Working with Off Camera Flash and TTL To be able to create a portrait of someone is a wonderful experience. To do so in an interesting location is even better. To be able to make use of lighting techniques that allow your imaginative ideas to come to life and bring out the personality of the subject and the location environment… is where it really gets exciting!
Step one – analyze the natural light first
The natural, or ambient light, even though it may seem to be everywhere all at once, actually has the same qualities of direction, intensity, colour and softness that are so easily seen in studio conditions. Taking a moment to observe and think about these ambient light qualities is the first step in determining how you can best make use of additional lighting from off camera flash. You might find it helpful to think of your location portrait setting as a clock or compass with your subject in the middle, and the camera and light sources arranged around the subject in a circular manner, through a 360 degree arc. The first example below shows a natural light style portrait, with differing qualities of light on the subject and the background. The ambient light direction comes from slightly behind the subject, through the trees, without being too distinct, but enough to provide interest to the background.
Adding more light – main light placement moulds the portrait
The diagram below shows the lighting setup with the added a reflector and flash to our scene, in a circular arrangement with the subject in the centre. Light sources have been placed at 45 degree positions, relative to the subject and camera.
Strong lighting positions
On camera flash, is generally known to be harsh and often not that interesting, similarly, light sources from directly from behind and the side are equally strong and not used that often for traditional portraits. These positions of 0, 90, 180 and 270 degrees are shown in the diagram below. These are not “bad” light setups, you can consider them “strong style” positions that are not as flexible to make use of, so they are used less often than more “desirable” lighting setups.
Adjusting lighting positions
Between these hard angle positions is where you want to position your primary or “Main” light sources. Doing so allows you to shape our subject with light in a natural manner and provides a more flexible set so that your subject can easily adjust their pose without “missing” the light. This is more comfortable setup for the photographer and will almost always provide more pleasing results of the subject. Photographs become more interesting as there is now more definition provided by the presence of highlights and shadows, which are also easier to control when working with this setup.
Adding secondary lights or reflectors
Once you have identified your ambient light conditions, and placed your main light source, you can now determine where to best place your accent lighting with additional flashes or reflectors. These lights provide enhanced interest to the image, by bringing out the subtleties of texture, colour and form. Placing them too close to your primary light will cause them to wash out each other, so remember the desirable angles created by our light compass earlier. When you think of the compass, you’ll want to have your additional light sources at least 90 degrees away from each other. This allows them to be effective on their own, without overlapping the other lights and losing their intended effect.
Accent lights are always positioned relative to the main light and tend to provide the feeling of a skimmed light back to the camera. This is the most effective way to enhance the creative style within an image, and is surprisingly easy to do now that you understand how the lights work with each other, and how you can arrange them to work best with your subject and where you position your camera.
TIP 1: To gain even more flexibility with outdoor flash, make use of the High Speed Sync feature, which will allow you to use shutter speeds that go beyond the traditional limits of 1/125th or 1/250th. Look to your camera manual for setting that up, so you can use speeds up to 1/8000th , it really works!. It may seem intimidating, but controlling the off camera flashes can actually be very easy, surprisingly intuitive, and very effective. Nikon have their way of remotely controlling the settings of their flashes, with their Creative Lighting System (CLS) using highly accurate Through The Lens (TTL) metering. You can use a separate flash on camera as the “Master” to control the Remotes, or even use the camera’s built-in pop up flash in “Commander Mode”. You can adjust the flash output, so the light portion doesn’t affect your image, or use it as additional fill. Nikon has a separate controller as well, called the SU-800. At half the price, it’s like a flash, but without the actual flash head. Canon has their equivalent versions available, and other manufactures also enable TTL options. These controls take the fear and pain out of the remote flash experience. Controlling the remote flashes can be as simple as deciding you want more or less light output, then bumping the dial up or down from the camera location.
Tip 2: Setting your camera to under-expose the natural light by one or two steps, allows your flashes to take over the look of the image and dominate the lighting conditions. You can set your camera Manually or use Aperture Priority, either way the camera will “talk to the flash” to calculate the correct flash exposures as they appear in camera, on the sensor. With the internal technology that works so well, the simple camera and flash setups do the work, so you don’t have to. Yes, it can be that simple!
More example images and diagrams