Those of you who read my tips know that I don’t have a very high regard for flash. I think it usually gets in the way of taking a good photo, and it tends to suck all of the natural beauty from your images. If you want a sure-fire way to turn a potentially good image into something so-so, just turn on your flash, get up close your subject, and take the shot.
[ Top image Banditos by Flickr user Amin Choc]
But today I want to talk about something different. I want to talk about off camera flash, what it does differently, and how to get started with using it. I want to provide you with an understanding so you can go and start pursuing it on your own.
Why use off-camera flash? What’s different about it?
There’s a reason those pictures you take with your on-camera flash look so dull and amateurish. It’s because you’re shining a light directly at your subjects, and it’s reflecting directly back into the camera. Just like a deer in headlights, your subjects look pale and lifeless. Simply put, the light from a flash is just too harsh for it to look natural when fired directly at your subjects.
Flash also causes red-eye when fired straight on. The light from a flash reflects off of the blood that naturally circulates through your eyes to keep them healthy and functional. When the light is particularly bright (as it is with a flash), a lot of red light gets reflected back toward the lens.
By taking the flash off of the camera and using it somewhere else in the scene, you are making the light from the flash less harsh and bringing more of it under your control. You can say goodbye to red eye, and hello to a world of new creative possibilities. Now you no longer have to light everything from the front. You can create shadows and play with contrast, all while creating a more natural look in your photos.
What you need to get started
Half the reason most people don’t start using off-camera flash is because it’s expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. Some setups require wireless remote triggers and multiple flash units, all at a cost of around $2,000. There are other ways to do it, of course, but you will still have to pay for a good flash unit, and those will cost you at least $300. I hate to say it, but this is one of those areas where paying for good equipment does help out.
Off-camera flashes can be triggered in a number of ways. You can trigger them with a wireless remote, the light from another flash (a.k.a. a “slave” system), or you can physically hook them up to your camera’s hotshoe with a cable. If you’re looking for the cheapest solution, go with a cable. You can get a decent flash for less than you’d pay for an expensive system, and it gives you a chance to play with off-camera flash before you decide to spend more money.
How to take pictures with an off-camera flash
Each system is different, but the idea behind it is the same. You can set the flash to fire based on readings from your camera, or you can go the manual route. What you choose depends on the scene you’re shooting and how far the actual camera is from the off-camera flash. If the lens is too far from the flash, it doesn’t make any sense to let the camera determine the lighting settings (to 'let the camera meter' in photographer parlance) because the amount of light will vary between the flash and the lens itself.
How you select the lighting also matters. You have to be constantly thinking about the different lighting angles on your subjects, and there’s no way you’ll know what to do unless you start practicing with different shots. A 45 degree lighting angle is very different from a 30 degree angle. It’s all about the effects you want to create, and the creative decisions you need to make.
It would take awhile to list all of the different possibilities here, but I’d like to mention a few cool effects you can create.
1.) Subjects lit from the back and the front. Off camera flash allows you to take pictures of backlit subjects using sun in your shots. Your subject will be fully illuminated and won’t look like a deer in headlights. This particular kind of image looks its best as an action shot taken midday.
2.) Sunset-style lighting without the sunset. The reason we like sunsets and sunrises so much is because they light our subjects from the side instead of directly overhead. This creates a more natural and gentle ambience, lending itself to a better image. With an off-camera flash, you can literally make it look like the sun is going down any time you shoot!
As you can see, off-camera flash opens up a whole world of possibilities. Once you get into it, you’ll realize how so many professional images are ‘made’. That’s really the word I want to use here. When you control the light, you’ve moved from being a picture-taker to being a picture-maker. It’s a very significant step towards truly mastering the art.
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