Five Tips for Using Off-Camera Flash

Piet Van den Eynde

Piet Van den Eynde's newest eBook, Light It Up: Techniques for Dramatic Off-Camera Lighting, offers an inside look at the best lighting solutions, whether on location or in the studio. Drawing from his ten+ years behind the camera, Piet has learned how to see, use, tint, and enhance light, and provides a straightforward approach to adding flash light to any scene. And if the beefy 158-page book isn't enough, there are three 15-minute bonus videos + five Lightroom Presets that Piet shows you how to use in the videos. It's your own little bundle of lighting joy.

Can't wait to see? We don't blame you. Get a copy of the first video right now! Free. Gratis. Because good things are meant to be shared. 

If off-camera flash sounds intimidating to you, it shouldn’t. Things have changed since years ago when you had to be some kind of tech wizard to remotely trigger a flash. Currently, technology has evolved to the point where using off-camera flash is as easy as making eggs (or, if you’re the kind of kitchen whiz I am, probably even easier than that!). With the technology issues mostly out of the way, this means you can now focus on getting the shot you want. The following five tips will help you be successful with your first ventures into off-camera flash.

1. Start Indoors

When you’re just starting out, start indoors. No wind to knock over your precious, newly-purchased gear (or strangers to relieve you of it), and no sun popping in and out of the sky to mess with your ambient exposure (see tip #2 below). Once you feel confident with your gear and you have gotten some good results inside, then take your gear (and your model) for a walk outside!

2. Always Determine Your Ambient Exposure First

In Light it Up! Techniques for Dramatic Off-Camera Lighting, I explain in depth how when you use flash, you’re mixing two light sources: flash and ambient light. You can determine how much (if any) of both light sources you let into your final image.

The total brightness of this image (left) is the sum of the available light that was let into the camera (middle) and the flash light that was let into the camera (right).

Because the background is typically not affected by your flash light (unless your model is close to it; see tip #3 below), you should always set your background exposure first. Especially when working outside with a model, it’s a good idea to slightly underexpose that background compared to how you would expose it if you were photographing it without a subject. That makes sense: the background isn’t the subject, and therefore shouldn’t be too bright, or it will detract from your actual subject. For example, when I have a sky in my background, I usually set my exposure so that I still have detail in the sky.

On the left, my ambient exposure was set for the background. It's slightly underexposed to maintain detail in the sky. On the right is the same image after adding a flash through an umbrella (and some creative post-processing).

As a result, your model will most likely be underexposed, but that’s not a problem; that’s what flash is for! After having determined your background exposure, fire up your flash and your trigger and adjust the flash power until your subject is correctly exposed.

3. Take Control Of Your Background Exposure

If you want more control over your background exposure, move your subject away from it. If your model is close to a wall, the flash that lights her will also light that wall, so it's harder to control the independent exposure of both. If you want the wall to be darker, move your model (and your flash) farther away from it. Light loses its power quickly; the greater the distance between the model and the wall, the less the flash will light that wall. If you don’t have enough space, add a grid to your light source to direct the light more to the subject and less to the surroundings.

These photos were shot in a white studio, yet the ambient light was eliminated by a judicious choice of aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. I kept the power on the softbox the same. On the left, the model was standing approximately nine feet from the background, so there’s still some flash light illuminating it. On the right, the distance between the model and the white background was twice the original distance. The distance between flash and model (and hence the flash power) was kept the same as in the first shot. As a result, less light reached the background and it became darker.

4. Use the Sun as a Free Rim Light

In a studio, I love working with at least two light sources: one as a main light and one as a rim light, coming from the back. The rim light creates a nice highlight on the back of your subject, separating it from the background and adding a 3D feel to the image.

On location, I don’t always have two lights with me, and even if I do, I don’t always have the time to set up a second light. But I don’t have to; I often use the biggest light source, the sun, to my advantage. With my subject’s back to the sun, he or she doesn’t have to squint, and I get a free rim light. Then it’s just a matter of using the flash to bring my subject up to the desired brightness.

FUJIFILM GFX 50S | GF 120mm f/4 R LM OIS WR Macro @ 120mm | 1/125 sec @ f/6.4 | ISO 100

I placed a strip light behind Michelle to separate her leather jacket from the grey background (which was a white background, but by placing her far enough away from it and underexposing the ambient light, it became grey).

FUJIFILM X-T1 | XF 56mm f/1.2 R @ 56mm | 1/180 sec @ f/2.8 | ISO 200

With his back against the sun, the result is a nice highlight around the motorcycle man's outline, which, together with a wide-open aperture, separates him from the background. The bottom shows the set-up for this image.

5. Experiment With the Placement Triangle of Light/Subject/Camera

When you start out with off-camera flash, you’ll probably put your light at a 45-degree angle to your subject, with your subject facing the camera. It’s a great starting position, but don’t leave it at that. Experiment with the angle of your subject’s face towards the camera and with the angle of the light source towards the camera and the subject.

An inside look at Light it Up!

The relative positioning of your light, camera, and subject towards each other can influence the atmosphere of your image.

One of my favourite lighting schemes is short lighting, which lights the side of the face that is turned away from the camera. This results in a more three-dimensional portrait and is particularly effective with character faces, like this one taken along the shore of the Ganges in Varanasi.

FUJIFILM X-Pro2 | XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR @ 45.5mm | 1-250 sec @ f / 2.8 | ISO 200

Short lighting with a free bonus rim light from the bright Indian sun. Two great lights for the price of one!

Don’t let the softbox fool you into thinking you need a big budget to pull off a shot like this. I could have achieved 90% of this look with a $25 umbrella. The reason I prefer a softbox is that it gives me more control over my light, especially in confined spaces, where I can add a grid to it.   

Piet Van den Eynde is a Belgian freelance photographer, author, and trainer specializing in Adobe Lightroom. When he's not teaching or writing, he travels the world on his bicycle photographing the people he meets along the way. See more of Piet's work on his website

Craft & Technique Piet Van den Eynde

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