October 27, 2009

[ click on the photo for a larger image ]

using off-camera flash on location

It was a busy weekend again, with a wedding and a portrait session on Sunday.  From the photo session on Sunday, here’s my favorite image of the day.  I just love the way the background appears in this photograph.  The bokeh of this lens is just wonderful.

camera settings:  1/250th @ f4 @ 400 ISO
The camera used was the Nikon D3, (B&H), and the lens was the 70-200mm f2.8 VR , (B&H).
A telephoto zoom like this, or the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS, (B&H), is essential for this kind of portrait work.

That image is typical of the separation you can create between your subject and the background, by zooming tighter.  Here I was zoomed to 170mm .. for no real reason than I liked the perspective at this point.  I had a comfortable working distance in that he could listen and see any instructions I gave him on how to pose … yet the perspective is nice and tight.

Lighting is exactly as described on this previous post on off-camera lighting, where I used the Q-flash’s wireless TTL system.  The Q-flash was held to my left, and at about 45 degrees to the boy, and diffused with a softbox.

My choice of settings was for the background exposure, and I was at maximum sync speed for a very specific reason.  In using TTL flash, I was able to control my background exposure from my camera, by changing my aperture and ISO as needed .. while remaining at a high enough shutter speed.

And that’s it.


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{ 33 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Ryan O. Hicks October 27, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Awesome colors behind him.
That’s exactly how indiana looks in the fall.
So many beautiful colors; advantage of living in the midwest.


2 John October 27, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Really nice shot here, I dont get to see that kind of color in socal.
The narrow depth of feild here looks like maybe you were 12to15 ft.from your subject is that about correct.



3 brett October 27, 2009 at 1:51 pm

hi neil,(please don’t take my below comments as disagreeing with you but rather to relieve newcomers out there)

i have felt in the past as i’m sure some may feel now, intimidated to say the least, by the suggestion that we must have lenses like the 70-200 2.8VR/IS which cost in the neighborhood of $1500+ for portrait work like you have posted here. i could never help but notice that users are stopping down at least a full stop if not further anyways thereby negating the 2.8 aperture anyways…?? I shoot nikon and am using the 70-300VR(4.5-5.6) which as Moose Peterson can attest to is quite sharp! i was just admiring how sharp it is over the weekend doing some fun shooting, at wide open apertures which at the 170mm mark may be f5 or f5.3. still the bokeh is quite lovely thnx to the 9 blades and the added bonus is that i have another 100mm of reach albeit at slightly reduced sharpness beyond around like 220/240mm. in regards to Canon’s equivalant, from what i have heard the Canon 70-200 f4 IS is sharper than the 2.8 and would have worked perfectly in your shot above unless the bokeh is not as nice on the f4 vs. the f2.8??? of course there is no argument indeed if action/sports is the name of the game.


4 Neil October 27, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Brett, in a sense I do agree with you.

I originally wanted this post to be just the image, and then have people guess what gear I used and which settings. I was convinced that many would’ve guessed the Nikon 200mm f2 … yet it was shot with the zoom at f4 .. which is an aperture that is available to most photographers with a D-SLR. (Or an aperture close to that.)

In other words, in terms of the ‘look’ of this image, it isn’t out of reach to anyone with even a moderate selection of gear.

But I do want that f2.8 at my disposal when I need it.

Neil vN


5 Rod Pascoe October 27, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Another stunning shot as usual Neil



6 Kathy Marciante October 27, 2009 at 3:21 pm

AWESOME shot!! Love the way the subject pops!


7 tim wong October 27, 2009 at 3:22 pm

just love this picture, Neil, where did you shoot this picture?


8 Neil October 27, 2009 at 8:50 pm

Oh, just some disused railway tracks a mile or two from my home.

Neil vN


9 Heather Durham October 27, 2009 at 10:41 pm

Beautiful shot. Incredible! Okay, now I’m convinced I need that lens! Your lighting continues to amaze me. You would never know that shot had some flash. It looks so natural. You have a gift!


