How To Shoot An Event With Portable Flash

by William Lulow

My set up for shooting a large event or wedding is to use a flash mounted on the camera and two or more other flash units mounted on light stands and placed strategically in the room, all connected by radio receivers. The sending unit I use has been modified to receive the on-camera flash:

This unit will fire the on-camera flash AND trigger all the radio slaves that in turn, fire the other flash units.

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The unit on the camera is used as a main light and most of the time I use it in bounce mode, usually with a diffusion dome. The other lights act as accent lights (halo lights or edge lights depending on the camera position).

If there is a high ceiling in the room, I’ll feather the main light a bit instead of bouncing it straight up. This way, a small amount of light from the flash will be aimed forward and the bulk of the light will be bounced up, off the ceiling. There are several things to consider when using this setup:

  • Bouncing light off of a high ceiling requires more power from the flash. This will drain the batteries more rapidly.
  • Bouncing light off of a high ceiling requires more light in general. Therefore, a higher ISO might need to be used.
  • Bounce light is generally much softer than direct flash. Therefore, the pictures tend to be more flattering.
  • Bounce light can be aimed off of a nearby wall in order to give the light some direction.

Keeping the flash attached to the camera ensures that wherever I move in the room, my subject will be lit correctly. The other external flash units can provide extra light for the background so that the room itself is fairly well lit. Or, they can be used, as I have indicated, as accent lights. The radio slaves can be easily turned off or on depending on how much light is needed in the room. Pocket Wizard makes a unit that can control all of the radios connected to external flash units from the on-camera transmitter to produce varying ratio lighting results.

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(Here is one of my external flash units mounted on a light stand, connected to a radio slave and powered by its own battery. Sometimes I diffuse or filter this light for different effects.)

With all of this being said, there are times when I try to shoot without any flash at all. If the room is light enough, I will sometimes bump up my ISO setting and shoot with available light. Most of the time, though, I find that additional lights are necessary.

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This image was made using one of the off-camera external flashes with the flash on-camera turned off. It highlights the action and frames it by keeping the foreground in shadow.

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This is pretty much the same scene, from a slightly different position,  but with the on-camera flash turned on. Many different lighting effects are possible with this setup. Remember that when you bounce a flash off of a ceiling, you are using the entire ceiling as a light source. The light will be much softer than if you used the flash directed at the subject. This gives the whole room a light effect.