What’s the best way to improve your flash photography?" This is the most frequently asked question when I teach my flash photography workshops. If only there was a silver bullet to fix a photographer’s flash woes. But there is one technique that almost fits the bill: Try using your flash off-camera.
With a speedlight attached to your camera’s hot-shoe, your creative lighting options are severely limited. I think of on-camera flash as "mug shot lighting." The flash is on the same axis as the lens and aimed directly at your subject. The result is flat lighting and a boring shot. Sure, some situations require on-camera flash since it’s the only practical way to shoot, but shooting with your flash off-camera is a lot easier than you may think.
Why does off-camera flash improve your lighting so much? Because off-camera lighting allows you to create shadow, highlights, contrast and texture. Instead of just illuminating your subjects, you can light them. Add some light modifiers like softboxes and grids, and you have all the tools you need to create captivating portraits using a single speedlight.
The good news for photographers is that now, more than ever, there are exciting new ways to trigger speedlights off-camera. These options range from inexpensive dedicated cords to long-range transmitters that can fire flashes a third of a mile away. And many of these triggers allow full control of flash output—you never have to leave your camera to adjust flash power. No matter what your budget, you’ll find an affordable method to trigger flash off-camera. So get flash-liberated and start shooting with off-camera flash!
1. Bounce Flash
One technique that doesn’t require a remote trigger and simulates off-camera flash is bounce flash. All you need is a speedlight with a rotating head, which most speedlights offer. Bounce flash works by aiming your flash toward a reflective surface, such as a white ceiling, and bouncing the light off this and back onto your subject. Since the light comes at an angle from the bounce surface, the light appears directional, not straight from the camera. Often, the light is much softer and almost shadowless if you’re bouncing off a large surface like a ceiling. Just remember that bounce flash will pick up the color of the surface off of which the light is bouncing. Green ceilings and orange walls will result in alien portrait lighting.
Bounce flash also works outside. Just aim your flash to the left or right at a simple reflector and bounce light back onto your subject. Try this using the sun for a bright highlight on the opposite side of the bounced flash, and you have a nice portrait.