller f-stop number)

Piece of cake! Is your flash in your picture too strong? Well, simply do the opposite of one of the criteria mentioned above (turn the flash down, move it away from the subject, turn the ISO down, use a smaller aperture).

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned shutter speed yet. That’s because your shutter speed doesn’t affect flash at all.

Well, almost not at all. Every camera has a flash sync-speed. This is because if the shutter speed goes too fast, it won’t sync perfectly with the flash (the shutter will open and close before the flash goes off). As a result, part of your picture won’t see the effects of the flash – resulting in a black bar across part of the shot. For most consumer cameras, your maximum flash sync speed will be around 1/200 or 1/250. Keep your shutter speed under that (slower like 1/125th or 1/60th) and you’ll be fine.

flash-sync-1

Correct sync speed used the flash lights the entire image

flash-sync-2

If your shutter speed is too fast (higher than the sync speed) you will get something like this, where part of the image is not lit by the flash and is dark, or even black.

Two exposures: Ambient and flash

This is the key to understanding off-camera flash photography.

Think of every picture taken with flash as being two exposures, overlapped on top of each other. The way you decide to balance the ambient lighting and the flash, sets the tone for the image. Let’s take it one layer at a time, and you’ll see how easy it can be to build an image using off-camera flash.

THE FIRST LAYER: AMBIENT LIGHTING

Ambient light is that which is already available in the area from the sun, window light, street lights, etc. At certain times of the day, your ambient light is going to be quite nice, like at Golden Hour. Other times, you may not be so lucky.

Sunsets, for example, are especially tricky. This is because in order to bring out the colour and texture of a sunset, you need to keep the exposure dark – and as a result, your subject will be completely silhouetted.

Here’s the first step for taking your off-camera flash picture – ignore your flash altogether. Turn it off.

Find the normal, correct exposure for the existing (ambient or available) light, and then adjust your settings to intentionally make your image too dark. The darker your ambient exposure, the more dramatic the light from your flash will be.

1 ambient

Here is my exposure for the ambient light (above). We’re off to a good start! For this shot, I want to keep the dark, dramatic sky in the background, and I will rely on my flash to light up the tennis player.

THE SECOND LAYER: FLASH

Alright, now turn on your flash. By using flash to light my subject, I can get the best of both worlds – my sky remains dark and dramatic while my subject is well-lit.

It will probably take a few shots to get your lighting right. That’s perfectly normal! Use the tips mentioned in the previous section to add more or less power to your flash.

1 flash

When we add the flashes, we get to keep the dramatic background, with the benefit of crisp lighting on our subject. This shot simply isn’t possible without flash.

You can use what you know about ambient and flash lighting to set the tone of the image.

If you keep your ambient light levels high, the flash will add just a kiss of light. If you start with a very dark ambient image (like the one above), your flash will sculpt and define the image much more strongly.

1 behind the scenes

Here’s the behind-the-scenes of our setup. Since the light is hitting the subject from an angle, it is dramatic and shows shape much more effectively than if the flash had been on the camera. One flash is to camera right, bouncing into an umbrella to soften it, the other is to camera left (and behind the subject) to add an accent light.

Putting it into Practice

Here’s another example, this time using flash to give a simple kick, to a liven up a portrait.

2 natural

This was shot with no flash, exposed for the skin tones.

2 ambient

Ambient light only, darkened for the background.

The first step was to push the “correct” exposure down, making the overall image darker, so that we could use flash to highlight the subject.

2 flash 2 double flash

In the image above (left), the flash is coming from just left of the camera. It brightens the subject up (compared to the background), and makes the image seem more three dimensional. The background also pops more than it did with the “correct” exposure.

If we want to, we can play around with the effects of a second flash (above right), maybe letting it aim directly toward the camera to create some lens flare?

2 behind the scenes

Here’s the simple setup.

Shaping and modifying your light

Well done! You’ve made it through the basics of off-camera flash photography. Next, you can push your newfound skill to a whole new level by learning how to modify the light.

If you’re familiar with how the light on a cloudy day is softer than the light on a sunny day, then you already know nearly everything you need to know about flash modifiers.

The basic rule is this: the larger the light source, the softer the light.

A flash unit is a small light source that creates harsh shadows. That isn’t always so flattering.

The purpose of umbrellas, soft boxes, and other light modifiers, is to make the source of light larger. This softens the light, which is especially useful for portraits.

flash-3

Learning how to modify light lets you build a style that matches your image.

Looking for a gritty photo? Shoot with a bare flash (no modifiers) and get sharp shadows. Looking for softer, more flattering light? Use a softbox.

Practice, practice, practice

Once you’ve got a feel for how to use your flash off-camera, you’ll have a whole new world of photography to explore. Try it. The worst thing that can possibly happen is that you’ll learn something.

Using digital equipment gives you the ability to try things without any financial repercussions. Learning flash photography through trial and error was probably pretty expensive back in the days of film; today you can fire as many shots as you need in order to learn, without breaking the bank.

Nobody ever got off-camera flash right on their first try – experiment and stick with it, and you’ll add a valuable new tool to your bag of tricks.

