Off-camera flash photography is something everyone seems to be interested in. The reason is that with a little understanding, it’s pretty easy to get pro results with the kind of flash units that were designed to slip into the hot shoe on your camera. As a matter of fact, you can probably get the look of real studio portraiture with the flash unit you currently own, you just have to know how.
Big Studio Lights, Not Always The Best Option
Regular studio strobes like AC-powered monoblocks and pack/head systems are great for studio work. They provide high output, modeling lamps, good recycling time, and work well with a number of accessories and modifiers. Most of these can also be used quite easily on location provided you have some external power source (battery packs, generators, AC power, etc.). They aren’t cheap, but can be great to work with if you have the budget and they fit your needs.
The Advantages of Small Flash Units
When I started doing editorial photography, I didn’t have assistants to help me carry a bunch of studio lighting gear around with me from shoot to shoot. And frankly, I didn’t always have the time and energy to drag my lights to regular portrait sessions either. I needed some way to get good lighting without having to deal with the weight and bulk of big lights. After a little experimentation I realized I could get just what I needed with a couple of standard hot-shoe flash units (e.g. Speedlites) strategically placed in off-camera positions around my subject.
This isn’t really anything new, but coming from a more traditional lighting background, it was new to me. I have to admit I was a little reluctant to believe professional lighting results were possible without my big lights, and I wondered what clients and editorial subjects would say when I showed up with my little flash units. But no one ever really seemed to notice. As long as it seemed like I was comfortable with my tools, and they were confident that I would get the results we were all looking for, it didn’t matter. Light is light, and good photos are good photos.
Setup and breakdown was so easy with my flash configuration it pretty much became my go-to lighting for most of my work. Off-camera flash setups are powerful enough for most jobs, aren’t dependent on external power supplies, small enough to use anywhere, and easy to carry around…it’s been great!
The setup I use is simple. It consists of a compact light stand, umbrella adapter, shoot-through umbrella, radio trigger, and some connectors. Two of these rigs go with me everywhere. Most of it stays assembled and ready to go. Recently, I’ve also started using a larger softbox (pictured below), but still with the same hot-shoe flash inside.
In this guide, I want to show you how to put together a little setup like this for your own purposes. You can use your system’s automatic flash exposure features (E-TTL II, i-TTL, etc.) if you’re not yet comfortable with manual camera and flash settings. But eventually you might want to learn more advanced techniques, and using manual settings, in order to achieve any creative result you can envision. Download the following ebooks for reference and tips on how to create better portraits with flash. And follow along with the rest of this guide to get a basic off-camera flash setup going!
What You’ll Need
There are many ways to put together an off-camera flash setup. Here are some of the items I’ve used to setup my low-budget lighting stands:
- Light Stand: Impact Air-cushioned Light Stand (Black, 8’)
- Swivel Bracket: Phottix Varos Pro BG or Impact Umbrella Bracket
- Cold Shoe Mount: Vello Universal Accessory Shoe Mount
- Flash Triggers: Yongnuo (choose for camera type)
- Translucent Umbrella: Impact White Translucent Umbrella (43”)
- Softbox Kit: Lastolite Ezybox Hot Shoe Softbox Kit
- Large Softbox: Apollo Orb by Westcott – 43″ Octagonal
Putting It Together
Keep in mind there are several ways to get a flash on a stand, with or without an umbrella modifier, and using the products and pieces I’ve mentioned in this guide, or items you might find elsewhere. Below is just one example of an off-camera flash setup with a translucent umbrella modifier (see steps and stills from my video, and/or watch the entire video). Keep in mind when assembling the pieces that the angle adjustment knob or lever should be on the right-hand side as the cold shoe mount, flash, umbrella, and any additional attachments face away from you. This will keep everything oriented correctly.
STEP 1) Attach the umbrella adapter (swivel bracket) to the light stand. The end with the hole for the umbrella is on top. Place the adapter so that it fits over the stud on the light stand. Tighten the knob so that the umbrella adapter is securely mounted to the stud. If the umbrella adapter you’re using doesn’t already have a cold shoe attached to the top, you’ll have to place one there yourself (otherwise, skip to step 3).
STEP 2) Attach the cold shoe to the umbrella adapter. The cold shoe adapter shown here has standard 1/4”-20 mounting thread on the bottom. You can screw a stud/spigot into it to provide a way to mount it to the top of the umbrella adapter. Place the stud into the top hole of the umbrella adapter, and tighten the knob to secure the cold shoe.
