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5 Tips to get started with off-camera flash

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I know, this sounds like the start of an AA meeting, but I have a confession to make: flash used to scare the (insert your own power term here) out of me. That's mostly because I learned it back in the analog days, where more than a week would pass between making a shot and seeing the mess I had made on the contact sheet. As a result, I was an available light shooter for a long time. Not so much by conviction as by lack of an alternative. Luckily, things have changed a lot over the past ten years or so. 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 tips will help you be successful with your first ventures into off-camera flash.

1. Start indoors and with people you know

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 into the frame or worse... run off with your stuff while you're figuring out the buttons and dials… 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! I found it helpful to start with people I knew. There's always a family member in need of a picture!

It does not replace actual hands-on practice, but the cool Elixxier set.a.light 3D STUDIO software also lets you plan shoots ahead and understand how light and modifiers behave. In my upcoming ebook  Light It Up! , I'll have a couple of examples of how I used this software to my advantage.

It does not replace actual hands-on practice, but the cool Elixxier set.a.light 3D STUDIO software also lets you plan shoots ahead and understand how light and modifiers behave. In my upcoming ebook Light It Up!, I'll have a couple of examples of how I used this software to my advantage.

 

2. Always determine your ambient exposure first

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  free Lightroom presets .

This is the same image after having added a flash through an umbrella (and some creative postprocessing using one of my free 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. As a side-note, this is why I love to work with mirrorless cameras like the Fujifilm X-series. If you are working with a DSLR, you always see a bright image in the viewfinder, you never see your actual exposure. For that, you have to take a shot and then chimp at it on your LCD screen. On my Fuji camera's, when I'm working in manual exposure, I can set up the Electronic VIewfinder in two ways: either to show me a nice and bright exposure (which is helpful for framing) or the actual exposure (which is helpful to determine how bright or dark I want my background to be). I have even assigned a Function button to easily switch between the two views. So I no longer need to waste a shot (and waste time) to determine my background exposure. Furthermore, when I make the actual exposure with the flash, I have set up my viewfinder to display the image I just made for 1.5 seconds (or shorter if I press the shutter again). This lets me determine if I need to adjust the power or the direction of my flash, again without chimping! 

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, there's a couple of things you can do: first, you can add a grid to your light: this will limit the amount of stray light or spill light. But what if you're on a budget? In that case, 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.

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. 

This is the reason why it's always good to have a lot of space, even if you're not planning on doing full body shots. The more space you have, the more you can play with the distance between your subject and the background and the more you can light them separately, even with just one light.

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 and 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.

ujifilm GFX 50S | GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro @ 120 mm | 1/125 sec. @ f/5.6 | ISO 100

ujifilm GFX 50S | GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro @ 120 mm | 1/125 sec. @ f/5.6 | ISO 100

In the image above, I placed two strip lights behind Rosalinde to separate the leather jacket from the grey background. By the way, one of the things that you'll also find in my upcoming Light It Up! ebook, is loads of gear advice. For example, I really love the Nicefoto strip lights as they're affordable and super quick to set up on location.

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 open aperture I chose for this shot.

The 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.

The 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 improve your flash skills?

On April 1st 2018, the second, revised and updated edition of Light it Up! Techniques for Dramatic Off-Camera Flash, will be released with a couple of cool but time-limited bonuses. If you want to get a reminder when it launches, sign up for my newsletter. You'll even receive a set of ten free Lightroom presets, on the house! 

P.S. If you speak Dutch, there's no need to wait as this book is also available in a Dutch print and ebook version! Check it out here.