Off Camera Flash – Part 1

Posted on September 24, 2011


People often ask me how and why my images look so much better than the majority of images who aren’t a pro. What is the “magic” that is used to create them? Well, there isn’t any magic. Contrary to what other pros want you to think. There are no secrets, even though many wish others to believe there are secrets.

With this being said, there are a few things you can do to improve your images. One of the first and cheapest things to do is move the flash away from the camera. Why isn’t the flash so stark or overwhelming? That is up to you as a photographer. You can control this.

If you have attended a wedding, you will probably see them use a flash bracket. A flash bracket is a device that keeps the flash always above the camera lens enough so that red eye doesn’t occur and shadows fall down behind the subject. If you watch someone shooting outside, they will probably have a flash on a stand or tripod next to them (or a reflector, but we aren’t talking about them here). These are the two most popular things to do to move the flash away from the camera.

Before we go into the different methods too far, we need to understand light and fill flash. Most people today who use flash put the flash on the camera, turn the flash on, and shoot away with the camera in program mode. What does this accomplish? Well, it will let you know if the camera can take the picture. What do you know or control about the image being taken? Nothing. You are trusting the camera knows enough about what is going on to take the picture, and relays that information to the flash. You often let the flash use the camera’s sensor with a “TTL” (through the lens) connection for metering. This isn’t to say this won’t get you an image, but you lack any control with taking the image and ability to repeat it. Frequently, you will find the image too dark or too bright – it rarely is just right.

If you are one of these people who put everything on fully automatic, we need to break you of this habit. Don’t quit cold turkey. Move gradually. There is an easy way to do this: start with power levels on the flash. This is done usually in 1/3 exposure stops at a time, with adjustments from 2 to 3 stops over and under exposure on the flash. Start by adjusting the flash to under exposure 1 stop and 2 stops. Experiment and see what it does. This type of use is called “fill flash”. Try it in various situations – inside, outside, and everywhere in between. You can leave the camera in its program mode to set the rest of the camera. Make sure you understand what the different settings levels do, and how the different settings impact the final image.

I wish there were an easy way to describe what will happen, but you should see a few things happen. Be sure to try this in full day light, twilight, and complete darkness of night. Watch to see what happens to the strength of the light, how the shadows look, and what happens to the light as it hits the surfaces in front of it. Pay close attention to these as you use the different strengths of flash.

This should give you enough to do for one entry. This should keep you busy for at least a week experimenting. I will start to cover manual exposure with a flash in the next blog on off camera flash.