How To Begin Using Off-Camera Lighting

by William Lulow

At some point, if you wish to improve your portraits, you will have to use some kind of “off-camera” lighting. The best way to begin to do this is to get a light stand and a hot shoe on which you will mount your flash. Now, with Canon equipment, there is a way to fire an external flash using your camera’s built-in flash.

Follow these steps:

  • First, set up your Canon flash as a slave unit. (This means that it will flash when the camera’s shutter is released, but the camera’s built-in flash will not).
  • Second, enable your camera’s built-in flash.
  • Third, make sure your external Canon flash is on the same channel as the camera. (Refer to the manual)
  • Fourth, adjust exposure.
  • Fifth, take the picture.

The results you can achieve will be similar to those you can get by using a continuous light source. You have to experiment with the various lighting setups I have written about and explained in previous articles.

Here are a couple of examples:



The first image here is an example of an EDGE LIGHTING and the second is an example of a SIDE LIGHTING. Both were made with a Canon 430 EX II flash unit and a Canon camera. The camera’s built-in flash was enabled, the camera was synched to Channel 1 (same as the flash unit). As you can see, the camera’s flash did not fire, but the remote unit did.

You can experiment with placing the off-camera flash in many different positions to see what the results will be. It would be helpful to refer to my earlier articles about lighting to get an idea of where to place the light. Almost all great portraits are made with external lighting. You can’t get different lighting results with a light fixed at the camera position. Also, this particular technique will not work with flash units that are not compatible with your camera. So check to see that whatever camera you are using can be synched with the flash you have or are thinking about buying. You will have to consult both your camera and the flash manuals to see if this is possible. The best way to learn about off-camera lighting is to follow my series of articles on the subject using continuous light sources and then translate them to flash equipment. I publish these articles from time to time on this blog.