Many photographers tend to struggle when they first jump into using off-camera flash, and this struggle is often tied to making a few common mistakes. Unfortunately, these simple mistakes prove significant enough to drive photographers away from using off-camera flash because they don’t like the results they’re getting. Once we gain a better understanding of how to use flash and avoid making these mistakes, however, our creative opportunities open up significantly. In this article/video, we’ll share three of the most common off-camera flash mistakes that photographers make and show you how to fix them.

Video: 3 Common Off-Camera Flash Mistakes and How to Fix Them

Gear Checklist

Here’s a list of lighting gear featured in this video/article:

Let’s get started.

Common Off-Camera Flash Mistakes #1: Not Setting Your Intention

One of the biggest mistakes we make when using off-camera flash is not setting our intention up front. Are we going for a bright and airy look, or do we want to create a more dramatic image using light and shadows? Often, we fail to set our intention because we don’t really understand flash to ambient balance and how that creates intention.

Let’s walk through a scene to explain what we mean.

Using the C.A.M.P. Framework (Composition, Ambient Exposure, Modify or Add Light, Pose and Photograph), we’ve started with composition and placed our subject within an interesting frame using the shape of the bridge in the background.

Early on in our flash photography journey, this is where we often make a mistake and jump straight into using flash. For whatever reason, we often feel like we have to shoot at full power. Here’s what that looks like.

blown out Common Off-Camera Flash Mistakes
Settings: 1/400, f/2, ISO 50 | Flash Power = 1/1

Instead of adjusting the light, we typically go right into the camera settings and make adjustments there, like narrowing our aperture and lowering our ISO. There’s a better way to get to the “right” in-camera setting to match your intention.

Here’s what you should do instead.

How to Fix It

After you have an idea of your composition, start by first setting your intention with your ambient exposure. If you want a dramatic shot, you’re going to darken the ambient light exposure. On the other hand, if you want something more natural looking, you’re going to set the ambient light brighter.

Bright & Airy Portrait Example

ambient exposure for under the bridge portrait
Settings: 1/400, f/2, ISO 50

We’ll start with a bright example using brighter ambient exposure. At this point, knowing our intention and dialing in an appropriate ambient exposure, we can start modifying or adding light.

bts for under the bridge portrait

In this instance, we’re going to modify the light in the scene by adding off-camera flash. Because the ambient exposure is already bright, we don’t need to add much light. Position your flash and capture test shots to dial in the right flash power to match your intention.

blown out Common Off-Camera Flash Mistakes
Settings: 1/400, f/2, ISO 50 | Flash Power = 1/4

In the image above, you can see that we used the flash to add a little kick of light and maintain a natural look to the scene.

Dramatic Portrait Example

Now, on the flip side, if you want something more dramatic, follow the same steps, but adjust the ambient exposure and flash power to match your intention.

dark ambient exposure for dramatic portrait
Settings: 1/200, f/11, ISO 50

Above, you can see the difference between our ambient exposure settings for the bright and airy portrait vs. the dramatic portrait.

Now, we can add flash. When going with a dark exposure, you’ll need to use more flash power. By default, we typically start at full power and work our way down with test shots.

final dramatic image for intention with Common Off-Camera Flash Mistakes
Settings: 1/200, f/11, ISO 50 | Flash Power = 1/1

Here’s the final image for setting our intentions for a dramatic portrait (see above).

Our first mistake is thinking that Flash should kind of dictate our exposure, but as you can see, it should actually be the other way around. When you get to a scene, start by setting the intention for the shot.

set the intention for ambient light and flash Common Off-Camera Flash Mistakes

If you want something more natural looking, leave the ambient exposure brighter and use less flash power. Adversely, if you want to create a more dramatic portrait, pull down the ambient exposure and use more flash power.

Common Off-Camera Flash Mistakes #2: Using Too Much or Too Little Flash Power

Another of the most common OCF mistakes photographers make has to do with flash power. We either tend to use too much or not enough.

