flash photography techniques
flash photography tips  ~  off camera flash  ~  using video light

off-camera flash photography

The preceding pages mostly deal with how to use an on-camera speedlight to get ‘prettier’ light. And where we can, how to seamlessly blend our flash with our available light.  However, where flash becomes a lot more controllable and perhaps more interesting, is when you move your flash off-camera.

Off-camera flash is quite an extensive topic.  Instead of trying to cover it all in just one article here, this page will serve as a jump-page to other articles on the Tangents blog where the topic is specifically off-camera lighting.

So why would we want to use off-camera flash? The answer is refreshingly straight-forward. With off-camera lighting, we have greater control over the direction and the quality of our light. And that is it in a nutshell. But let’s delve deeper into it …

off-camera flash – the techniques

balancing flash with ambient light – where do we even start?

This article is a good overview to start us off on this topic.  The easiest approach for me, when I work in fairly flat and even ambient light, is to under-expose the ambient light by a certain amount.  Then we add flash for correct exposure.  So how much do we under-expose the ambient light by?  Well, it depends …

balancing your flash exposure with the ambient exposure

My starting point with on-location portraits is most often is a combination of:  finding an interesting or neutral background; and positioning my  subject so that they are placed in front of / in relation to the background so that it all looks visually pleasing.  And then balancing the exposures for my background and my subject …

the effect of maximum flash sync speed

When we work outdoors in bright light, it is essential that we understand what is happening at our maximum flash sync setting, and why it is a sweet spot when you use flash in bright light.

tutorial: high-speed flash sync

I decided to do a series of comparison photos, so we can actually see what happens before, at and beyond maximum flash sync speed. And we can also see what happens with high-speed flash sync. To do this, I set up a simple portrait lighting using a single speedlight and a large umbrella. A plain white paper-roll backdrop, and our model, Rachel …

using a neutral density filter with flash to control depth of field

Working in bright light, the limitation of having a maximum flash sync speed forces a small aperture on us. That small aperture means more depth of field than we might like. Using a neutral density (ND) filter is our best way to get control over our depth of field again …

using multiple speedlights with high-speed flash sync

To overcome the loss in effective flash power while in high-speed flash sync mode, you need to work very close to your subject, or gang up a number of speedlights as a group …

effective on-location portraits

When I photograph someone on location, I rely on a uncomplicated, yet effective method that will ensure that at the very least, I will get portraits that work. Here is a step-by-step method …

off-camera flash – bringing sparkle on a rainy day

Scheduling an on-location photo session, we are always left at the mercy of the weather.  What gives me the most control though during such a photo session, is the use of off-camera flash. This gives me control over the quality and direction of light … with relatively little effort.

positioning the softbox and flash

The placement of a softbox is generally around 45 to 60 desgrees from the camera; at a height where the light is about 50cm above your subject’s head; and keeping in mind the ‘cone of light’ coming from the softbox, and that you have it hit your subject’s head & shoulders.  In other words, you need to aim the softbox at their upper body and head .. and specifically with that ‘sweet spot’ of the light coming from the softbox, having to point at their heads.

why I love off-camera lighting

The main reason for me, is that you can have perfect lighting on your subject’s face with much more freedom than if you just relied on the available light. I am usually quite particular about the backgrounds to my photos, where it is in my control.

metering for manual flash when using a softbox

An explanation of a method for using off-camera flash with available light.  Metering for the available light with a hand-held meter, or using the histogram method, we find our available light exposure. Then I take my exposure down by 1 stop.  I could do this via my shutter speed or aperture or ISO choice .. or a combination of those.

So what are your settings?

What are your settings? –  a question that I am often asked about various images. And quite often, the answer is surprising  –  it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes the specific settings are of importance, but usually much less so than the method of getting to correct exposure of the ambient light and the flash.

overpowering the sun with flash

With a photo session in bright sunlight, I need to clean up the sun’s harsh shadows with flash.

– photo session with model, Johannie
– photo session with models, Sarah & Mark


video tutorials to help you with flash photography

If you like learning by seeing best, then these video tutorials will help you with understanding flash photography techniques and concepts. While not quite hands-on, this is as close as we can get to personal instruction. Check out these and other video tutorials and online photography workshops.


photo sessions with the Modern Gypsies

During various photo sessions with the Modern Gypsies, I used a variety of off camera flash techniques …

combinging manual off-camera flash with on-camera TTL flash (wedding photography)

A common technique used in photographing wedding receptions, is to use additional lighting to lift the general light levels in large reception rooms.  The additional lights can be wirelessly controlled TTL flash .. but more often would be manual flashes. Then an on-camera flash can be used, either in manual, or in TTL.

