Five tips for succes with off-camera flash

If off-camera flash sounds intimidating to you, it shouldn’t. Things have changed a lot since ten years ago, when you had to be some kind of gear wizard to find out how to remotely trigger a flash. Currently, technology has evolved to the point where using off-camera flash is as easy as baking an egg. Or, if you’re the kind of kitchen hero I am, probably even easier than that! With the technology issues (mostly) out of the way, this means that you can now focus on getting the shot you want. The following three tips will help you be successful with your first ventures into off-camera flash.

1. Start indoors

When you’re starting out, start indoors. No wind to knock over your precious, new-bought gear. No sun popping in and out of the sky to mess up your ambient exposure (more on that later), no people to run off with your stuff… Once you feel confident with your gear and you have gotten some good results inside, then take your gear (and your model) for a walk outside!

2. Always determine your ambient exposure first

As I explain in more detail in my eBook Light it Up!, when you use flash, you’re basically mixing two light sources: flash and ambient light and you can determine how much (if any) of both light sources you let into your final picture.

The total brightness of this image (left) is the sum of the available light that was let into the camera (middle) and the flash light that was let into the camera (right).

The total brightness of this image (left) is the sum of the available light that was let into the camera (middle) and the flash light that was let into the camera (right).

Because the background is generally not (or less) influenced by your flash light (unless your model is close to it, see the next tip), you should always set your background exposure first. Especially when you’re working with a model outside, it’s a good idea to slightly underexpose that background compared to how you would expose it if you were photographing it without a subject. That makes sense: the background isn’t the subject, therefore it shouldn’t be too bright or otherwise it will detract from your actual subject. For example, when I have a sky in my background, I will generally set my exposure so that I still have detail in the sky.

This is an example of a shot where I set my ambient exposure for the background. It is slightly underexposed so that I maintain detail in the sky…

This is an example of a shot where I set my ambient exposure for the background. It is slightly underexposed so that I maintain detail in the sky…

This is the same image after having added a flash through an umbrella (and some creative postprocessing using one of my Lightroom presets.

This is the same image after having added a flash through an umbrella (and some creative postprocessing using one of my Lightroom presets.

As a result, your model will generally be underexposed, but that’s not a problem… After all, that’s what you have the flash for, right? After having successfully determined your background exposure, fire up your flash and your trigger and adjust the flash power until your subject is correctly exposed.

3. Want more control over your background exposure? Move your subject farther away from it.

If your model is close to a wall, the flash light that lights her will also light that wall, so it will be hard to control the exposure of both independently. If you want that wall to be darker, just move your model (and your flash) further away from that wall. As light loses a lot of power quickly, the bigger the distance between the model and the wall, the less flash light will light that wall. If you don’t have enough space, you can add a grid to your light source to direct the light more to the subject and less ot the surroundings.

Same camera and light settings, but in this image the model was much closer to the background...

Same camera and light settings, but in this image the model was much closer to the background...

... than in this image.

... than in this image.

This photo was shot in a white studio. Yet the ambient light was completely eliminated by a judicious choice of aperture, ISO and shutter speed. I kept the power on the softbox the same. In the picture on the left, the model was standing fairly at 9 feet from the background, so there’s still some flash light illuminating that background. In the picture on the right, the distance between the model and the white background was twice the original distance. The distance between flash and model (and hence the flash power) was kept the same as in the first shot. As a result, a lot less light reaches the background and it turns darker.

4. Use the sun as a free rim light

In a studio, I love working with at least two light sources: one as a main light and one as a rim light, coming from the back. This rim light will create a nice highlight on the back of your subject, separating it from the background and adding a nice 3D feel to the image.

On location, I don’t always have 2 lights with me and even if I do, I don’t always have the time to set up a second light. Nor do I have to. I’ll often use the biggest light source of them all, the sun, to my advantage. I put the subject with his back to the sun. This kills two birds with one stone. Not only does my subject not have to squint, but I also get a free rim light. Then it’s just a matter of using the flash to bring my subject up to the desired brightness.

FUJIFILM GFX 50S | GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro @ 120 mm | 1/125 sec @ f/6.4 | ISO 100

FUJIFILM GFX 50S | GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro @ 120 mm | 1/125 sec @ f/6.4 | ISO 100

In the image above, I placed a strip light behind Michelle to separate the leather jacket from the grey background (which was actually a white background, but by placing her far enough away from it and underexposing the ambient light, I could turn it into grey).

FUJIFILM X-T1 | XF56mmF1.2 R @ 56 mm | 1/180 sec @ f/2.8 | ISO 200

FUJIFILM X-T1 | XF56mmF1.2 R @ 56 mm | 1/180 sec @ f/2.8 | ISO 200

In this case, I placed the motorcycle man against the sun. The result is a nice highlight around his outline, which nicely separates him from the background, along with the wide open aperture I chose for this shot.

