Off-camera flash: how to stop fearing your flashgun and take control of lighting

Lighting portraits with off-camera flash

Using your flashgun away from your camera isn’t that hard, and the results can be great. In this quick guide to off-camera flash we explain everything you need to know about how to take control of lighting.

Off-camera flash: answers to all the common questions on how to take control of lighting

Common questions about off-camera flash

My camera has a flash built in, so why do I need an off-camera one?

Simply because it will give you more control over how a subject or scene is lit. Pop-up flashes can provide perfectly good results in a number of situations.

They’re great for adding a catchlight to eyes, for instance, or for brightening up a backlit portrait on a sunny day. And, of course, they can enable you to take pictures when there’s little or zero daylight.

The problem is that built-in flashes are not very powerful: you need to be within a few feet of a subject to light it effectively. The flash units themselves are also small and in a fixed position, so pictures tend to have that obvious, harsh flashed look.

Doesn’t using a flashgun on top of the camera improve things?

A dedicated flashgun brings more power and creative options, with many of these external units allowing you to rotate the flash head and bounce the light off walls and ceilings.

This spreads the beam and produces more natural-looking results. However, a flashgun mounted on the camera’s hotshoe can still leave you with uninspiring, flat lighting.

It also causes problems if you hold the camera vertically; the light will either come from the right or (more likely) the left of the picture, casting a shadow across the rest of the frame.

For the ultimate control of your flash lighting – whether you want to subtly blend the flash with existing light or make it more directional and dramatic – you’ll need to get it away from the camera.

SEE MORE: 8 flash photography mistakes every photographer makes (and how to avoid them)

How can I take the flash off-camera?

There are a number of ways that you can use the flash remotely, yet still retain an electronic connection with the camera. The most basic of these is with an off-camera flash cord.

These are essentially hotshoe extension cables, with one end slipping onto the camera’s hotshoe and the other end locking onto the base of the flashgun.

With the cord attached, you can continue to use all the features of a dedicated flashgun as if it was still mounted on top of the camera, but you have the freedom to position the flashgun anywhere within the range of the remote cord.

If you want to place the flash further away or use more than one flashgun to light a photo, a wireless trigger system starts to make sense.

There are many options available, depending on how advanced you want to get with your flash set-up – and the size of your budget.

What is a wireless flash trigger?

A trigger has two parts: a transmitter, usually referred to as a master or commander unit and a receiver, also known as a slave.

The master can be a flash transmitter attached to the camera’s hotshoe; a flashgun with master/slave functionality; or even the pop-up flash itself on a DSLR with a built-in wireless flash trigger. But the result is the same: it sends a signal to a slave unit, and the flash fires.

Many wireless flash triggers are based on an infrared signal, with the flashguns triggered by a beam of light. The drawbacks of this approach are that there has to be a clear line of sight between the transmitters and receivers, and the system has a 
limited range.

More useful (and more expensive) is a wireless system that uses radio frequencies to fire the flashes. The flashguns don’t have to follow the line-of-sight rule, so you can conceal them behind objects in your scene.

They also have a much greater range than infrared systems, so you can position the camera where you want.

How much should I expect to spend?

Camera manufacturers offer their own wireless flash transmitters, but there are many third-party options available. Prices range from about £30 to over £300, and you tend to get what you pay for.

Budget models offer no-frills manual control of the flash, where you have to work out the power setting for the flashgun and distance you need to place it from the subject.

More expensive units feature TTL (Through The Lens) control, where the camera sets the flash exposure automatically, as well as the ability to manually adjust the flash power level to make a subject brighter or darker, trigger multiple flashes in different groups and fire the camera in addition to the flashgun(s).

Most wireless triggers work with specific makes of camera, so ensure a model is compatible with your camera before buying. Some cameras and flashguns even come with wireless triggering built in.

Canon’s 7D has an integrated transmitter that can fire one or more compatible Canon flashguns, although the range is limited to around 30 feet and there has to be line of sight between the transmitter on the camera and the receiver on the flashgun.

PAGE 1: Common questions about off-camera flash
PAGE 2: Shoot with off-camera flash using cords
PAGE 3: Adding texture with off-camera flash
PAGE 4: Improve your vertical shots with off-camera flash
PAGE 5: Lighting portraits with off-camera flash

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