Using an Off-Camera Flash to Improve Your Photos

Most cameras with a built-in flash deliver harsh, straight-on light that produces red-eye because of how close the flash is to the lens.  Sometimes, a built-in flash is the only option you have, and in these cases, getting an imperfect photo is better than no photo at all.  But it’s a big reason so many people’s photos have an amateurish look.

You also see a straight-on flash in crime scene photography, which has been made more famous through TV shows like CSI.   But if you don’t want your photos to look like family albums or crime scene images, you’ll need to use a different kind of lighting.

When creative directors, art directors and editors hire you, they expect you to be able to take photos they wouldn’t be able to take themselves.   While picking a unique angle with a different lens may give the client something different, the minute the straight-on flash is introduced, it immediately looks like something they would or could have done themselves.

Control Your Lighting

Lighting has more impact on an image than any other aspect of photography.  When shooting in black and white, the direction of the light helps shape the object and can make a photo have more pop or appear more subdued, for example.  In color, both the color and direction of the light help establish the mood.  Theater-type lighting makes your subject look dramatic.  And lot of white light can make something look clinical — or even simulate the feel of being in heaven.

You can better control the lighting of your subject with an off-camera flash.  When using an off-camera flash, there are two angles I like best.

First, having the light 45 degrees to either side of the subject creates a lighting effect used by the great artist Rembrandt.  Rembrandt liked to have the light 45 degrees to the side of the subject relative to his perspective and about 45 degrees up above his perspective as well.  If the subject is looking straight at you, you will get a small triangle on the cheek which is on the opposite side of the light.  The shape of the nose and brow help create this triangle.  You may have to ask the subject to move their head just slightly to make this work just right.

Second, I think side-lighting the subject works really well for people.  This is where the light is 90 degrees from the camera on the left or right side of the subject.  There are basically two ways to achieve this technique.  You can use a cable to go between your camera and flash, or you can use a remote to fire the flash.

Cables vs. Remotes

When using a cable (check your manual for the flash and camera to get the one for your camera) you will need to be very close physically to the subject.  The reason is the further back you are from the subject, the more the angle between the lens and the flash relative to the subject will diminish, and you will have photos that look more like a built-in flash.  One simple solution is to buy a longer cable.  There is usually a limit as to how long this cable can be and still work with your flash.

A slightly more expensive solution is to use a remote.  There are two kinds of remotes for flashes: a generic radio remote and a wireless one designed to work with your flash.  Both of these will let you place your flash away from the camera and each one has its advantages and disadvantages.

The advantage of the radio remote is it works up to a distance of 400 feet, depending on the unit.  It works around walls and even through them.  The disadvantage is if you need to adjust the power of the flash, you must go to the flash and adjust it manually.

The advantage of the wireless system, like the SU-800 for Nikons, is you can control each flash unit separately through the unit.  Your camera will fire the units and, since it is working in TTL mode, will properly adjust the exposure.  While both systems will let you use numerous flashes together, the TTL wireless system lets you ratio the lights from the unit and therefore you can look at your LCD and make an adjustment and never have to move.

One more major advantage of the wireless system is that you can use a shutter speed greater than the sync speed of, say, 1/250.  This opens up many possibilities — especially outside on sunny days.

10 Responses to “Using an Off-Camera Flash to Improve Your Photos”

  1. You can also use a camera mounted flash bounced off of a white wall 90 degrees from the subject which gives a nice modeling effect.

  2. Nice article, very informitvieª

  3. Thanks for this post - landed up from Google. Do you have any recommendations for a Wireless Flash. I already have a Flash equipment and i am probably looking for a cord or that Wireless Off Camera flash so that i can play with lighting. thanks !

  4. sreekrishnan dont make the mistake I did and buy the new Cactus triggers V4, With my camera only (EOS 5D) they create a noise patter due to the radio waves which appears in images.... all images regardless of shutter speed and aperture.

    I wish I had waited and went for the more expensive radio poppers or pocket wizards.

  5. Check out the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 from PocketWizard. I just got a set and they are sooooo sweet. Add the AC3 controller and off-camera flash becomes easier than ever!

