Off-Camera Flash: Modifying Light
by John Downey
With limited time lately, I’ve been reading more than photographing. The latest development is… artificial light. About a month ago, I invested in a few PocketWizard TT5s, portable modifiers and cheap stands (we don’t stick around very long, so everything must fit in a suitcase). While landscapes and street portraits are still favorite subjects, this new challenge is very cool. First subject, our daughter Ella, of course.
Ella did not want to stand around and simply pose, so I grabbed Minnie and provided a little direction. Took about ten frames or so to time the flash, which is off-camera left, a few inches away from Minnie. Fun stuff! And something for the grandparents to get a kick out of too.
The setup is very simple. Set the exposure for the ambient light, or in this example, the background. I could have easily made everything around Ella and Minnie jet black if we had more distance from the columns, but hey, I don’t own a studio, so there you have it. Once the exposure is set for the background (controlled by shutter speed), foreground illumination is set by combining strobe output and lens aperture. A few tweaks up or down with either and there you have it. Subject-to-shutter distance must remain more or less the same to avoid further adjustment. Caught Minnie at the apex of her launch with 1/500 shutter speed.
Noting Zack Arias’ One Light blog, the idea is to start out simple. His site packs a ton of easy-to-understand info. If I ever have the opportunity to attend one of his workshops, I’m there man.
The point about this post – if you invest more than a few hundred dollars in a camera, consider adding a small, portable flash that can be either tethered or wirelessly transmitted away from the hotshoe or built-in strobe. Radio transmitters can be had for cheap. Most of us aren’t going to place the strobes greater than 10′ or so from the shutter anyway, so you don’t need to be transmitting for a mile. Diffuse small, intense strobes with something as simple as opaque scotch tape, a sheet of printer paper or the like and you’ll notice an incredible difference (read: soft light) these small adjustments can make.
Some of the immediate qualities in off-camera, diffused flash are soft and directional light. Joe McNally’s Hot Shoe Diaries and The Moment It Clicks are two easy reads that pack a ton of info on using artificial light; the former being a bit too much like an advertisement for Nikon gear… but the lessons are solid.
Mess around with your camera and flash with the family or friends and get some really great results with minimal effort!
Techie Stuff: 1x 580ex II thru 30×30″ Lastolite softbox, high and left of camera, about 1′ from subjects. 1x mini tripod-mounted 580ex II placed on ground behind subjects, zoomed to 70mm, bare bulb for hair/rim light. ISO 400, 1/500@f8, 100mm.