STEP 3) Attach radio trigger receiver. If you are using an external receiver to trigger your flash unit from its base, then attach it to the cold shoe. It might be possible to avoid using the cold shoe in this case if the trigger receiver has a mounting thread that can fit onto the stud. However, I’m more comfortable securing any trigger receiver or trigger adapters to the cold shoe.
STEP 4) Attach your flash unit. Secure the flash to the receiving unit of the flash trigger (if used) or directly to the cold shoe, depending on your setup.
STEP 5) Attach the umbrella. Slide the shaft of the umbrella into the hole of the umbrella adapter and tighten the knob to secure it. Again, make sure the angle adjusting knob or lever of the umbrella adapter is on the right-hand side as the flash is pointed away from you. The angle of the hole that holds the umbrella in place is setup so that it only works properly this way. Your flash will not be angled correctly into the umbrella otherwise.
Here’s a video demonstrating how I configure my off-camera flash setups:
Off-Camera Flash with a Softbox
While an umbrella may be used in the bounce-out position, where the inside of the umbrella reflects light back toward the subject, I generally prefer the shoot-through configuration; the top of the umbrella points toward the subject acting as a diffuser for the flash. But, there is a side-effect when standard translucent umbrellas are used this way; much of the light also bounces out of the umbrella into the room. This can be a good thing, if you want more diffused light bouncing around. But not so good if you’re trying to get a more controlled effect as you would with an enclosed softbox.
Another problem arises in outdoor use where an umbrella can easily catch the wind and take your whole light stand down with it. For these reasons, it might be a good idea to look into a softbox solution.
I use the Lastolite Ezybox Hot Shoe Softbox, or the Apollo Orb Octagonal 43″ softbox by Westcott for quick work. The Lastolite comes with a mounting kit that allows you to setup a flash unit outside the box for easy access and optical wireless transmission. The Apollo Orb allows you to place the flash unit inside the modifier, but radio triggering is necessary for best results.
In the photo below, the Lastolite (24″ version shown) is actually mounted to a monopod, which is great for outdoor use when you’ve got an assistant who can hold the setup for you. This will give you a lot of flexibility when it comes to positioning the softbox, and guarantees the whole thing, including the flash, won’t come crashing to the ground with a gust of wind.
Using Your Off-Camera Flash Kit
Setting up your off-camera flash is one thing, knowing how to use it effectively is another. A single (one-light) setup is extremely versatile, but eventually you’ll want to add more lights to achieve professional results. But whether you’re using one or multiple lights, with or without ambient lighting added to the mix, the main light (or key light) is what you need to get right. It’s the foundation lighting of the portrait.
To position your key light, start with a standard 45/45 orientation to your subject’s face, which is my starting point for most of my off-camera flash portraits. That is, the light should be about 45 degrees to either her right, or left, and angled down about 45 degrees from above.
How do you determine the proper settings, distances, and specific positions for your light? If you’re shooting with automatic flash like Canon’s E-TTL II or Nikon’s CLS and i-TTL, you can get good results most of the time. Otherwise, you can use manual flash for more, and arguably better flash control. As for placement, I generally start with the key light about 3 ft. (or less) from the subject’s face. Download my free guides for more in-depth portrait photography tips here.
Two Lights for Pro-Level Photography
With one off-camera flash (modified with either a softbox or a shoot-through umbrella) you’ll be able to create some amazing portraits. If you’re using no other light in the environment, and a fast shutter speed, you can vary the amount of illumination visible on your background by changing the distance between the light and your subject and background. If you’re using the environment as background, and there are ambient light sources in the room, a slower shutter speed will help you record those lights in the exposure.
Now, if you bring in another light on a stand, you can use it with or without a modifier as a fill light or rim light source. Fill lighting is good for lowering the contrast created by using only one light. Rim lighting is another great use of a second light to enhance your portraits. This bright light placed somewhat to one side and behind your subject can help create everything from a barely noticeable highlight, to a defining rim light (kicker), to a strong secondary light which can pass as window light in some cases. One important thing a second light does when used this way is to visually separate the subject from the background. This can create a slick and polished look when used effectively.
I often use this and other methods of cross lighting to create nice effects for my portraiture. Here’s a quick overview of two-light techniques:
Naturally, you can even go beyond the two-light setup and use additional lights for fill, background, hair light, and side lighting effects. There’s no end to what you can do with your portraiture once you open up the options with off-camera flash.
Beginner to Advanced Flash Photography
Once you’ve got the basics down, you’ll quickly progress to intermediate and advanced off-camera flash techniques used by the pros. And they are very important to know, because it’s techniques like these that will catapult you to the next level of portrait photography. I highly recommend that you invest in a good course to learn how to do this type of lighting.
One of the best courses I’ve come across is Advanced Off-Camera Flash Photography.