10 David Q October 28, 2009 at 11:28 am

Hi Neil, Great image. Two quick questions though:
Was the background exposure metered at 125th @ f4 or do you underexpose it a bit?
and… if you were shooting that with a Nikon SB800 for example – would you use it on TTL or TTL/BL mode?

Cheers David


11 Neil October 28, 2009 at 11:45 am

David .. that’s an easy question to answer .. but also a tough one to give a helpful answer.

I didn’t meter. I ‘knew’ what the exposure was .. ie, I guesstimated. I took a test shot without flash and the background looked exactly like I wanted. Experience.

But starting without that, I would’ve pointed my camera towards the trees, and metered for that with my camera’s meter, and then used the camera’s preview to see whether I liked what I was seeing. If not, then adjust.

As for TTL / TTL BL .. ultimately this doesn’t matter all that much.
If the one mode doesn’t give you enough flash (or too much), then in checking your camera’s preview, you’d adjust your FEC up or down. The message here is that it would be better to shoot in a mode of your choice, and get used to how the camera and flash responds in that mode .. so that you have a better idea as to what results you may get … and then adjust to suit you.

Here is how I choose between TTL and TTL BL modes.

Neil vN


12 Stephen October 28, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Great shot! I love your website and it has been so helpful for me! I did a similar shot to this not long ago with my D90 and the 70-200 VR. I really just can’t say enough about that lens. Here’s my shot if you’re interested.


13 Neil October 28, 2009 at 12:10 pm

Stephen … very cool shot!

Neil vN


14 CMARX October 28, 2009 at 12:11 pm

I always overthink where to place an OCF to get that type of lighting. Yes, 45 degrees or closer to axis BUT what about height? I end up with a little too flat lighting sometimes,

If I was using a 580master/480slave combination on camera, would I shut off my 580 on cam? I usually end up turning it down a little….

your comments


15 Neil October 28, 2009 at 12:31 pm

M … a good starting point is to have your light about 2-3 feet higher than your subject’s face .. but this does depend on the distance that your light is from your subject, since it is ALL about the angle that the light falls in from. I wouldn’t put the light at the same height as my subject.

Neil vN


16 Mac Swift October 28, 2009 at 12:52 pm

The 70-200 f2.8 is an amazing lens. It is pretty much the only one I use for portraits especially outdoors.


17 Nina October 28, 2009 at 1:50 pm

My husband ‘tossed’ aside our Nikon 70-300. Not fast enough, blah blah (he does sports) so he uses the 2.8 70-200. I love the way the 200 looks for portraits, but since he’s using it most of the time I don’t have access to it. It’s nice to see that I can get that same nice bokeh if I plan well with the 300. Thanks again! You rock!


18 Bill October 28, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Hi Neil, Great shot! I’m still a bit confused how your using the TTL off camera. Are you using the camera in comander mode? How are you triggering it. Does TTL mode mean the flash takes into cinsidering the available light and or zoom?




19 Neil October 28, 2009 at 3:48 pm

Bill, if I had been using speedlights, then I would’ve used a speedlight on my camera (or a Nikon SU-800 or Canon ST-E2 wireless controller), as a master for the slaved flash.

In this case though, I used the dedicated TTL wireless controller made by Quantum.

You have a number of options now in achieving off-camera TTL flash with the variety of wireless TTL controllers .. whether Radio Poppers or the new Pocket Wizards .. or just using the existing wireless TTL options of the camera manufacturers.

TTL flash takes into consideration the aperture and ISO used, and depending on the specific technology, also the available light, and metering pattern and even distance. It measures the amount of light reflected back from a pre-flash that it emits before the main exposure .. and from that, it calculates how much flash is deemed necessary for correct exposure. (And if you disagree with your camera, you over-ride it via the FEC button.)

Neil vN


20 Jennifer Lynch October 28, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Great shot Neil! Wonderful colors and texture. Glad you decided to post the specs and all the technical information. I wonder how many frames you took here. And did you do any bracketing or take frames with other settings or were these the settings for all in this series? Fall is such a great season!


