Using Off Camera Flash For Portraits (A Beginner’s Guide)

Using off camera flash for portraits can seem daunting. Just about every portrait photographer starts out taking natural light portraits because all you need is a camera and a subject.

But adding flash into your skill set can have a number of positive effects on your photography.

With off camera flash you can control the light rather than let it be in control, you can shoot beautiful portraits when the natural light is ugly, you can use the flash creatively, and you can add that extra little polish to your portraits that make them stand out among the crowd.

If you have never used off camera flash, then learning some basic techniques for portrait photography will help you get started.

Contents

Beginner Off-Camera Flash Kit
Off Camera Flash Setup & Settings
Using Off Camera Flash For Portraits

Beginner Off Camera Flash Kit

Don’t let the cost of flash gear stop you from learning it. Getting started with off camera flash at a reasonable price  is much better than waiting and saving up for the overpriced name brand.

In fact, unless you have a specialized need for higher end equipment or features, you can use this gear for professional work as well. Everything here is part of my regular kit that I use all the time and it hasn’t failed me.

Flash

Yongnuo 560 IV – Skip the Nikon, Canon, and Sony branded flashes. You are paying for the name. I use these Yongnuo flashes in my professional work and they have never let me down.

These are manual flashes. I highly recommend starting with manual control of your flash (even if you have one that allows TTL). Using TTL (through the lens) means letting the flash and camera decide how strong the flash needs to be. There are two reasons that is not a good place to start: 1) Slightly recomposing the photo can result in widely varying exposures from shot to shot (which is a nightmare in post production) and 2) if you let the camera do all the decision making, you’ll never learn anything so when the TTL doesn’t give you what you want, you’ll be lost.

Check the latest Yongnuo 560 IV price on Amazon

Transmitter

Yongnuo TX – This is the device that sits in the hot shoe of your camera and communicates with the flash. You need a transmitter and flash that work together (typically this means buying the same brand). This transmitter lets you control the power of multiple Yongnuo flashes and even organize them into groups so that you can change the power of multiple flashes at a time. 

Check the latest Yongnuo TX price on Amazon

You can get a package of two 560 Flashes and the TX transmitter for a good price as well. 

Light Stands and Bracket

Start cheap and simple here. You just need something that will stand on its own and let you mount the flash. This stand is a great option to get started. 

The flash bracket is the part that holds your flash to the stand (a.k.a. the part that prevents your flash from crashing to the ground). You may want to consider a more durable bracket like the Phottix Varos Pro S. These are made of metal, are sturdy, and pretty inexpensive. 

Light Modifiers To Start With

The world of lighting in photography is immense. You can spend $1000s of dollars and not even scratch the surface of what is out there to direct, soften, and shape the light coming from your flash. Here are a couple os basic modifiers that will get you started. 

Umbrellas

These are the modifiers that everyone should start with. They give off very soft light and throw light everywhere. This let’s you be a little less precise in placement of the lights and still get a great photo. As your skill develops you can move on to more controlled modifiers that let you be more precise with your placement. These umbrellas from Limo Studio are a great budget option to get you started.

There are also reflective umbrellas. With these you face them away from the subject and the light reflects back at them. They are typically silver lined and give off a less soft but more specular light on the subject. This helps you pick up more detail in your subject, which may be good or bad depending on the goal.

Softbox

A good softbox is the next logical step from umbrella. A softbox is a similar to a reflective umbrella (although often square or rectangular in shape). The light bounces around inside the softbox and then comes out through a diffuser. It generally gives you more control than an umbrella though. Many also have a grid attachment. The grid allows you to have even more directional control with less light spill off to the side. This is helpful if you want to light your subject and not the background.  

The Phottix Easy Up Umbrella Softbox is almost as fast to set up as a shoot through umbrella because it opens like one and all you have to do is add on the diffuser via Velcro in front and the optional grid if you want it. It comes with the diffuser and the grid attachment all in the package so it is a great first softbox to get started with. It also comes in a octobox shape and sizes up to 47″ (119cm)

Check the latest Phottix Easy Up Softbox prices on Amazon

Correction Gels

Gels are one of the unsung heroes of flash photography. In many cases it is the proper use of a color correction gel that allows you to make the scene more natural looking and get rid of that obvious flash look. I got started with the Rogue Photographic Gels Kit which has just about everything you need for basic color correcting and even some creative looks. 


