Friday, May 14, 2010

Using Off-Camera Flash

By Brendan Keenan, Penn Camera Tysons Corner

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When it comes to good photography, it is all about the light. Light is what makes a photo after all. Controlling light can mean the difference between a snapshot, and a great photograph. Yet many people, even digital SLR users, are only using the light around them, or the light that comes from their camera. To take control, the best thing to do is to take the light source off the camera. Through proper use of simple off-camera flashes, any photographer can take greater control over light, and get much better photographs.

Though it varies from camera to camera and flash to flash (check your manual), the basics are the same. Even a simple two flash setup can illustrate how off-camera flash works. One flash serves as the master, or commander flash. The second flash is the slave unit. The slave unit uses a sensor, sometimes optical, sometimes infrared, that faces the camera to allow it to fire when the master flash or camera sends the signal. In a multiple flash set-up, always make sure each sensor is facing the master camera or flash. Most speedlights from manufacturers like Nikon or Canon will swivel around so that you can always orient the sensor toward the master flash, which can be the camera's pop-up flash. In many cases, the best way to set up the off-camera unit(s) is to use light stands, or even tripods or monopods. This is because depending on what you are photographing, lighting placement may be very different. So when should off-camera flash be used to achieve the best results? For anything from photographing small objects for eBay, to portrait or even event photography.

Let's start with portrait photography. Taking the main light source away from the camera, or using multiple off camera flashes can create much more flattering effects. The best way to maximize control in this case (besides using light stands or tripods) is to use lighting modifiers. Lighting modifiers will help to control the light from the flash units. Using either something near the flash like an umbrella to shoot off or through, or an accessory like a Gary Fong Lightsphere or a Honl light modifier that attaches directly to the flash, you can control how soft or harsh, direct or indirect light is, and create the effect you are looking for. Remember, it's all about controlling the light. This is mostly the same for event photography. For lighting larger areas or groups, you may have to use multiple flashes and stands, umbrellas, or reflectors, or get really creative and use your surroundings. You can experiment with things like bouncing strong light off the ceiling, to control light in larger spaces.

Another great use for off-camera flash is when shooting macro photography. Whether it is photographing flowers, or even smaller items like coins for eBay, off-camera flash can create dramatic results, and show the detail that close-up photography demands. One good reason is that you can place the flash very close to your subjects. By using light from only inches from a subject, your lens can use very small f-stops, like f16 or f22, to create a large depth of field, something that is often hard to attain in macro photography. To increase the detail on small objects, it is often helpful to use the off-camera flash to light the subject from the side, which helps to bring out detail in very small subjects. The best way to create even lighting and eliminate shadows when taking pictures of items for eBay is the use of lighting modifiers, the easiest being a small light box, or light tent. With a light box, you can place the object inside the box, shooting through an opening, while lighting the subject from the sides or even above, through the tent. This will create an even, diffuse lighting that is perfect for product photography.

These are just the basics of off-camera lighting. But even simply using one off-camera flash unit can really change your photos. By adding multiple lights, stands, and simple light modifiers, it can be surprisingly easy to take your photography to the next level. Through gaining greater control over light, any photograph can be improved. It is amazingly quick and simple to do these basic setups described above, but it's the improvement in your photographs that will be truly amazing.

If you’re looking for a demonstration of the techniques discussed here, be sure to attend one of our free in-store mini-seminars or one of our more in-depth classes with professional instructors. Keep checking back! New classes are added all the time.