When photographers first jump into flash photography, they tend to make a number of common mistakes, especially when working with off-camera flash. Some issues fall on the technical side while others have more to do with conceptual elements. Of course, where there are problems, there are also solutions, which brings us to the purpose of this article. We’re going to look at five of the most common OCF mistakes when it comes to learning off camera flash and then consider ways to correct them, both on the go and in the studio.

Let’s get into it.

Video: 5 Common OCF Mistakes

Gear Checklist + A Special Offer from Profoto

Here’s a quick overview of the gear we used to cover these 5 common OCF mistakes. Don’t miss the special offers on Profoto’s lighting gear, which you can take advantage of through the end of the year (December 31, 2023), or as long as stocks last. These deals are available in the USA, Canada, Europe and Japan on profoto.com or at your local dealer. You can find more special offers on Profoto gear here.

If you don’t have the same gear that we’ve listed above, don’t worry. We prefer the gear that we’ve listed because of its portability and reliability, but the following tips and techniques will still work with whatever gear you have.

Common OCF Mistakes – #1: Intention of the Photograph

The biggest mistake that we make when learning off-camera flash is not thinking first about the intention of the photograph. While we often associate flash photography with a more dramatic look, that isn’t always the case. We have options. Whether we’re shooting indoors or outside, we can use off-camera flash to create both dramatic and natural looking photos. It’s important to know which look you’re after and to shoot with intention.

”Natural Light” with Off-Camera Flash

We’ll start by creating a natural light-looking image just outside of our studio in the middle of the parking lot. Like always, compose your shot before dialing in your exposure and adding or modifying lights. We’re using a 70-200mm lens to have more control over the background.

common OCF mistakes BTS for light angle
The light is set up at about 45 degrees off of the camera angle.

Once you’ve composed your shot and set your intention with the in-camera exposure, add in off-camera flash. It might take a couple of test shots to find the right balance, but with a few quick adjustments, you should get there in no time. Just remember that more ambient lighting and less flash power will yield a more natural looking image.

Here’s a look at our initial natural light shot without flash next to a shot using flash to enhance the lighting while maintaining the look of natural light.

Before and after adding flash, straight out of camera

There’s nothing wrong with the first image, but there’s room for improvement. When we compare the images side by side, both look natural, but the flash image subtly creates directional light, improves the light quality, cleans up skin tones, and adds catch lights.

Final Image

OCF used for natural light effect

Dramatic Portraits with Off-Camera Flash

If you want something more dramatic, you’ll follow the same steps as above, but you’ll balance your ambient exposure and flash power to suit a more dramatic portrait. This means we’ll set our in-camera exposure on the darker side and use more flash power. Here’s an example:

dramatic light after avoiding common OCF mistakes

Now, here’s a look at both types of off-camera flash portraits covered above, side by side, including natural and dramatic lighting.

natural light vs dramatic light for common OCF mistakes

To recap, the mistake in intention is just not thinking about it before you take your shot, not thinking about whether you want something dramatic or something natural. Is there a right or wrong? Not really. It’s completely subjective. That said, you should try to balance your exposure and flash power (as well as the pose and other story elements) accordingly for the look you want.

Now, let’s go into the studio to cover our four remaining common mistakes. From here out, we’ll be in the studio. These common OCF mistakes will focus more on errors in terms of positioning the flash, and the controlled environment of the studio will allow us to compare subtle differences between the shots. That said, you can take what you learn from covering these mistakes and use that information in-studio, on-location, or anywhere between.

Setup for Common OCF Mistakes #2-#5

Before we begin, it’s worth noting that we’ve placed a B10 onto a stand in the back of the studio to provide a bit of fill-light. Otherwise, this scene would be completely dark.

See the images above to see what the ambient exposure looks like with just the B10 providing fill light vs how the room looks with the B10 and the main light (B10X + 3’ Octa Softbox), which we’ve directed toward our subject. Most of our work right now is being done by the main light.

Mistake #2: Light Is Too Low

light setup for second common OCF mistakes

What happens when your flash is placed a bit too low? We often get our flashes into position and just start shooting. If the light is too low, however, we end up with an unnatural direction of shadows. Here’s an example:

When you look at the image, you’ll notice it looks a bit off. The reason is that when the shadows cut across the face or go “up” onto the face, it looks different than lighting patterns that we’re used to seeing. There’s a time and place to use that bottom-up lighting technique, also known as “campfire” lighting, but this isn’t it.

light patterns for common OCF mistakes

For the most part, when shooting portraits, you’ll want to place your light source a bit higher than your subject, slightly angled down towards their face.

