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|| News Item: Posted 2012-01-01

Flash Basics - Advanced Off Camera Flash

By James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin

Here’s an example of where hard light worked really well for me; I needed a lot of power, the water’s surface diffused the light a little and the model’s great muscle tone was magnified by the hard light.
Using flash effectively and learning about lighting is often the "final frontier" in a photographer's journey to mastering photography.

This is the last in a five part series on using your detachable SLR flash creatively. Part one covered flash to ambient ratios. Part two covered "shutter drag". Part three covered bounce flash. Part four covered off-camera flash. You can read them here:

This installment covers advanced off-camera techniques and modifiers. You should have a good understanding of how your flash affects your exposure, how to balance it with the ambient light, how to bounce if off nearby walls or ceilings to make it look like a much larger light source and how to get your flash off camera. All of this becomes easy when you practise, even though at first glance it might look like a lot to learn.

It's worth beginning with some reasons you'd want to use a flash modifier. Why you want to change the size or the shape of your light.

It's all about the size of your light source. More accurately, the relative size.

The sun is a massive light source, but it's so far away that it appears to us as a small light source. That's what I mean by the 'relative' bit. Your 580EXII or SB900 is a small light source. Most of the time. But if you're using them up close to light, say, a flea, then it becomes from your subject's perspective a very large light source.

Large light source = soft light. Small light source = hard light.

Photo by James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin

Here’s an example of a photo taken with a single 580EXII speedlight on a frio coldshoe attached to a brolly adapter on top of a lightstand.
Next time you're outdoors on a sunny day note how people look in the sunlight, lit by hard light with sharp shadows. Remember that and note how different they look on a cloudy day where the entire sky becomes an even, large, light source.

Hard light throws hard-edged distracting shadows that you have to manage. So hard light is bad, right? Not always! Sometimes you want that effect. It works particularly well with spectacularly attractive young models - girls, guys and kids - with awesome skin. Hard light highlights sharp cheekbones, for example, but magnifies imperfections.

The photo above is an example of where hard light worked really well for me; I needed a lot of power, the water's surface diffused the light a little and the model's great muscle tone was magnified by the hard light.

So how do you soften light from your flashgun? As we found in part 4, you can bounce if you happen to be in the right place. For all those times when you're not, the easiest way to do it is by using an umbrella or softbox. Umbrellas are quick to set up but spill a lot of the light out the sides. The flash fires into the umbrella, that's commonly white and semi-opaque or silver reflective. The white brolly is called a 'shoot-through'.

You can also get different colours to affect the white balance. The shoot-through umbrella increases the size of the light source from your small flash to the size of the brolly. With a standard brolly your flash points away from your subject and the brolly acts a little like a radar dish for light, and the effect is similar. Relative size, remember, so don't put any of these modifiers a long way away from your subject and expect the same soft result.

I also own a small Chimera softbox for my flash (there are similar models from Lastolite and others, too) that I use when I want really fine control over the soft light. I often put a grid on it, which projects a broad beam of light without any spill. Gridded softboxes offer some fun possibilities but are beyond the scope of this articleŠ you get soft light but with a fairly sharp fall-off at the edges.

There are modifiers from Gary Fong and Stofen that spread the light from your flash without changing the size of the light source. These are often misconstrued as providing soft light but you'll now know why they don't, on their own. They come in particularly useful when you're able to combine them with bounce flash (explained in my earlier article) where the wider beam combined with bounce flash gives a double light-softening effect.

So that's hard light and soft light. Another advanced but extremely useful lighting trick to understand is called the Inverse Square Law. It's often explained with confusing math formulae and physics multi-dimensional mumbo-jumbo. But it's really not that complicated. All you need to remember is this: if you double the distance between your flash and your subject, you don't halve the amount of light, as you might expect. The amount of light falls by FOUR times! So if you move your light from 1m to 2m, you get 25% of the light. Move a light from 1m to 4m away, you're left with 6% of the light you had at 1m falling on your subject directly!

Photo by James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin

I “snooted” my flash to further limit any light spilling onto the projection screen. My pal David Honl makes great snoots.
Try it. In a dark room shoot something like an apple on a table with your flash and camera on manual, and your flash set up 2 meters away from your apple. Set your aperture at f4. Move your light 4 meters away and set your aperture to f8, twice the size of f4, to compensate. You'll notice that your subject is under-exposed.

Why do you need to know this? A few reasons first up, if your light source is near your subject, moving it only a little will have a large effect on the lighting. It's a great way to fine-tune your lighting much more subtly than you might with a flash power adjustment.

Secondly, there may be instances where you want to light something in the foreground but not in the background. Set your flash up to light your foreground and place your flash close to the foreground subject. Thanks to the light falling off by four times every time you double the distance, your background should, all being well, not be lit by the flash.

I use it all the time when shooting corporate presentations so that I can light presenters but leave the projection on the screen bright.

By putting the flash near my subject, they're well lit but the light isn't spilling onto the projector screen and blowing out the slide. It's one of the things I love about lighting with small flash; you can put a light stand in front of an audience near a speaker's lectern and no one notices. Don't forget to mention to the speakers what you're going to do and if you're snooting your flash, ask them to stay near the lectern.

Hard light, soft light, snoots and grids. Anything else? Another great way to transform the light from your flash is to go one step further. Rather than just changing the size of the light source, you can actually re-shape it too, using something like an orbis ringflash (disclaimer: I invented it). Ring flash was invented in the 1950s for medical applications but caught on in the Swinging '60s when fashion photographers adopted it. They loved the characteristic shadowless effect. The orbis, and the few other modular ring flashes out there, reshapes the light into a ring using your speedlight flash as the lightsource. When you push your camera lens through the hole in the middle of the ring and take a photo, from the camera's perspective there's light coming from every direction.

Photo by James Madelin

Photo by James Madelin

In this photo, I put an SB800 behind my model firing straight into the camera for some backlight and flare. But the light on her face is beautifully soft and even thanks to my Orbis redistributing the light into a ring around the lens.
In this photo, I put an SB800 behind my model firing straight into the camera for some backlight and flare. But the light on her face is beautifully soft and even thanks to my orbis redistributing the light into a ring around the lens.

So there you have it you should have all the tips you need from this series to kick off your journey into light. This knowledge is of immense benefit whether you choose to use it or not. Photography is all about light and the more you understand it, the better you'll become.

Links, resources and cool lighting sites:

(James Madelin is a professional photographer and lighting workshop tutor based in Australia, he is the inventor of the orbis® ringflash.)

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