The Most Important Flash Tip
Tools and techniques to help you get your flash off your camera
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For many of us, when we purchased our first DSLR, we also acquired a few accessories. Commonly included in that kit is a handheld flash, or speedlight. These flashes mount to the hot-shoe on top of the camera, and are brilliant devices that communicate with the camera via TTL metering to deliver accurate exposures almost every time. But, many new photographers aren’t told that even though that flash mounts easily to the top of the camera, that’s not the best place for it.
It’s a simple fact that if you stick a flash mere inches above your lens you’re going to create a very specific look—and it’s not usually a flattering one. With minimal shadows, hot spots and harsh glare, on-camera flash is definitely one of those “less is more” sort of things. So, I always advocate that for photographers to improve their flash photography by leaps and bounds, there’s nothing they can do that’s more effective than simply getting the flash off the camera. Here are some tips and techniques to help you harness the power of off-camera flash and create more appealing light with your handheld strobe.
The first, most basic technique for getting a flash off the camera is to use a TTL sync cord (a “smart” cord that maintains communication between camera and flash) and to hold the flash in an outstretched arm. Sure, it takes a bit of getting used to operating your camera with only one hand, but if you do so with your right hand and rely on autofocus, your left hand is free to reach up and out to get the flash as far away from the lens axis as humanly possible. What does this accomplish? First of all it creates depth and dimension in the scene, because it will create visible shadows. It’s the transition from light areas to shadows that creates the look of depth and dimension in a scene, and likewise it’s what sets off a subject from the background. This illusion of three-dimensionality in our inherently two-dimensional medium is one of the best ways to make a photograph more engaging. Getting the flash even just a foot or two off the camera goes a long way to accomplishing this.
You may notice when you watch commercial photographers at work, however, that they’re rarely holding a single flash in their hand. Often, especially in studio situations, they’re working with their light (well, usually several lights) on stands around the scene. You don’t have to have a studio full of lights to harness this same sort of lighting power. Getting your single flash far away from the camera and affixed to a light stand with an affordable hot-shoe bracket will really take your lighting to the next level. You can then position that light wherever it best compliments your subject, and as far away from the camera as you like. With the flash on a stand, you can position it for split lighting directly to the side of the subject, or use it as a backlight or hair light coming from behind. It can be a top light, or come from down low for a monster effect. The bottom line is that by simply freeing your flash from being stuck to your camera, the sky’s the limit when it comes to lighting looks.
But, how do you trigger that off-camera flash? When it’s this far from the camera, you probably want a wireless solution—perhaps a radio transmitter. PocketWizard makes a lineup of reliable, pro-caliber transceivers with varying levels of bells and whistles. With a PocketWizard on the camera’s hot-shoe and one connected to the flash, you can trigger your flash from very far away. When working like this though, there’s one caveat. If your flash is set to sleep after a few minutes of inactivity, you may want to check its custom functions to override that feature—otherwise you’ll have to keep returning to the flash to reboot if after it falls asleep every few minutes of inactivity.
When working across the room from a flash, I find it’s easiest to control the flash output manually. But there are TTL wireless solutions, including flashes that maintain their TTL sensibilities when communicating with the camera, and even high-end PocketWizard units that maintain TTL functionality. Whether it’s TTL or manual, one of the nicest things about working with flashes on stands is that it’s relatively easy to add other lights and build as complex a lighting scenario as you’re comfortable with. Even if you’re using “dumb” all-manual flashes, you can trip additional strobes by adding photocell slaves that are triggered when they detect the first flash. Many manufacturers’ flash systems offer robust master/slave triggering options on their better units.
Of course, you can always get old school with your off-camera triggering device. When I first implemented this technique I learned to use a household electrical cord in conjunction with plugs that added a PC connection on the camera end and a flash-specific connection on the other. That 15-year-old cable is still in my case as a backup, and it’s just as reliable as ever. Plus, it’s inexpensive and requires no batteries. The only downside is that you’ve got one more cable to watch out for, and you’re limited by its length.
However you trigger your flashes when they’re off the camera, perhaps the most important technique to remember is that you aren’t limited to a bare flash pointed directly at the subject. For those without many modifiers, bouncing strobes off of white walls and ceilings is a great way to turn small, hard-light units into big, broad, super-soft sources. For a flash aimed straight up at the ceiling, a little bit of white cardboard rubber-banded to the back of the strobe creates some frontal fill while the bulk of the light bounces off the ceiling and comes from above. It’s another low-cost, low-tech tool that is well worth more than its weight in gold.
Of course, the best way to modify your handheld strobe’s output is to treat it just like a big studio light. Many manufacturers offer light modifiers like grid spots and snoots, softboxes and umbrellas that can soften the light or focus it just like studio-strobe counterparts. When it comes to a handheld flash, the only difference between it and bigger, more expensive strobes is the amount of light they output. While handheld strobes are lower power, that can also be a benefit. It’s easier to balance low-power strobe output with many levels of available light, from daylight to dim interiors. Handheld strobes are a huge advantage in these situations where high-powered packs and monolight studio systems just aren’t as effective. Combine this with the cost savings and extreme portability of compact flashes and it’s easy to see why they’ve become so popular in recent years. Ultimately almost any flash can be used to shape light just as any high-power strobe can. And it always starts by simply getting the flash off the camera.