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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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…
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.
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.