off-camera flash photography

flash photography techniques
flash brackets  ~  off camera flash  ~  flash photography basics

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 several of the important articles on the Tangents blog where the topic is specifically off-camera lighting. Most of the links deal with off-camera flash using speedlites, but there are a few articles where larger flashes are used. The same thought-process is in play though. (Here is the link if you want a list of all the articles about off-camera flash on this website.)

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 photography – the techniques


1.) Balancing flash with ambient light – where do we even start?

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.

This article is a good overview to start us off on this topic.  The easiest approach when working 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. But we often have scenarios which aren’t as simple. Here are easy-to-follow explanations of how we’d go about getting to balancing flash and the ambient light.

related articles:


2.) The techie stuff we absolutely need to know!

There are some technical things we need to be familiar with to be able to really get a grasp on flash photography. There’s unfortunately no way around this. If you’re not au fait with how your camera’s shutter works and how the focal plane shutter affects flash exposure, then you’ll always be grasping and guessing. Here are a few articles that covers the essential topics – maximum flash sync speed; high-speed flash sync (HSS); and the use of Neutral Density filters as an alternate to getting wide apertures with flash. Then, while it might seem archaic, it is also very useful to have a handle on how the guide number of your flash helps you.

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.

High-speed flash sync allows us a wider aperture, but there are certain implications – our flash power drops. This may or may not be an issue, depending on how bright the available light is that we’re shooting in.

So these are the type of techie stuff we need to know. But I promise, it is more fun and more interesting than you might suspect. Hang in there, and go through these articles. They will help you!

related articles:


3.) camera settings & flash 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.

I can’t stress this point enough – the thought-process is more important than the specific numerical values of our settings. That the aperture was at f/3.2 for example, is most often a trivial consideration. Our thought-process or algorithm we use, is the key to getting successful and consistent results with off-camera flash.

related articles:


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.


4.) overpowering the sun with flash

One of the most challenging scenarios would be to photograph in bright sunlight. A challenge for sure – but if you keep to a methodical algorithm, then it becomes much more controlled and easier.

Usually when people say they want to over-power the sun, they mean that they want to match the sunlight with flash. They want to lift the shadows to a better exposure where details aren’t lost.

The information in the linked tutorials here are also covered directly and indirectly in the preceding articles listed above. There is a specific thought-process here that gets us out of trouble every time, and gives us consistent results when using flash on a sunny day. So if you have worked through the other tutorials and articles listed above, you’ll have an easy understanding of what you need to do.

related articles:


5.) off-camera flash – the gear

Most of the tutorials and articles on this website is about technique. The way we do things, rather than being equipment-centric. My feeling is that if you understand what you need to do, then the specific equipment matters less.

That said, here are a few articles which mostly concentrate on simple lighting setups using speedlights. Getting great results is within the reach of everyone!

related articles:


6.) positioning your off-camera flash (and softbox)

a good, conservative placement of a softbox is generally around 30 degree from the camera; at a height where the light is about 30 degrees (or slightly less)  above your subject’s head. We want that ‘cone of light’ coming from the softbox to 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 face.

This is a safe way to place the light for results that will look good. Of course, from there on we can experiment, depending on how we pose our subjects, and also depending on what we want to achieve.

related articles:


7.) interesting photo sessions with off-camera flash

For further reading, here is a selection of blog articles describing photo shoots where off-camera flash was integral in the final look of the photos.

related articles:


next section: flash photography basics


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22 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Seshu says

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

  2. 3Robb Mac says

    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.

  3. 4Neil vN says

    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.

  4. 5Robb Mac says

    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.

  5. 6Greg says

    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!

  6. 8Blair says

    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!

  7. 9Neil vN says

    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.

  8. 10Blair says

    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. :)

  9. 11Tamim says


    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.

  10. 12Alfredo Medina says

    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.


  11. 14 says

    >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.

  12. 15Angelo says

    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)

  13. 17albert says

    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 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

  14. 18Ted says

    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

  15. 19Andy says

    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?

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