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Off Camera Flash Techniques For Dramatic Portrait Lighting

off camera flash tutorial for portrait lightingtechniques

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

portrait lighting techniques
ISO 200, f4.5 at 1/100th second 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

yongnuo radio triggerGet the flash off the camera and get it to fire “remotely” either using a radio trigger or your in-camera remote triggering system (check your manual to see if your camera has the capability).

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

firefly soft box portrait lightingIt 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

yongnuo off camera flashFinally 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!

lighting techniques - The  Backlit Image
ISO 400, f6.3, 1/80th of a second without flash to correctly expose the sky

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)

off camera flash lighting techniques - Subject lit with balanced flash
ISO 400, f6.3, 1/80th of a second with balanced flash

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 techniques for portrait photography
ISO 800, f5/6, 1/80th of a second with balanced flash

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.

Let’s review:

  • 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.

b/w portrait using one flash and daylight
The result of using one speedlight, a small portable softbox, and some backlight provided by nature

lighting diagram

About the Author

Ron Clifford Portrait PhotographerRon 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

ACTION PLAN

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!

Cheers,
Darlene-1-250x130.png

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.

  

  • Thank you Darlene. I am honestly just getting used to using what I have. My camera need to get a tripod. It’s the income thing. I need to build on this. I will try to get the ebook. For now thank you have beautiful day.

  • Daniel

    Excellent write-up, Darlene. I’m very new to flash photography and just got a YN-560 flash and a Fotodiox 6″x8″ softbox.
    This article couldnt’ have been published at a better time.

    Thank you!!

    • Thanks Daniel, I can’t take credit though my friend Ron Clifford wrote it!

    • I’m glad it was timely for you and have fun experimenting with all the new “looks” you will be able to achieve!

  • Simon

    eWow thank you so much for the info on off camera flash. it was a rally great tutorial. I feel I can tackle this now.
    I have just found the yongnou radio triggers for $27 on ebay! I can’t wait until they arrive so I can try out this new technique!

  • Jim McNulty

    Thanks so much for this easy to follow, and use article. Just what the doctor ordered.

  • Renz

    Great article! I’m novice in flash photography and i found the tutorial timely.

    In the step four above (matching the off camera flash) is the flash in TTL mode or manual mode?

    Thanks and more power.

    • Hi Renz, Ron mentioned that earlier – all manual on the flash. The remotes he’s using to do support TTL. Pocket wizards do but they are much more expensive (a set of two will cost you about $500 vs $35!)

      • HI Renz, like Darlene said, I use Manual mode to give me complete control over the balance between natural (ambient) light and flash.

  • Andy

    Love the article — very well written! I am new to this Web site and off camera flash and have a couple questions: 1) If you have an in-camera triggering system, why would you want to buy a radio trigger? 2) When does the radio trigger fire the flash? Once the shutter release button is pressed or when the shutter is actually released (i.e., if I put my camera on tripod and delay the shutter release by using the camera’s self-timer)?

    • I’ll let Ron answer that one for you.

    • Great questions Andy! First to answer why I use radio triggers, it’s because My camera’s built in triggering system is done with infra red. Because of that, my camera’s pop-up flash needs to be in a line of sight to the flash with the soft box. This is not easy to maintain and ends up in frustrating misfires. Radio triggers on the other hand don’t need line of sight and are far more reliable.

      With radio triggers as with the built in IR triggering, it happens in sync with the shutter actually engaging so you can use them with a timer or a remote shutter release.

      I hope it helps

      (P.S. I use the built in triggering if I’m in an enclosed area).

  • Colleen

    Thank you so much, Ron and Darlene. I have a speedlight and the youngnuo trigger/receivers, but have no idea how to use them. This article was a tremendous help.

  • I don’t know whether it’s just me or if perhaps everybody else encountering problems with
    your blog. It appears like some of the text on your content are running off
    the screen. Can somebody else please comment and let me know
    if this is happening to them as well? This could be a problem with my web browser
    because I’ve had this happen before. Many thanks

    • What browser and platform are you using? I haven’t had any other issues reported.

    • I haven’t seen any problems from My Pc with Chrome or on my Chromebook

  • Lanna Emilli

    Awsome!

    I used to be the “natural light” person but gradually I am getting into flash.

    Loved this article! =D

    Thanks so much for the great content you share =D

    • You’re most welcome, do keep reading and practicing!

    • Glad it was helpful!

  • SH. MOHSIN JAWAID

    Great article Ron no doubt.Before it I had gone through the bunch of articles,tutorials,videos etc.of the famous photographers,sadly nothing got in mind.the way you have explained is really helpful.I appreciate your effort and would like to thank you so much.I am in search of a willing subject(human certainly) to give it a try.Adios !

    • I’m glad you found it helpful! Once you have gone through it for yourself once or twice, it gets really easy to get to your settings quickly. I use the technique on a lot of subjects, not just portraits and it works great.

  • Susie Rostad

    Best explanation of using off-camera flash that I’ve found anywhere! Thank you so much for the simple explanation. It worked Awesome when I tried it…..just like you said! Super excited to try it more!

  • Eloy

    Excelent description, thank you!…but what if you want to do the same using a light meter?

    • Eloy – if you have a hand held meter just set your camera to the aperture you want to shoot at, let’s say f/5.6. They set up your flash and meter it. If it is not at f/5.6 adjust the power up or down accordingly until it is. Or you can move it closer or away from the subject. Each time you adjust the light meter it again. When you have the flash power equal to f/5/6 on the meter you’re set.

  • Trish

    Thanks so much Ron. I have been looking at one million tutorials, been on forums, spent way too much money on a high sync thingy for my camera….tried exposing for sky and a trillion other ways. I now shall tootle off and try this when sky in getting interesting. Does the same technique work on bright sunny days, or overcast?

  • Trish

    How do I get rid of the photo I accidentally posted!!

  • Trish

    Why would we set the shutter speed to our flash sync, then change the shutter speed after that: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

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