RickJ Photography | The Preference of Off-Camera Flash vs Natural Light

The Preference of Off-Camera Flash vs Natural Light

September 16, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

I noticed something this last weekend when shooting a couple's 20th-anniversary portraits at Manistee Ranch, a popular park for photo sessions located in Glendale, AZ. Out of about a dozen photographers spread out throughout the park shooting clients including young children, couples, wedding parties, and quinciñeras, only two photographers appeared to be using any form of light modifiers or reflectors, and one may have had an on-camera flash with a bounce card. I was the only one there using off-camera flash w/ a modifier. Are most photographers content with the results using natural light, or are they apprehensive of taking control of the light in their images in a flattering way?

Using the camera's built-in flash (if equipped) or an unmodified speed light on the camera pointed directly at the subject produces harsh light that isn't flattering for your subjects. Moving the light off the camera and diffusing or modifying it to soften, focus, or contain the light not only helps control the intensity, softness, and fall-off of the light but also changes the direction of the light for more flattering results.

Shooting with off-camera flash doesn't have to be expensive or difficult. A $28 Amazon Basics manual flash, some basic RF triggers, a modifier to soften the light (like a shoot-through umbrella or softbox), and something to attach it all to (i.e. a monopod with a 5/8" stud with a softbox adapter or a small light stand) is all it takes. All in, you're probably looking at $100-$150 on the low-end to completely transform the look of your photos. Spending a bit more will allow you to shoot in broad daylight with something high-speed-sync capable (where you can use shutter speeds above 1/200-1/320 sec to darken ambient light). Spending a lot more on battery-operated mono-lights adds more power in some cases, but isn't necessary (or as portable) in most situations.

For someone getting started with off-camera flash wanting to shoot on location, here's a kit I'd suggest (note: some parts are Nikon specific, but there are Canon equivalents):

  • Neewer 30x30 Octabox light modifier to soften the light ($28.99): http://amzn.to/2xbyO9g
  • Speedlight Bowens adapter to attach the flash to your modifier ($16.99): http://amzn.to/2yhcXvw
  • Yongnuo kit consisting of 2 YN-560 IV flashes + YN-560TX HSS Nikon Trigger + color gels ($179.00): http://amzn.to/2xGD16k
    • The Canon equivalent is the same price and can be found at http://amzn.to/2x8lp0h
    • You can go with 1 flash + trigger and save about $68, but I find shooting with two flashes in some situations adds more flexibility to fill shadows, light hair, etc., and the colored gels can add drama or correct for certain lighting.
  • Monopod (or tripod) to attach and for your assistant to carry - you can go all sorts of ways, but having something with a 1/4-20" stud that can convert to a 3/8" stud will be more sturdy. This is an inexpensive example at ($14.99): http://amzn.to/2x8Ws4F
    • I personally own a 5-section carbon-fiber unit that is branded various ways and is priced between $45-$100 depending on the name. A quick search for "Carbon Fiber Monopod" will turn up several of these options.
    • You could also go with an inexpensive light stand if you're short on help, but they're less portable. They don't require the stud adapter either. This smaller 7-foot stand is more portable than a more expensive 9-foot, but is more likely to tip over if you're not on level ground or winds pick up (ask me how I know) ($18.99): http://amzn.to/2fcFez3
  • If going the monopod route, a stud adapter converts a monopod/tripod to light stand. You want as short of an adapter as possible, and attaching to a 3/8" mounting screw is sturdier than 1/4-20" ($4.69) : http://amzn.to/2jBXl2O
    • I've broken cheap monopods with 1/4-20" studs using too long of an adapter. I now use a short adatper threaded onto a 3/8" monopod stud.
  • A reflector to help bounce light back to your subject to help fill in shadows - a Neewer 110cm 5-in-1 collapsable unit works well ($19.99): http://amzn.to/2xILRk4
    • A $2.99 white piece of foam core posterboard works well, too, and you can have your subject hold it when shooting close!

All in: ~$265 (or <$200 if opting for one flash).

* all prices in USD on Amazon.com as of 16-Sept-2017.

Here's a photo of my assistant (aka my daughter) holding my setup using a carbon-fiber monopod. Shown here is a different flash and trigger setup than mentioned above, but both products are discontinued. Besides, I cannot recommend the Aperlite flash (see link for my Amazon review) and the Neewer triggers are no longer available for sale. The Yongnuo flash units listed above have built-in receivers and don't require external trigger receivers (fewer batteries to charge). I know other photographers that use the Yongnuo combination listed above that easily recommend them.

A little #bts from last weekend's photo shoot! A Neewer 30x30 octabox on a Bowens speedring, attached to a Bowens-speedlight adapter. A 5/8 stud is screwed onto a monopod, making this a mobile unit. Aperlite speedlight with Neewer iTTL trigger (though I was shooting manual flash). The entire setup is relatively inexpensive, with the speedlight and monopod being the most expensive components. The lovely @kayleejohnnson was my assistant for the evening.

If you're a Nikon shooter like I am, you may ask if using Nikon's built-in CLS system is a good option with a compatible flash. While it does work well in some settings (I started out with this before moving to RF triggers), the optical system doesn't deliver consistent results outdoors where bright light can blind the receiver on the flash, and it requires line-of-sight from the camera to the flash to trigger reliably. Additionally, some higher-end bodies don't include a built-in pop-up flash to trigger the flashes, and lower-end D-SLR bodies (Nikon D3000-series and D5000-series) don't offer the system at all unless you add an external optical trigger unit costing hundreds more than the setup I mentioned above. At the end of the day, an RF trigger is far more reliable and doesn't require line-of-sight to trigger.

As for how to make this all work, there are many great classes at your local camera store or online (YouTube, Digital Photography School, Fro Knows Photo, Lynda, etc.), both free and paid, that will help you to get over the hump of using flash, understanding how it affects exposure, the relationship of shutter speed to ambient light vs aperture to flash exposure in an image, and more. A quick Google or YouTube search will get you started down a new journey and a new way of looking at photos! I personally paid for a course that was less than $70 online and in a few hours, was eager to try out what I had learned. The key is to practice until you can repeatedly achieve the desired results in your images.

Happy Shooting!

Disclaimer: The links included above are Amazon Affiliate links. RickJ Photography receives a small commission for sales that happen through these links. Your support is greatly appreciated!


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