Complete Off Camera Flash Kit – If you are looking for the least expensive way to get started with a kit of stands, brackets, and umbrellas…check out this kit.


Off Camera Flash Basics (Setup)

I use the gear listed above, but most off camera speedlights work in a very similar way so I’ll give some general information about getting them working. For specific functions of your flash setup, check out your instruction manual or some other good online resources such as Flash Havoc. For a great tutorial on setting up the Yongnuo system check out this article. 

Setting Up The Flash Remote

The system above and most other systems use a group based setup. That means that your flashes can be set to be part of a group, typically identified by letter (A, B, C, etc.). That can be very helpful if you are working with a set of two or three flashes that you always want to be the same power. You can change one setting and all flashes in that group will be set to the same power. 

How Do Power Settings On A Flash Work?

On most speedlights and strobes the flash power is described as a fraction of the total brightness the flash is capable of outputting. So full power is described as 1/1. It goes down from there in “stops” of light similar to adjusting camera settings. Each full stop is 1/2 of the higher stop. So the steps will look something like 1/1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8…all the way to 1/128. Most flashes, including the ones above also let you adjust in one-third stops as well to dial in a more precise setting. 

What Flash Settings Should I Start With?

I can’t give a specific answer because that will be dependent on the situation and the overall power of the flash itself. I find it helpful to start around 1/16 power on most shoots, take a photo, and adjust from there. 

Start with getting the exposure you want from the ambient light (with no flash on). This depends on what look you are going for so it may mean a relatively well exposed image to start with if you want the flash to just be an accent or it can be a very dark base exposure if you want the majority (or all) of the light to come from the flash. 

Try different approaches and experiment to find out what you like.  


 

Using Off Camera Flash For Portraits

There are times when “on camera” flash is a necessary evil, but using off camera flash is almost always going to result in a superior image. It also gives you more detail and a more natural look than on camera flash. Natural light does look…well…natural. But it tends to be relatively flat unless you are a little lucky. Adding some flash to the natural light adds a that extra pop to bring out the subject and a degree of quality that usually cannot be accomplished with natural light alone. 

First Get The Flash Off Center

Here the sun is directly behind the subject. Without flash the background would have been too bright if I exposed her properly.

The main reason off camera flash is superior to on camera flash is because the flash and camera are pointing at the subject from different angles.

If you ever took a photo with a point and shoot camera or cell phone in a dark location and used flash, then you know how bad that looks. The person is usually completely washed out looking from the flash, everything else is dark, they probably have red eyes, and it is painfully obvious that you used flash to light the image. Nothing about it looks natural.

Part of that is because we are very much used to seeing other people with light coming from above and/or to the sides. When the flash is coming from the same angle as the camera, there are no shadows visible and they look weird and washed out.

Unless you are using it for fill light (see below) then having your flash on your camera is rarely going to produce the kind of quality that you can get with off camera flash.

Start With One Light

Working with multiple lights is tricky, so start with just one light.

If you want to take your understanding of light a little further, then bring your (hopefully) cooperative subject inside.

Adjust the settings on your camera so that a photo with no flash results in a very underexposed image. Then start with the flash on a stand directly above the camera. Adjust the power of the flash until you get a good exposure. Then move the stand in an arc to the right taking a picture every few feet until the flash is directly to the side of your subject. Looking at those photos, now you can see how the flash will behave at various positions. Every one of them is a viable spot to place the flash, it just depends on what you want the image to look like.

Use Fill Light

This is a great place to start for anyone getting started learning flash.

Contrary to what you may think, one of the best times to use a flash is when you already have some bright light.

If you are outside at noon or you are somewhere with bright lights, the person you are photographing is going to have bright spots and dark shadows on their face. This is typically an unflattering look for most people.
One way you can avoid that is to place the person in some open shade.

But if you can’t find a good location in the shade, then you can fill in those shadows with flash.

