HOW TO DISCOVER YOUR FLASHY SIDE – Tips for using Off Camera Flash

I love, love, LOVE using flash. Indoors or out, in the shade or in full sun, I use it in every single portrait session. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are tons of gorgeous natural light portraits out there but for me and my style, flash is the way to go!

Why do I have such a strong love affair with my flash?

tips for using off camera flash

1. It lets me shoot anywhere, any time of day.

How many times have you had a session where it was really gloomy outside or you had the light run out before you were finished with your client? Sure, you can crank up your ISO; but at some point, there just isn’t enough light. When you use Off Camera Flash (OCF), you create your own light! This particular photo was shot about 15 minutes after sunset.

tips for using off camera flash

2. It allows me to keep the sky blue and saturated.

When using natural light, if you expose for the subject, the sky almost always gets blown out. If you expose for the background, the subject becomes underexposed. By using flash, you can have the best of both worlds!

tips for using off camera flash

3. I can change the mood of a photo with ease.

This is one of my favorite reasons to use flash! I love to offer a wide variety of looks to my clients and flash helps me achieve this. These photos were shot within minutes of each other. By making minor changes to my camera settings, I was able to give two completely different looks with minimal effort.

While drama isn’t always good in your life, adding it to your image can really improve it. I knew I wanted super dramatic lighting during this session with a senior rep of mine. I was able to isolate her from the background by using flash and controlling my light, and only highlight the areas I wanted to.

4. It help you stand out from natural light photographers.

Again, I’m not knocking natural light photographers. Some days after lugging around all of my gear, my back and I wish we only had to deal with a camera! However, there are way more natural light photographers out there than those that use flash. By adding flash into your bag of tricks, your images will stand out from the rest.

tips for using off camera flash

Want to add a bit of dramatic flair to your photos by using flash? Here are a few basic tips to get you started!

Use Off Camera Flash

Unless you are at an event and have no choice, get that flash off of your camera! The light that comes directly out of the flash is harsh, puts tiny little pin pricks of light in the middle of your subject’s eyes and almost always gives that “deer in the headlights look”. When you take it off camera and add a softbox, the light become softer, more flattering, and depending on the type of modifier you use, will add a nice big catch light in your subject’s eyes. Look at the difference between these two photos. The one on the left was shot back in 2010 with my flash on camera. She’s a beautiful girl but those little dots of lights in her pupil kill me! The other photo was shot last October. What a difference OCF and a large softbox makes! Her eyes look absolutely gorgeous!

Using off camera flash is easy and shouldn’t intimidate you. All you need is a speedlight or a strobe, a trigger/receiver to fire it wirelessly, and your camera. You’ll also want a light stand and some kind of modifier to diffuse the light.

Use the largest softbox you can

The larger the softbox, the softer the light becomes. This helps avoid shadows. I have several different types of softboxes but my go-to is a 30×60. Yes it’s big and a bit of a pain to move around, but the light that comes out of it is insanely beautiful!

tips for using off camera flash

Use your flash in manual mode

I know this may seem intimating but trust me, it’s super easy! You just adjust the power of the flash up and down depending on how much light you need. It’s the exact same principle as adjusting the exposure on your cameras. Move it one way, you get more light, move it the other you get less light.

The biggest thing to remember is the aperture controls the flash power and the shutter speed controls the ambient light. If your subject is too bright due to the flash raise your aperture; too dark lower it. If you want to have more ambient light showing in the photo, lower your shutter speed. If you’d prefer less light, raise it up to your camera’s max sync speed. Adjusting your ISO will also affect the ambient light in a photo.

tips for using off camera flash

Invest in a light meter

I used flash for about two years without using my light meter. I would take a shot, look on the back of the camera and then make several adjustments to my camera settings and the flash settings until everything looked about right. So much time I wasted! With a light meter, you push one button and it tells you exactly what your settings should be! It even tells you the percentage of light coming from the flash!

tips for using off camera flash


If you are interested in learning off camera flash, there’s no better time than the present!

  • Grab your camera and triggers, and set your flash to manual mode.
  • Set your ISO to 100, your flash power to 1/8th power.
  • Place your flash about 6 feet away from your subject.
  • Adjust your aperture up and down and notice how the light hitting your subject differs.
  • Adjust your ISO up and down and see how that changes things up.

You can also experiment with moving the flash closer and farther away from your subject. Overtime, you’ll start to understand the how the flash power, ISO, aperture, and distance all work together to make super incredible photos!!

Ali Johnson is a portrait photographer specializing in senior portrait photography in Charlottesville, Crozet, Keswick, Albemarle and Fluvanna County VA