A camera-mounted flash works well for many shots, but when it comes to creative flash photography, using off-camera flash is a must. By taking the flash off the camera, you have the ultimate flexibility. You can change the angle of the light, or just how far or close the light is.
Off-camera flash allows photographers to achieve both hard and soft light with their flashes. A single flash at an angle will provide dramatic side lighting, or using multiple flashes on a reduced power offers excellent fill flash.
Off-camera flash is a fairly simple concept. A wireless flash trigger slides into your camera’s hot shoe slot, then a receive slides into the end of your camera flash. This allows your camera to communicate with your flash. From there, you can adjust the angle of the flash. You can still do all the usual things you can do with a flash too, like using manual flash mode and light modifiers.
Mastering off-camera flash requires practice. It’s easiest to learn when you can adjust the angle of the flashes yourself, and see how it affects the shot. But, there are three techniques you should try as you experiment. So, grab your gear and a friend or two and try out these off-camera flash techniques.
What you’ll need
A camera with a hot shoe slot
A wireless flash trigger (some cameras and flashes have wireless functionality built right in)
A flash stand (or a helpful friend to hold a flash)
Optional but recommended: Flash modifiers
Technique #1: Off-Camera Flash as a fill light
Using the sun as backlighting is beautiful, but without another light source, you’re either left with a underexposed subject or an overexposed background. Using an off-camera flash as a fill light lets you control just where the light is falling.
Once your subject is set-up with the sun (or other main light source) to their back, experiment with different placements of the flash. Often, using a flash to the front and off to the side leaves you with enough fill, but enough subtle shadows to give the subject more dimension. You can also use a reflector or a second off-camera flash on the opposite side. If the light from the flash is too bright, use a softbox or dial down the power of the flash in manual mode.
Technique #2: Dramatic side lighting
Whether you’re outside in shady flat light or inside a studio, off-camera flash can instantly add some drama. Set up the shot and your camera settings. Then, start with one off camera flash at an angle. Experimentation is one of the best ways to get a good understanding on lighting and different angles. Start 180 degrees from the subject. What kind of shadows do you see? Start moving the flash towards the camera, circling around the subject. Watch how the shadows change. Which one do you like the most? What effect do you get with each angle? Don’t forget, you can make the flash higher or lower as well.
Often, dramatic side lighting overpowers the existing light, so start with your flash on full power at 1/1 in manual mode. Then, drop it from there until you get the effect you’re looking for. If the shadows are too harsh, you can add in a second flash on a reduced power on the opposite side, or use a white reflector.
Technique #3: Backlighting
Backlighting makes a subject appear to glow. It works well for portraits, particularly to draw attention to the subject’s hair or simply their outline. Anything with a translucent quality, like flower petals, will also appear to glow when backlit.
Setting up backlighting is a bit trickier because you don’t want the flash to show up in the picture. You can hide the flash behind the subject, or use two flashes at angles outside the frame. You could also use the flash at a lower angle that’s cropped out of the image.
Using only backlighting will only show the glow of the subject’s outline, so you may want to throw in some light towards the front as well. You can do this with another flash, or, use another light source like a window or the sun towards the front. Some portrait photographers use a flash as a hair light to give the hair that glow, while still making sure there’s plenty of light in front of the subject too.
Taking your flash off the front of the camera opens up possibilities for studio-style lighting, but with more portability, and often more affordability. You’ll need a wireless flash trigger, and a way to hold the flash in place. A light stand, assistant or a willing friend will do the trick. To really master off-camera flash techniques, head out and experiment with fill light, dramatic side light, and back light.
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