How to Fix It

So, what’s really the right amount? Before we can answer that question, we’ll need to consider a couple things.

Go Back to C.A.M.P. and Expose In-Camera Before Modifying Light

First, set your intention with your ambient exposure as explained above. Decide if you’re going to create a natural or dramatic looking portrait. To illustrate our point and show you how to ensure you’ve dialed in the “right” flash power, we’ll create a dramatic portrait.

ambient exposure for rock shot
Settings: 1/200, f/9, ISO 50

Like last time, after you set your composition, dial in your ambient exposure. Then, you’re going to add flash.

rocks bts

It’s important to note that for both dramatic and natural looking portraits, all we really want to do with the flash is make the subjects a little bit brighter than the surrounding scene in order to lift them out of the backdrop.

final image for rocks
Settings: 1/200, f/9, ISO 50 | Flash Power = 1/2

When it comes to flash power, you can’t really go wrong with this rule. Set your intention first with your ambient light, and then just add a little bit of flash, maybe a half-stop to one stop of light, to lift your subject to the scene. Of course, stylistically, you can take it wherever you want, but this will set your foundation for lighting subjects with off-camera flash.

Helpful Tip: Use the Histogram and Highlight Alert.

To help you maintain as much detail as possible while dialing in your exposure, we recommend using your histogram to see where the information is falling and your highlight alert to avoid clipping shadows or highlights.

highlight alert
The highlight alert will blink in areas that are too bright and details are blown out

If you’re shooting outdoors and you don’t use the histogram and highlight alert, you might not notice that you’re blowing out the details. When capturing the image above, these tools would have warned us that the background and parts of our subject were too bright.

Common Off-Camera Flash Mistakes #3: Not Fine-Tuning Lighting Angles

side by side comparisons for lighting angles

Last but not least, one of our most common off-camera flash mistakes has to do with not fine-tuning our lighting angle, and it makes a big difference.

How to Fix It

Here’s a closer look at how lighting angles can affect your final images. Once you understand this, you will have solved this common OCF mistake.

Setting the Light at the Subject’s Height Vs. from Above and Below

same angle bts example for Common Off-Camera Flash Mistakes

We’ll begin by demonstrating how the light falls on our subject when we set it at the same height as our subject’s face.

Common Off-Camera Flash Mistakes: light at same angle as subject's head
Settings: 1/200, f/14, ISO 50 | Flash Power = 1/1

This particular lighting angle feels off with this composition because it feels unnatural and creates a sense of unease. You can see that the shadow basically extends directly off of our subject. When we’re outdoors, our shadows typically fall down and away from us because of the sun’s light falling from somewhere above.

top-down lighting bts

To fix this, we want to place our light in a top-down direction in relation to our subject, around 6 to 12 inches above the subject’s head height with a slight downward angle.

proper lighting angle top-down
Settings: 1/200, f/14, ISO 50 | Flash Power = 1/1

Now, this is a subtle adjustment, but you can see that the shadow is now directional and it looks more natural.

The light also falls on the subject in a more flattering way from this angle.

Bottom-Up or “Campfire” Lighting: Avoid It

Common Off-Camera Flash Mistakes: campfire lighting bts

Another of the common off-camera flash mistakes we make in terms of lighting angles is placing the light too low. Unless you’re going for a scary, campfire vibe, you’ll typically want to avoid bottom-up lighting angles for portraits.

Here’s what that looks like.

Common Off-Camera Flash Mistakes example: campfire lighting
Settings: 1/200, f/14, ISO 50 | Flash Power = 1/1

The light’s coming from down below, causing unnatural shadows on the face as well as on the background. To fix it, go with the top-down solution above.

Conclusion

As you dive down this rabbit hole of off-camera flash, try to remember to enjoy this journey. Clearly set your intention from the start and work through the C.A.M.P. Framework to get the best results. By recognizing the common off-camera flash mistakes outlined above and using the C.A.M.P. Framework to help solve them, we can shoot with intention and capture quality portraits that match our vision, whether we want to create natural looking or dramatically lit portraits.