Zack Ahern is a self- taught photographer that uses lighting in a creative way to make beautiful emotional photographs. He has completed a 365 and 52 week project on flickr full of stunning images that are especially inspired to anyone interested in off camera flashes. Be sure to check out his work!
I first picked up a camera in 2006 when I bought a Kodak point and shoot on eBay. I bought my first SLR in 2008, and finally got serious about photography a year later when I started on my journey through the 365 project; a picture a day for a year. A new member of the Flickr community, I was unbelievably inspired by the multitude of amazing artists I found there. The person who inspired me to start off-camera lighting was Flickr star Dustin Diaz. Digging deeper into his work, I soon found what is known as a “Strobist Setup,” which is a picture showing exactly where all his lights were positioned and how the photo was created.
For some, the words “off-camera lighting” mean nothing; to others it is something only for photographers with studios to have, and to others still it is a source of unbelievable frustration. I have been at all of these stages including the latter, but the rewards of learning off-camera lighting are enormous. If a camera unleashes your inner artist, off-camera lighting gives that artist a dose of adrenaline.
First, what is off-camera lighting? Off-camera lighting is using any light source other than the pop-up flash on your camera to light your subject, but it is most commonly used to refer to flash photography. The flashes don’t have to be large and expensive either. Here’s one of the biggest myths that keeps people from starting off-camera lighting:
Myth: “Off-camera lighting is expensive and I just can’t afford it.”
Here’s a list of equipment you need to get started for cheap. This is the equipment I used to get started and make many of the images you will see below. I added flashes as I went, learning to light one flash at a time.
Wireless Triggers from Gadget Infinity You’ll need these to fire your flash at the same time the shutter opens on your camera
Light Stand Optional since you can have a nice friend hold the flash for you. They’ll eventually buy you a light stand when they get tired of holding the flash anyway
Umbrella Bracket You’ll need this to attach your flash and wireless trigger to your light stand
Umbrella This is the best light modifier to start with. Cheap, efficient, and easy to use
Flash Units I am not endorsing buying flash units on eBay because we all know eBay can be sketchy at times. I bought flashes on eBay with success, but please buy smart. Search for used Nikon SB flashes or for Vivitar 3700s. These flashes are dirt cheap and you can sometimes find them at garage sales too. No, they are not super fancy, but they’ll get the job done when you’re getting started. You’re looking for what are called “Hot-Shoe Mounted Flashes. Warning: Do not put any of these old flashes on the hot shoe of your camera. Their voltage will fry your camera’s insides. Here is a newer flash comparable to Canon and Nikon’s powerhouse flashes for half the cost.
There. Depending on what you bought (minus the LumoPro Flash), you just got a flash off the camera for around $150. You can’t buy a single Pocket Wizard for that.
Remember, there are going to be times when you have to troubleshoot why a flash isn’t working, or bring a light a little closer if a wireless trigger is too far away to fire, but this is the world of cheap. To be honest with you though, I just got a new 200 dollar set of flash triggers today that took me about an hour to troubleshoot because one had a tiny metal pin bent on the bottom. The way I see it, troubleshooting is part of the challenge, and it makes it that much more satisfying when I get a great image.
Here is an example of my early work with off-camera flash:
This image was taken before I had light stands and wireless triggers. I put the camera on a tripod and pre-focused the camera on myself in a dark room. Next, I put the camera on a slow shutter speed, listened for the shutter to open, and while it was open I held the flash above my head and hit the test fire button on the flash. It’s that simple; go try it. Don’t have a flash? Use the same dark room setup and grab a friend with a camera that has a pop up flash. Put their camera on manual focus and put up their flash. Listen for the shutter on your camera to open, and have them fire their camera at you, which will trigger their flash.
All of these images were taken with flash equipment that cost $250 or less, depending on the number of flashes used:
Below are three tips you need to know to get started with off-camera lighting. Follow some of the links at the bottom of the post to get an in-depth explanation of how off-camera flash works.
1) Sync-Speed: The camera’s shutter must open at the exact time the flash fires for it to be seen in a picture—1/200th of a second is a good baseline to start for almost all cameras to sync with an off-camera flash.
2) Shutter speed does not control how bright or dark flash makes your image: Aperture and ISO are the only two things that control how bright or dark the flash makes your photo. Shoot at a smaller aperture or lower ISO for a darker image or vice versa for a brighter image.
3) When you’re getting started, change one thing at a time; distance from flash to subject, angle from flash to subject, and camera settings. This is the only way to learn what changes what and you will frustrate yourself otherwise.
The only limit to off-camera lighting is your imagination. Here are a couple of pictures along with the strobist setups to get you started. Ignore the power settings for the most part and simply study how the lights are positioned in relation to how the picture is lit.
A few final images to show you that images lit with flash don’t always have to look flash-lit.
Finally, not everything has to be so “rigged” when it comes to lighting and if you have extra cash to blow, it can be an expensive endeavor. My recommendation for those of you with cash to blow is to refrain from getting tons of expensive stuff. It will frustrate you even worse than a finicky eBay flash because you just spent $500-$1000 on something you can’t get to work right. I’d recommend opting for the Lumo-Pro flash over the eBay option, but don’t go too crazy. Big lights are great, but come with their own set of challenges and you’ll have plenty to learn with smaller flashes so start small and learn to light with those. Remember, everybody has to start somewhere and the only excuse you have is wasting film…oh wait. Have fun and thanks for reading. Also, thank you Phlearn for the opportunity to share what I love.
Links to get you started:
Start HERE. You might be lost now, but you won’t be after you read this. Check out Lighting 101
And here is one of the largest sets of strobist setups on Flickr thanks to Dustin Diaz
Here is a mixture of both flash and naturally lit photos, with great setups and great images
Zacks Contact Info
And my email firstname.lastname@example.org for people to contact me.