Finding the Light

Another example where I used off-camera lighting (manual flash), with on-camera TTL flash to light up a large venue.

background exposure and flash

There is often a whole range of possibilities in how we can expose for the background, choosing from a range of settings.  In this sense, for some backgrounds, there really isn’t any “incorrect exposure” …

flash and ambient light – reverse engineering an image

Looking at an example image, and figuring out what the photographer did with his lighting.  By scrutinizing a photo, we’ll try and decipher how he set this up …

using direct (unmodified) flash off-camera

When working outdoors, my approach has largely been that of using a softbox or some modifier so that my flash is more diffuse.  But with this shoot, I worked with another photographer who uses direct flash off-camera with great results. It was quite refreshing to try something slightly different than my usual method …

simple on-location lighting techniques – by Chuck Arlund

Chuck Arlund is a fashion photographer who explains approach to on-location lighting in this article. He achieves dramatic results, but with surprising simplicity …

NYC photo session – Sarah & Mark

An extended photo session with two models, (a married couple), at various spots in New York. This blog entry is a view of the approach during a photo session, and how there is no single static way of doing things. Various techniques are used; the lighting too is varied; all to give a wide range to the look of the final images ..

sequence: setting up the lighting during a photo shoot

With this post I want to show the thought process in setting up the lighting for portraits during a photo shoot for a company.  There were a couple of dead ends, and a couple of adjustments as we went along …

Lighting the wedding formals (part 1)

In lighting the formals, I don’t try to get all Rembrandt, but prefer a fairly flat way of lighting everyone. I keep the lighting static for all the images, whether I am photographing one person or twenty. With time usually being a real constraint during the wedding day, there simply isn’t the opportunity to play around too much with the lighting .. and I find that a predictable way of lighting works best.

Lighting the wedding formals (part 3)

The main benefit of doing the formal portraits (indoors) with manual off-camera flash …  consistency.  Since the flash gives off a specific amount of light every time – it is manual flash after all and not TTL flash – and since the flash is on a stand, and therefore at a constant distance to your subject .. this means that your flash exposure will be consistent.  It will be consistent regardless of YOUR position.  You can move around.

flash photography – dealing with reflective surfaces

Rooms with wooden panelling are notoriously difficult to shoot in when using flash.  This is because of the tendency for the light source (flash) to create large hotspots on the wooden surfaces.  Here is how I avoid those specular reflections in the wooden panelling.

Chanel – a portrait

Off-camera wireless TTL flash setup for a portrait of a pet. We had to work fast in the hotel lobby to get a portrait of this beautiful whippet, Chanel, for a magazine cover. We had to be meticulous about the setting-up of the shoot – and still be very flexible during the actual shoot …

the progression of an idea

A glimpse of how I work, showing the progression of an idea. Not just how the actual image was made, but how the idea progressed. And how it was enhanced with off camera lighting …

off-camera flash – discussing an image from a workshop on flash photography

With an idea in mind of how I wanted to position our model in a stark urban setting, I now had to decide on the exposure and lighting. The available light at that point was actually really good – the sun was covered by a layer of clouds, but enough of the sun was coming through to give some directional light. However, we wanted to play with some off-camera lighting and I wanted to use flash to add a touch more drama …

using flash at a fireworks display

Photographing people with fireworks in the background, is just an application of the technique known as dragging the shutter. Our camera settings are dictated by how we want the fireworks to register, and then we add flash to expose correctly for our subjects …

off-camera flash with children’s portraits on location

A description of settings, and the lighting setup, and the thought-process …


next section: using a video light for photography


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{ 22 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Seshu June 10, 2010 at 3:12 pm

This page will be bookmarked, devoured and hit up so many times, NeIl. Thanks for bringing it all together so nicely. Bravo!


2 Tom K. June 10, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Bravo! The best just keeps getting better. Many thanks for this Neil.


3 Robb Mac June 11, 2010 at 11:28 am

So under normal conditions, I can handle this, but when it comes to exposing for off camera on less than easy conditions, here is my question:

I was practicing some techniques yesterday and I was setting the exposure using Ap. mode for the ambient light. I set the Ap that I wanted, but this told me that under those conditions, the speed was about 3 seconds. My Ap was f8, ISO 100. No problem to add a flash, but what should I then set my speed to in Manual? What if the subject is moving or it’s windy? Do I just automatically bump it up to 1/60 or so? Or should I up the ISO and get some kind of manageable speed before I start setting the flash? Should I be using P mode to get a reading?

This is sort of a general technique question…

Like I said, under a little more daylight, I get it, but I’m not sure under REALLY low light how I should do this.

Thanks for the help.


4 Neil vN June 13, 2010 at 2:53 pm

Hi there Robb ..

You can set your shutter speed to anything up to max sync speed. You can only go over max sync speed if you use high-speed sync flash .. but then you lose a lot of power. So ideally, stay at max sync speed or anywhere lower.