Here’s how the light placement should look in terms of height in relation to the subject.

Common OCF Mistakes – #3: Light Is Too High

Another positional mistake that photographers often make when starting out with flash is raising the flash a bit too high. Here’s what it looks like:

Now, to be clear, this high light source can be used stylistically with intention. Intention is key.

If we place these two images side by side, we see that the one on the left (with the light source placed just above the subject) features brighter catch lights and more light in the eyes. It’s a livelier image than the one on the right. When the light source is very high, we tend to lose the detail in the eyes. For this reason, we typically want to place the light at the optimal angle when it comes to portraits.

Mistake #4: Flash Distance Is Too Far

The fourth mistake that OCF newbies make is placing the light modifier too far from the subject.

Here’s a general rule to use so that the light looks the way the modifier intended. Place the flash roughly one to two times the size of the modifier in distance between the flash and the subject. In other words, if you’re using a 3’ softbox, then place the flash somewhere between 3’-6’ from your subject. The rule is subjective, of course, depending on the quality of light you want, but you should understand how distance affects the outcome.

To illustrate this point, let’s compare an image taken at the “correct” distance with an image captured when the light is twice the recommended distance.

distance comparison for common OCF mistakes

The first thing to pay attention to is just how much sharper the shadows get at the closer distance. When you compare the shots, the shadows get much more defined. The light direction is still roughly the same, but there’s a significant difference in how the shadows look. A lot more light is also spilling onto the background because we had to power up the flash to have roughly the same amount of light fall on our subject. As a result, we’re getting a much brighter background.

Here’s how it looks with the full length image at different distances:

One thing that we learn when it comes to the quality of light is the larger the light source, the softer the light. The key to understanding this, however, is that the size of the light source is measured in relation to your subject. For example, the sun is a huge light source, but it’s so far away that it really just appears as a pinprick in the sky. Because of that great distance, the sun creates a very hard, very defined edge.

Bonus: Inverse Square Law

One tool we can use to understand light and distance is called the inverse square law. Here’s the formula: Intensity=1/Distance². In simple terms, the Inverse Square Law can be understood if you keep these two things in mind:

  1. Your light loses power as you increase distance from the light to the subject.
  2. You will lose this light at a faster rate than you think.

Here’s a helpful graph as well:

inverse square law for common OCF mistakes

Choosing More Distance with Intention

using distance with intention to avoid common OCF mistakes

There are times you might want to increase the distance between the flash and your subject. For example, if you’re photographing a wedding party and you want the fall off of light that comes with the greater distance, then you’d intentionally place the flash farther back. The more distance, the more even the light will be from left to right. This comes in handy when photographing large groups.

Mistake #5: Flash Angle

The last of our common OCF mistakes is very common. We often don’t think about the angle of light in relation to the story we’re trying to tell, but it makes a significant difference. To be clear, there’s not necessarily a wrong angle of light, which is why we have different lighting patterns to choose from, including Rembrandt lighting, Paramount/Butterfly lighting, and so on. That said, you’ll want to choose your flash angle with intention based on your desired outcome.

One attribute of the Rembrandt lighting pattern is the highlight on the opposite cheek.

For example, the Rembrandt lighting pattern, which occurs when you place the light at a 45-degree angle from your subject in relation to your camera position, creates a lot of dimension. It’s dramatic, but it also looks natural. This pattern also has a lot of shape to it.

In beauty work, however, you often see more flat lighting, which basically comes from directly above and in front of the subject. This flattering light pattern fills in the texture, like the lines on a subject’s face.

split lighting as a source for common OCF mistakes

In the example above, we placed the light directly on the side of our subject to create a split lighting pattern. It works in this instance because of our subject matter. Our subject is wearing a stylish, edgy-looking suit that sort of matches the dramatic split lighting pattern. If you were capturing headshots or wedding portraits, however, this lighting pattern probably won’t work as well. For this reason, be intentional when choosing your flash angle

Common OCF Mistakes | Conclusion

We hope you found this overview of 5 common OCF mistakes helpful. A lot of them have to do with intention and placing our lights in a position that complements our goals with the final images. One of the best ways to stay mindful and shooting with intention is to slow down and work through the C.A.M.P. Framework while keeping our goals in mind.