How to Use Your Flash Effectively in Portraits (Part 4 of 5)

Free Photoshop Actions and Lightroom Presets by MCP™

How to Use Your Flash Effectively in Portraits (Part 4 of 5)

*** I owe Matthew an apology – I somehow lost part 4 and 5 that he sent me last year and was cleaning out emails and found the last two parts in his flash series for MCP Blog.  I will be posting them now.

By Matthew L Kees, guest to the MCP Actions Blog
Director of Online Photography Course [MOPC]

Basics of Off Camera ‘wireless’ TTL

Many modern digital cameras have the ability to use your flash off camera wirelessly, in TTL mode. It is also possible to control multiple flashes from an on-camera commander, or mounted flash in TTL mode, and adjust the output of each flash individually from behind the camera!

The better Nikon bodies have this ability built-in. Sony and some older Minolta cameras do too. Sorry Canon owners, but you will need to make an additional purchase to utilize your flash in off camera E-TTL mode. Canon requires an optional ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter, or a 580EX mounted on the hot shoe to act as the “commander”. Any remote flashes act as “slaves”.

This makes it possible to carry a four or five light portrait studio in a single camera bag.

Of course, you may want to add a softbox or umbrella to the key light, and should probably bring along a reflector, but it is still a whole lot less to carry than it once was. To do professional on-location portrait lighting, all you need is one assistant to carry the lights, the umbrella (or softbox) and a few stands, making multiple light set-ups a breeze. You can even leave your flash meter behind.

So, what do you do when you get to your location and have four remote flashes to work with? I guess you start by setting them up.

First set your flashes to unique Channels and Groups. You can assign two or more flashes to be in the same group so that a single adjustment later controls those flashes equally. For example, if you plan to have two flashes aimed at the background and later want a brighter background, you only have to make one adjustment for both.

Give the flash assigned as the key light its own setting so you have the ability to adjust it on its own.

Once you get all the flashes to fire from the commander then begin to place them around the shooting area. Start with the lights in the back and finish with the key.

For a simple four light flash set-up, you may want to aim two at the background, another from behind high on a stand aimed at where you subject will be to act as a hair light, or “kicker”, and the flash assigned as your key, on a stand with an umbrella or softbox.

From your camera (or mounted flash) you can now adjust each light, or group of lights, as you would in a professional portrait studio. Usually you’ll want the kicker a stop above the key, the background lights to whatever seems right and take a test shot.

If the background is too dark then raise that group, or if the kicker is too hot, you can change it too. Try different background settings and maybe tweak your key light as well. You have full control of your lighting from behind your camera and no need to use a handheld exposure meter to take separate flash readings; you can even send your assistant to Starbucks to get you a coffee while you shoot.

Also experiment using colored filters over the flash heads to change the color of the lights. Lee and Rosco offer “swatch books” of their complete range of colors for little or no expense that cover a flash head easily.

This is obviously for the more advanced portrait photographer using multiple flashes. If you are a beginner you can start with one flash off camera and use it for your key or as a kicker. There are so many options that there is simply no end to the creativity off camera flash gives you.

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  1. June 29, 2009 at 3:01 pm —

    Thanks for the tips, short concise and to the point, excellent!

  2. May 4, 2009 at 2:35 pm —

    Or just use available daylight :).

  3. May 3, 2009 at 2:21 pm —

    Very short but insightful article. It almost sounds like a Strobist post. I esp. like the idea of a separate channel for the key.

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How to Use Your Flash Effectively in Portraits (Part 4 of 5)