Off Camera Lighting

Part 1

When I first started into photography, specifically people photography, I advertised myself as a “natural” light shooter.  Do you think I did that because I loved the “natural” light look?  Was it because I wanted to photograph only what was there?  I would bet the real answer is one that many of you would give if you were willing to admit.  What’s the real answer?  I had no idea how to use an artificial light source.  There it is…  I was clueless and rather than learning this particular aspect of my trade I made excuses.  Now, I know some of you out there are saying right now “but that is my style and I really do like to use only natural light”.  Are you saying that because you truly feel that way or because you are trying to avoid dealing with a flash?  If you really are a natural light shooter then I would certainly suggest that you branch out into the artificial world because natural light isn’t always available.  Then, you could claim to be an “available” light shooter.  You would use whatever light is available (natural or artificial).

If you are like me, here is how you dealt with the very first flash you bought for your camera system.  You stuck it on the hot shoe took a few shots and then wondered why in the world everyone looked like their photo was taken at the local DMV.  From then on you stuck it in your bag only to come out when someone asked if you had a flash.

After years of doing just that I finally decided that I wanted to really get a handle on this lighting thing.  I started reading books and watching videos trying to absorb all that I could.  There is one tip that was relevant in all these studies.  You have to get the flash off the camera.  This allows you to control the direction, the power, and the softness of the light.  If you leave the flash setting on the hot shoe you will always have that flat “drivers license” look.  Now, there are ways to help mitigate that effect if you are left with no choice and we will talk about that in Lighting Part 2.  Given the option though always take the flash off the camera.

The hot shoe should be used more for a controller (master) flash, transmitter, flash cord or if you do not have any other choice the flash itself. Most modern systems have built in wireless capabilities.  Most use inferred or a flash signal from the built in flash on the camera to send a signal to the off camera unit.  In these cases the on camera flash powered can be lowered so as not to affect the light in the photograph.  That way your primary light will be the one off camera.  Check your make and model for specifics and get that flash off the camera. You will see an immediate improvement. It adds dramatic light casting various shadows across your subject and eliminates annoying red eye. 

Next up we will be looking at light modifiers, why we need them, and how to use them.

Part 2

The first thing we talked about in part one was to get the flash off the camera.  Still, with just the bare flash you might notice that the light is still harsh and that the extreme shadows remain.  While not all shadows are bad and there may be instances where you want that look it isn’t typically the desired effect.  So, how do you fix this?  There is a very good rule to live by when you are working with any light source.  The closer you have the light the softer the light will be and the larger the light the softer the light.  I know it sounds backward but it is the truth.  Take the sun for instance.  When it is high in the sky you get very harsh light with extreme shadows.  This is because it is 93,000,000 miles away and is a very small light source.  Then, think about what you get when you have cloud cover.  The clouds become a massive and relatively close diffuse light source.  This light source does not produce harsh shadows and has a softer look.  Notice too that the colors are more vibrant.

So, how do we make our small flash a larger softer light source?  You have a couple of options.  You can bounce it off the wall or ceiling if you happen to have a white one around.  Just remember that whatever you bounce off of or shoot through will affect the color of the light.  For instance is you had a green wall and you decided to bounce the flash off that you would end up with a green tint to your images.  If your subject was the Incredible Hulk this might be acceptable but generally speaking you should avoid this.  Most of the time however, walls and/or ceilings are white. Lucky us!!

My personal preference is to have the light pass through a diffuser such as a translucent umbrella or softbox. Hand held, fold out reflectors/diffusers work great for this too but require either an assistant or additional stands and arms. If you do not have an off camera flash and you find yourself out in the middle of the day grab one of the hand held reflectors/diffusers. Try to position it between the sun and your subject and you will get beautiful results. This is because you are taking the small, powerful and far away source of light (the sun) and turning it into a large, close and diffuse light source.

It is the light that we use to create our images and tell our stories. I encourage you to learn all you can about how lighting works, both natural and artificial. You will be come a better photographer as you learn to see the light and understand its effects.   

Stay tuned for Lighting Part 3 as we discuss artificial lighting options such as strobes, reflectors, lightstands, softboxes, umbrellas and much more.

Part 3

class="MsoNormal" style="letter-spacing: normal; margin-top: 0px; ">Make sure to check out Lighting Part 1 of 3 and Lighting Part 2 of 3 before reading this one.

This post, as promised, will be about the equipment you need to do basic lighting on-location. I thought I would take this time to remind you that I am a Nikon shooter though what I have to say can apply to any of the major brands out there.

1. You need a camera…. Sounds like a duh but inevitably someone will email me saying that I failed to mention this most important part.

2. Strobes/Speedlights – you need an artificial light source to illuminate your subjects. There are several different types of lights out there but for on location shooting I would recommend Speedlights like the Nikon SB-910 or the Canon 580EX II. I would say you need a minimum of two. One to act as a commander unit on your camera, provided the camera does not already do this, and one to be the actual source of light.

You can also go the real studio strobes but they are not very portable and can be very expensive. If you go to a location without AC power you would need a larger battery source to plug them into. Alien Bees ( or Elinchrom ( have some great options if you decide this is the route to go.  While their portability may be limiting they have a tremendous amount of power.

3. Radio Triggers – In my opinion the Radio Trigger is the best way to fire your off camera flash because you do not have to worry about the line of site like you might for the inferred triggers.  These also range from the very inexpensive to the very expensive.  The less expensive models act as simple triggers and do not take advantage of the TTL  (Through the Lens) features available in most modern cameras.  You have to use the flash in manual mode.   Typically with these you will have to go over to the off camera flash to make power adjustments.  There are more expensive ones out there like the Pocket Wizards TT5 Flex ( that allow TTL metering to take place in all your camera’s modes.  In addition for a few more dollars you can add a control that allows you to manipulate the power settings of the flash from the camera.

4. Light modifiers – You will need something to diffuse the light coming from the strobe. This can range anywhere form a bed sheet to a softbox… cheap to expensive. One of the best solutions starting out is the umbrella (I also call it a light grenade). You can get these at your local camera store or online for under 20 bucks. Lightboxes on the other hand are typically more expensive and harder to put up but they allow you more control over the light’s direction.

One thing you can always use is a reflector. Several companies make these as 5 in 1… enabling you to use it for multiple purposes. It can act as a 2nd light or a shoot through diffuser. The multiple covers allow for different types (colors) of reflections.

5. Stands - These are simple metal stands that hold your lights. They also range from the very inexpensive to the very expensive and come in various sizes etc. I would venture to say that the decent ones start around the 30.00 mark. If you are not using studio sized strobes then you may not need the sturdiest but remember, you will likely have an umbrella attached and if you’re out side…. Well, you might be chasing your lighting equipment should a good gust of wind come up. Yep, I have been there.  This might also be a good time to mention sandbags for extra weight and stability.

This about covers the very basics of lighting. In future posts I will cover more of the technical aspects of exposing images using artificial lights.  Thanks for reading and again contact me if you have any questions. I may answer it with a blog post. You just never know.