Introduction to Off-Camera Lighting with Small Flashes

Posted on June 11, 2008 by Bo

Many beginning photographers have a hard time justifying using/buying off-camera lighting, such as a small flash unit. After all, sunlight is free. And when the sun goes down, who doesn’t have a lamp that they can turn on? Plus, they just dropped their nice coin stash on a camera that has a perfectly good flash attached to it.

I’m not here to tell you that the flash on your camera is worthless; on the contrary, it does a great job of providing the scene with light. The unfortunate truth is that your camera’s built-in flash is placed in an awkward position relative to your lens. Thus, most any picture you take with your camera’s built-in flash will come off flat, unpleasant, and lacking depth and dimension–not to mention the likelihood that your subjects have a good chance of suffering the red eye disease.

This is where using an off-camera flash can help. By taking that light and moving it slightly to either side, for example, you can start developing depth and texture and give your pictures more pleasing light overall.[ad name=”250×250″]

As we discuss lighting, there’s one concept that we should address and that’s the difference between ambient light and the light that you get from a flash. With ambient light you can take a simple exposure reading with your camera and figure out what aperture and shutter speed settings you need for a correct exposure. Light from a flash or strobe is different, as it’s a burst of light that appears only momentarily.

The duration of light from a flash is very fast, upwards of 1/1000 sec depending on your flash. As long as that 1/1000 sec happens while your shutter is open, you’ll see the effects of the light. The key then is how much light is being cast onto your sensor while the shutter is open. The amount of light being let in is controlled by your aperture, thus, flash photography is more reliant on the size of your aperture rather than your shutter speed.

If you’ve ever tried to take pictures in low-light situations without a tripod, you’ve no doubt been plagued by blurry photos because of long shutter speeds. With the addition of a flash or strobe, we can use higher shutter speeds than we could if we were only using available ambient light. This may seem very obvious to some, but I feel that it’s a concept that’s worth stating.

There’s obviously more to it than that, but I wanted to let you know what you can expect from flash photography, particularly off-camera lighting. The only question is why you aren’t buying a flash right this moment!

Before you can step into the world of off-camera lighting, you must first make sure your camera is capable of supporting a remote flash. Basically any camera with a hot-shoe mount can do it; this includes most of today’s DSLRs, and the market is starting to see consumer-level point-and-shoot cameras with this support, such as the Canon Powershot G9.

Once you’ve verified that your camera has this support, it’s simply a matter of finding the flash unit that’s right for you and learning how to trigger it. Below is an outline of what we’ll be going through in order to get you started.

The authority on off-camera flash is David Hobby over at The articles that are included on this site are meant to supplement what he’s created. I warn you that, when I found David’s site, I lost a lot of sleep going through his lighting lessons. This mission is not for the faint-hearted, but will be very fulfilling regardless of your level of experience. With that, I wish you good luck, and let’s get started.

Coming soon: What does my flash need?

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One Response to “Introduction to Off-Camera Lighting with Small Flashes”

  1. photoman022 on December 8th, 2009 8:57 pm

    if you have a simple point and shoot camera with an on camera flash but not a hot shoe, you can still do off-camera flash. you can either buy a slave flash and use your on camera flash as the master and the off camera flash will flash when you shoot your camera and built in flash. an alternative is to purchase an optical remote, about $10 on ebay, and a regular flash to attach to your optical remote. your on camera flash will trigger the flash on the optical remote. you can even attach either the dedicated slave flash or the optical remote to a regular tripod.

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