Advanced on-camera flash technique

I usually advocate not doing this:

But this instead:

Flash backward, because you want the light to come from 45 degrees above your subject. That’s usually the way, since we usually use wider lenses for people shots, meaning we are close.

However, when you are using a long lens, like a 70-200, then to get to that same 45 degree point, you may have to aim the flash forward 45 degrees.

The problem with this is that with any flash angle that is even slightly forward, some light goes forward, straight from that flash to your subject. So you get this, horrible shadow:

The solution: Flash forward, but use a gobo/card, or even your hand, to shield the inch or two straight in front of your flash. So now the light can still go up to the ceiling, but it can no longer go directly forward to the subject. You could even use a grid but that eats a little more light.

You now get this:

I used my hand here, holding it an inch or two in front of the flash to block the path straight to the subject. Result, a well lit shot!


Studio tip

In a studio setup, we usually use strobes – big, outlet-powered lights. Like the two main lights here, with softbox and umbrella:

Studio (Photo: Michael Willems)

Fired by a pocketwizrds: you can see one on the left.

But if you look carefully, you will also see two speedlights there.

Speedlights? Yes, but fired manually, also via pocketwizards. For which you need a pocketwizard and a cable from for each one.

Why do I small flashes for hairlight and background light?

  • Smaller
  • Lighter
  • Less cabling, since they are battery-powered
  • And not least, the ability to use Honl Photo small flash modifiers such as grids, snoots, and gels.

All of which I use here, and the resulting photos look like this (shot on a 1Ds MkIII with a 70-200mm lens):

Studio shot (Photo: Michael Willems)

(PS if you are buying those modifiers, and I recommend you do, as a reader of this site you are entitled to use the Honl Photo web order discount code which Dave just made available for you: enter code mvw2011 which gives you 10% off the price!)


Fun with flashes

Off-camera flash rocks. And all your camera have the ability to take the flash off camera. On a Nikon, or a Cano 60D or 7D, you can use the pop-up fl;ash to drive the external flash. On other Canon cameras you need to use a 580EX flash or an IR controller on the camera.

And here, to motivate you, I shall show you another example or two, all take on Halloween night during a class at Sheridan College:

First, lit from below with a dual-color gelled flash:

Halloween (photo: Michael Willems)

Lit from below, suitable from Halloween:

Halloween (photo: Michael Willems)

The following photo actually uses one flash on camera, but aimed behind me. Note how I made the image B/W and added grain to give this photo a stark feeling:

Halloween (photo: Michael Willems)

Now a direct flash from our left:

Halloween (photo: Michael Willems)

Yes, even direct hard flash is usable, as long as the flash is not in line with the lens!

And here the same but with a grid on the flash, in case you want to avoid hitting the wall with light. (as a side effect, the grid also serves to slightly soften the light):

Halloween (photo: Michael Willems)

As you see, you can do a lot with a simple flash off camera.



Let there be light.

When you shoot a studio portrait, you can use big studio lights – or small speedlights.

Because they are smaller and lighter, I tend to use small speedlights whenever I can.

And that does not mean compromising quality. Take this example. I took this shot of a very nice model and student during a course the other day, using TTL speedlights:

How is this done?

  • One flash on a light stand into an umbrella (the “A”-flash), on our left. High enough to give us nice catch lights in the eyes, but no reflections in the glasses.
  • The hairlight is one snooted speedlight (the “B”-flash) on the right (using a Honl photo snoot). I made sure this hairlight only lit of the hair, not the cheeks. That is what the snoot is for.
  • I used a Canon 7D with a 50mm lens.
  • I set the camera to manual, f/8, 1/200th second, 200 ISO. Normal settings for studio light. I made sure auto ISO was disabled.
  • The flash was set to its normal TTL mode.
  • I used flash compensation of, if I recall right, +1/3 stop.
  • The “A:B ratio” was set to 3:1, meaning A was three times stronger than B.

I could have metered and used Pocketwizards and the flashes set to manual, and if I had done many portraits, I would have. But for a quick shot like this, I think TTL is a better way, since it is very quick. Indoors, wireless TTL is a no brainer, and it works:  the on-camera flash, which is only used to direct the slave flashes, can be seen by any flash in the room. On a Nikon, or a Canon 7D or 60D, I need only the camera and its pop-up flash. On any other Canon, I would also need a 580EX flash on the camera, to direct the slaves.

But the portrait above is missing something, no? The background is a bit, well, bland.

So we add one more light, using a grid. And a gel. For the gel, I choose a complimentary colour: complimentary to the hair colour. So for brownish-reddish hair I use a beautiful blue-ish gel.

Now we get:

Better, no? Nice portrait, and it took only one light stand, one umbrella, three flashes, one grid, one gel, one 5″ snoot.  All this is affordable, small, light.Professional portraits are now within reach of everyone.

Speedlight tip

If you take portraits with speedlights you may well need to see where that light goes. Remember last night’s portrait? Here is one last version of that:

As you see, I have now finished the picture by adding a background light. Another speedlight, with a snoot (the 5″ Honl snoot). The snoot aims light on to one part of the background only.

To see where that area is, you need to fire the flash.

And one good way to do that is to fire a test flash. See that red button on a Canon speedlight?

That’s right, button. That red light is not just a red light. It is also a test button. Press it and the flash fires, so you can see where the light will go.