On and Off-Camera Flash Techniques

On and Off-Camera Flash Techniques - Mastin Labs

Lighting can be a photographer’s best friend and worst enemy. As a photographer, if you aren’t in full control of your location and time of day for shooting, it’s easy to become a victim of your environment. The more you learn about on and off-camera flash techniques, the more empowered you’ll feel when you’re thrown a curveball.

On-Camera Flash Techniques 

Before shooting with an off-camera flash, learn how to use your on-camera flash. On-camera flash has a lot of versatility when you learn to control it, and it will teach you concepts and skills that will translate when you use an off-camera flash.

The number one complaint about using an on-camera flash is that the lighting often appears too harsh. With a few tips, you can create many different looks using just the on-camera flash.

To soften the light from your flash, you have to either:

  1. Create a larger light source.
  2. Illuminate your subject at an angle.

Great, but how do you do this? Here are some tips:

How to Bounce On-Camera Flash

When shooting indoors, it’s best if you shoot in a light colored room with white walls and white ceilings. When a subject is photographed in a light room with an on-camera flash, the light colored walls will bounce the light, diffusing the flash and casting a softer even glow on the subject.

If you have an external on-camera flash with a rotating head, there’s a lot you can do by just adjusting the angle of the on-camera flash:

  1. For soft portrait light with dimension: tilt the on camera flash so that it points toward a ceiling corner to the side your subject.
  2. For a dramatic split-lighting effect: turn the flash directly toward one of the walls. The light will bounce off one side, illuminating half of the subject, and creating a high contrast look.
  3. For a soft even glow: turn your flash to hit the ceiling. This light will reflect softly back onto your subject.

Photo of Kirk Mastin by Kirk Mastin

How to Expand On-Camera Flash

You can’t make your flash bigger, but you can make it seem bigger. Similar to the ‘bounce the light source’ white wall technique, you can create a similar effect by attaching a bounce card to your flash. Many flashes come with a pull-out bounce card. If yours doesn’t, take a white card and attach it to the perimeter of the flash. A bounce card gives the flash a bigger face so that when the flash goes off, it illuminates a greater area. This can make a big difference in diffusing the light, especially when taking portraits.

If you don’t have a bounce card, Mastin Labs community member Michael Carver recommends getting creative. “You can bounce your flash off anything” Carver suggests, “an assistant holding a reflector, a wall, a best man’s white shirt. Just keep your eyes open”.

Once you find your on-camera flash limitations, explore the creative freedom of an off-camera flash.

Off-Camera Flash Techniques

Don’t be intimidated if you’ve never used an off-camera flash. Once you’ve mastered your on-camera flash, or if you use natural light or sunlight as your light source, the principles are the same, only instead of using the sun as your off-camera light source, you now get to control where you want it placed.

You don’t have to purchase an expensive off-camera flash. Mastin Labs community member, Lindsey Lenae McClennahan, even suggests using a small video light to act as an off-camera flash. For flash placement, it’s a good idea to invest in a stand and shoe mount flash adapter, so you don’t have to bug a friend or assistant to hold the off-camera flash. This will also help you build consistency with your photography by being able to record light angles and heights that work well for various shots.

See the difference in lighting between using a video light (left) and a flash (right)? By Lindsey Lenae McClennahan

You can have one or more off-camera flashes. Many photographers use an off-camera flash with their on-camera flash to achieve certain looks. We suggest starting simple and experimenting as much as possible. If you use more than one flash, we suggest setting the off-camera flash to a higher power, and the on-camera flash to a lower power to maintain dimension and keep the image from appearing flat.

Two flashes are also great (sometimes even necessary) when photographing a big group with a bright background. (i.e. a bridal party at a beach wedding).

How to use Off-Camera Flash as a Fill Light

When shooting a subject that’s already lit by a light source you cannot control (such as bright sunlight), you may choose to use your off-camera flash for fill light. Overhead light can cast deep shadows, and backlighting can lead your camera to expose for the background, underexposing the foreground.

If you’ve ever found yourself having to choose between the right angle of the sunlight and the right background for your subject, fill-light from a flash or strobe can give you the best of both worlds.