Fill flash can work on camera too, but it is a good place to start experimenting with off camera flash as well. The benefit to having the fill light off camera is that you can have good fill light even if the subject is further away or not looking at the camera. Put the flash on the side that has the harsh shadows and fill them in a little. You are not trying to overpower the ambient light here so you can probably still accomplish this with the speedlights I mentioned above.

If it is the middle of the day, though, you may want to try an ND filter on your camera unless you have a flash with high speed sync. Otherwise you are limited to the maximum sync speed of your camera (which is typically 1/250 or 1/200 of a second). That is a little beyond the scope of this article but if you are having some difficulty using the flash during the day, leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to help.  

Using Flash Outdoors For A Portrait

Even though there was plenty of light for a good exposure, the addition of a softbox to the camera’s left here added a pop of light to her face that really brings out the eyes.

Using a flash during an outdoor portrait can add an extra element of dimension and detail to a shot that is simply not possible with only natural light. This is how I use my flashes most of the time.

If you are comfortable shooting in natural light then take your one light outside when you are first getting started. Grab a friend that will be patient while you experiment with the flash. Find a shady spot where you would normally be comfortable shooting with natural light and then add the flash. Start with it above and off to the side at about a 45 degree angle to your subject. You won’t be using this for every shot but it is a great way to start.
Since you are outside and already in a spot where you like the light, your goal is not to overpower the daylight. You just want to add a little punch of light to the subject. If they are in open shade then they are probably lit well but the light will be a little flat.

Start at a lower power like 1/128 or 1/64 and work your way up from there. Eventually, you’ll see the flash add some definition to the features of your subject.

Even a simple one light setup like this will add detail, dimension, and depth to the image that is really difficult to get with natural light alone.

Using Flash For Sunset Portraits

Shooting portraits at sunset can be amazingly beautiful, but if done incorrectly, they can also be extremely frustrating.

You want the sunset in the frame behind your subject, but that also means that the front of your subject will be much darker than the sunset. If you expose properly for the background, the subject is dark and if you expose properly for the subject then the sunset is much too bright.

Using a warming gel on the flash lets you balance the color with the yellow and orange of a setting sun and avoid that washed out “flash look”

This is a perfect opportunity to use flash to light up your subject and balance them with the brightness of the sunset. But, if you ever tried this with just a bare flash then you’ve ended up with a photo where the sunset and the surrounding scene had a beautiful golden yellow/orange glow to it and your subject was lit with a white neutral light that made them look like a deer in headlights. It also makes it look obvious that you used flash to light them up. You can correct this by using gels on your flash. Gels change the color of your flash to match the rest of the light in the scene.

In the case of a colorful sunset (which typically means shades of orange and yellow), you would use what is called a CTO (color temperature orange) to warm up the flash to match the sunset. Once you add this colored gel to your flash, you can light your subject in a way that blends into the scene and looks natural. 

Be sure not to go overboard with the flash power though. In this situation, you want just enough light on your subject to make them visible on the photo, and not more. Your subject should not be brighter than the sun in the image. A good way to approach this is to observe how the scene looks to your eye. Experiment with different power on your flash until you get it looking as natural as possible. Try to remember the power that you used. It may not be the same every time, but it should be close.

This shot shows how you can light the subject to balance with the light from the setting sun. The parents in the background show what the exposure would look like without flash.

Using Rim Light

One of the techniques you can use that will really differentiate your natural light photos from those done with off camera flash is using rim light. Rim light is when you place the light behind or to the side and behind the subject so that the edge of the subject is outlined by light. 

I chose this image because the rim lights were actually in the frame (which ended up looking kinda cool). You can see how the black costume stands out from the black background because the edges have highlights on them.

Rim lighting has the effect of separating the subject from the background. This can be extremely helpful when the background is the same or similar color as the subject. 

Conclusion

These are just a few ways to get started using off camera flash to improve your images. This is by no means an exhaustive tutorial on off camera flash.

If you want to learn more and have some questions about how I use flash, then leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to reply.


I’m a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. 

Using Off Camera Flash For Portraits (A Beginner's Guide) | Learn how to create amazing portraits without investing a lot of money on expensive flash systems. #photography

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