Tips + Techniques

Using Off-camera Flash to Create a Unique Look and Increase Sales

July 1, 2011

By RF Staff

Using off-camera flash isn’t a new concept for photographers. However, if you are like me, fiddling with my flash during a shoot wasn’t something that interested me. In fact, I’ve worked with several photographers who spend more time looking at the back of their camera and flash than they do actually shooting. So I was determined not to do that, instead, I was more interested with interacting with my clients.

For the last few years I have been using reflectors, scrims, open shade and back lighting for our outdoor portrait shoots. Truth be told, using speed lights seemed way too complex. Well, I am about to rock your world—I am here to tell you it’s not complicated at all.

At the studio we shoot 90 percent outdoors during the summer, with about four to six shoots per day. Waiting for the “Golden Hour” is not a realistic option, and if you want to make money this summer and grow your business, you will have to learn to work around this limitation.
As I said earlier, for most of us, this is not a new concept, but as an established photographer, maybe you’ve gotten away from using flash outdoors, or if you are new to the business and intimidated by that little black box, this is a must read.

Benefits Of Off-Camera Flash
I am by no means a “lighting” guru. In fact, that’s exactly why I am writing this piece; to show you how simple it can be to add a new dimension to your photography.

One of the obvious advantages to using off-camera flash is adding light where there is none. Without light, we cannot shoot. For the sake of this conversation, let’s just focus on shooting outdoors.

On a recent shoot in a park I had a couple sitting under a tree. My goal was to create a romantic portrait of them, but the lighting situation was terrible. They were sitting under a tree in the shade. So if had exposed for them, the sky would have  been blown out, and if I had exposed for the sky, they would turn out dark.

Bring in the light! As you can see from my images, with and without flash, it made a huge difference. And being that far away from the couple, there wasn’t any possible way to light them with my on-camera flash.

Filling In The Details
Another great use of off-camera flash is simply using it as fill light. I am not trying to overpower the sun, but rather, I’m trying to work with it. Sometimes I may have a situation with some split light on the subjects’ face. This is a great time to move that flash to the side and fill in the shadows. Again, I am not necessarily trying to overpower the sun, but instead, remove the harsh contrast from the shadow areas.

Create a Unique Look
Recently, I was in Paris and took a shot of a couple by the Eiffel tower, but I didn’t want to do the obvious thing and light them from the front. I wanted to do something a little different. I wanted to create a more unique look, something they couldn’t do on their own; so I backlit them to create a more interesting portrait.

As you can see, this isn’t something a hobbyist can do with their on-camera flash. Little tweaks like this can really help your studio stand out from the crowd and drive sales upward.

Consumers are now hip to photography. Literally every wedding I go to I see at least two to three people holding mid-level DSLRs. At a recent wedding, one of the groomsmen was sitting in the front row with his Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III and a 70–200mm f/2.8 lens. He literally had a better shot of the couple than I did. Also, everyone these days thinks they can edit. Online sites have made it easy to click once or twice, and you have all sorts of different editing options. Mind you, I didn’t say they were good, I just said they could do it.

So what are we to do? Close shop? Hell no! Look at these challenges as opportunities for you to continue to grow as an artist in your unyielding pursuit of perfection for your clients.

Over the years we have used all sorts of equipment and lighting to differentiate our studio from the competition, and we will continue to look for new and exciting ways to stand out. As we move forward, it’s going to take more and more to impress consumers and really get them to enjoy and see the value in your work. This is an easy way for you to step it up.

Light and Powerful
Probably one of the most underestimated facets of using speedlights is their portability. In the past, I would lug around a 12-lb. battery pack, light stand, light modifiers, strobe, etc., which isn’t fun when you are shooting a wedding in another state or country, and you’re trying to carry all this stuff onto the plane.

With speedlights, I can easily put three to four in my equipment bag and not create any noticeable weight. Besides that, you can daisy-chain a few together and have one powerful light source.

Getting Started
Getting started is not as complicated as you might think. For me, I use the camera’s built-in metering system. According to one of Canon’s Web sites: “All current EOS digital SLRs incorporate the E-TTL II flash system for consistently accurate exposures. This advanced distance-linked flash algorithm works with the camera’s internal flash or any EX-series Speedlite flash unit. It monitors readings from multiple metering zones, taking into account factors such as lens distance information from compatible EF lenses, reflective objects and ambient light in order to calculate flash output.

“E-TTL II will deliver accurate exposures in circumstances that can often confuse conventional metering systems—such as recomposed shots or scenes with reflective objects that could otherwise result in over- or underexposure.”

Your other option is to sit there with a light meter, measuring the light and manually controlling the light source. Um, let me think about this—No thank you!

Adding light has to be quick and easy, and unless you are a commercial shooter, your client is not going to have the patience to sit there and wait for you to figure it out. You have to be ready to shoot in nanoseconds. Using systems like Canon’s E-TTL-II is a great way to accomplish this, especially if you are a run-and-gun type of shooter like I am.

The first thing you need to do is pick up the right equipment. Here is a basic list of the things you will need: speedlights, transmitter/receiver, and monopod. Yep, that’s it.

There are many options in the marketplace for both Canon and Nikon shooters. We use the Canon 580-EX II. It’s a great light source that is durable and portable, and has an easy-to-use menu system. Spend the extra money and get the right speedlight that satisfies your creative needs.

You can find these anywhere on the cheap. It’s all about personal preference. Just get something portable and durable. In fact, a lot of shooters use a smaller collapsible tripod. That way they can stand it on its own or use it with an assistant.

My tool of choice is the RadioPopper PX system. They have idiot proofed off-camera flash in a ridiculously easy way. There is no programming, no wires, no line of sight issues, and it’s small, portable and just plain easy to use.

Literally from the minute I opened the box it took me less than three minutes to put the batteries in and start shooting.

As artists, we must continually learn and challenge ourselves to grow. Try something new and get out of your comfort zone. Trust me, try it and I guarantee it will add a new dimension to your imagery.

Sal Cincotta is an award-winning photographer, author, speaker and owner of, a site dedicated to training professional photographers. Follow Sal on Twitter | @salcincotta