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Quick Tip: Dramatic Portraits With Off Camera Flash


This quick tip article is all about getting your flash off the camera, and using it in creative ways to capture great, dramatic portraits. Whether you use a dusty old garage sale hot shoe speed light or the latest electronic strobe kit matters much less than how you place, and direct your light. Lets take a look at a few items you'll need to get started!

Tools You Need

I am a Nikon shooter, and one great thing about most Nikon cameras is that you can trigger almost any Nikon hot shoe flash wirelessly by dialing your cameras flash into 'commander' mode. This method will work up to about 15 feet, and can be a cheap work-around if you are on a budget.

Regardless of what camera you shoot with, you are going to need radio triggers to trigger your flash, and of course, a flash. You could use a cable trigger, but this is a little limiting.

The photo below shows a standard flash, and a set of the best available wireless radio triggers, Pocket Wizards. The transmitter is attached to the camera hot shoe, and the transceiver is attached to your flash. When you press the shutter the wireless flash is told to fire!

off-camera flash portrait

The photo below shows both an umbrella mount, and a umbrella. You can use any light modifier you like, but if you like nice, soft light for portraits, using an umbrella is a great tool to achieve it.

off-camera flash portrait

Get Shooting

The next few images were shot using a wireless flash setup like the one I have discussed above. This lighting setup is simple - just place a large light source 45 degrees to your left, and a backlight behind your subject. In both cases no fill light was used.

off-camera flash portrait
off-camera flash portrait

Mixing Flash With Available Light

When mixing flash with ambient light, a whole world of technical possibilities can open up. The key thing to know is that your aperture will control flash exposure, and your shutter speed will control the ambient light. Normally when I find a location I want to use I first find the best exposure for the scene, (ex: f5.6 @ 1/125 sec). I then set my wireless flash to produce a exposure of f5.6, but I will shorten the shutter speed by two stops or so.

For the photo below we set the camera to f5.6 @ 1/200th sec, to darken the ambient light, using the flash to create a rim light separating the body and face from the dark background.

off-camera flash portrait

Additional Resources

off-camera flash portrait

Strobist is an amazing website with enough resources to keep you busy for months. If you couldn't study photography in an academic way but want to learn everything there is to professional lighting, I'd like to introduce you to David Hobby. He is the man.

off-camera flash portrait

Off Camera Flash is another site with plenty of great off camera flash techniques and lessons. It's a great resource and the photography is easy on the eyes too.

Thanks For Reading

I hope these tips will help those wanting to start using off camera flash. Lighting your subjects with remote flashes can be fun, easy, and often result in great portraits!

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