Getting Started with Off-Camera Flash

February 18, 2011 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 14 Comments | |
Getting Started with Off-Camera Flash Image

If you think flash always kills atmosphere and leads to horrid stark pictures, you’re missing out on a whole world of stunning photography that flashguns can bring.

Lifting a lifeless portrait, filling in shadows from harsh sunlight or even creating dramatic colourful scenes, getting to grips with flash can transform your photos. And it’s not as hard, or as expensive, as you may think.

If you’re serious about making the most of your camera and don’t mind carrying an extra bit of kit, then by far the best investment you can make in your photography is buy a separate external flashgun – the sort that can be mounted on your hotshoe.

There are loads available, both from your camera manufacturer who will probably offer a whole range of models at various levels of function, power and price, to independent makers. These are often specifically matched to your camera so work pretty much like the proper “dedicated” gun anyway but are often cheaper.

GettingsStarted with  Off-Camera Flash

It’s best to look for a gun that can be bounced and swivelled, and has not only fully automatic modes but can be set manually too.

A hotshoe gun typically runs on AA batteries which are cheap to replace and give fast recycle times, especially is you the latest rechargeable batteries. You can even buy external battery packs, too.

Using the flash on the hotshoe can give great results, especially if the light it bounced off a wall or ceiling. But the best thing to do is take it off the camera.

GettingsStarted with  Off-Camera Flash

When taking photos, what we’re trying to do is make a three-dimensional subject look like a 3-D subject when viewed on a flat piece of paper or computer screen. The easiest way to do this is to get the light source off the axis of the camera lens so it makes some shadows. 

To do this, you’ll need to physically get your flash off your camera. The easiest way to do this is mount it to the top of a proper lightstand, although a tripod will work – as will getting a friend to hold the light for you. Ideally the flash should be mounted on a tilting umbrella adapter. This allows you to fit umbrellas or other light modifiers to it, and to tilt the flash to a suitable angle.

Next you have to trigger the flash. If you’re using a dedicated flashgun, you may already have the technology built in to the flash and your camera to make it sync. Many consumer cameras have a pop-up flash which can be used to wirelessly trigger an external flashgun. Not only that, if you do use the manufacturers’ own system, you can continue to use the camera in any of its modes – from manual to aperture priority or even program. And it will work out the exposure for you. A dedicated sync lead will also work, but there’s the additional problems of trailing cables.

GettingsStarted with  Off-Camera Flash

If you’re using your camera and flash in an automatic mode, then quite often the flash will just pump out too much or too little light. Your subject may be over or underexposed.

The way to stop this happening is to use your flash exposure compensation which is sometimes set on the flash itself or on the camera’s shooting menu.

If your flash is too bright and your subject overexposed, try setting one stop of underexposure or -1. Then tweak from there to get the right effect.

This should give a background and subject both correctly exposed.

Entry Tags

beginner, portrait, how to, flash, getting started, lighting, external, flashgun, off camera, off-camera

Your Comments

14 Comments | Newest Oldest First | Post a Comment

#1 Aberdeen Photographers

Great article thanks. I believe that some of the best results regarding flash models come from the Sigma flashes. They are a lot better value for money than most flashes although some Sigma flashes have problems with distance.

1:49 pm - Sunday, February 20, 2011

#2 Cynthia Farr-Weinfeld

Wonderfully helpful article, thank you!  Just what I am trying to learn at the moment!  Cindy

5:04 pm - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

#3 Max Surikov

Great points. Don’t forget about gelling your flash for an even greater drama.

4:43 am - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

#4 kamarms

nice tips that can be easily followed by anyone…

3:33 am - Tuesday, June 7, 2011

#5 TillyBee

There is nothing more annoying than fellow photographers who turn their nose up at other photographers who shoot off camera flash. They say “oh but it doesn’t look natural” or “that look is too harsh for my style of photography” clearly these narrow minded photographers need to go back to school and learn to utilize one of the most powerful tools in a professional photographers kit; off camera flash. When used properly it can be hard to tell if it was used at all, or it can be strong and dramatic! I only shoot available light, and off camera flash is available to me. Lol

10:21 am - Tuesday, August 2, 2011

#6 paul

this is a very helpful article as iam just starting to get into off camera falsh.

3:30 am - Wednesday, August 24, 2011

#7 Peterborough Photography

I think flash offers other ways to get some really nice effects and pictures.

1:53 am - Wednesday, November 9, 2011

#8 Andrew Knowles Photography

I LOVE shooting off camera flash. When I shoot wedding formals I just take a giant 60” umbrella, taper it across the group from a 45 downward angle and everyone looks great! I also really enjoy pointing my strobe(s) at a wall or building and bouncing it. Sometimes lets me turn a giant white wall into a HUGE reflector!

5:25 pm - Tuesday, December 6, 2011

#9 Tony Sale|Essex Wedding Photographer

Really helpful and informative article. I use bounce flash quite a lot but I really do need to get it off the camera.

12:36 am - Friday, February 24, 2012

#10 Pat Sharp

Thanks for the info, I am just starting to experiment with off camera flash.

1:23 pm - Saturday, August 11, 2012

#11 Shane

Excellent Tips - I’m just starting with off camera flash and look forward to trying out some techniques.

11:13 pm - Monday, November 5, 2012

#12 Moin khan

Thank you for your helpeful post I’m glad that you actually shared this one to all of us. I believe this is helpful and thanks for considering your readers because it’s one way of saying that we are all welcome and we are your boss. A friend of mine told me that your site is indeed great so I visited it and he’s true.


5:23 pm - Wednesday, June 26, 2013


I first started using my Nikon SB-700’s off camera a few years ago when shooting a portfolio for fashion student. I was considering using studio flashes with a battery pack, but this really is not an option unless you have at least one assistant! I presently use the SB-700’s for my wedding photography with the new Yongnou 622n which is around £40. It is amazing for the cash and uses radio waves rather than infra red of the massively expensive and dated nikon SU-800. If you can’t afford the nikon or canon stuff you can get one of the older Yongnou flashes and a pair of triggers for less than £100! Once you get the flash off camera, you dont even really need an umbrella. To anyone who hasn’t got their flashes off camera do it!

11:11 am - Friday, July 11, 2014

#14 Clipping Path

Very helpful post it is.Thank you sharing this article.

4:01 pm - Friday, November 6, 2015