The topic of flash photography can be intimidating to the beginner photographer. Some even go as far as to label themselves “Natural Light Photographers” and avoid artificial lighting all together. There is nothing wrong with developing a style around natural light, but I contend that learning flash photography is an important part of growing as a photographer and increasing your understanding of how light works.
What is off-camera flash?
Some cameras come with a built in pop-up flash that can be used to add some light when the conditions require extra light to properly expose a frame. Many DSLRs have a hot-shoe that you can attach a flash or “strobe” unit to. This works great for it’s intended purpose, but always generates what many consider to be unflattering, flat, and uninteresting light. When you blast your subject with direct light from the same position as the camera, you fill in all of the shadows of the face.
Shadows can be just as important as light! The contrast of shadow and light and the gradation between the two is what sculpts features of the face and adds drama and interest. By taking the flash off of the camera, we gain control of where the shadows and highlight fall on the subject.
Triggering the Flash
When you take the flash unit off of the camera, you obviously sever the connection between the camera’s hot shoe and the flash. This is easily remedied with a flash synch cord, or more conveniently with a wireless flash trigger. There are many makes and models of wireless triggers, but my recommendation is the solid and reliable Pocket Wizard. There are cheaper radio triggers out there but I’ve found that they fail easy and don’t last very long. I’d prefer to pay a little more for something that works every time and will last for years. Here’s a short video that shows how simple it is to connect a flash to a Pocket Wizard.
Light Stands and Modifiers
Once you take your flash off your camera, you’ll need a light stand to hold the flash. Most light stands don’t have the proper cold shoe connector to receive and hold your flash. You’ll need one of these Flash Hot Shoe Umbrella Holder adapter mount that attached to your light stand and holds your flash unit on top. This adapter also has a mounting option for an umbrella.
“Modifier” is what photographers call any device that you use to modify a light source. If you use a bare flash, your subject will be hit with relatively harsh or sharp light. It can be desirable to soften this light with a modifier. The easiest light modifier to get started with is a white umbrella. Umbrellas tend to spread light everywhere, softening it at the same time.
There are other modifiers you can use with speedlights including softboxes and diffusers, but there are many more options available for studio strobes. We will talk about studio strobes in Part Two of this series.
All of the equipment mentioned in this post is listed on my Recommended Flash Gear page.
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