Improve Lighting With Off-Camera Flash

With the right gear, off-camera flash is easy to use and can give better-looking pictures than using on-camera flash. In fact, the freedom that off-camera flash gives is where the real benefits of flash photography begin.

If you’ve used off-camera flash before, you’ll know its potential and flexibility. It can make lighting look more natural and flattering, because the flash is positioned away from the axis of the lens and, as a result, subjects aren’t so harshly lit. Of course, it also increases opportunities to use more striking creative lighting techniques, different contrast ratios, or the light positioned at different angles. Off-camera light can be bounced, filtered, and modified more easily than hot shoe flash, too, and greater illumination can be used as the flash can be physically larger and use utility power.

Off-camera flash is also wide in scope – it could mean the flash is at arm’s length and connected by a physical cord, or hundreds of feet or yards away and activated using a radio signal. But to get working with off-camera flash, you will need some specific equipment – basically, a flash and a way of triggering it.

Sync Your Flash

First, a connection between the camera and the remote flash must be made. This is called syncing. Aside from activating the flash, syncing may also let you control settings that affect things like the power of the flash and the way in which it activates – like for example, using first or second curtain sync modes or using a stroboscopic mode. This is usually dependent upon the connection used to sync the flash to the camera, so it’s best to look at the product manuals to determine the depth of the flash’s functionality.

Traditionally, syncing was accomplished by connecting a physical cord to the sync terminal on a camera. However, this may limit creativity, as well as your ability to shape the light, because you will be limited by the length of the cable connecting the flash to the camera.

It is also likely that your flash can be activated from an optical or radio signal. You’ll find information on syncing the flashes within the specific product manuals, as well as how to make sure the flashes and wireless commanders communicate properly with the camera as well as each other. Wireless radio communication has become the standard for most flashes because it allows for greater range and control.

If you’re using multiple flashes off-camera, as well as the general channel, you can also define the group. This lets you make alterations to flash power and other settings, specifying one flash at a time, or clusters of them within the overall number.

Syncing systems should allow you to use TTL metering when working with off-camera flash, and the flash power will respond to the exposure settings you set. But you can also bias the output using flash exposure compensation, or set power manually.

Most flashes also have a secondary flash mode. In this mode, they can use an optical sensor to pick up flashes from another unit, whereupon they’ll also activate. This is a good backup, and lets you use both older and incompatible flashes with modern systems, but the level of control is purely down to triggering.

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Try Different Lighting Setups

Working with off-camera flash allows lots of freedom in flash placement, so you have almost unlimited options in how the light on the subject is shaped. In these examples, two flash units were moved around the subject, giving very different effects.

  • Learn photography with Fujifilm, Improve Lighting With Off-Camera Flash
  • Learn photography with Fujifilm, Improve Lighting With Off-Camera Flash
  • Learn photography with Fujifilm, Improve Lighting With Off-Camera Flash
  • Learn photography with Fujifilm, Improve Lighting With Off-Camera Flash

Because it doesn’t come from the same axis as the camera lens, off-camera flash can add a more natural-looking fill light than is possible with hot shoe flash. Stand your subject with the sun behind them and a little to one side or the other. Then set up a flash directly opposite the sun and pointing at the subject’s front, so it’s not too close to the camera. If you’re in TTL mode and the effect isn’t strong enough, increase the flash exposure compensation, or move the flash closer to the subject. If the effect is too strong, do the opposite.

Learn photography with Fujifilm, Improve Lighting With Off-Camera Flash

For a completely different and more contrasty look, try setting up a flash either side of, or even slightly behind, your subject, then place a reflector to their front. This look is commonly called rim lighting. Moving the flashes to this position will create an accent light along the edge of their face, while the reflector bounces the light back to fill in the shadows created. 

Learn photography with Fujifilm, Improve Lighting With Off-Camera Flash

When the flash is working away from the axis of the lens, it’s also easy to play with the lighting ratio. If you’re working in TTL exposure mode, set up the flashes to the side of your subject, and then set exposure compensation to a negative setting like -1 or -2EV.  Alternatively, if you are shooting manually, select a shutter speed to underexpose the ambient conditions by the required amount. The background will darken, letting the flash-lit subject stand out.

Just watch out that the exposure compensation doesn’t push your shutter speed above the camera’s sync speed – usually 1/180 sec or 1/250 sec – if it does, you may still be able to shoot in high speed sync (HSS) mode, but the flash power will be diminished. For this reason, it can be easier to use flash in manual exposure mode. Therein, the exposure meter scale shows the ambient light exposure.

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Flash Power Versus Flash Distance

With off-camera flash, there’s freedom to move your lights around however you like, but the distance between flash and subject is important in achieving the amount of light required to properly expose them. As you increase distance to the subject, the effective power of the flash is reduced. This is called light fall-off, meaning the brightness drops by the inverse of the distance from the subject. So at six feet, the brightness is only 1/4th of it its value at three feet, at nine feet it’s 1/9th of the brightness, and at 12 feet it’s 1/16th of the brightness.

How does this affect exposure? At a distance of three feet you might get a good exposure from the flash activating at full power when working with an aperture of F22. But increase the distance to six feet, and you’d need to widen the aperture to F11 to get equivalent brightness from the flash. At 12 feet you’d need F5.6, and so on.

As you know, changing the aperture of your lens will also affect any ambient light in the scene, so if you want to avoid that, you can make the flash’s output more focused, which will increase its effectiveness at range. To do this, either increase the zoom setting of the flash, which will focus it more, or attach a modifier like a reflector dish, which will have the same effect.

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  • Learn photography with Fujifilm, Improve Lighting With Off-Camera Flash1.5m flash

Your Next Steps

  • CHALLENGE If you’ve got an external flash, get out there and see what sort of creative lighting effects you can come up with. Create some pictures using the tips above and show us what it can do. Post your favorite image to social media with the hashtags #MyFujifilmLegacy and #flash. You can also submit your work here for a chance to be featured on our social media channels.