Tips + Techniques

A Beginner’s Guide to Using Off-Camera Flash for Portraits

February 4, 2022

By Jyo Bhamidipati

© Making Beautiful Memories

I had really wanted to explore using off-camera flash for portraits as well as food, and I had to find time to photograph when my kids were asleep. As someone with a busy work week, time and the ability to be flexible was an important consideration, especially when I started to work with brands for commercial work.

I have been a natural light photographer for more than six years now and am super proud of mastering natural light in any condition. Give me the hazy backlight and I’ll create dreamy, sun-kissed portraits. Give me harsh light anywhere and I’ll work with it to create magical, dramatic portraits. But if I’m using off-camera flash for portraits (combined with modifiers, triggers and light stands), I am completely lost! Well, up until a few years ago I was.

[Read: Traditional Portrait Photography Rules and How to Break Them]

Learning a new skill can be scary, especially when the options that are available may seem endless and the education surrounding it daunting. But I was certainly ready to experiment with something new. Learning how to become comfortable with flash felt like the next obvious step; I wanted more flexibility and the ability to shoot portraits any time of day, even under non-ideal lighting conditions.

One of my biggest fears, however, with using off-camera flash for portraits as a beginner was that I didn’t want my images to look like they were taken with flash. How could I create artistic images that still represented my voice while giving me the flexibility of shooting anywhere and anytime?

[Read: The Rule of Thirds—How to Use It and When to Break It]

A few years ago, I won a giveaway that gave me a Profoto A1 light and in 2020 when we were all stuck at home, it felt like the perfect time to test out my “new light,” finally. After chatting with a few friends to figure out which light stand to get and all the other equipment required to make the light work as an off-camera flash, I finally had a light setup with a softbox.

One of the biggest mistakes most photographers face when using off-camera flash for portraits for the first time is not putting enough consideration into where the light should go. Here are some lessons learned that helped me get there.

[Read: Aperture and Depth-of-Field—How to Understand (and Break) the Rules]

1. Treat your off-camera flash just as you would a window.

portrait taken by imitating window light

If you are someone who’s shooting indoors using a big window, treat your new light setup exactly like you would your window. The main advantage with off-camera flash is that you can move your “window” anywhere you want it to be!

Fancy some sidelight? Move your light setup to the side of your subject (to the left or right, imagining where the window would be in a room if you were using natural light) and create magic.

Want to create even, flat light? Move your light setup to face the subject so that the light is hitting them from the front (just as you would want your subject to face the window to get even light on them).

2. Off-camera flash won’t always pair well with natural light.

food photography with child

When I started using off-camera flash for portraits for the first time two years ago, I  wanted to shoot in my usual home studio space, which creates the perfect side light for my portrait subjects that lends the mood, drama and emotion I usually love for my indoor work. But when I started working with my off-camera light setup along with my window in the same space, it felt like I had too much light!

At that point, I started to use black foam boards to block the window light just so that I could control the light I wanted on the subject without spillage from the window. You can go to almost any dollar store in your area to get boards that will help with either blocking light (using a black board) or reflecting light back on your subject (using a white board).

3. An off-camera flash needs a modifier, light stand and a trigger.

black and white portrait of child

When I first started using flash, I only used it on my camera, and I hated the flat look I got with it. It was only when I started using off-camera flash for portraits on a stand along with a softbox that I was comfortable with the look and the quality of the light created.

In simplest terms, if you want to use off-camera flash, you’ll need to also use a light stand and a modifier of some sort to soften the light or control the spread of the light. Modifiers can be a softbox, an umbrella, a grid, a beauty dish and more. Your trigger is most likely on your camera already, and that fires the flash when you want the light.

This is really all I needed to get started with a basic off-camera light setup:

diagram using off-camera flash for portraits
Created using Profoto’s Share the Light.

4. Flash photography lets you work at any hour of the day.

One of the other reasons I had really wanted to explore using off-camera flash for portraits as well as food was to find time to photograph when my kids were asleep. As someone with a busy work week, time and the ability to be flexible was an important consideration, especially when I started to work with brands for commercial work. Keeping a separate space for my little home studio was a great option, but my off-camera flash setup also allowed me to work out of my garage at 10 p.m. if an idea struck me!

The more we get comfortable in our own work, the more everything starts to feel robotic, monotonous and routine. Trying out a new technique, exploring new things with our existing gear, and setting some money aside to purchase something new, if it adds to your existing skillset, can be both fun and a step of growth for you and your business.

However, for anyone considering photographing natural light vs. artificial light, especially on a budget, I would advise you to first master what’s available and free to you. There’s no cost to using natural light, and it’s readily available throughout the day, especially when you study and observe that light to use it creatively.

Using off-camera flash for portraits is a fantastic choice when you are ready to experiment more with your work. If you are new to it, keep in mind that just like when you learn anything new, patience and perseverance are important.

Jyo Bhamidipati is an electrical engineer and an award-winning published fine-art lifestyle photographer, as well as a mentor and educator, based in Sacramento, California. She is a lover of light and shadows and seeks to capture the everyday perfectly imperfect beauty around her. She strives to be experimental in her vision and constantly works on pushing the boundaries in her photography. Jyo is the instructor of the highly popular workshop with Click Photo School called The Imperfectionist, where she encourages everyone to embrace imperfections in their everyday lives and practice creative artistry.