Getting Started With Off-Camera Flash :: Digital Photo Secrets

Getting Started With Off-Camera Flash

by David Peterson 5 comments

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.

Use off camera flash to create dramatic lighting and shadows that you can’t create when shooting the flash directly at your subjects.
Photo By: Okko Pykko

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

Use off-camera flash to
create mood lighting in situations
where it would otherwise
be unavailable.

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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  1. Ron says:

    I Have a Sony A6000 and have used off camera flashes but it was hit and miss. The flashes don't have partial flash control, I found this article of interest and would like a mount so that the flash is off camera. At the moment I am using a tripod to mount the flash.

  2. Albert Yeo says:

    I had never able to get it right with flash photography especially in the open area. In enclosed area like room, we can still use the wall or ceiling to bounce back the light but how to do it in the open without using reflector or off camera flash. Appreciated you can drop an advice. Thanks.

  3. Dave says:

    I think flash can be a great tool for the photographer and a lot of people are scared/don't understand the workings of flash. For any type of sunny day which cast shadows on your subjects a bit of fill flash enlightens the image and the subject. Many cameras have the FEC on them and this is so useful to have that you can correct most contrasty shadows on your subject. You can have so much fun just using one flash to create stunning portraits that look like you have taken them in a studio. Not for everybody but flash is a useful extra to have in your camera bag.

  4. Joe Bowers says:

    For anyone who wants to get started with an off camera flash, check out the Yongnuo YN460-II or YN560 flashes. They're about $35 and $55 respectively and excellent quality and reliability. They are standard mounts, so they will work for anyone but Sony users. If you're looking for a trigger system, the same company also makes a radio trigger with an incredible range, the Yongnuo RF-603 radio trigger system.

    I don't work for them, but I highly recommend their products. I've used them extensively in the past. Now I use a Sony camera so unfortunately I've had to invest in far more expensive triggers and flashes to work with Sony's proprietary mount. Wish I had considered that before I bought the camera.

    You can find the products I mentioned on Amazon.

    • Randy Keeler says:

      Hey Joe, I shoot Sony equipment as well. I have a YN462 by Yongnuo. I love it... Power is controlled by off/on switch, dead simple. Bought it second hand for 10 bucks!

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.