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More articles for you to read on dPS about off-camera flash:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Frank Myrland

is an avid photographer from Toronto, Canada. Many years ago he picked up a camera on a whim, and he’s been hooked ever since. As an active and independent learner, Frank likes to continuously explore ways to make his images worth a second look. You can see more of his work by visiting his website, or by connecting with him on Instagram and Facebook.

  • Peter Tellone

    I think your one section about “Making your flash stronger” needs to be modified for the Ambient & Flash (Non studio) situation. Adjusting the Aperture and/or ISO will affect BOTH the Flash AND the Ambient. So really in that situation you need to rely on Flash Power and/or Distance To affect the Flash Power solely. In other words, if you have a perfect BG exposure, but then the flash isn’t enough and you open up aperture/ISO you now lose that perfect BG exposure

  • Frank Myrland

    That’s an excellent point, Peter. It’s certainly true that your adjusting your aperture and ISO will influence your ambient exposure. For this reason, using off-camera flash outdoors is often a bit of a juggling act.

    There can be many different situations where you are limited in how you can adjust your flash’s power. For example, if you have the desired ISO and aperture, but already are at full power on your flash and and can’t move it closer to the subject without getting it in the image. Sometimes you might have to compromise on the image you had planned in order to get an image that works, but I really enjoy how a bit of creativity and flexibility go a long way with off-camera flash.

  • Peter Tellone

    That so true Frank, It often is a juggling act. so if people know that, shutter speed only affects ambient and flash power only affects flash, the other two affect both. Provided they under stand Reciprocity…haha..Big word. But if the understand; if you change one, you change another to make up for that. Like in the example of well I need more flash Power, I open the aperture, but darn now my BG is too, bright, Oh I know, Change from 1/100 to 1/200 SS (and not go beyond sync or below handhold)…and bingo they have it. It’s just that dance people have to get familiar with. Thanks for the discussion and the article 🙂

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  • Pete Mueller

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  • Frank Myrland

    Agreed. More light sources = more control.

    I think the idea of the complex, multi-light setup can intimidate many photographers, and possibly prevent them from ever trying to learn off-camera flash.

    That’s why I think it helps to have a natural learning curve, starting with just one flash and really getting familiar with all these concepts. Then the idea of adding more flashes into the mix doesn’t seem so frightening.

    I love relying on a simple two-light, cross lighting setup – the main light comes from the front, a bit to the side, and the secondary light provides rim light from behind. It’s actually amazing how easy and quick this setup is (with a bit of practice) and the results that it delivers.

    Your setup sounds like mine: my primary flash is branded, but my supporting flashes are manual units that didn’t break the bank so that I can replace them quickly, if needed.

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  • B Battista

    Good article but still frustrating. You give the basic equipment for off camera light but then use two light sources and an umbrella for your photo examples. Just starting out with 1 flash unit so this article helps but not really.

  • Frank Myrland

    That’s a fair point. I didn’t want to cover too much ground – believe me when I say that each section could have been an article in itself. But the concepts described in the article are consistent, regardless of the number of flashes you use.

    Yes, in a way it can be frustratingly limiting to have only one, unmodified flash. But that shouldn’t prevent a photographer from exploring what is possible.

    Back when I started with flash, I didn’t have a way of getting my flash to fire off the camera – so I learned by aiming the flash at an angled roof, wall or any white surface to bounce the light back towards my subject. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked. The light was suddenly interesting, instead of the boring, flat light I got when I was pointed right at the subject. Bouncing off the wall also spread the light out, making it softer and more flattering.

    Later, in the time before I got my second off-camera flash, I practiced “creating” a second flash using a portable reflector. My main flash came from behind the subject, to create a glow around their head, and then the reflector bounced light back to light up the subject’s face. It took a bit of practice to get the aim right, but it worked like a charm.

    Limitations can be excellent for teaching how to a find creative solution.

    If you have any specific questions, I’d be happy to answer them.

  • B Battista

    Thanks for the response. Bouncing the light is a great idea using buildings and walls. Didn’t think of that. So that will help. Also bought a white board to help fill in light too. So thanks for the tips. And yes you could probably write many articles on this subject so thanks for putting this one out there.

  • JR

    I know it would be a whole separate tutorial but there’s something to be said for future-proofing your flash investment by getting one or two that support high speed sync rather than bump up against the 1/160 or 1/250 limitation. They even can be purchased in packages that include two with a wireless trigger, color gels and rudimentary softbox. They’re made by Godox , Flashpoint, Neewer and Youngno. All the same or similar and work very nicely and reasonably affordable for all major camera brands . And as you know HSS opens up a world of options and opportunity. I’m still learning to work with them so your tutorial is excellent and appreciated but I would recommend jumping straight to HSS rather than having to trade up later.

  • Geoff Smith

    Great article. So for off camera flash, I assume the camera is in full Manual mode, correct?

  • Frank Myrland

    Yes, the camera must be in full Manual since the ISO and Aperture settings will influence how much effect your flash has on the image.

    If your camera starts changing those settings between each shot, you’re going to get a headache when you start trying to take some consistent pictures!

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