direct off-camera flash photography – fill-light

direct off-camera flash photography – fill-light

I really like using a medium-sized softbox when photographing portraits. A softbox allows me to get soft, directional light pretty much anywhere. The most recent example I showed here, was Lucia and Alvin’s wedding in Central Park, New York. I do make it easier for myself  when using off-camera flash for photo sessions on location – I pick my battles. I don’t try to make everything work. With a photo session where I can control the light and background and setting for my subjects, I can make it easier for myself by not choosing tough lighting scenarios.

With Amy and Clark’s photo session, I brought along my usual set of gear … but left the Lastolite softbox behind. I brought the Lastolite bracket along, and the radio transmitters.  Everything but the actual diffusion box to fit over the speedlight. With that, I had to slightly change how I usually work to still get great results that look like my usual style.

These two test images were shot at exactly the same camera settings, and same WB setting in RAW. Yet the one pops. The colors are more bold, and there aren’t such deep shadows on their faces. Yet … it isn’t noticeable that my off-camera flash wasn’t diffused. These two photos serve as comparison between just the available light, and augmented with un-diffused off-camera flash. Nothing else changed, but the flash added.

camera settings:
1/250 @ f5.6 @ 500 ISO .. TTL flash at around -1 or -2EV

While bare (ie, undiffused) flash can look good, giving a photo a dramatic quality, it is less easy to pull off great light with hard flash, than with a softbox. A softbox is a forgiving light source, which makes it easy to use. You have much more freedom in where you position the light. Conversely, with light from a softbox, your subject has a lot more room to move, without the light giving an unflattering shadow. With an undiffused speedlight, you have to be more careful how you position the light and pose your subjects.

However, with forgetting the softbox, I had no choice but to work with the bare, un-diffused flash off-camera. And as mentioned, it was important to me that the photos from this photo session look very much like my work – soft light; relaxed posing; clean compositions. I wanted the light to look quite natural, and not “flashy”.

The approach then was to find spots to take photos, where I didn’t have to battle hard sun and fix that with a lot of flash. The available light had to be good, and only if necessary, augment it with off-camera flash. The image at the top is an example of this – bare flash, used off-camera, to give a natural looking fill light.

Camera settings for the opening image: 1/200 @ f/5.6 @ 800 ISO.. TTL flash at around -1 or -2EV


camera settings:
1/250 @ f5.6 @ 500 ISO.. TTL flash at around -1 or -2EV


photo gear (and equivalents) used during this photo session



With this I wanted to show that with a minor tweak in technique, I was able to deliver images that looked consistent with my usual style. Instead of the speedlight in a softbox, I used direct off-camera flash. Keep in mind that I didn’t use flash here to fix lighting problems, but rather to enhance the available light.


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21 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1 says

    Great article Neil, love how you have used other articles to explain what you are talking about as well, very informative and easy to use!

  2. 2Ron says

    Good information, Neil. It makes sense that you would choose your ambient light to minimize the flash power required. What about distance between the flash and subject? How is this different when using undiffused flash versus using a softbox?

  3. 3 says

    Obviously, with un-diffused flash you have greater range, so you have to take care that you don’t work at a shorter distance than the flash’s minimum range. A sensible distance just works better in every regard.

  4. 4Sam Bahri says

    thanks for the article Neil… i have 2 questions ….the ambient ex poser u took was from the couple not from the background right??…..why you used a 800 the ambient was so low ??and why u used the shutter sink-speed… ??…thanks

  5. 5 says

    Sam, yes the light levels where that low, shooting with the setting sun towards their backs. Remember, I’m exposing for their faces, which is in comparative shade.

    I’m not sure what you mean by the sync speed?

  6. 6Gene says

    Beautiful photography as usual, I have a question though. Fill flash that is not on axis will create a shadow which will have no detail. How are you avoiding this?
    Thanks for replying and for the inspirational photography. I love your technique and style.

  7. 7 says

    Great stuff again Neil, thank you! My question is similar to that posted by Gene above…Where do you place your flash when using bare off-camera like this? I am assuming it is fairly direct in front of the subjects so that shadows are not cast from one subject onto the other? Do you place the flash on a stand behind you as you shoot?

  8. 8 says

    Gene .. The ambient exposure is nearly correct. I’m not trying to use the flash as a main source of light … here it is acting more as a fill-light. Hence I don’t have a problem with deep dark shadows from the flash where there are no detail.

    Steve … the flash isn’t too far off axis.

    Again, I’m not trying to fix a gross exposure error here, or using flash as the main source of light. The flash here is to lift the contrast, and lift shadow detail.

  9. 9Sam Bahri says

    i mean by the sync speed ..that u used a fast shutter speed 1/250…why ???…to freeze them if they move??…or in order to use a wide aperture in order to decrease the depth of field??..thanks

  10. 11Walter says

    Hi Neil,

    What is your impression of the 24-120mm f/4 compared to your usually used 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses?


  11. 12 says

    The two f/2.8 zooms are better than the 24-120mm f/4 … but I tend not to use it at the widest aperture. Then it becomes a great general purpose lens. I like it and I use it, but I rely on my fast zooms in critical times.

  12. 13Naftoli says

    great post! ideally if u were to go back in time i assume u would change ur settings for the last image to f4 iso250 1/250 of a sec. also did u use the built in pullout diffusion panel?

  13. 14 says

    If I could go back in time, I’d much much rather go check out dinosaurs. Way more cool than changing camera settings that I was happy with in the first place. I wouldn’t mind seeing The Clash in concert either, now that I think about it. Now *that* would be cool.

  14. 15Bernard says

    Hi Niel,

    I have been wanting to ask you for some time now about WB with and without flash. When I take photos with my D700 on auto WB with and without flash, the WB temperature is invariably higher with the flash photos. In your comparison test photos above, you adjusted the WB in RAW to be the same. Is that something one should do in similar circumstances in post production and if so, should the non flash photo’s WB be taken as the point of reference?

    Many thanks, Bernard.

  15. 16 says

    I changed the WB here to the same settings, for comparison. If you were to shoot available light only, then change your WB of your images to where they look great. Simple as that.

  16. 17Fred Hoegeman says

    Hi Niel,

    “TTL flash at around -1 or -2EV” ?
    Does the D4 have a flash compensation button or did you use a PW AC3 module?


  17. 18 says

    Nikon finally relented, and the D4 is the first pro-series DSLR with Flash Exposure Compensation on the body. But here I used the compensation on the AC3 module.

  18. 19 says

    Do you ever shoot against a white shirt as an alternative to a soft box?

    I’ve found this quite useful on occasions whenever I (can) wear white and am traveling with just a bare flash. Simply fire a flash at yourself and take care of not firing any light directly into the camera.

  19. 20 says

    That could work too, if the light doesn’t come from a point much lower than your subject’s eyes. Then we’re starting to move into Horror movie lighting. Generally not a good idea for flattering photos.

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