using direct off-camera flash

using direct, bare (un-modified) off-camera flash

I had the opportunity to meet up with a fellow South African photographer, Jaco Fourie, who was visiting New York for a few days.  I knew Jaco’s work from some of the forums that he posts on, and his work with flash was invariably quite impressive .. so I looked on this as a great opportunity to see another photographer work and learn from him.

I arranged for two models, and we met up in Manhattan for these photo sessions.  Jaco specifically wanted scenic views of Manhattan, and incorporate the model as part of the urban landscape.   It would be less meaningful to reduce the images so that they looked like they could’ve been taken anywhere.  So he shot wide and allowed the landscape room in his images.  And to make the model really stand out, he used a very simple arrangement of two speedlights on light stands – direct manual flash, triggered by pocket wizards. I was very impressed with his results, which you can see here on his blog.

When working outdoors, my approach has largely been that of using a softbox or some modifier so that my flash is more diffuse. Working in very bright light though, I had to use direct flash off-camera, instead of the softbox. I used a Quantum flash for these images.

The image at the top was taken at 1/250th @ f18 @ 200 ISO … and with a speedlight or a Q-flash, that kind of aperture isn’t attainable when you stuff the flash inside a softbox.  You’d need a much larger flash, or a studio strobe.  So direct flash it had to be.  But taking it off-camera, and positioned in a way to augment the sunlight, and even over-power the sunlight falling on our model, it looked quite dramatic.

[ settings:  1/250th @ f18 @ 200 ISO, with manual off-camera flash ]

[ settings:  1/250th @ f16 @ 200 ISO, with manual off-camera flash ]


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31 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Jason Smith says

    Hey Neil
    Could you elaborate a little on how you ‘augmented’ the sunlight. Did you face the model into the sun, underexpose the ambient and overpower with flash.

  2. 2 says

    Jason, in the examples I show here, the model was positioned to reduce the amount of direct sun falling on her face. But the uneven patterns of light that the sun was causing on her, was then over-powered to some extent by flash coming in from a different angle.

    You can still see some splotchiness of light on her neck in the top image, but the photo is definitely improved (for that specific composition), by adding a strong balance of flash from the other side.

    Neil vN

  3. 6Fred Silver says

    I’m jealous. You get to photograph people in a controlled situation in New York. Nice stuff!
    Every time I read about your equipment usage (QFlashes), I wonder what type of lights I should progress to. I currently use 2 580EX IIs & 1 580EX in my small home studio. Following one of your recent Tangents, I have switched from ETTL to manual flash so that I can better control the relative output of each flash in each of their positions to get the effect I want. My Canon is hardwired to flash ‘A’ as fill, ‘B’ is main and ‘C’ is fill/kicker/background. On the street I use 1 flash sometimes when I think people won’t mind.
    My question is what should I invest in for events that I do as well as for more powerful studio (portrait) work? Quantums or studio strobes? Flash with modelling light or continuous? Hansels, Profoto, Photoflex, Elinchrom? what power 400ws, 800ws? Radio Triggers or what? Modifiers? A/C or D/C?
    For those for whom photography is a serious avocation these are tough decisions since we don’t have practical experience regarding what is needed and what is available and justifiable. There are so many permutations and combinations and every author and Pro, like yourself uses something different. It’s a real quagmire.
    How can this be resolved? Can you help?
    Regards and thanks for all that you’ve contributed so far.


  4. 7 says

    Fred .. it can be an impossible task to wade through all the information and possibilities.

    Re Quantum: I originally invested in Quantum because the studio that I originally started with were old-school wedding photographers who had just changed over from medium format to digital, so were still locked into the idea of a Q-flash on a bracket, with the digital camera slotted into position where the medium format camera used to be. But experience proved that isn’t quite the simple change-over that it seemed, since digital is a different beast than medium format.

    Anyway, I ended up with a Q-flash .. and then another, and another .. until the point where I now have 4 of them, and am heavily invested in them with numerous accessories. I’m also very comfortable with them by now, so don’t really have the need to investigate further for portable lighting.