21 Neil October 28, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Jennifer .. I didn’t bracket my photos. That’s the beauty of using a digital camera when you have a controlled situation – you can check your results, and adjust. This implies that I used pretty much the same settings during the entire shoot, adjusting a little bit as the shoot progressed and the light levels became a little lower.

Neil vN


22 Marchand October 28, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Wow Neil, Im still finding it hard to believe that this was shot at f4. That bokeh is unreal. Is this just the doing of the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR? I have a Canon 70-200 2.8IS and for some reason I don’t think this can be replicated with my 5d at f4. Can it?


23 Neil October 28, 2009 at 5:03 pm

Marchand … you will get similar results with the Canon optic at that distance and focal length. You need to try it!

Neil vN


24 Stephen October 29, 2009 at 6:42 am

I would have initially guessed the 200mm f/2, because you used it in another model portrait using the same railroad tracks (one of your earlier blog entries). Nice photo!


25 Steven Seelig October 29, 2009 at 8:32 am

Great image and since going to a full frame sensor, my favorite portrait lens is my Nikkor 70-200.

Two questions for you:
1. I know you use the Q-flash system but I am wondering if you have any experience with the Radio Popper wireless TTL system with SB800-SB900 nikon strobes
2. Have you had an opportunity to try the new Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens? If yes, do you have any comments on it?

Also your book is great and I am sure I will go back to it to refresh my memory as I do with your website.



26 Neil November 1, 2009 at 3:20 am

Steven .. I haven’t tried the Radio Poppers with the Nikon speedlights, but I did try the original Radio Poppers out with the Canon speedlights, and aside from a few qualms about the limitations of retro-fitting the technology (which have been addressed subsequently), my opinion on the Radio Poppers were quite favorable.

I haven’t gotten hold of the new Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens yet, but would love to.

Neil vN


27 Martian November 1, 2009 at 7:34 am

Hi Neil

What size of softbox did you use for this picture and how far from the subject was it?




28 Neil November 1, 2009 at 10:17 am

Martian, I used the medium Photoflex Litedome Q39 (24×32) softbox (B&H),
and it was about 10′ / 3 meters from the kid.

Neil vN


29 David Queenan November 1, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Thanks for the reply Neil – your book is on my Christmas List :-)


30 Anthony Blass November 3, 2009 at 10:40 am


Inspired image, like so many of yours. I puzzled a bit over the settings, though. I shoot the same lens with the D700 for most of my one- and two-person portrait work. I would have instinctively shot this image wide open at f/2.8 with a single subject, which is just as sharp as f/4.0 on this lens and provides creamier bokeh, and I would have instinctively adjusted the ISO down to 200, to squeeze out (potentially) a fractionally better image. The lightbox should have ensured sharp focusing, even with less depth of field. So why 4.0 and ISO 400?

Thanks! Your site is one of the most helpful I’ve found on portraiture lighting and gear.

Regards, Anthony


31 Neil November 5, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Anthony .. the reason why I chose f4 is that it is as random as if I had chosen f3.2 or f2.8 … I just wanted narrow depth-of-field. It’s the same range of apertures. The difference between f2.8 and f4 is incremental in how the image appears.

Point in case .. if I had said in this post that I had used the lens at f2.8 .. or had used the Nikon 200mm f2 lens at f2 .. then no one would’ve been any wiser.

At f4 the lens does have a little more bite to how crisp it appears.

I would like to add something though about your comment that the ‘bokeh is creamier’ at f2.8 than at f4 .. I’d like to contend that the bokeh is the same for this lens at those two apertures. The depth-of-field would appear different, but the bokeh would look the same.

Narrow depth-of-field is not the same as bokeh. : )

Neil vN


32 rafiayub November 12, 2009 at 4:12 pm

Yes, the photo is beautiful. But the vanishing point of track is distracting from the well balanced face. I feel, composition has to be modified.


33 Adam Cavanagh December 13, 2009 at 1:24 am

This is truly a wonderful image


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