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Off Camera Flash-2 General

Off Camera Flash | 5 Tips to Get You Started

By Michael Henson on January 29th 2015

When I first began my foray into the world of photography, the thought of having to deal with off camera lighting was overwhelming and frightening! As I progressed, however, I quickly began to notice the value that lighting might add to my approach. Eventually, I took the plunge and ordered my first speed light.

The first time I took a photo using my flash that wasn’t completely washed out, the level of sharpness and the potential for complete control of my photos blew me away! Lighting is one of the most important pieces of the photographic puzzle. We fit it together to create our masterpieces (some of you do anyway…I’m still making pictures and hope to make a masterpiece someday). In fact, given that photos cannot occur without light, it is the most important piece. It provides sharpness, drama, texture, mood, and helps us show or capture motion cleanly. It can evoke an emotional response and elevate a good photo to the realm of the phenomenal. Simply put, if you are serious about being the best photographer you can be, lighting is key.

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That being said, it can be pretty overwhelming if you allow it to be. My purpose is to simplify off camera flash as much as I can. There have been textbooks, websites, video and blog series all devoted to the subject of lighting and I am not going to present brand new never-before-seen concepts here. I am going to provide a simple guide that will help you get started.

[REWIND: THE ONE LIGHT PORTRAIT CHALLENGE | ARE YOU OVERCOMPLICATING YOUR LIGHTING SETUP?]

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What Do You Actually Need To Get Started?

Probably not as much as you think! You might have noticed that some photographers use more than one light, multiple modifiers, and have tens of thousands of dollars of equipment at their disposal. What you don’t know is that the majority of them began by working with one light. In fact, many still recommend that you begin each image with a single light and only add additional lights as you find you have the need. Beyond your primary light source, you just need a way to trigger your flash, a modifier, and something to hold it (a Light stand, assistant, or your free hand).

Go Wireless!

Once you have settled on your chosen off camera flash source, you have to trigger it. You have a couple options here – wired or wireless. In the not too distant past, wired triggers were the way to go for budget conscious photographers just getting into the off camera flash game. These days, the budget argument isn’t nearly as convincing. You can find wireless radio triggers for less than you can pick up a PC sync cable hotshoe adapter and, while the PC cable and adapter may be somewhat more reliable than an inexpensive wireless trigger set, the ease of use and convenience of not being tethered to a wire connected to your camera is hard to beat. Having that freedom can inspire more creative lighting setups, placement, and lower stress levels by taking one more thing you have to worry about off your mental plate during a photo session.

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Don’t Break The Bank!

Moving your flash off camera, even if you don’t have one yet, doesn’t have to be a budget busting endeavor. Take some time to consider how you are going to use your flash before making any purchases and take those considerations into account. Are you going to mainly be in a studio/controlled environment? Research a nice entry level strobe (or a more expensive one if you have the budget) and go for it! Want something portable and small? Check out some of the lower cost, manual speedlights that are out now. With a bit of research, you can find good quality, inexpensive speedlights, triggers, light stands, etc. that will last you for years without breaking your budget.

Don’t Forget a Modifier!

The larger your light source, the softer the light. Modifiers simply increase the size and change the shape of your light source. As will anything else I’ve discussed so far, you can spend as much or as little on a modifier as you would like. You can find a decent sized, diffused umbrella for incredibly cheap online or you can spend thousands of dollars on the latest softbox by one of the big manufacturers. If you are just starting out, I would recommend finding less expensive and committing to it for a period of time. By doing this, you will become much more knowledgeable about your modifier than if you run out and buy three or four different types. Once you begin to get comfortable with an umbrella, for example, and you need something in addition to it, that’s the time to start looking to into trying different modifier options. Check out some of the DIY options for an inexpensive way to try out new things before spending a lot of money on a brand name.

And Definitely Don’t Forget a Reflector!

This is perhaps one of the most versatile tools a photographer can use when discussing light. A 5-in-1 reflector gives you a white, gold, silver, and black reflector options and can also be used to diffuse a flash or sunlight. Having this on hand gives you a lot more control and more options when it comes to your lighting setups.

It seems that, in some ways, there is an evolution of thought that perhaps every photographer goes through. It starts with natural lighting, moves on to flash and then off camera flash, then loses its mind for a bit by focusing on elaborate multiple light setups, and then finally settles down to a comfortable “as many as necessary and no more” approach. If you can strive to start off in that final stage, you will be calmer, have lower blood pressure, and fewer wrinkles from stress…hopefully!