Jón Tryggvason using an octabank softbox to balance sunlight and fill-light.

For practical purposes, fill-light helps you illuminate details in the subject, so you don’t end up with improper exposure. For artistic purposes, you can use fill-light in good lighting conditions to add style and dimension to your images. Having this kind of control over your lighting gives you a lot of room for experimentation.

In these photos, you can see how Mastin Labs community member Jón Tryggvason uses an octabank softbox to balance sunlight and fill light for beautiful portraits outdoors:

Sunlight and fill-light combine to make this stunning portrait. By Jón Tryggvason

Sunlight and fill-light combine to make this stunning portrait. By Jón Tryggvason

Jón says to improve your fill-flash technique “Get a decent size softbox (I use a 35” softbox instead of umbrellas that get knocked over in the wind) and power it with battery strobe rather than speed-light. Use high-speed sync on your strobe or neutral-density filters for shallow DOF!”

When using an off-camera flash for fill-light, meter for your light, then experiment with the flash at different angles to add your desired dimension. Because you only have control over your off-camera flash, we suggest trying this: Use the natural light as a backlight behind the subject, and move the off-camera flash around, experimenting with height, angles, and flash power until you find the one you like.

To diffuse harsh lighting and cast a fill-light with an off-camera flash:

  1. Place the flash at a 45-degree angle in front of the subject, raised slightly and tilted downward.
  2. Use a reflector.
  3. Use reflective surfaces in your environment (such as a white wall).
  4. Use an umbrella to illuminate a larger subject or a subject that is farther away.

How to Create Dramatic Side Lighting

With an off-camera flash, you can get the dramatic side lighting look whether you’re outside or inside a studio

Experiment with different angles. Start with the light behind the subject pointed directly at the camera with the subject between the flash and the camera. Then, begin circling the flash around the subject until you find your desired look. Remember to also experiment with moving the flash higher and lower for different effects.

  1. For a drastic split lighting effect: Position the flash at 90-degree angle (all the way over to one side, slightly raised above the head and pointed downward). This position gives a more dramatic split-lighting look that separates the subject’s face into a light and dark half. Start with your flash at full power (1/1), and reduce the power in intervals until you find what you’re looking for. Full flash power typically overpowers the ambient light, so you’ll get your most contrasted image at full power.
  2. For a subtle split lighting effect: If you want a subtle effect, you can add a reflector near your camera to cast some light from the flash onto the front of the subject’s face, or use another flash with much lower power across from the high-power off-camera flash.

How to Create Backlight

Backlighting can cast a halo around a subject, or make a translucent subject ‘glow’. In wedding photography, backlighting is especially popular when shooting subjects that glow with backlighting (like frosted glass, veils, and delicate flower petals), and for shooting nighttime bride and groom portraits.

For nighttime wedding portraits, you can achieve the look of a glowing silhouette by placing the flash directly behind the couple. Mastin Labs User, Allison Jeffers uses a bare flash on a night stand at ½ power to get this effect.

The biggest challenge when backlighting is avoiding capturing the flash in the photo. We suggest putting it slightly off to the side, hiding it behind the subject, or lowering it closer to the ground to keep it hidden from the shot. Another technique is to use two off-camera flashes behind the subject, each positioned off to the left and right side of the subject, staying out of the point of image capture.

Mastin Labs user, Bill Fritz, suggests doing what you can to blend the off camera flash in with the background. He gives this example, “When you have a fireplace that isn’t lit, put a flash inside it[…]to give the look of a lit fireplace. Don’t forget to use a gel to mimic the right temperature of the flame though!

Hiding a flash on a stand directly behind the subject creates a beautiful backlit effect. By Bill Fritz.

How Do YOU Use Flash?

Lighting is sometimes the only thing that separates a great photo from a terrible one. Stop being a victim of your circumstances, and start pushing yourself to experiment with different lighting techniques. See how creative you can be! There are so many different approaches to getting a good shot with an on or off-camera flash, and we barely skimmed the surface of what is possible. We hope these tips will help get you started and make you feel empowered to take great photos in any lighting situations.

If you have any tips, tricks, or cool techniques for using your flash, please add your advice to the comment section below!