Getting started with flash photography can quickly feel overwhelming. There’s plenty to learn, and shooting with natural light alone can prove stressful enough, particularly for beginners. In reality, however, mastering the basics of off-camera flash photography isn’t all that complex, especially if you have a bit of guidance and user-friendly gear. The creative freedom that flash photography affords would make it worth the effort, even if it were difficult. In this article, we’ll share five off-camera flash photography tips for beginners that you can use on your next session.
Video: 5 Off-Camera Flash Photography Tips for Beginners
Here’s a list of the gear used in this video/article. You can switch the gear out below with whatever you have available to use:
- Camera (Canon EOS R5)
- Lens (Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8)
- Profoto A1 (find the A10 here)
- Profoto B10 (find the B10X here)
- MagSphere 2
- MagBox Pro 24” Octa
- MagGel CTO
Let’s jump in.
Tip #1: Shoot with Manual Flash Power
Shooting in auto mode (aka ETTL or TTL) with flash seems like it should be easier on the surface, but things get complicated when it comes to editing the photos. The reason for this is that auto mode can change the flash power for each image you capture, and consistency quickly goes out the window. The quality of your results will vary as well. Some images might look great while others don’t look good at all.
Taking manual control of your flash power, on the other hand, will help you dial in the look you need and give you consistent results. The time you save in post alone makes it worth learning to manually adjust your flash power.
Here are a couple general “rules” to keep in mind when setting your flash power.
When in the Sun, One over One
When shooting in direct sunlight, start by setting your flash to full power, aka one over one. If you’re using any modifiers to diffuse the light, you might need even more power than a single flash can produce (depending on the flash).
Try Using the Inverse of ISO
Another option for determining the best power setting for your flash relies on using the inverse of our ISO setting. Here are a few examples for reference:
- ISO 200 | Start at ½ power
- ISO 400 | Start at ¼ power
- ISO 1600 | Start at 1/16 power
Tip #2: Get to Know the Inverse Square Law
Not to be confused with Inverse of ISO, another way that we can determine how much flash power we need involves the inverse square law. This “law” helps us understand how much light will reach our subjects, whether we’re photographing individual subjects or large groups of people.
Simply put, the inverse square law notes that the intensity of light falls off rapidly as it moves it farther away from the subject.
To give an example, let’s say that we’ve placed our off-camera flash 3 feet away from our subject. If we then move the flash back an additional 3 feet without adjusting the flash power setting, only 25% of the light that reached the subject at 3 feet will still get to them.
If we only doubled our distance, why did we lose 75% of our flash power? Good questions.
The math works like this:
- We doubled the distance by two times (2x), moving it from 3 to 6 feet away from our subject.
- The inverse of 2 is ½.
- When we square the inverse number of 1/2 (multiply the number on the bottom of the fraction by itself – 2 x 2), we get ¼, or 25%.
We can make up for this loss of light in various ways, such as increasing our flash power or directing our light through a grid or snoot (like the MagGrid 2 or MagSnoot 2). We can also utilize the flash unit’s built-in zoom feature.
Tip #3: Understand Soft Light vs Hard Light
When shooting flash photography, we have the option of modifying the light to make it soft light or hard light, or somewhere in between. One type is not better than the other, but you should know how to modify the light to get the look you want.
For soft light, you’ll probably want to use something like a softbox in order to create a bigger light source relative to your subject. In terms of where to place the light, moving it closer to your subject will make the light source bigger and the light quality softer.
A helpful tip for placing the light is to keep the flash one to two times the distance from your subject as the size of the box. In other words, if you’re using a MagBox Pro 42” Octa, place it somewhere between 42” – 84” (3-7 feet) from your subject. For a smaller box (MagBox Pro 24” Octa), try to place the flash between 24”-48” from your subject. Again, these are recommended distances for getting softer light.
Whichever route you choose, make sure to modify your off-camera flash accordingly to properly control your light.
Tip #4: Add Color to Your Flashes
Adding color to your flash provides a quick and easy way to greatly expand your creative possibilities. All you need to do is place a MagMod Pro Gel (or whatever color gels you have) on your flash. When you adjust your white balance in post for skin tones, the color present in the scene will shift, sometimes dramatically. We’ve written about this process in more detail in our intuitive guide to gels and creative color effects. In the article/video, we discuss how to use creative color effects with MagGels to change the color and mood in your photos. We also cover different gels you can use to get the exact color you want.
Tip #5: Use Multi-Light Setups
When you like you’re ready, we recommend graduating from one off-camera flash to two or more. Shooting with multi-light setups is both fun and creatively rewarding.
For a two-light setup example, place your main or key light where you normally would. We went with a soft box off to the side in front of our subject. Then, place the second light slightly behind and off to the side of the subject to add a “kicker” light, which should help carve your subject out of the background with a nice rim light.
Here’s a collection of images that we created using the tips outlined above.
We hope that you found these 5 off-camera flash photography tips for beginners helpful. The goal, of course, would be to start using them as soon as possible. Once you grasp the basics of using flash and get your hands on gear that removes many of the challenges of modifying and controlling the light, you can flex your creativity and capture beautiful photos any time, night or day.