This freedom seems to confuse newer photographers – the idea that “you can do anything”, or set your camera to any shutter speed.

But you choose your shutter speed (and your aperture and ISO) based on how much available light you want to allow in. That flash to ambient light ratio.

I wouldn’t just go for 1/60th as a default. This thing about 1/60th being a good shutter speed is an erroneous belief that at 1/60th we automatically have a hand-holdable shutter speed. I often go slower, but usually higher. I get sharper images. However, I do want my ambient light to register.

So we come back to metering then …

The best I can suggest is to go through this article … flash & ambient light – where do I even start?

No need to go to Aperture Priority or Program mode to enter those settings into your camera. It quite often doesn’t even make sense … since we need to meter selectively for our background and / or our subject. Use your camera’s built-in metering display.

One thing to be quite aware of, is that often we have two broad areas of ambient light in our background – the much brighter sky, and the ground / urban area. The sky is usually much brighter, and you can’t expose correctly for both those areas. So you need to make the decision as to which you want to expose correctly for .. and very important … frame your image so that your subject is positioned in an interesting way against either of those two choices of background.

Neil vN


5 Robb Mac June 14, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Thanks tons. That’s helpful. I’ve been reading all of the lighting techniques on your collection Tangent and in the planning stage of some night shots, so I’ve been trying to practice. Next thing to do: buy your book….

A big fan.


6 Greg July 13, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Thanks for another excellent tutorial! Can you please explain or share how do you make your pictures “pop”, vivid and very sharp? Do you normaly enchanse it in the adobe photoshop or these are originals?

Thanks very much in advance!


7 Neil vN July 14, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Greg … I’ve posted a few article on making images pop.
Here are the first two – article 1 / article 2

I’ll tag future articles under the Photoshop category, so check back in over time.

Neil vN


8 Blair October 5, 2010 at 5:05 pm

1. Hi Neil, I’m hoping that my question to you will provide some understanding for myself and other photographers around manual flash, and trying to synchronize the flash, or duration of flash, with the opening and closing of the shutter.
I was helping my friend use his Pentax camera to trigger my Sb900 remotely, by having his on-camera flash fire to trigger my Sb900, which was set to SU-4 in remote mode.
It was a bright, sunny beautiful day! We set his camera to expose for the background sky, and placed the subject(me)with the sun on my back, and my face in even shadow. I was holding the speedlight with my arm outstretched, pointing it back and aiming to my face and body.
The SB900 was set to manual flash, in Su-4 mode. His camera was set in manual mode, and he was set to his max sync speed of 180th of a second. Set at iso minimum, I think it was about iso 100-200, he set the aperture to achieve correct exposure for the background. It was about f 30.
He was standing about 20ft back from me, and I was pointing the light sensor window of the SB900speedlight back at his on-camera flash. The power of the Sb900 manual flash was set at 1/4 power.
He snapped the picture, the Sb900 flashed and alerted me with the audio beeps that it fired. We checked the camera playback, and it worked…the flash lit up my face and a litle bit of my body.
Next, I wanted to get a wider and brighter wash of light on me, so we set the Sb900 to “even” dispersion of light from it’s menu, and dialed the power up stronger to full power 1/1.
He tried snapping another photo, standing at the same distance, and the flash fired, and the audible sound alerted me that it fired properly.
We checked the camera playback, and the light was not there from my flash.
We tried a few more photos just to make sure the results were the same, and they were…no flash being captured in the photo.
So, we put the SB900 flash power back to 1/4 power, and took another photo. Sure enough, at 1/4 power manual flash, the light from the flash was captured in the photo.
At first I couldn’t understand why this discrepancy? Then after a bit of scratching my head, I remembered one of your articles from your website that noted the flash speed or duration for a flash firing at full power, versus 1/2 power, versus 1/4 power…1/8th power etc. This to me seemed like some sort of clue? But it seemed backwards to me based on the results. I thought I remembered from your article, that based on that particular flash you were talking about, that at full power, the duration was about 1/300th second, at 1/2 power it’s 1/700, at 1/4 power it’s 1/1300 of a second.
So to my reasoning, shouldn’t the Full power flash, with it’s approximate 1/300th of a second flash duration be working BETTER for synchronization with his camera that was set at max sync speed of 1/180th. If 1/4 power manual flash has a 1/1300th flash duration, shouldn’t it be worse synchronization with his setting of 1/180th shutter speed?
Aside from this, thankyou for teaching me so much about photography!!! You are a generous man to provide a website like this…you make a big difference in many communities!
My question is this. Do I have a misunderstanding about the difference between flash duration and flash synchronization? Is it closely related?
And, as far as I know, how far back the photgrapher is from the flash makes no difference, as long as the flash is firing properly…correct?
Have a great day Neil!


