One of the most effective ways to improve your portrait shots is to learn how to control light, and one of the most effective ways to control light is to move it. This seems like a fairly simple concept, but it may not be so obvious in practice, especially if you’re using a camera flash. Despite the name, an on-camera flash does not have to be permanently on the camera. “On-camera” in this case refers to the flash’s form factor itself and the ability to attach it to the camera via a hot shoe. This is very convenient and makes it easier to use the flash in some situations, but simply removing the flash from the camera gives you more flexibility and control over the light pattern. So, how do you use the flash after taking it off the camera?
Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT
The most unusual part of working with a flash that is not attached to the top of the camera is its synchronization and activation, or as they say, “fire”. When the flash is on the hot shoe, the camera essentially does all the work for you. But once it’s off, how do you make sure the flash fires at the right time and with the right amount of power? The answer partly depends on your hardware and whether your flash has a built-in radio transceiver, is compatible with a sync cable, or you need to find another way to activate it.
Connecting the camera and flash via a cable is the most obvious connection method, but it has its limitations. For example, cable length can limit flash placement options. The cable can also simply get in the way during operation, and in some cases even be dangerous. At the same time, the camera-cable-flash systems are very reliable and easy to install.
Wireless flash activation is fine for most situations, but it does require some preparation. The choice of synchronizer will depend on your flash and what you are trying to get. The flash can be set on fire via optical and radio channels — each of the methods has its pros and cons, and an entire article can be devoted to considering synchronization methods.
In short, activating a wireless flash, especially over the air, is an intuitive method that has virtually no restrictions on how and where to fire the flash. The range of radio triggers is usually much greater than cable or optical, and you don’t need line of sight to fire the flash successfully. It’s also the easiest way to set up multiple lighting options, for example if you’re shooting two, three, or more flashes at the same time.
Yongnuo RF-603 II C1 Radio Synchronizer for Canon
Regardless of which system you choose, make sure you are fully familiar with the nuances of how it works before using it. Wireless systems can take a bit of fiddling with group and channel settings, and even wired systems don’t always work in a plug-and-play fashion.
What to set the flash to?
The next step should be how you place the flash — how do you want to hold the flash in position? Sometimes the simplest answer is the best: just hold it in your hands.
This is especially convenient with more compact models: hold the flash with one hand while controlling the camera with the other. The process will feel a bit like juggling at first, but once you get used to it, it becomes the most intuitive way to place the light exactly where you need it. This method works well with both cable and wireless sync. It’s limited mainly by how far you can reach with the flash and how securely you can hold the camera with one hand.
If you’re looking for a more professional, consistent, and most importantly, reproducible way to work, look no further than studio lighting stands. You can refer to a small guide that will help you choose the type of stand that is compatible with your flash. Using some options, like the crane, will give you more flexibility in lighting positioning.
Crane Raylab BS02
Flash stabilization with a stand also makes modifiers easier to work with. In a pinch, you can also use a tripod or some kind of stable surface to support the flash, but you’ll probably find that a dedicated stand is the most convenient and efficient tool for the job. Stands also allow you to work simultaneously with multiple flashes and other light sources at a distance greater than an arm’s length.
Positioning and modification of light
Once you’ve securely set up your flash and learned how to fire it, it’s time to focus on the creative side of things: where do you want to place the light? Recall why we abandoned the location on the camera — in this position, the flash creates a bright and very sharp direct light. The most obvious alternative location that will add some intrigue is to place the flash on the side of the model. However, do not stop there. Try placing the flash above and below the subject’s eye level, and moving it closer or farther to change the quality of the light. In the beginning, it all boils down to experimentation: understanding how light works is best done through practice.
It is also worth considering additional ways to modify lighting. One of the advantages of off-camera flash work is that you can attach larger modifiers to the flash that are too bulky to use on-camera. You can experiment with softboxes, umbrellas, and beauty dishes, and use your free hand to hold a reflector to soften and reflect the light.
Reflector 5in1 Raylab with handles
So simply taking the flash off the camera is one of the most effective ways to add flexibility and control to your portrait lighting work. You get more freedom to change angles without affecting the lighting, and conversely, you can change the lighting style without affecting the entire composition. Whether you’re working with a cable or wireless system, keeping your flash free or mounting it on a stand, simply taking the flash off the camera is a great way to get more creative with portrait lighting.
Do you use an on-camera flash separately from your camera’s hot shoe? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.
* when preparing the article, materials from the resources bhphotovideo.com (Bjorn Petersen) and onfoto.ru were used.