There was a lot of talk lately on a Facebook group I belong to about the use of off camera flash. Some people were asking a lot of questions so I figured I would make a quick blog post about it. This is how I do it. It does not mean it is the only way. I do it like this because it works for me. People like Cliff Mautner (amazing wedding photographer) use this approach as well. I used to use big soft boxes, two of them. But, for the sake of speed and efficiency, this works best. You can learn more from sites like Kelby Training and such. This is a very basic overview of my set-up.
I use one speed light. I typically do not have an assistant with me so I shoot with the speed light mounted on a tripod. I use a flash diffuser to further soften the light. If I have someone helping, the speed light can me mounted on a monopod and the person holding it can move it around as needed. But, since I typically only use this approach for formals or portraits, this works. I can place the tripod/light any place I want. It is lightweight and there is no battery pack. Load the speed light with rechargeable Nickel Hydride batteries (I use Energizers) and you are good to go. Fast recycle times and long battery life.
Why use off camera flash? Well, put simply, it is better. The quality of light is so much nicer and you can control ambience and direction. Best of all, you can do it quickly. Using the pop-up flash is just terrible. Using infrared as a trigger brings line of site issues into play. There is a reason why pro cameras like the Nikon D4 do not have a pop-up flash. The light is harsh. Using a speed light mounted on camera is ok, but you still battle the harshness of light so close to the lens. Bouncing the light and adjusting accordingly is acceptable, but once you get that flash a great distance away from the camera body, you suddenly realize that you are shooting in a situation where the ambience and quality of the scene is completely under your control. For bridal formals, especially of groups, you can place the tripod/light set-up in front of (or to the side) of the group, get your settings, and shoot away. You can fill the group with beautiful light…FAST AND EFFICIENTLY. That is the key. Fast and simple. Less moving parts. Less chance of error.
So, here is a photo of my typical setup. D700 (with 24-70 f/2.8 mounted) and a Pocket Wizard (wireless trigger). I will start with ISO 800. In a controlled studio situation, I would go to ISO 100. There is more time to play with settings in a studio portrait session. The speed light here is an SB-900. Another Pocket Wizard is plugged into the PC port on the speed light. Both Pocket Wizards are on the same channel and ready to talk with each other. When I press the shutter, the signal goes to the hotshoe-mounted Pocket Wizard, which sends a wireless signal to the other one that is plugged into the speed light. Flash fires. It is that simple.
Now, what are the settings on the speed light? Well, it is in MANUAL MODE. On this speed light, I simply set it to “M.” Now, it is time to select a power. You have to understand the power settings. 1/1 = full power. A ton of light will be given off. 1/2 = half power. Here, I am at 1/8 (one eighth) power. Not too much light for outside, but plenty indoors. Each and every time I press the shutter, the flash will ALWAYS put out 1/8 power. I can count on it. If I can count on it, I can set my camera to manual mode and get an exposure. I will not have to change anything if the subject stays the same distance to the speed light. THIS IS THE BEST PART. I can put a mark on the ground, have the bride stand there, and people can fill in around her. Once I take a few seconds to get a proper exposure, I can shoot time and again and never have to adjust the camera at all. I am wireless. I can back up 100 feet. Nothing will change. Why? Because the group of people and the speed light are still the same distance apart. It does not matter where the lens, camera, or I am. The subjects will always be exposed properly. If the bride moves 10 feet back away from the mark, I will then have to make an adjustment. Further away from the light source would mean to open the aperture up or slow the shutter a bit…or make the ISO more sensitive. There are a variety of options.
So, that is really it. It’s not that difficult. Grant it, this was a very basic overview of how it can be done. Mastering light can take your whole career and I do not proclaim to know it all. But, it works for me with good results. It works for some of the world’s best photographers.
Oh, the camera settings. Sure. Well, that is the part you must learn. You have to get an idea of the situation. I typically start at ISO 800, f/4 to f/8, and shutter at around 125-250/sec. That would be more of an indoor start. Outside, I might be more around f/4 and use the off-camera flash as more of a nice fill rather than a main light source. Again, it’s all trial and error until you get a feel for your distance and flash power ratios. Eventually, you will get an idea of what settings you need to be at in camera given the available light of any situation.
The goal, however, is to get the flash off of the camera so you can focus on shooting. Let the flash fill the scene with soft light so the subject has a natural looking tone.