Source: williampetruzzo.com

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.

Source: alexsilva.photography

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.

Octabox Fuji­mi

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.