Off Camera Flash

You can make lighting as complicated as you would like but at the end of the session all it boils down to is, did you get the shot? That’s what matters to you, that’s what matters to your clients. Don’t get hung up on trying to use a certain look or setup because you saw a video or read an article about someone else using it. Choose your tools carefully, learn how to use them, and apply them as just that – tools. Take time to learn as much as you can about lighting with resources like the greatly anticipated Lighting 101 DVD that will be releasing soon. Learn everything you possibly can and then apply only what you need to get the shot you envision. Approaching your off camera lighting from this perspective will help you avoid the pitfalls so many photographers fall into. Instead, you’ll focus on your art, grow as a photographer more quickly, and have a lot more fun in the process.

Get out there and SHOOT! Share your favorites with us on your favorite social media platform, like us on Facebook, and be sure to sign up for email updates to stay up to date on the latest and greatest news, reviews, and photography articles! Also, don’t forget to leave your comments below! I’d love to hear back from you!

CREDITS : Photographs by Michael  have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.

Michael Henson is a St. Louis based photographer obsessed with everything creative. His photography interests span genres from still life to sports. When he’s not running around with his face to the camera or behind a keyboard writing, you can typically find a guitar in his hands or catch him out enjoying life with his family and friends.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Gordon Simpson

    Great article. This is something I’ve been looking for more info on. Very helpful. Thanks.

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  2. Eric Mazzone

    I’ve been doing OCF for a while now, but this article is still needed reading for those of us doing it too, to kind of bring us back into ourselves and get us thinking again. I’m personally completely switching up my style and ditching the huge gear and going back smaller and portable, even going so far as ditching small soft boxes.

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    • Michael Henson

      I find myself fighting to avoid buying into the hype about a particular type of modifier or brand name gear. It really comes down to figuring out what you need to create the images you want and then sticking with that in the face of people telling you that you need something different. For example, all of the above images were shot with one Flashpoint strobe through a cheap diffused umbrella…That’s it. Granted, that won’t work for everything but for this style, I’m happy with the results!

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  3. Tosh Cuellar

    some quality basic tips here, good stuff to know

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  4. Basit Zargar

    Great tips

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  5. David Hall

    Not a lot of meat here in terms of “how too” regarding off camera flash… but sensible guidance in the approach.

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    • Gareth Roughley

      I agree. I was, in the least expecting a simple one light setup

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    • Michael Henson

      Agreed. I bounced around a lot on my approach to this one. I wanted to get some straightforward, practical advice to newer photographers on how to approach getting started…There are a few articles/videos that I tried to link to that go into a bit more of the “how to” of lighting, specifically the “Rewind” that is focused on one light setups. What would you have liked to see included here? I can work on a follow up to this article if the info you would like discussed isn’t already floating around on the site.

      Thanks for your responses and feedback!

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    • David Hall

      Hey Michael… I think your article was just fine. When I initially read the title, I was thinking you were going to provide some tips on hands-on use of off camera flash.. how to set exposure for both ambient and flash.. more of a “how too”. I’m pretty comfortable with using OCF in my work but anytime someone says they have tips, I’m going to listen.

      The article is fine just as it is written. If you’re beginning to pursue OCF in your work, your article is a great resource for the tools you’ll need and want to consider purchasing.

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    • Michael Henson

      Ah, understood. Your description is what I was going for and I knew when I started that there would be a group of more experienced OCF users that would understand everything covered and more. Glad to hear that it’s a resource that OCF “newbies” will find helpful! Thanks again for your feedback!

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  6. Brandon Dewey

    Great article, thank you for the tips.

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  7. Christopher Fuller

    Good article with valuable information for beginning photographers. I can afford the higher end equipment but would (am) rather use less expensive to get to know the craft better.

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    • John Cavan

      This is why I have the Alien Bees setup, the bang for the buck is second to none. Eventually I might move up the ladder, but that remains to be seen. My AB 800 lights have been rock steady for years now.

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    • Michael Henson

      Flashpoint from Adorama has some decent strobes for a pretty good price too. Including one that includes a built in rechargeable battery like the Profoto. The best of both worlds!

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