Welcome to part 3 of our Flash Photography series. Now we get into some of the really fun stuff – using your flash ‘off camera.’
To do this you will need a basic kit set up-
1) A lighting Stand. Once you take the flash off the camera you need somewhere to put it, which is what lighting stands are made for (additionally, you may want to get an umbrella swivel so you can attach things). In a pinch I have been known to use a tripod or even an unsuspecting bystander, however Lighting stands tend to be able to reach higher than the typical tripod, and they don’t fidget, move around or need to race off to the bathroom.
You can use pretty much any stable surface as a lighting stand – I occasionally mount my flash to a Gorillapod and wrap it around a nearby pole- works a treat!
2) A Sync Kit. This kit consists of an adapter which connects your flash to your cameras hot-shoe via a standard cable, (usually about 5 metres). This is the most reliable way to sync your flash up to your camera, however many photographers prefer to use wireless setups.
Both Nikon and Canon have their own wireless lighting systems which let you optically trigger your Speedlites with your cameras pop-up flash. What some people don’t realise is that you simply need to set your pop-up flash on its lowest setting possible so that it has little to no effect on the overall image. Canon and Nikon also have their flashes set so that the high-end models (such as the Canon 580EXII and Nikon SB910 and SB700) can control the settings of other flash units (this is referred to as a ‘master and slave’ system). The optical slave set up is very versatile and gives you a lot of lighting and effects possibilities
The most expensive way to go is to buy a wireless radio trigger system such as the PocketWizard. These systems do offer the most room for growth, as they can be attached to bigger studio flash units if you decide to start getting fancy. Most Professionals work with this system. Canon have also just released the 600EX RT Speedlight, which has radio control.
Yes, you can shoot wirelessly with only the above items; however the following additions can help a lot when it comes to creating desired effects. A small shoot-through umbrella (many of which can double as bouncing umbrellas) can be attached to your lighting stand via an umbrella swivel, and can diffuse lighting for portraits while still providing a lot of illumination. Personally, I love to use Soft Boxes for portrait work because you can focus the light specifically on the face and create dramatic shadows, or bring them closer and (by lowering the flash output) get some nice soft light which can look like it’s coming through a window. For focusing light there is the ‘snoot’ attachment, which funnels the light down to a narrow beam, and honeycomb filters which stop light from dispersing to the sides. There are plenty of more attachments which you will discover as you progress.
What to do with your new autonomy.
What now? Practice. The best way to learn is by doing. See what effects you get by moving your flash close to a subject or by moving it far away, see what happens when you change the output, fire one flash on your subject and another on the background, or place something in front of the flash to create shadow. The brilliant thing about a set-up like this is that you can use it just about anywhere, and it can be as simple or as complex as you like. It can be used in addition to natural or ambient light, or you can shoot in darkness so you have complete lighting control.
This brings me to the promise I made to you way back at the start of blog 1. Remember how I promised to tell you how I took the photo of the wine in the glass? It was done simply and with minimum fuss.
Believe it or not, this was shot on my bed. A board was placed down, and then a sheet hung from halfway up the wall and coming down to cover the top of the bed, with the board underneath. I then half-filled the glass with wine and topped it up with water, to allow the light to shine through more easily. After placing the glass on the board I set up the camera on a tripod, set a shallow depth of field and manually set the focus.
At the time, I only had one off-camera flash at my disposal, but I wanted to have light go through both sides of the glass. Many mid-range DSLRs have a multiple exposure mode, which can take two photos and combine them into the one shot, so I decided to use this to my advantage. To make sure there was no movement of my camera or my subject, I fired the shutter using a cable release while I held the flash (triggered by the pop-up on the camera) to the side of the wine glass. I then went to the other side and repeated the process. This was all done in the dark (the room light turned on when I set up, obviously) so that I could control the light as much as possible. The camera automatically combined the two images, giving the illusion of there being two flash units. This took a bit of trial and error, but that is what a lot of photography is- figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
This may seem like a lot to take in, but this blog barely scratches the surface. One of the best recourses out there for learning about lighting is The Strobist Blog (link), which is a seemingly endless source of useful information. The best advice I can give when it comes to lighting (and any photography) is don’t be afraid to read, practice and experiment. The results may surprise you.