I spent the first three years of my photography career avoiding the use of off-camera flash.
Because I couldn’t wrap my head around the concepts and science behind it.
I tried to cover up my struggles by saying things like “I’m a natural light photographer,” or “I really don’t like the aesthetics of flash photography.”
But I eventually – reluctantly! – invested in a flash for my first Nikon. This was the ’90s, pre-digital, pre-autofocus, and pre-TTL. I had to calculate how much power to use via a chart on top of the flash.
Each photoshoot I went on that required flash was preceded by a sleepless night filled with anxious dreams about turning up to the shoot naked. And the thought of having to use flash also had a mild to moderate laxative effect on me.
Luckily, those days are long gone and shooting flash off-camera has never been easier! In this tutorial, I’ll show you the quick and easy steps I take to shoot portraits using off-camera speedlights.
If you’re going to use off-camera flash, here’s what you’ll need:
I use speedlights most often when I’m traveling and need light, portable flashes, when I’m working on location without access to power, or when I’m working in small, confined locations where studio flashes would be too powerful or cramped.
I work with two Canon speedlights. A great alternative if you are looking to save a few bucks is the Yongnuo YN560 IV. It has a very similar look to Canon speedlights as well as Nikon’s SB speedlight series.
Remote triggers allow you to fire speedlights when they’re not mounted to your camera. As you can imagine, this is essential when using off-camera flash.
The cheapest and most reliable way to fire your speedlights off-camera is by using a sync cord — basically, you connect your speedlight to your camera via a long cable.
The drawbacks of using a cable are that it reduces the distance you can be away from your flash, and it can create a tripping hazard. That said, I still carry a couple of spare sync cables in my kit; remote triggers do fail from time to time, and the sync cords have saved me on a few occasions.
The next option for firing off-camera flashes is cheap infrared triggers. These do the job of setting your flash off remotely, but they’re sensitive to bright sunlight and affected by external factors such as alert lights on emergency vehicles and forklifts, etc., so they can go off without warning. I started out with a $30 set of triggers and used them for a couple of years before trading up to PocketWizards, which I’ve been using for the last eight years.
Speedlights don’t float in the air – which means you need something to hold them up!
Now, there are three options when it comes to mounting speedlights off-camera:
Using a speedlight as a bare light source creates a very hard style of lighting similar to harsh sunlight. This looks great in certain situations, but I prefer to soften and control the light source with a small or medium softbox. This creates a much softer, more flattering, and more realistic-looking light source.
A good softbox to start with is the LumiQuest Mini Softbox. It’ll attach to your speedlight with velcro and can fold flat for easy storage.
Finally, you will need a camera that works in Manual mode. It must also have a hot shoe.
Note that the “hot shoe” is just a square bit of metal on top of the camera that an external flash or wireless trigger slides into.
Once I got over my fear of off-camera flash, I started to believe that great portraits needed artificial lighting regardless of the environment. I often added two or three lights to my portrait shoots because I thought that anything less was lazy or unprofessional. I actually felt guilty when I shot with natural light because I thought it was cheating.
Fortunately, I’ve gotten over those thoughts. Here’s what I know now:
Finding great light and being able to use it are learned skills – and so is knowing when to use fill-flash in a portrait.
Nowadays, whenever I set up portrait shoots, I always look for opportunities to use great natural lighting first. It’s the most beautiful and flattering light for portraits, so if it ain’t broke, no need to fix it.
Having said that, there are many times when natural lighting is only just okay or even terrible – and sometimes a portrait needs more mood or drama than the available light can provide.
The following is an example of how I used off-camera flash to light a heavily backlit image. My objective was to create a shot that looked naturally lit. This technique can be used for any portrait that requires off-camera fill flash.