Thet setup shot for the motorcycle image: a relatively cheap ($500) but very powerful 600 Ws portable studio flash (the Jinbei HD600) and a $25 flash umbrella.

Thet setup shot for the motorcycle image: a relatively cheap ($500) but very powerful 600 Ws portable studio flash (the Jinbei HD600) and a $25 flash umbrella.

5. Experiment with the placement triangle of light - subject - camera

When you start out with off-camera flash, you’ll probably put your light at a 45 degree angle to your subject, with your subject facing the camera. It’s a great starting position but don’t leave it at that. Experiment with the angle of your subject’s face towards the camera and with the angle of the light source towards the camera and the subject…

A couple of sample pages from my just released eBook Light it Up! The relative positioning of your light, camera and subject towards each other can greatly influence the atmosphere of your image.

A couple of sample pages from my just released eBook Light it Up! The relative positioning of your light, camera and subject towards each other can greatly influence the atmosphere of your image.

One of my favourite lighting schemes is pretty straightforward. It is called ‘Short Lighting’ and it lights the side of the face that is turned away from the camera. This results in a more threedimensional portrait and works great with character faces, of which there are many along the shore of the Ganges in Varanasi, where this image was taken.

FUJIFILM X-Pro2 | XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR @ 45.5 mm | 1-250 sec @ f / 2.8 | ISO 200

FUJIFILM X-Pro2 | XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR @ 45.5 mm | 1-250 sec @ f / 2.8 | ISO 200

Short lighting with a free bonus rim light from the bright Indian sun. Two great lights for the price of one!

Short lighting with a free bonus rim light from the bright Indian sun. Two great lights for the price of one!

Don’t let the softbox fool you into thinking you need a big budget to pull of a shot like this. I could have achieved 90 percent of this look with a $25 umbrella. The reason I prefer a softbox is that it gives me more control over my light, especially in confined spaces, where I can add a grid to it.

Want to get improve your flash skills?

My just released eBook, Light it Up! Techniques for Dramatic lighting teaches you everything you need to know. Everything explained in plain English with lots of behind the scene shots or lighting diagrams. For those who already have some flash experience under their belt, there are also more advanced chapters on gear and light setups. The book also contains plenty of buyer's advice (did you know that some brand flashes cost up to three times as much as third party alternatives, while not offering more power or features - sometimes even less).

Finally, it comes with two cool bonuses: a set of three fifteen minute videos and a sample set of Lightroom presets.

Light It Up! (including bonuses) retails for $30 + applicable taxes but until May 29, you can save 25 percent. No discount code needed. Get it here

P.S. If you speak Dutch, this book is also available in Dutch (both as a print book and an eBook). I also have a Dutch video course on off camera flash over at my Dutch online photo training website www.photofactsacademy.nl.

No flash? No problem! Lightroom and the Fujifilm GFX.

At the Photo Days photographic trade show in Brussels this weekend, I had the honour of doing some GFX studio demos with two lovely and very talented models: Rosalinde Kikstra and Sooraj Subramaniam. I had a number of Godox flashes and modifiers set up and I'll post some images later of those results but the image that probably underlines the GFX's fantastic capabilities the most was one I made by accident: on one of the shots in a Black and White portrait series, I had misaligned the trigger so the flashes did not fire. All I got was a heavily underexposed ambient exposure shot.

FUJIFILM GFX 50S | GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro @ 120 mm | 1/125 sec @ f/5.6 | ISO 400

FUJIFILM GFX 50S | GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro @ 120 mm | 1/125 sec @ f/5.6 | ISO 400

So, in front of a live audience, I said, jokingly... let's try and see what we can make out of this... I increased the Exposure slider by almost 5 stops (the maximum in Lightroom), dragged a couple of other sliders around and half a minute later got this result... 

FUJIFILM GFX 50S | GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro @ 120 mm | 1/125 sec @ f/5.6 | ISO 400

FUJIFILM GFX 50S | GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro @ 120 mm | 1/125 sec @ f/5.6 | ISO 400

Here's the two of them side by side in the Lightroom interface.

And below is a 1:1 crop. I added 25 Luminance Noise Reduction in Lightroom and of course there is still some noise but considering the fact that my ISO wasn't even at the base of 100 but at 400, I think the result is nothing short of fantastic...

For me, the takeaway from this accidental experiment is that if Lightroom and the GFX can do this on a completely underexposed file, imagine what you can do with a halfway decent exposure. Just about anything, I guess...

Oh... and just for the sake of being complete... here's the actual image with the flashes firing :-)

FUJIFILM GFX 50S | GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro @ 120 mm | 1/125 sec @ f/5.6 | ISO 400

FUJIFILM GFX 50S | GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro @ 120 mm | 1/125 sec @ f/5.6 | ISO 400