Best camera settings for off-camera flash
With many of the tutorial articles on this website that deal with off-camera flash photography, I have attempted to make the explanation not only as straight-forward as possible, but also repeatable. When it comes to camera and flash settings, there is often a specific science at work here – a specific method , which should deliver similar results time and again. The artistic side to photography is open to interpretation, and that is what makes photography continually fascinating – there are always further things to explore. However, when it comes to the more technical decisions about camera and flash settings, we can usually distill our choices via a specific thought-processes. Algorithms if you will. Algorithms to give us the best camera and flash settings when using off-camera flash.
We’ve gone over a checklist for portrait photography on location where we looked at an algorithm to create a shooting workflow on location to get great portraits.
- Find an interesting or complementary background, that also has good light on my subject.
- If there isn’t good ambient light, then I add light.
- Then, my subject’s positioning and pose is adjusted so that the photograph comes together.
Similarly, we have looked at how to overpower bright sunlight with on-camera flash. There is a very specific series of steps that give us optimum camera settings for a tough situation.
- Maximum flash sync speed.
- Use your lowest ISO. Most likely 100 ISO.
- Then, find the appropriate aperture. For bright sunlight, this will most likely be f/11 @ 1/200 @ 100 ISO
- Use the flash’s built-in calculator to figure out the best combination of distance and the power of the flash.
As an aside, High-Speed Flash Sync (HSS) is not the best choice to overpower the sun or any kind of bright light. There are two scenarios you are going to use HSS flash – When to use high speed flash sync (HSS) – and overpowering the sun is not one of those scenarios.
These are the kinds of things we thoroughly cover during the flash photography workshops.
Photographing a model, Rozalinda, during a personal photography workshop in New York, the question came up, how do we decide how much flash to use?
This is the crux of using flash outside of the studio – balancing the flash and ambient light. These following tutorials cover the options, and how our decisions might change, depending on the scenario:
- Various scenarios: Balancing flash with ambient light (model: Catherine)
- Flash photography tip – Adding flash to ambient light (model: Elizabeth)
- Flash photography tutorial: Balancing flash & ambient exposure (model: Anelisa)
Now, specifically as shown in this article – Adding flash to ambient light – you will see the way the images differ, depending on how much flash was added … and how much the ambient light was suppressed. Ultimately, there was no real right or wrong there. You (mostly) adjust it to taste, and adjust it to match your vision.
But here is one of the biggest tips I can give you about using flash outside the studio – start with your ambient light. Switch your flash off, and figure out your base exposure without flash. Now decide whether you want a touch of fill light, or whether you want the flash to dominate for a more dramatic look. Your choice! But start by switching your flash off, and figuring out your basic exposure first.
Photo gear used for these images
- 1/800 @ f/3.2 @ 800 ISO
- Canon EOS 6D camera (B&H / Amazon)
- Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II (B&H / Amazon)
- Profoto B10 flash (B&H / Amazon)
- Profoto transmitters for Nikon & Canon (& Sony)
- Profoto OCF Beauty Dish (24″) (B&H / Amazon)
- 75″ tall Gitzo monopod to hold up the light
This is part 1 of a 2-part article, which continues here:
Flash photography tip – Start with the ambient exposure
5 Comments, Add Your Own
You said hss is not your friend but I see you’ve shot at 1/800s, sorry for being confused
2Neil vN says
Stuart … Check out this Tutorial on High-Speed Flash Sync. If you go over max flash sync speed, the range of your flash is diminished. Which means that at max flash sync speed, you have the optimal range for your flash.
So any time you are battling bright sunlight, and need to match it with flash, you need to be at maximum flash sync speed for the most juice from your flash.
You can easily see this on the back of your flash if you dial your shutter speed just 1/3rd higher than max sync speed.
Now, as mentioned in this article – When to use High Speed Flash Sync, the most logical times to use HSS is when you want to control the DoF with a wider aperture, or need a faster shutter speed to help stop movement.
And that guided my decision to go to HSS — our model was walking, and I wanted a faster shutter speed than the 1/180th that the Canon 6D offered as max sync speed. And to do this, I had to raise the ISO.
Dear Mr. van Niekerk,
I just discovered your videos and website. Very appreciated, informative and exceptionally well narrated!.
Question on off-camera flash. Based on PAID, on full manual flash, the flash should “know” the ISO in order to give “proper” exposure (whatever the image maker desires). However, it seems to me that except the Nikon Speedlights (SB-900/SB910 and SB-5000), no other flash on the market has the option to set the ISO as a variable. I am not sure if I understand how, otherwise, a manual flash can give proper exposure in manual mode. Do I miss something?
Thanks for your time,
3.1Neil vN says
The assumption is 100 ISO. That would be the default when figuring out flash exposure using the Guide Number. Of course, we can interpolate for other ISO settings.
As you noticed, the Nikon flashes are the only ones (as far as I know), where you can set the ISO on the flash when the flash isn’t attached to the camera.
3.2Neil vN says
Also check out this tutorial: