Getting started with off-camera flash lighting


Seasonal portrait–For this seasonal portrait of Courtney Michelle Pratt, I used one off-camera flash. I was lucky to have the assistance of her friend Heather who held my Canon 430 EX speedlite set on Slave mode, 1/16th power and the zoom setting at 85 mm. Canon 40D with 580EX on hot shoe as Master with 17-35 f2.8 zoom lens. Thanks to Greg Palmer, owner of the Pumpkin Patch, for the use of your location for this picture.

off_camera_flash2Even if you are a beginner, eventually you will want to explore off-camera flash.

Believe it or not, your external flash can actually live away from your camera’s hotshoe.

Using your flash off-camera gives you a different way to photograph those everyday, mundane subjects.

But there is a more practical reason: learning to light with flash gives you the ability to control contrast in a scene.

Digital has been said to be able to capture 9 to 11 f-stops, but printers can only faithfully reproduce 4 so it’s a tricky proposition to compress those ranges into a print representative of the scene before you.

That explains the huge interest in HDR or high dynamic range photography.

Old flash units put to good use–An old Sunpak flash from my film camera can be put to good use. Here it is mounted on a radio receiver which I bought on ebay. This setup is perfect for students who want to learn how to light.

The other less obvious reason in learning to light is to control or paint your scene with light where you want it.

Nowhere is this more desirable than if you photograph people. So before you take a hammer to your piggy bank, let’s consider:

The Pros

  • Having your own lights and more importantly knowing how to use them is a great confidence builder.
  • You never have to worry about the sun setting on you or if the direction of the sun isn’t at the right place whenever you get on scene.
  • If you have enough “power,” you can create an alternate look of a scene by overpowering the available light.
  • If you light a scene, you can shoot with long lenses which aren’t fast–lenses with small apertures without ever worrying about camera shake.
  • Your exposures will be more consistent. If your light placement is good and you light an area evenly, you only need to meter the scene during setup and don’t need to worry about it again until you change the light setup.
  • If you are trying to really freeze action, there can be no better way to do so
  • Your technical ability and versatility will improve and so will your confidence.
  • Instead of just being a diurnal creature, you can be a creature of the night like a vampire. You don’t have to be afraid of the dark.

The Cons

  • You sacrifice mobility for the above conveniences.
  • You are confined to shooting where you set up your lights, so planning is critical
  • You will need a big trunk or vehicle to lug all this around
  • If you’re the lazy kind, you might not use the lights because every shoot is a production
  • You will need extra sets of eyes especially if you’re doing an event or else some of your gear may develop legs and disappear.
  • Until the people get used to your flash units going off, you lose spontaneity. Every time the flash goes off they’ll stop what they’re doing.

A Good Starting Kit

radio_slave1If you haven’t realize this by now, I’m an advocate for buying gear as you need it.

Before you go out and spend about $1,500, you should know you may have some old film gear that’s usable.

Dig in your closet and see if you have old flash units from your film camera.

Doesn’t matter if they’re different brands, Vivitar, Sunpak, Canon or Nikon.

The most important capability you want to be sure those flash units have is adjustable power ratio.

That flash capability allows you to vary the output manually of the flash.

You absolutely don’t need or even want automatic capability.

off_camera_flash0From the owner’s manual and the Guide number you’ll be able to figure out the aperture dividing Guide Number by the distance of flash-to-subject.

So you’ll only need as many light stands as you have flash units.

Having light modifiers like umbrellas and soft boxes are nice but you can get by.

Next, pick up these cheap radio slaves which are made in China to practice.

The kit comes with one transmitter and one receiver.

Just buy extra receivers to match the number of flash units you own.

If you prefer not to mess with cords, pick up the ones I got which use a hotshoe.

off_camera_flash1Once you have your kit, go and explore your new world with those flash units.

You should know that this setup has one important limitation.

There is a shutter speed which your camera will synchronize with your flash.

Most likely it’s 1/250 sec or 1/200 sec.

As long as you don’t exceed that shutter speed, you will be fine.

If you forget and set a higher shutter speed, the pictures below will result.

With my Canon 40D, the curtain travels up and down in landscape mode.

With other manufacturers, the curtain may travel left to right in the landscape mode.


Out of sync–Above picture with shutter speed set at 1/500 sec, only half the frame is exposed. Below, at 1/750 sec, even less of the frame is exposed by flash.


There is a mode called High Shutter Sync but in order to do that, you need pay the big bucks for a Canon or Nikon specific flash.

I’ll discuss the fancier speedlites or brand name flash units from Canon or Nikon another time.