    The point here is that I kind of stumbled into my ‘decision’ about what to use, and my choices weren’t made from a starting point where I did a lot of research. I was recommended to use Q-flashes, and I did. Simple as that.

    I also bought a bigger studio lighting kit (Dynalites) with a few power-packs but sold these again since I don’t use studio lighting much. I’m more a location photographer than a studio photographer.

    I now have a Profoto 600B kit for when I do need an on-location setup with a lot more juice than the Q-flash. This I will keep for when I need it.

    So your choices need to be made on whether you need your lighting to be portable, or if you will be studio-bound. Then it’s a matter of finding that balance between reputation & brand-name vs quality vs power vs price.

    I’d say that 800 Ws is plenty enough light for most. The Q-flashes are 150Ws each, which is fine for work where I don’t really need f16 and f22 with softboxes.

    Radio Triggers .. the options here are wide open right now, with Radio Poppers and the new PocketWizards changing the scene. But I still think that the older Pocket Wizard Plus II units are fine. Just think of all the amazing photography that has been achieved / created over decades and decades with manual flash and simple radio slaves. So using a simple radio slave unit should not be seen as a limitation.

    I hope this helps somewhat, although there isn’t much direct advice here. But at some point you have to decide what your budget is, figure out how much power you need .. and just make the plunge with whatever you decide your lighting kit will be .. and get on with the art. : )

    Neil vN

  5. 8 says

    What is your web resolution for the images posted. I love how all your images have a ‘glaze’ to them. I never seem to get that effect when I upload pics to any site.

  6. 9 says

    Darryl .. the images don’t have any additional processing done to them for posting online, other than sharpening. You absolutely need to sharpen your images when you down-size for web. That might be the trick?

    Neil vN

  7. 10arnold says

    Neil, can you tell me how close the flashes were to the subject and I am assuming they were close to full power. I am surprised how much light you get at f16, unless the flashes were very close to the model.


  8. 11 says

    Arnold .. f16 @ 200 ISO with a larger Speedlight (SB-900 / 580EX II) is about 3 meters / 10 feet. This is a workable distance. And I used the slightly more powerful Q-flash.

    Neil vN

  9. 12Laura says

    wow wow wow! i love these images, they certainly pop! would this sort of lighting be good on regular looking people or should it just be used on models? I shoot regular people and am wondering if this sort of light would be too revealing of skin flaws, etc.
    PS: i got your book and it’s awesome! maybe your next book could be about photoshop workflow? just dreaming…

  10. 13 says

    Laura .. thanks! This way of lighting with such a small light-source (direct flash from a speedlight), will show up skin imperfections much more readily than softer light from a larger light source.

    Re photoshop articles .. I do intend adding some future articles here on that topic.

    Neil vN

  11. 14Pete says

    I usually have nothing but admiration for what I see here.

    I suppose photography is so much more subjective than objective.

    The lighting of these images is just too hard for for my taste and
    a tad too much “Adobe Magic” going on. Sorry.

    I much prefer the softer look you attain Neil.

  12. 15 says

    Pete .. I still have a strong preference for softer more flattering light. But it was interesting to try a different approach.

    Re the amount of Photoshopping done to the images? In my opinion, not much at all. I’m posting the straight-out-of-the-raw-converter images here for comparison with the edited images. The idea is that the image should look pretty good out of the camera / raw converter already.

    Neil vN

  13. 16 says

    Nice, dramatic photos.
    I went over to Jaco’s website, and noticed a photo of you and Jaco (?) posing in front of a wall with Marilyn Monroe graffiti. Who took that photo?

  14. 18Thorsten says

    It truly is a small world we live in. Whilst I’ve not met Jaco, I am very familiar with his blog as it’s one of several I keep up to date with because of his great images and how he creates them. Your tangents is obviously another blog I try to visit regularly!

