Don't Be Intimidated by Off-camera Flash

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Carnival in Venice is one of the great festivals in the world to photograph. The artistry of the costumes, the outrageous colors, the mystique of the masks, and the medieval setting make this a very special event.




Every year, I conduct a photography workshop here, and I am always looking for new ways to approach photographing the costumed models. In the last couple of years, I’ve been using off-camera flash as a way of adding drama, dimension, and texture while at the same time balancing the light on the foreground subjects with the background. All of the images in this blog were taken with a single, non-diffused Canon 580EX flash.

The Wireless Trigger

I have used two ways to wirelessly trigger my off-camera flash. The Canon ST-E2 (which also works with Nikon) is a single unit that sits in the camera's hotshoe, and it works by sending out an infra-red beam to the flash. It is ‘line of sight’, meaning that if anything blocks the beam the flash won’t fire. This worked fine until other photographers or tourists got between the flash and my camera and then I couldn't trigger the light. Since there are so many people in Venice during Carnival, this system has its frustrations.

Therefore, I switched to using the Pocket Wizard to solve the problem. There are two units in this system, the transmitter (which is placed in the hotshoe) and the receiver (attached to the base of the flash). The Pocket Wizard works on a radio signal, which means that if anything blocks the line of sight from the camera to the flash it will still function without interruption. You can even place the flash directly behind a model from the camera’s point of view to creat backlighting, and it will fire.

Exposure

It is the challenge of obtaining a proper exposure that intimidates most photographers when using flash. In the past when we all shot film, professional photographers used Polaroid test prints to judge exposure.  Now we have the immediate feedback from the LCD monitor on the back of our cameras to show us the exposure on the subject and the background and how the shadows are falling on the scene.

You can control the ambient light exposure and the flash exposure independently. This is the key. My simple approach to creating perfectly exposed images is this:  I set the flash to ETTL (iTTL for Nikon) and the camera to Manual exposure mode. I set the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second and I make an educated guess for the aperture, say f/8. This is my starting point.

I then take a flash picture. An assistant holds the flash for me off to the side or, if no one is available, I lay my camera bag down on the ground about six feet away from me and nestle the flash into it so it’s angled correctly. I look at the LCD monitor to judge the exposure, and if the light from the flash needs tweaking, I use the flash exposure compensation feature on the camera or on the flash unit itself (depending on the manufacturer and the model of the camera). If the ambient light exposure is too light or too dark, I change the shutter speed or the lens aperture until I am happy with the results.

In this way, I can see exactly what I’m getting and I can shoot with confidence. I experiment with placing the flash at various angles to the lens axis, and no matter where the flash is positioned I can always judge the exposure simply by studying the LCD monitor.

Note that I am not holding the flash at arm's length. This isn't far enough away from the lens axis to create dramatic sidelighting. Arm's length sidelight is fine for macro work, but when shooting models the portable flash needs to be at least five or six feet from the lens axis.

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Very interesting, and it's great to see you posting.  I've read a lot of your writings.

It's good to know, I only have one flash so this information helps.