On and off camera flash basics; part 4 of 5

Getting your flash off-camera

Using flash effectively and learning about lighting is often the “final frontier” in a photographer’s journey to mastering photography.

This is part four in a five part series on using your detachable SLR flash creatively. Part one covered flash to ambient ratios. Part two covered “shutter drag”. Part three covered bounce flash. You can read them here all on this site.

This instalment is going to cover off-camera flash. By now you should have a good understanding of how your flash affects your exposure, how to balance it with the ambient light and how to bounce if off nearby walls or ceilings to make it look like a much larger light source. All of this stuff becomes easy when you practise.

It’s worth taking a little step to the side here for a moment. I often hear people say that they don’t need to understand flash photography as they’re “natural light photographers.” I’ve never met a skilled natural light photographer who isn’t also a reluctant master of flash photography. That’s simply because the best way to understand, see and learn to control natural light is to first teach yourself about light by mastering flash. So even if you’re a “natural light” shooter, this stuff is well worth the effort. I guarantee it’ll make you a better natural light photographer.

So what’s the deal with off-camera flash? As long as your flash sits on the hotshoe of your camera, it will always be fixed in position relative to your lens. Every landscape-oriented photo you take will be lit from above and every portrait-oriented photo will be lit from the side. And not by much, as your flash is only a few centimeters away from your lens.

That means that your photos will always have that slightly ‘over-flashed’ feel to them. I don’t necessarily mean they’ll be over-exposed, just that they’ll have a fairly flat standard look. Pretty much the same as if you’d taken them with a compact point&shoot, rather than a $10,000 SLR getup. The point of all this gear we use is that it gives us significant advantages over compact cameras. But with our flashes on the hotshoe, all our gear isn’t giving its best.

I’ve shown you how you can make the most of on-camera flash with bouncing and shutter-drag techniques, which are essential tools in any photographer’s technique list, but to really make the most of your lighting, you need to get your flash off-camera.

This means you’ll get separation of your flash from your camera and lens.

But if your flash isn’t in the hotshoe, how do you fire it? There are several ways.

Easiest: If you’re lucky, you won’t need any extra equipment. Your camera’s popup flash might fire your flash, even on TTL. Check out my video for how to set this up using Nikon’s amazing “CLS” lighting system.

Some Canon, Sony and Olympus systems also have wireless flash functionality. If you have two Nikon flashes (or Canons for example) then one flash in the hotshoe can also act as the “Master” to control, and fire, the “Slave” anywhere in range. These two flashes may be the same model of flash, just set to two different modes. So if you shoot a top-end pro SLR that doesn’t have a pop-up flash, you may still be able to do this.

Easy: An off-camera cord. This is a simple piece of gear that has a male hotshoe on one end that goes on your camera and a female hotshoe on the other for your flash. Check out my video summary of off-camera cord use.

Make sure you buy the off-camera cord that works with your camera and flash or you might not get the TTL metering you’re going to want. You can get them either made by the manufacturer (Canon, Nikon, etc) or straight out of China. The Chinese versions are always cheaper but many aren’t made with the same attention to detail so do check this before choosing. You can use a PC cord instead, but I’m only going to suggest you use TTL as you have to set your flash manually with a PC cord.

Advanced: You start getting into significant investments when you go to wireless TTL systems, but the advantages are total reliability, considerable range and incredibly versatile functionality. The gold standard for off-camera TTL wireless flash at the moment is the Pocket Wizard Flex system. Radiopoppers also do a really cool alternative that I think comes in a little more affordably too.

There are some other wireless systems like the Elinchrom Skyports but as they’re mainly designed for studio systems, they don’t work with TTL.

I prefer to use my Nikon’s CLS system and always ALWAYS carry an off-camera cord just in case something goes wrong. It’s essential if you’re a pro photographer or anyone who takes their shooting very seriously to always have backups. An off-camera cord is the perfect backup for wireless gear.

OK. So that’s the how. Now for the why.

Here are some almost-straight-outta-the-camera examples shot at a tradeshow recently…

This is on-camera flash. I think my model Sinead knew what it would look like, so decided she wasn’t happy.

Now for off-camera flash with a Nikon SB800 fired wirelessly by the popup on my Nikon D90 held at arm’s length. Again, not pretty.

Here’s an example of a super simple off-camera photo where I’m holding an orbis® off to one side. You can even see my light source in the photo… but note how pleasant the light now looks on her features, with a soft fall-off that’s much easier on the eye and much closer to the way natural light might fall in through a window. The light in this photo is so much better than the light with bare off-camera flash thanks to using a larger light source, like a small softbox or in this case my orbis®

Natural light very rarely comes from right next to your eyes, which is my theory for why photos taken with on-camera flash look so characteristically slightly out of place. When we get our flash off-camera we start to be able to mimic the light that’s all around us that comes in from oblique angles. Light isn’t always the same size either; that’s to say that sometimes a light source is tiny, like a candle or a torch and sometimes it’s huge, like a large skylight or window. When we get our flashes off the hotshoe it also gets a lot easier to change the size and shape of the light as well as its direction.

That’s going to be my topic for my final instalment next time around when I’ll dive in detail into using off-camera flash.

Links, resources and cool lighting sites:

- by James Madelin, inventor of the orbis®, pro photographer and lighting workshop tutor. © James Madelin 2011

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