Article by guest author Ron Clifford on taking the mystery out of using off camera flash and show you that with a simply one light set up you can achieve dramatic results without buying a lot of expensive equipment. I'll interject and give you a few other alternatives if you want to try this at home, which we highly encourage! – Darlene
Difficulty level: advanced beginner to intermediate. Having a good understanding of the exposure triangle; f-stop, shutter speed and ISO is recommended when you attempt this lighting technique.
Using flash can be intimidating, can you relate to this?
While talking to other photographers I often hear, “I'm a natural light photographer”. I think that’s so romantic sounding, and brave, because using existing light can be quite challenging. However, advanced in-camera metering, and auto ISO settings have made shooting in existing light so much easier than in the past. Frequently though, after talking for a while I discover that they love natural light photography not only because they really like the “look” it produces, but they are also intimidated by flash photography. With good reason as it can be complex and confusing.
Natural Light, No Flash
Without a basic understanding of flash (strobe or speedlight/speedlite) and how to use it to get great results, most people start with a flash, put it on their camera, set it to TTL, and fire away. The result is often unflattering, flat and harsh on the subject. Strong light from a tiny source (any on camera flash) being fired directly at a person is usually not very pleasing. When the flash is not balanced with the surrounding, naturally occurring light, it often creates a dark, gloomy, underexposed background. This is especially true in low light or night photography. There is hope though, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. So, if you can relate and are nodding your head, read on, as this article will help you simplify and make sense of using a single off camera flash set up.
Balancing Light With an Off Camera Flash
STEP ONE – get the flash off the camera
I shoot with a Nikon and the in-camera triggering system is called CLS or Creative Lighting System. I prefer to use inexpensive Yongnuo radio triggers (about $36.00 for one trigger and and one receiver). They are affordable and dependable. There are much fancier triggers out there like “Pocket Wizards” and they are wonderful, but if you are just trying it out and want a system that’s simple and affordable, I recommend the Yongnuo 603 series. They work by putting the trigger in your camera’s hot shoe and the receiver on the flash you want to fire. In my case, a Nikon Speedlight.
***Side note by Darlene: I use a set made by ProMaster, also quite inexpensive and they work great. I paid about $99 for a trigger and two receivers.
STEP TWO – soften the light
It is a good idea to soften the harsh light produced by a small light source like a flash with some kind of diffusion. My favorite tool for this lighting technique is a small portable softbox called a Firefly, but if you are handy at DYI, even sheer fabric sewn around a lightweight frame can work.
***Side note by Darlene: another inexpensive option is to buy a simple white umbrella, a special attachment to hold it and the flash, and a light stand which you will need anyway. Depending on where you buy them expect the entire set up to cost less than $100. Another option if you already own a reflector is to bounce the flash off of that, so aim your flash into the reflector not the subject.
STEP THREE – balance the flash with the natural light
Finally in order for it to look more natural, we need to balance the available light, with the flash. I have found the fastest and most reliable way to get good results is to set the flash on manual power. This way you don’t need an expensive dedicated flash, you can use any flash with a decent amount of power output and manual settings. Again Yongnuo has some excellent affordable and powerful models that do the job nicely.
***Side note by Darlene: another option is to look on ebay or your local online sales sites for older models of flash like a Vivitar 283 or 285. They are great little flashes, lots of power, and fully manual. You can usually pick them up for under $50.
STEP FOUR – setting up the portrait lighting
Let's get shooting!
Here's the Scenario – you are photographing a person at sunset (low light) which provides strong backlighting, If you shoot using Auto mode on your camera, you will likely get a well exposed sunset, but a silhouette of the person like you see in the image below. Not to worry!
First get the natural light exposure right
Before turning on the flash, take a picture of the sunset to get a starting exposure. Use the semi-auto setting on your camera in shutter priority mode, this is “S” on Nikon and “Tv” on Canon. Then set your shutter speed to your camera’s flash sync speed or slower (1/200th of a second is the flash sync speed on my Nikon, check your manual to be sure). Take a picture of the scene without your subject in the the natural light and transfer the settings of that exposure to the Manual Mode on your camera. For example, if the Auto settings were ISO 400, f/5.6 at 1/100th of a second, switch your camera to Manual Mode and set it to those settings. This will give you the correct ambient (natural) light exposure (note: I often shoot the ambient light slightly underexposed to give more attention to my subject. One stop under is usually plenty but it is not an exact science and you can experiment more as you get used to playing with the different settings.)
Then match the off camera flash
Now here is the fun part! This will be a relief for if you believe that getting the right flash setting requires special meters and formulas. It doesn’t, here’s how.
I hold up my flash (or use a light stand) set my flash on a middle power setting and with my radio trigger on, fire a test shot. Remember you already have your camera set to get expose the background correctly so no need to change the camera settings. Likely on your test shot, your subject will be either over, or underexposed. To correct, simply dial the power on your flash up or down accordingly until you get the exposure correct on your subject with the flash. When you are happy with it, you have the setup! Just remember to keep an eye on the ambient light, since it often changes quickly and you may have to adjust your shutter speed to lighten it (slower shutter speed lightens the background, faster makes it darker)
This lighting technique is best used in low light situations since it is limited to the cameras flash sync speed, usually 1/200th of a second for most cameras. If your scene is bright, you will need to use a smaller aperture (f/8 and above) to get your shutter speed at or below the flash sync speed. If it is darker out, you can easily shoot at larger apertures and slower shutter speeds or increase your ISO.
Lighting technique in practice on location
So let's take one more look at the lighting technique for our title image and see how it was created. This is just as easy to set up on location, get someone to hold the flash set up so you don't need to travel with a light stand. This was taken close to sunset in Haiti this past March of our guide Gayly.
- set up your exposure for the natural light
- set up your flash off camera
- soften the flash using an umbrella or something to spread the light out more
- balance the flash with the natural light by adjusting the power on the flash
- find yourself a great subject
I hope you enjoyed this off-camera flash tutorial and found some tips you can put to good use.
About the Author
Ron Clifford is a professional photographer, mentor, educator and community builder. He shoots Fine art, outdoor photography, weddings, events, and nature. Beyond his camera, Ron's creative tools are mainly Adobe Lightrom and Photoshop. Ron is currently offering interactive online mentorships in photography as well as creative, topical workshops and tours in his home province of Ontario, Canada.
Where you can find Ron Clifford
Okay so after this great “how to” article from Ron, what are you doing to do with this new found information? I suggest you get any of the missing pieces (or make what you can yourself) and give this a try. Find a willing subject (preferably human) and head out close to dusk. Use the steps outlined above and try to recreate a portrait that looks like the examples. Then once you get the hang of it try experimenting.
- What if you use a slower shutter speed? What if you use a faster one (be mindful of your maximum for sync purposes)?
- What happens if you change the aperture or the ISO?
- Try moving the flash closer and further away to see what happens.
The best way to really learn is to DO, so get out and do this and show us your results. Remember the only failure is not trying and Even the Pros Screw Up sometimes!
Note: the links you see in this article that go to Amazon are affiliate links, so if you click on them and purchase that item, I do get a small commission (very small, like 3% I think). By no means are you required do so, the links are just examples of the types of items we suggest. But if you do choose to do so, and support me so I can continue providing great articles like this at no cost, it is much appreciated.