Off-Camera Flash; Create Directional Light With A Simple Setup

Most of us know about making outdoor portraits using the small fill flash on our cameras. But these photos have a “look” that tells everyone they were “made with flash.” They have a flat, often harsh look to them. A more sophisticated technique that can be accessed with many new cameras is the use of off-camera flash; you can even use multiple units controlled directly from the camera. I use Nikons, so I have access to the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS). In this article I’ll cover using a Nikon D300 with Nikon SB-800 and SB-900 flash units.

(Left): Using a Nikon D300 with a Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 lens, this photo was taken on the couch in my studio with one flash. I set up my flash inside a Larson 22x22” shoe-mount softbox and placed it just to my left. I used ISO 400 and took the photo at f/6.3 at 1⁄40 sec, using the room light for fill. The Nikon SB-800 flash was set from the camera Commander on TTL. (Model: Sydney James.)
All Photos 2010, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

I use single or multiple units, depending on where I’m working and what I want to bring to the job. In the studio, I use multiple lights to create depth and to flatter my subject. I typically use a main, fill, hair, and background light. Experience shows that while flash on the camera directed straight at the subject allows me to get a proper exposure, it certainly won’t win any awards for lighting. Flash modifiers help with a single flash to improve the one-light look, but they can’t change one important factor—the light’s direction. As I’ve noted many times in the past, light has four considerations—quality (hard, soft), quantity, direction, and color. By removing the flash from the top of the camera, you can control direction as well as the other three considerations.

Here’s the Larson softbox with the Nikon SB-800 flash mounted to a stand.

On-Camera Control Of Off-Camera Flash
First, the triggering part. Using flash units fired remotely by infrared technology means that you must maintain line of sight between the flash sensor and the camera. It also means that outside you’re limited to about 30 feet (maximum distance). Radio control transmitters eliminate this dilemma, including the use of several receivers for multiple flash. With most of the new top-end flash units and cameras this technology is built-in, allowing you to use your camera in “Commander” mode (flash may or may not fire from the camera position) and the other flashes in Remote mode. The big bonus is that all the units will work in TTL, Auto, or whatever other mode you choose.

(Left): Using flash allows us to control the relationship between subject and background. In this instance, had we exposed for the ambient light late in the day, parts of the background would have been bright but Caitlin would have been way overexposed and lack lighting quality. By having the light on her about 1.5 stops brighter, we’ve made her stand out against a darker background. Notice the light on her forms a “butterfly” light under her nose. My assistant is holding the SB-800 and Larson shoe-mount softbox just left of me and aimed down on her. This gives us shape and dimension as opposed to a flat, on-camera flash. (Nikon D300, Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 lens at 55mm, ISO 400, f/8 at 1⁄30 sec, TTL exposure.) (Right): This one-light portrait was taken in the studio by putting the SB-800 flash on a stand with a frosted cap aimed straight up at the ceiling. I placed the light a little off to the side to add shape and turned her face into it. I also had Sydney stay close to the background so the one light would provide sufficient light. (Nikon D300, Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 lens at 42mm, ISO 400 at f/3.2, TTL exposure.)

The Nikon SB-900 flash unit is the flagship unit of the system. It replaces the SB-800 and has a few improvements, the most important ones being ease of use switching from Commander to Remote, a zoom head all the way to 200mm, and three lighting patterns. The “even” pattern is really great for group photos. Nikon also has several choices for additional lights, such as the SB-600, SB-400, and SB-200, all of which can be used as Remotes, but not as Commander units. Nikon also offers the SU-800 Commander unit; it isn’t a flash, just the Commander control, so you can use your flash unit off-camera or with certain basic camera models that do not have the Commander mode built into the body. All units work together seamlessly.

Light diagram for the one-light portrait of Sydney.

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This is what I am grateful for this moment for you to be able to totally get over the feeling of lankiness you must be able to continue to restore the photos. - Michael Courouleau