  6. Mini TTI and Flex TT5 fried my 580 EXII.
    THank Buddah that it happened while on the phone with POcket Wizard wehn it happened. I was learning how to do high speed synch, and what happened was that when it was set to 1/250 it fried the electronics in the flash. They over nigghted me a brand new flash. Thank gawd because the flash was only 8 days old..) it was used only a couple of times. So they called Keble and Schucat (in Palo Alto, over nighted it (had a non-profit shoot the next day) and bought me a new flash and a new TT5. I sent the damaged flash and the broken trigger. Recieved an aplogy letter too. BUT.. get this crap... CANON SAID THAT THERE ISNT A PROBLEM. CANON SAID THEY KNOW NOTHING ABOUT THIS BEING A PROBLEM. Well, just try googling high speed synch-Canon-Speedlight-580EXII-MiniTT2 and Flex TT5. Something happens with the electronics between the flash and the tt5 shorting out. WHAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH CANON? Pocket Wizard are stand up folks, and so are Canon. whats the problem???? Anyone? Anyone? (p.S. used on Canon 7D)also, for those of you who DONT know. the 7D has a built in trigger!! I didnt know this until about 4 weeks after having the darn thing!! Pretty Cool eh!

  7. p.s.I was in the midddle of spell and grammar checking my previous post.. and I had already hit send.. so I apologize for my 4th grade typo's. ALSO, since I had the 580 EX II Pocket Wizard had given me the option to have 2 480's to replace the 1 580 exII OR I could get the 1 580 EX II. Being the fool that I am... i chose to have the 2 instead of the 1 580 ex II. Unfortunatly I didnt know this, but, the 2nd 480, DOES NOT act as a slave.... I thought this did. BUT, since the 7d DOES have the ability to act as a master, then MAYBY the 2nd 480 WILL in fact act as a slave? I doubt it, but I certainly could try???? (doubtful, this I know.. but I can always hope, right!!)

    nice to meet you all.

    and, if you have any tips for me, Please feel free to chime in and give me some ideas. also please know that you are dealing with a total idiot when it comes to lighting.

    I do have 5 stuidio lights, including 2 Photogenics, 3 White Lightenings, 2 480 Ex's and a brand new 580 EXII . ( just got it for a gift !!!) Any ideas from anyone, ideas, ideas?!?!) im all open. I also have the book:
    Light Science and Magic, AN Introduction to Photographic Lighting by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver, and Paul Fuqua. Third Edition / Focal Press / printed 2007. Diagrams - A Plenty! This was given great reviews by Amazon and I believe Peach Pit Press if i am not mistaken. -This is the book which is almost all red in color with White lettering and some yellow-

    I am I am 100% open to any and all suggestions and help anyone could provide to me. Lighting is my biggest struggle.. I have a huge block to it and I simply just don't understand an one simple iota of it all. Thank you so very much.

    Again, (sorry for the grammar and the typos).
    Many, many, thank yous.

    Kimberly -
    The fearful of all things flash!

  8. I have the Pocket Wizard mini TT1 and a few FlexTT5s with both Canon 580 Exii and Canon 430 EXii and have had no issues. I think they are a great system. I have been working with ETTL mainly but have also tried manual. As well as the above I got the AC3 zone controller and absolutely love it. So quick and easy to change your lighting ratios.

  9. Here are some updated blog posts

    Visual Storytelling: Super simple off camera flash portrait
    Jul 06, 2012
    You can trigger the off camera flash many different ways. I often use the Nikon SU-800 which uses infrared to trigger the off camera flash. I chose to use the PocketWizard Mini TT1 on the camera with the AC3 which lets me ...
    Visual Storytelling: Off camera flash for beach portraits
    Jul 05, 2012
    Off camera flash for beach portraits ... I also used my Gitzo carbon fiber tripod to keep the camera rock steady so I could shoot these at dusk. ... After having some fun you can squeeze a few pleasant moments off as well.
    Visual Storytelling: Rainy day and flash
    Sep 21, 2012
    Nikon D4, 85mm, ISO 100, ƒ/1.4, 1/160 Off Camera Flash ... Off Camera Flash Setup with Nikon Speedlights When I first wrote about doing off camera flash I realized I need to come back to this an... Camera Insurance ...
    Visual Storytelling: Tips for Off Camera Flash for +/- exposure ...
    Apr 10, 2012
    When I first wrote about doing off camera flash I realized I need to come back to this and highlight some points. ISO, Shutter Speed, Aperture and +/- There are a few things that will affect you getting a proper exposure. Let's set ...

  10. Here is a good post as well about it that i also wrote

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