I am sure if you have been shooting for a few years you must own at least one speedlight / flash.
It’s probably cooling off somewhere inside your camera bag. That’s the most natural thing to do. I mean not that your flash is cooling inside your camera bag, but that you did buy a flash.
A flash is often the first new addition to a photographer’s arsenal once s/he figures out the misgivings of natural light.
Natural light is great. It is bright. It is predictable (at most times of the day). You can use diffusers to make it soft when you need to modify it. The best thing is it is free.
There are issue with natural light though. The main problem with natural light is it changes throughout the day. That is both a good and a bad thing. This makes it difficult to work with natural light for an extended period of time.
The other problem with natural light is you cannot change its position relative to your subject. The only thing that you can do is change the position of your subject, and sometimes even that is not possible. Thus, you are kind of limited in your options to shoot with natural light. Hence the need for an external light source to work with.
The flash / speedlight is a natural choice for most photographers.
Hesitance to Use the Flash Off-Camera
The thing is most photographers don’t always transcend from using an external flash mounted on their camera to using it off-camera. Off-camera flash is the most important trick to learn if you are serious about using artificial lights in your photography. It is not only necessary but the only way you are going to get the maximum mileage out of using external lights.
It is ok to start with using on-camera lighting, and that includes both the pop-up flash and the external flash mounted on your camera. But in the long term you will need to learn how to start using the flash off-camera.
Why Use Off-Camera Flash
The big question in your mind at this point would be – Why? On-camera flash seems perfect. It is bright, intense and seems to do the job. The answer, in brief is that, an off-camera flash does not only work as a fill-light or balance light for your photos but is actually the critical missing piece that completes the jigsaw puzzle. That missing piece is of dimension and depth.
If you review your photos shot with on-camera flash, they would most likely be well-exposed and well-made, however, you will likely notice something amiss. That being dimension and depth, something that you are normally used to seeing when you look at things and something that is likely going to be missing in your photos. This is because when you fire the light straight on, you tend to render your images flat.
The biggest reason why you need to set-up and fire the flash off-camera is so that you can achieve something that natural light allows you to do – capture depth and dimension in your images. Depth means visual depth and dimension which comes from being able to convey a three dimensional feel in a two dimensional medium are the two greatest advantages of using off-camera lights.
We already learned that natural light changes throughout the course of the day. If you need to shoot for an extended period of time you would need artificial lights which do not change over the course of the day.
Even when shooting in natural light, artificial lights can help you get that extra bit of spice in your images. By combining artificial and natural lights you can get better results when the light is not perfect.
How to Set-up Your Light Off-camera
Contrary to popular believe setting up your flash off-camera is very easy. There are many ways to achieve this. You need to take your flash off the hot-shoe first for attempting any of these methods. After you do that you need to choose the method you will use for triggering your flash.
Method 1 – Using the Slave Mode
Almost all flash units have a built-in slave mode. When the flash is set to this mode it waits for a trigger. The trigger is another source of light. When the trigger is fired the external flash fires instantaneously. You can use the pop-up flash on your camera to tell the external flash when to fire.
Just so that the pro-up flash does not interfere with the exposure settings that you have set and the amount of additional light you need to be introduced into a scene, set the pop-up flash to its lowest power. Small enough to trigger the external flash but not large enough to impact the exposure.
Method 2 – Using a Cable
External flash unit can be connected using a hot-shoe TTL cable. One end of the cable is connected to the hot-shoe of your camera and the other end is connected to the flash. When you fire the shutter release the flash fires instantaneously as if the flash is actually connect to the camera. This though is, technically, using an external flash off-camera, the flash is still attached to the camera via a cord.
Method 3 – Using a Wireless Transmitter
Wireless transmitters are the best way to manage one or more flash units. These transmitters (or more aptly named transceivers) are attached to the flashes. A similar transceiver is attached to the camera via the hot-shoe. The better quality transceivers have options to be set in channels.
The advantage is you can set several flash heads and arrange them into groups. Let’s say you are shooting a portrait session of several individuals and have set-up two different lighting setups for two different looks. You can set-up one group of light under Channel A and the other group under Channel B. To select each channel all you have to do is switch to the appropriate channel and that’s it. This saves you from having to rearrange all the lights after each shoot. You can simply switch between each lighting set-up by selecting the appropriate channel.
Mixing Artificial and Natural Lights: Blue Hour portrait
An example that comes to my mind immediately is the use of artificial lights for blue hour portraits. Blue hour, is the half an hour after sunset when the sky still has a patch of blue sky and the western corner of the sky has a bright hues of yellow, orange and red. It is a small window before the sky turns completely dark.
Shooting at this time of the day requires precise exposure measurement, balancing of the foreground and background light and of course a good external light. Though strobes are ideally suitable because they are more powerful, smaller flashes can also be used, albeit from a closer distance.
You can do a lot more with a flash. If you have more than one units you could set up a professional two or even three point lighting set-up without much fuss and with excellent results. A flash is more versatile inside a small studio but with a little bit of ingenuity it can be used outdoors too. In a future discussion we shall discuss some more examples of using a flash.