How To Work With Portable Flash Off-Camera
By William Lulow
Whenever there isn’t enough light present to make a picture, the flash on your camera will probably pop up so that you will have enough to make a “proper” exposure.
Isn’t this great? If there isn’t enough light, light gets added automatically! What could be better?
The problem comes with the kind of light these pop up flashes provide. If your unit is part of your camera, it is called a built in flash. And, although it will usually light the scene in front of the camera, the light it makes is:
- Comes from camera position
- Doesn’t light the background
- Usually is not strong enough for specialized uses
What makes the light harsh?
- It is aimed directly at your subject
- It is of very short duration
- It casts harsh shadows on every other part of the subject
What makes it direct?
- It is coming from the camera position
- It is not changeable
- It produces a very flat type of light which simply lights the subject
What makes it specular?
- The flash on the camera is usually quite small compared to the subject
- It acts as a “point” light source
- It causes bad reflections on shiny objects and even on people’s faces
- It will cause “red eye” which is really the reflection of the retina in a person’s eye because the flash point is so close to the axis of the lens itself
Why doesn’t a built in flash light the background?
- Since it is built in to the camera, the strength of the flash will only go as far as the subject
- Backgrounds will be black because the flash only measures lamp-to-subject distance
- Even automatic flash units will only measure lamp-to-subject distance.
So, as your photographic expertise grows, you will want to do away with most on-camera flash situations in favor of using off-camera flash setups. If you use an on-camera flash that attaches to the camera’s hot shoe, you can aim that unit up or to the side to get a bounce effect which will serve to soften the light. But at some point, you will need to get at least one other unit that can be used off the camera.
Most camera manufacturers make flash units that can be used off-camera. They can be connected to the camera with a special wire or wirelessly. There are specialized brackets which take the flash off the lens axis and elevate it to approximate a “Hollywood” type light. This eliminates red-eye and gives the subject a more overall light. It is still harsh in nature, but at least it is coming from a different direction. The thing to strive for is to have a flash unit that is attached to a light stand that you can move around to create different types of lightings and moods.
So, experiment with the flash or light off the camera and see what effects you can achieve. I have enumerated some of them in last weeks’ articles. Go back and re-read some of them for ideas.
This is one of my off-camera flash units mounted on a light stand complete with a radio receiver and a portable power pack. I can move this unit around to achieve various lightings including EDGE LIGHT, HALO LIGHT, SIDE LIGHT, BACKGROUND LIGHT or FILL-IN LIGHT. In combination with my on-camera light, this gives me quite a range of lighting setups from which to choose. In fact, I often use the on-camera light as a fill-in by attaching a diffusion dome to the light and aiming it upwards.
These are just some ways in which you can begin to use your lights off the camera to approximate the kinds of lighting setups you might use in the studio.