Working with Off Camera Flash and TTL


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!

ttl off camera flash

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.

off camera flass

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.

Working with Off Camera & Remote Flash

Working with Off Camera & Remote Flash

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.


Working with Off Camera & Remote Flash

Working with Off Camera & Remote Flash

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.

Working with Off Camera & Remote Flash

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.

Working with Off Camera & Remote Flash

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.

TTL off camera flash

This is a pin up poster and as such has been processing accordingly

Working with Off Camera & Remote Flash

ttl flash off camera

Working with Off Camera & Remote Flash

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


Working with Off Camera & Remote Flash


Working with Off Camera & Remote Flash

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Craig Minielly as part of the editorial & commercial photography scene, has been published globally for the past 30+ years, and is the creator of the Craig’s Actions production tools. He is a Canadian Ambassador for Nikon, and the recipient of the Yousuf Karsh Lifetime Achievement Award. Visit his studio site at Aura Photographics.

  • Craig Minielly

    HIghspeed sync, and hyper sync are tech topics that could easily produce three part features, so I intentionally chose to leave it as a Tip Item for people to pursue on their own pace. The primary objective here was light placement, without getting too side-tracked… For those interested, and a good chuckle, look up Ken Rockwell’s articles on “the evils of HSS…”

    As a Nikon user, I can simply say that it has worked flawlessly for me for many years, and is the first setting I change on any new camera setup, as it allows me to shoot as I see the light and not be held back by sync limitations.

    I’ve got thousands of commissioned & published assignments with happy clients that benefited from it, so I’m not too worried what Rockwell or other brand users thoughts may be 😉

    The Profoto B1 does look like an amazing system, but again, that’s a whole other topic for another day…

  • Craig Minielly

    Thanks Gazzz, I tired to select images that made it obvious what lights were used, and to provide variety so the readers could see the possibilities and understand the diagrams without confusion. The agencies and art directors I have as clients all have their own ideas as to what they like (at any given time), so I’m happy to oblige with a variety that may or may not be, to my personal taste. It’s a great profession and all about making the happy client, so I don’t take it personally 🙂

  • Craig Minielly

    On the subject of post processing, Michael speaks well below… I received a private note (that may or may not be related to this feature) stating that they thought my images were nice, but fake because they were photoshopped onto a background image…

    Wow (!) I never thought someone would think that of my images, as composites are totally not my thing. I have nothing against them, as agencies have used my work that way in ads and features for years, but I personally enjoy the challenge of shooting & lighting – on location.

    The comments are kind of ironic with the images here, as I checked and they had virtually no PS work that I would consider being “photoshopped for effect”, and most certainly are all very real (lol). A T-shirt colour was changed… a surfboard moved a few inches, and some small b/g elements changed because I felt they were distracting, that’s about it. Anything past that (eye / face cosmetics), were minor, however an essential aspect of professional life to a happy client. Even the Pin up image was almost a straight LR output form the raw file, with just a bit extra afterwards in PS to complement the style.

    I posted elsewhere here about lighting choices, so I’ll skip that.

    Thanks for the feedback Mesk, and worry not, I don’t mind.

  • Craig Minielly

    Most of my work is for publication, so I guess you could say that I’ve acquired an editorial style over the years, although the range of what I do and what I like, would be kinda tough to nail down. Feel free to drop by my studio website to get an idea if you feel like it.

    I’ve commented below on the choice of images to easily show off light positioning, as well on post processing thoughts and what was actually (not) done with the images here.

    Thanks for the thoughts, I appreciate the feedback.

  • CDNPatriot

    Thanks, I’ll keep wthose resources in mind. Looking for a shoot opportunity in the next while to get the ball rolling.

  • Edward Millership

    Don’t get me wrong, HSS has its uses. However its main weakness is reduced range and it eats batteries and not ALL (non dedicated) speedlites can do HSS, Grouping two or more speedlites together will help to overcome this. It still remains, that if the article is aimed at newcomers to OCF the addition of HSS label in the lighting diagram would make it clearer for novices. Other than that, the article gives some good lighting setup tips. I would also recommend a youtube video from B&H by Syl Arena and almost anything by Joe (speedlight) McNally..

  • Craig Minielly

    Good points Edward, will do, and yes I recommend all things by Joe as a great resource.

  • Edward Millership

    For more guidance check out AdoramaTV there WILL be something there for you like from Mark Wallace amongst others..

  • Edward Millership

    I have to disagree with your statement above, MESK. Firstly a problem may have occurred with the upload, and it is immoderate to suggest otherwise. the lighting isn’t bad, but is of the type often used is tutorials (obvious source) and last but not least, some photographers cut their teeth on FILM the origin of “post processing” and IF you are a RAW shooter post is part of the workflow of photography….

  • Nancy Armstrong

    I appreciated it too. This was the clearest explanation I’ve seen about where to place–and where not to place–off camera lights.

  • OscarB

    I really liked the tutorial and the examples, I have been shooting for many years both as a pro and now just for fun, and outdoor shots with artificial light is complex and very rewarding, I guess reading some of the comments is vident that you can’t please everyone all the time, still the tutorial is really good.

  • CDNPatriot

    Thanks! I’ll take a look at their videos. If I were younger, I would have looked to YouTube in the first place 😉

  • Craig Minielly

    lol… thanks Fred 🙂

  • Kurt Anno

    I think this is a very informative article. You have simplified the process. Regardless of the comment below, I happen to like the resulting imagery. Everyone has different tastes and simply stating an opinion based on what types of photos that result because of the poses is missing the point entirely. The diagrams and explanation were what I was after when I began reading the article. Very well done and nice website as well. Thank you for sharing!!!!!!

  • otre

    Please, give me Brianna’s number! 🙂

  • Allan

    Im sure you’ll alway produce dull life-less images if you do.

  • Michael White

    Thank you for taking the time for producing this article. I must agree, the haters should have just moved on! Nothing forced them to read the article. I was alway taught that if you don’t have anything nice to say, well you know the rest of the story! Thanks again, I like the diagrams just found the app Strobox for the iPhone.

  • Gul Jung

    Very, if not THE most informative article that hit the spot for me.
    I’ve recently entered the world of off-camera multiple flashes, and
    I am deeply thankful for the effort you have given to include sample images with according diagrams in your article. Very helpful !

  • Snoops27

    Someone mentioned that one or more of the images looked like an HDR image, A very poor one I would say!! IMHO, these images remind me of the type of shots I was getting soon after I started with photography, but I’m a lot better now thanks!! These might impress a novice, but, come on, this is “good” photography?!?! NEVER….

  • Craig Minielly

    Great to hear Gul, the images were meant to be easy to follow samples that effectively showed the technique. I’m happy to hear that the information was useful to you – Best of the season, Craig

  • Craig Minielly

    Thanks Michael – appreciate your thoughts 🙂

  • Craig Minielly

    I’d have to arm werestle you for it I think… lol

  • Cheriachen

    shouldn’t be a typo, use HSS (High Speed synchronization) to shoot at higher speeds.

  • Craig Minielly

    Thanks Thanikattu Raja, its cool to see that you got the context of the article, and how it was meant to give people an idea of what it possible, and how to achieve it – beyond traditional techniques and expectations 😉

  • Betty Wada

    Thank you for sharing this excellent article. This guide is very helpful for beginner photographer. With the help of this guideline, we can capture a more attractive photo using TTL flash and off-camera flash.

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