    It’s no big surprise to me to hear about Jaco using direct off-camera flash instead of through a modifier. As well as attending your workshop in Cork earlier this year, I’ve been fortunate to attend workshops by other visiting photographers that are also well known and respected for what they do; people like Bjorn Thomassen, Damien Lovegrove and Frank Doorhof. When it comes to using off-camera flash, each has their own way of working and each uses off camera flash very successfully. For example Damien does a lot of off-camera TTL speedlite work with direct flash (no modifiers), whereas Bjorn and Frank regularly use Elinchrom Rangers or the new Quadra with a variety of modifiers, metering meticulously by hand.

    I think at the end of the day it comes down to working with what you are comfortable with (and this ultimately leads to each individual photographers’ recognisable lighting style). If the end result is a success, ultimately that’s all that matters. I think the best lesson to be learned from this is that everyone should take themselves out of their comfort zone every so often and try something new. You never know where it might lead! It’s also the reason I enjoy attending workshops whenever I can, in order to see and learn from the great variety of ways one can produce great images.

    – Thorsten.

  15. 20 says

    Could you tell me something about the reflectors position? Did you zoom in to tele-position or did you even use the wide-angle diffusor?


  16. 21 says

    Mario, I keep the Q-flash’s reflector for the wider position (ie, not tele), and I have a single diffuser disc over it. I didn’t use the wide-angle diffuser.

    Neil vN

  17. 22 says

    For this sequence of images of Lea, here is my lighting set-up.

    I was holding the Q-flash in my left hand, extended away from me. Bare flash, aside from a diffuser disc over the flash-head. The ring that you see there is the speed-ring to which I would normally attach the softbox.

  18. 23philip abogoh says

    very brilliant shots!please what was the setting of power the flash.was it FULL power or 1/4.

  19. 24 says

    Philip … I don’t off-hand recall whether these were taken at full power or not.

    I usually run the flash below full power, even if just 1/3 or 2/3 below full power. This way the flash recycles fully between shots, giving me more consistent exposure.

    Neil vN

  20. 25 says

    I have started a biz recently and was doing some research for on location photography for my family lifestyle sessions. I got a hit on your site from my ‘overpowering the sun’ search and can’t tell you how thankful i am! LOVE your thoroughness/professionalism and artistry combo and your desire to share that w/fellow sojourners! Originally my desire for on location sessions was to be natural light but w/tips like yours and kelby’s i aspire to be able to be ‘on the run’ to C A P T U R E the moments my clients are hiring me for and still get that sparkle w/a boost of flash….love seeing the photo of you holding the flash in one hand and camera in another as for now i’m a one woman show soooo i gotta figure out how to balance all that and keep a steady camera hand! i love Radio Poppers btw–shout out for them! do you have any suggestions for flash w/on the move outdoor photography?

  21. 26 says

    woops, i know what else i was going to ask—going bare flash for a harder lite source (well i think you mentioned a modifier on the head) how do you feel this image would have been different if that flash had been on camera and say TTL’d right at her or 45 degrees…guessing the small amount you get from angling it straight up would have been not nearly sufficient for your needs…thanks!

  22. 27 says

    Hi there Jennifer …

    Thank you for the kind words. Always good to hear the website is useful.

    Re your questions … I’m not sure I understand you when you ask, “how do you feel this image would have been different if that flash had been on camera and say TTL’d right at her or 45 degrees”

    If you mean that turning your flash-head into a 45 degree bounce position is the same as off-camera flash, then I have to tell you the bad news .. it’s not. Off-camera flash gives a different look than direct ON-camera flash, unless you’re able to bounce your flash off something, and flag your flash appropriately.

    off-camera flash
    bouncing on-camera flash off exterior walls
    bounce flash photography

    Also, a genuine suggestion .. you HAVE to familiarize yourself with the proper terminology.
    “TTL’d right at her or 45 degrees” makes no sense.

    You’re running the real risk that your clients will be more familiar with photography technique than you are … and that’s a situation you never want to encounter as a professional photographer.

    Re suggestions and advice about using flash on the move outdoors …
    there’s a lot of material here on this site. Time to do some homework. : )

    Neil vN

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