9 Neil vN October 5, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Blair … I wouldn’t be the right person to ask about flash duration vs flash controlling the output.

But before we even get that far, I just have to ask, what mode was your on-camera flash set to?

If it is TTL, you might have another variable here in that the pre-flash may have triggered the SU-4 controlled speedlight too early perhaps.

Neil vN


10 Blair October 6, 2010 at 1:03 am

Neil…the on-camera flash was indeed set to TTL mode for both the photographs that successfully captured the flash in the photographs, and the photographs that did not capture the flash.
Ok, thanks for your reply.

I’ll keep on keepin on…this camera thing is such a great source of creativity for me!!!
HAve a fantastic week. :)


11 Jessica Noelle November 15, 2010 at 6:13 pm

Hey Neil! So Awesome to see your work in the Pro Studio Supply feed on Facebook… I wish we had gotten to work together more before I left Wayne and moved to RI, maybe some day…



12 Neil vN November 15, 2010 at 6:30 pm

Hi there Jessica! I hope you’re doing well? :) Drop me a note if ever you stop by here again.

Aaaah, I’ve found the link to the Pro Studio Supply page.

Neil vN


13 Tamim December 22, 2010 at 5:46 pm


I found your blog a couple of days ago and am absolutely addicted. Every single post is thorough, complete, and extremely informative. I especially love the articles about flash photography. I’ve read a lot of articles on flash photography elsewhere, especially off-camera flash, but none have come close to the clarity of your articles. Thank you for sharing this great information with us all.


14 Alfredo Medina April 16, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Hi Neil,

With my Nikon D90 I have found that the SB-900 flash can be fired with the built-in camera flash, even with the signal line obstructed for up to two stone walls, according to tests I’ve done, where I placed the flash at about 30 feet from the camera. I’m thinking of buying the Nikon D700 and want to know if the built-in flash of this camera act the same way, which for me would be helpful.



15 Alvin April 21, 2011 at 9:01 am

Neil, which flash trigger do you use?


16 Neil vN April 21, 2011 at 11:59 am

It varies:
Sometimes I use the older PocketWizard Plus II units,
I now often use the newer PocketWizard TT1 / TT5 units,
and quite often I just turn the Master flash to point at the Slave flash and use wireless control like that.

It varies, but I always mention in the text of each specific article, what I use.

Here is the link with the specific flashguns I use, and accessories like radio triggering systems.

Neil vN


17 Angelo June 26, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Greetings Neil

Can you please assist me with the following question about off camera flash, and more so RATIO’s and FEC.
At present, I am shooting with a 1DSMK3, 5DMK2, 2 x 580EXII (one in a soft box and the other in an umbrella) with the STE2 as the master.
I am a little lost in the set up but believe the below scenario is the same.
I set up my two 580 as slaves, the first as A (main) and the second as B (fill/hair etc).
Now, I can either use the ratio button on the STE2 for different outputs OR
I can manually adjust the FEC on each 580.
The advantage of the ratio button is when working alone, I can do this from the STE2 and not run around like a chicken with my head cut off.
Essentially, is it the same principal either way. This being, the ability to adjust the ratio from the STE2 or manually from each 580.


Angelo (Australia)


18 Neil vN June 30, 2011 at 12:51 am

Angelo .. you have it right there. That should work with the ST-E2 like you describe it.

Neil vN


19 albert April 7, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Hi neil,
wow as in wow…learning so much in your tutorial. gaining more knowledge about how to use flash off-camera.

My question is and it makes me think about it and i hope you can still response to this is that how am i gonna set my flash to ttl mode if i am off camera? i know pocket wizard has this with ttl. but how lets say i cant afford or i dont have a pocket wizard which offer the ttl mode in off camera? Which or how am i gonna do the ttl mode? Well for sure for me i will be goin for manual flash mode but i also want to experience the fast and ease of use of ttl.

Hope to hear from you soon.

Oppps by the way i love coming back on all your article..love it and thanks a lot for all your article. it helps me a lot and i know a lot of newbies also gaining from it…keep it up


20 Ted May 23, 2012 at 1:55 am

Hi Neil,
I’m afraid that I’m only going to repeat what everyone else has said, but sincere thanks to you for your unbelieveable articles. I came across your by accident yesterday and have since just about read every article you have written. It is helping me understand so much more about this new passionate hobby. I’m grateful to you for unselfishly sharing your knowledge. You will hear from me again I assure you and hope that you continue to educate us.

Ted A


21 Andy October 22, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Thank you Neil.
It is amazing how you can improve the quality of a photograph with just a small strobe off camera. I would love to show you some of my snaps. Do you have a readers gallery?


22 Trev October 24, 2013 at 3:44 am


There is a Tangents Forum [you just need to apply for free membership] here:


and this is the thread where to post your work [links]



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