What is Off Camera Flash?
The general idea is that you find a way of syncing your camera with your flash. This allows you to take the flash off your camera so that you can illuminate your subject for a different angle.
You’ll need a separate off camera flash but there’s plenty of choice to suit your budget and needs.
Taking the flash off your camera opens up a world of different options when it comes to diffusing the light through various umbrellas, softboxes and beauty dishes.
Why you Should use it
It’s not the flash that you use that’s important, but where you put it.
I’m a strong believer in this; good flash positioning can allow you to disguise the light from being very obvious and flat to something more subtle and natural looking.
The biggest difference that this makes is in the depth. As we all know, when you fire the flash at the same angle as your lens, you flatten all the natural shadows. When you have your flash off your camera, you can move it into a position where it only lightens specific areas.
What you’ll Need
Of course, you’re going to need an external flash unit, and preferably one that is made to go with your camera; you’ll simply have more control over it when it’s off the camera.
You have 4 main options for syncing your camera with the off flash.
These are listed below in order of cost:
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This is by far the cheapest option and you’ll find that it’s pretty easy to set up.
You need a flash with a PC sync cable port to make this work (some entry level cameras don’t have these) and a flash that can be plugged it into.
Old flashes and high end flashes will have sync ports but you may find that mid range flashes such as the Canon Speedlite 430EX IIdon’t. In these circumstances, you’ll have to use a Hot Shoe Adapter.
This is a little bit long winded and out of date so I wouldn’t personally recommend this process.
– Off-Camera Shoe Cord – Link to Buy
This is similar to the one above only more sophisticated, with the ability to share more information though the cord.
It’s a popular choice and is becoming increasingly popular amongst pros due to the ability to carry metering information down the cord to the flash.
This is something that’s not possible with a radio transmitter and, although IR transmitters can do this, the signal between transmitter and receiver can prove to be somewhat unreliable at times – not what you need when you’re a pro.
– Infrared Transmitter – Link to Buy
This is what I currently use; it requires the least amount of gear and does exactly what I need it to do.
It does the same job as the cord above but wirelessly. The transmitter also fires an assist beam which really helps to focus in the dark.
This is a pretty clever way of creating wireless flash over short distances but it does requires the IR beam to be able to ‘see’ the flash. A lot of modern cameras and flashes are building transmitters into their hardware so this is becoming quite a popular choice.
This is what a lot of professional photographers use as their workhorse gear; it’s easy to set up and reliable for long distances and periods of time.
As it uses radio waves, the flash and camera don’t need to be able to ‘see’ each other, lending plenty more possibilities in terms of where you can put the flash. There’s a wide range of brands out there offering this technology but Pocket Wizard seem to be the most popular.
This is a real budget way of creating an off camera flash; the slave picks up when another flash of light has been set off and sets theirs off directly after.
You’re never going to get quite the same effect due to the requirement to turn your on camera flash off to make this work but it’s a good option for firing off two flashes when the first is already on a sync cord.
Well, now that you know how to set it up properly, it’s just a case of trial and error until you find a lighting position that suits your style… or whatever you’re shooting.
Here are a few ways that I like to use it to improve my photography.
I’ve actually written an entire blog post on fill flash but the basic concept involves filling in the areas that the camera can’t capture so well, perhaps due to another dominant light source in the frame.
In my photo below, there was a very strong light source coming into my camera – the sun – and, because I didn’t want the side of my model to be underexposed, I used a flash to fill in the light here.
It has worked really well and very evenly exposes her skin.
I often do this when shooting inside, where it’s a little bit darker:
I set up a one or more diffused flashes and fire them at the ceiling.
This produces more light for me to work with and is even across the skin of my models. I had two flashes set up for the photo below, one either side of the models, which has produced a really soft effect without any obvious use of flash.
I often use the flash to illuminate my subject without the viewer realising. I place the flashes somewhere that makes it seem as though the light could have come from the subject’s surroundings.
In my photo below, I wanted to capture my subject with the light coming from an angle because his face was at an angle too; I moved the flash to the left and above. This made it look like the light could have come from external house lights in the garden that we were in.
Obvious Flash Separation
I don’t always want to hide the fact that a light was used, in fact, sometimes I like to make sure the viewer knows it was used.
In my photo below, the angle and style of the lighting make it stand out from the ambient light in the scene, forcing the viewer’s attention towards the subject – exactly what I wanted. These are all things to consider in flash photography – where do you want your viewer to look and how can you make them look there?
Often, when the lighting is good on my model, I like to use a flash to light up a part of the set that they’re standing in.
This works particularly well on the rocks below; the harsh light contrasts with the rocks which, in turn, contrast with the soft skin of my model.
Using a light to illuminate part of the set can be a lot of fun and create an interesting background.
After a little playing around with the photo below, I was able to position my flash so that it didn’t cast any nasty shadows on my model by getting her to hold it between her feet.
What to Watch out for
The biggest thing you’ll notice when adjusting your flash placement is that you need to be careful of the shadows you cast.
If you set the flash up 90° to the subjects face, you’re always going to cast a harsh and unnatural shadow from the side of the nose, spreading across the cheek.
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