How to Get your Speedlight Off-Camera for Better Portraits

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One of the most effective ways to improve your portraiture is by controlling the light, and one of the most effective ways to control your light is to move it. Seems like a simple enough concept, but it can be daunting at first, especially if you’re using a speedlight or an on-camera flash. Despite its misleading name, an on-camera flash can, very easily, be used off the camera. The “on-camera” part simply refers to its form factor and ability to be attached physically to a camera via the hot shoe. This is convenient and simplifies using the flash in some circumstances, but taking the flash off the camera gives you greater flexibility and control over how the light looks. So, how can you use your speedlight off-camera?

Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

Connectivity

The most intimidating part of working with a flash that’s not sitting on top of your camera is how to trigger the flash to fire. When the flash is sitting on your hot shoe, the camera, essentially, does all of the work for you. Once the flash is off, how do you make sure it fires at the right time and right power? The answer depends a bit on your equipment, and whether or not your flash has a built-in radio transceiver, if it can accept a sync cable, or if you need to figure out another way to trigger it.

Physical, cabled connections are the least mysterious of ways to connect a flash to a camera, but they have their limitations. Namely, cable length can limit how and where you position your flash. The physical cable can also be a hazard or just a nuisance while working. But they are reliable and straightforward to set up. Wireless flash triggering is undeniably the way to go in most situations but requires a bit of planning on your end. The flash triggers you need ultimately depend on the flash you have and what you’re trying to achieve. While aimed at wedding photographers, this article on off-camera flash systems is still applicable to portrait photography in general and covers more of the intricacies of wired and wireless flash. Wireless flash triggering, especially radio triggering, is an intuitive method that has few limitations for how and where you can trigger your speedlight. Its range is typically much longer than cabled or other wireless methods, and you don’t need line of sight to successfully get the flash to fire. It’s also the easiest method for configuring multiple light setups, such as if you’re working with two, three, or even more speedlights at once.

Vello FreeWave LR Wireless Flash Trigger and Receiver Kit

Regardless of the system you choose, make sure you’re familiar with it before use. Wireless systems can require a bit of tinkering with respect to configuring groups and channels, and even wired systems are not always “plug-and-play.” With a bit of experience on how to get your flash firing off-camera, you’ll be able to focus more on how to effectively use your flash off-camera.

Support and Handling

The next consideration should be positioning your flash. Now that you have it firing off-camera, where do you want your flash to be? And how to do you want to hold it there? Sometimes the simplest answer is the best: hold your flash yourself. Especially with more compact speedlights, sometimes the most effective strobe setups come from you holding the flash with one hand while operating your camera with the other. It’s a bit of a juggling act at first, but once you develop a system, it’s a very intuitive way of positioning the light exactly where you need it. This method works well with cable-connected flashes or wireless systems and is limited mainly by how far you can reach and how steady you can handle a camera with one hand.

But if you’re looking for a more professional, consistent, and repeatable approach to working with a light off-camera, then you have to look into using a light stand. Take a look at The B&H Light Stand Buying Guide for some information on the type of stand to pick up to match your speedlight, and also look into some accessories, like boom arms, for more flexible positioning. Steadying your flash also makes it easier to work with flash modifiers, which add weight and bulk to the light. In a pinch, you can also use your tripod or another stable surface to prop up a flash, but you’ll likely find that a dedicated stand is the best tool for the job. Light stands also make it possible to work with multiple speedlights off-camera, as well as work with lights at distances greater than arm’s length.

Avenger A5033 Roller 33 Folding Base Stand with Braked Wheels

Positioning Your Flash, Modifying Your Light

With your speedlight off the camera and securely mounted on a stand, you can now focus your attention on the creative end of things: where to actually put the light. Consider the primary reason you wanted to get the speedlight off-camera in the first place—to avoid having the bright, harsh light hitting the subject from a direct, front-facing angle. The most obvious place to go to add a bit more intrigue to your lighting setup is to the side of the subject. But don’t stop there; also move the flash above and below your subject’s eye level, as well as move the flash farther away and closer to change the light quality. It’s all about experimenting in the beginning and is one of those practices that you’ll understand best through doing.

Vello Mini Softbox

It’s also important to consider some additional ways to modify your light. One of the benefits of having a speedlight off-camera is that you can work with larger modifiers or other light-shaping tools that are too unwieldy to use on-camera; use this new off-camera freedom to see the effects of soft boxes, umbrellas, or beauty dishes, or benefit from having a free hand to hold a reflector in place for softening and bouncing the light.

Impact 5-In-1 Collapsible Circular Reflector Kit

Getting your speedlight off your camera is one of the most effective ways to add some versatility and control to your portrait-lighting game. It gives you more freedom to change your shooting angles without affecting the lighting and, conversely, lets you change your lighting style without affecting the entire composition. Regardless of whether you're working with a wired or wireless system and holding your flash or mounting it atop a stand, just having the flash off of your camera altogether is a sound way for finding more creative lighting opportunities.

What are some tips or experiences you have with off-camera lighting? Do you already work with your speedlight off-camera? Let us know about some of your lighting techniques in the Comments section, below.

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