There’s More To Flash Than What’s On Camera

Recently I’ve been working with a lot of models and doing some portrait work as well, which has prompted some to ask me questions regarding the setup, as well as what would be a good place to start.  The first thing to remember is a lighting setup need not be complicated, and once you learn a few basic principles, it becomes infinitely easier.

Bounce Flash.
Bounce Flash: This image of Yahaira was made using the EOS 1D Mark IV and and 24-105L lens. The flash was on-camera, but we are not using direct flash to light the subject. Using a reflector positioned above the camera to the left, I bounced the flash into the reflector, which then lit Yahaira's face. Mixed with the ambient light from the window behind her, this setup provided nice, soft directional lighting, and was simple to set up.

First and foremost, direct light from the camera will never be flattering to your subject.  It’s harsh, and coming straight on from the camera, that flash illuminates every forward facing surface on your subject, making them appear larger. Not what anyone wants. The easy solution is to remove the flash from the camera and use more directional light from the side.

Direct flash aside, I’ve found the simplest way to achieve nice lighting is to use your camera’s flash system.  All camera makers today have full featured wireless flash systems, that will allow you to move light off camera when ready. But before we even get to that, keep in mind that on-camera flash does not need to be direct flash.  I’ll often use a reflector set up on a stand to the side of the camera, to create a nice soft bounce on my subject. The flash then stays on camera and all I have to do is adjust the flash head to aim it at the bounce.  Remembering high school geometry helps.  By playing the angles and working with your subject’s pose, as well as using whatever light is available, you can create a number of looks. Just about any reflector will do.  I have one friend who uses the silver side of home insulation boards from Home Depot.  I have used several 5-in-1 reflectors that provide a choice of gold, silver, or white, and I’m currently loving the Westcott Bruce Dorn 42″ reflector, with the unbleached muslin.  The main key here is to use a large reflector- at least 36″.  One of the key tenets of lighting- the larger the light source, the softer the light will be. A 36 inch reflector can be had for around $40-50, with the Bruce Dorn model I use going for around $80.

Once you’ve started working with this technique, there are a number of things you can work off it. Eventually, however, you will want to move the flash off camera, for greater control of the light. I

This image of Sashalee was captured using the Canon wireless flash system. A 580 EXII was placed in a large (40x60") softbox to camera left, while a second 580EX II was placed behind the model and aimed at the red wall. A large 42" reflector was then positioned at camera right for fill.

find using Canon’s wireless speedlight system to be very easy to control the light and create different effects. Other manufacturers have similar systems.  Unfortunately, you can’t just start positioning flashes off camera wherever.  Why not?  Well, there’s that first tenet again- the larger the light source, the softer the light. Flashes are very small light sources, and thus create a very harsh light.  Which leads us to modifiers.

There are countless flash modifiers on the market. I liken them to diet pills and weight loss aids. Each one will be the one that pushes your lighting where you want it to be, with little to no effort. the problem is while there are many excellent modifiers out there, most require at least some basic lighting knowledge to be used effectively.

My favorites are the softboxes.  There are a variety out there, but for someone just starting out, it’s hard to go wrong with Westcott Apollos. They come in several sizes.  The beauty of them is that they collapse like umbrellas, so they travel well, and set up quickly and easily.  I currently have a 28″ Westcott Apollo, as well as the 16 inch Mini Apollo.  The 28 inch kit with a stand retails for less than $150.  One other softbox I use is a Westcott Bruce Dorn 18×42″ strip box.  This one’s a bit tougher to set up, but creates a soft, beautiful light.  It’s also a bit more expensive, with the softbox and Magic Slipper speed ring running at about $400 for the kit.

You’ve probably noticed I haven’t mentioned umbrellas yet.  The

This shot was made using one off-camera flash in a Westcott MiniApollo softbox. The flash was a Canon 430 EX II, positioned in the softbox to camera left, behind the model. To camera right, in front of the model, was a reflector, to kick light back into her face.

reason for this is I’m not a huge fan of umbrellas.  Don’t get me wrong, they certainly have their place in a lighting kit.  My issue with them is that for a single subject, umbrellas “spray” the light far too much.  The great thing about a softbox is that for the most part, the light goes where you aim it.  Softboxes don’t provide much in the way of spill.  Umbrellas throw a much wider swath of light, making it more difficult to control.  You may get spill on your backgrounds, or in other places you didn’t intend. I find umbrellas more useful for groups where I’ll need that wider spread. My main advice though is to find what works for you.

So, as far as what do you need to get started- I’m a Canon shooter, so I can speak to getting started from there.  Other system users, you’ll have to do a little research.  First off, you need a flash. Canon makes two that serve the purpose well- the 580 EX II or the 430 EX II. For a first flash, to be completely honest, either one makes an excellent choice. Both have swivel heads and bounce capabilities, allowing you to start mastering bounce flash using those reflectors right away.  If you’re just starting with flash, I’d suggest purchasing a flash and good reflector first. If you don’t have a permanent assistant, look into a light stand and a reflector holder.  Worth the money.

When you’re ready to go off camera, you’ll need a few things. First off, you need a Master to trigger the wireless flashes. In the Canon system, you have a couple of options. The first option is the ST-E2 transmitter. This unit mounts like a flash and can trigger flashes in two groups, A &B. Your second option is the 580 EX II.  This flash can be used in “Master” mode, to trigger other off-camera flashes, in three groups, A, B, & C.  The important thing is that the Master Flash on the camera, does not need to fire for the exposure, so even though you have a flash on camera, your image will not have that straight on flash look. For 7D and 60D owners, the pop up flashes are both built with this Master flash capability, so there is no need to purchase anything extra for these cameras.

For this business portrait, we wanted the owner, Sharon, to be lit well and then have some coworkers in the background. I used the Westcot 18x42 strip box as the main light on Sharon, and a Westcott Mini Apollo as a hairlight behind her. The room behind Sharon was lit by two unmodified 430 EX flashes, bounced off the ceiling to just throw some light there and illuminate them.

Next, you’ll need off camera flashes- at least one to start. In the Canon system, both the 580 EX II and 430 EX II can be used off-camera in “slave” mode. You can have as many flashes as you want in up to three groups. One note- older Canon EX flashes such as the original 580 EX, 550 EX, and 430 EX, will all work as slave flashes. They don’t all need to be brand new. You’ll want light stands to position these on, and probably want umbrella brackets- especially with the Apollo softboxes. After you have the off-camera flashes, you need to decide what modifiers you want.

Start slowly. Most beginners I speak with go wrong when they try to do too much with the light. Master one light first, then begin adding more.  One other tenet to remember when positioning your lights: the closer the lights are to your subject, the softer the light will be. You want to have the lighting positioned just off camera, as close to the subject as possible. This will create some wraparound, softening the shadows a bit. try this sometime.  Take a household lamp with a bright shade, and move it closer to a subject.  Take a photo if you want.  Then, move it away and take another photo. Look at the difference in the light.

Once you’ve started playing, head over to my Facebook page and post your results to my wall.  I’d love to see what you’re all up to!


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