Good photographic light isn’t limited to the sun, it comes from many different sources, some of which we can control, some we cannot. Use the sun to your advantage but when you want to add light to a dark scene or skillfully sculpt it for a certain effect, you’ll find your off-camera flash unit one of the best tools in your bag.
Using an off camera flash, often referred to as a speedlight, to control and shape the light can mean the difference between a snapshot and a great photograph and if you understand the basic principles of photography, learning to use one is not as difficult as you may think.
Whether shooting portraits, events or even macro, the speedlight can be used to simply fill in shadows to provide a more evenly lit scene or to create drama by directing or modifying the light a certain way. Although the on-camera pop-up flashes can be handy at times for fill, speedlights allow greater control.
They vary between brands and models and although they are pretty sophisticated, they can be used right out of the box in the auto mode, referred to as TTL or “through the lens” (ITTL, ETTL depending on brand). But as you’ll quickly discover, better results and more control of the light can be achieved by using the unit in the manual mode.
Portrait photography is best done taking the main light source away from the camera to create a more flattering look. Light stands offer the most flexibility in placement of the speedlights and can easily be repositioned to adjust the direction of the light. Using multiple speedlights allows you to be more creative; positioning them for backlight, hair-light, sidelight and such and to create mood and drama.
Keep in mind the smaller the light source, the harder the light - straight on flash is very harsh and for portraits, is typically very unflattering. Modifying that light is the next step and this can be done numerous ways. Umbrellas to shoot off of or through, softboxes, accessories like a Gary Fong Lightsphere or Honl light modifiers that attach directly to the flash, all help control how soft or harsh, direct or indirect the light is, allowing you to create the effect you are looking for.
The same applies for event photography but depending on the size of the group or venue, you may need to use multiple speedlights strategically placed on stands around the event location. Using the Master/Slave setting on the camera and flash, or triggers such as Pocket Wizard, allows you to fire flash units wirelessly. In smaller venues or house parties, you can experiment with things like bouncing the light off of white ceilings or walls to diffuse the light and to keep from blinding people. Most speedlights swivel and tilt for this reason.
Another great use for off-camera flash is when shooting macro photography. Whether it is photographing flowers, or even smaller items like coins or jewelry, off camera flash can create dramatic results and show the detail that close-up photography demands because you can place the flash very close to your subject. By using light only inches from a subject, you can use very small f-stops, like f16 or f22, to create a large depth of field, something that is often hard to attain in macro photography.
Light boxes or tents are a great way to eliminate shadows when shooting product photography or taking pictures of items for eBay. You place the object inside and shoot through an opening while lighting the subject from above or from the sides of the box. These work to diffuse and soften the light.
Using one off-camera flash unit can greatly improve your photos and is the best way to start. Experiment and practice and when you have one mastered, consider adding additional lights or simple light modifiers.
You’ll find it surprisingly fun working with speedlights. Try it and you’ll see how easy it is to take your photography to the next level.
If you want to learn hands-on how to use your off-camera flash, join us at our Demystifying Off-Camera Flash class on Feb 14, 2015. Instructor Tim Cooper begins the class covering the basics of flash photography and builds on it. By the end of the class, Tim will have you comfortably using the flash in manual mode together with modifiers. You’ll come away with the confidence and know-how to use your speedlight and your photos will look better for it.