Create Dramatic Lighting With Off Camera Flash

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Create Dramatic Lighting With Off Camera Flash

As a photographer, there is always something new to learn; sometimes the amount of information and new gear and techniques out there can seem mind blowing.  What should you be doing?  What gear is best to be using?  It’s enough to make a sane person crazy.

I’m always looking for new things to learn, and I get overwhelmed sometimes, too.  But nothing has changed my photography more, and there is nothing I like learning more about, than off camera lighting.  I am fairly sure that the day that I first took my flash off-camera, I heard a choir of angels singing.  This is amazing!  I can control the light!  I can control its direction!  I can make the background completely black even in a lit room?  I can create extremely dramatic lighting in my living room between commercials of American Idol?  Yes, yes, yes, and yes!  And I can tell you how to do this, too!


I currently use one off-camera light for portraits.  I started with using my flash (I shoot Canon, so that would be a 430exii).  I now have an Alien Bees B800 which I use most of the time, but each method has its pros and cons, and you can get the same or very similar results whether you are using a flash or a strobe.

There are several things you will need to create portraits with off camera lighting:

  • An off-camera light source (flash or strobe such as Alien Bees, Einstein, etc.)
  • A method for triggering your off-camera light source.  Some cameras are able to use their built-in pop-up flash to trigger an off-camera flash; check your manual to determine if this is possible.  Other cameras are not able to do this and you will need a trigger/receiver set.  You will need triggers/receivers for all off-camera strobes.
  • A light modifier.  This is optional, but definitely desirable.  Modifiers include an umbrella, softbox, or (my favorite), the beauty dish.
  • An understanding of your camera’s max sync speed…what it is and what it represents.

So I’m not here all day, I’ll cut to the chase.  When I shoot portraits with studio/off camera light, I almost always start out with the following settings:  f/8, ISO 100, SS 1/200-1/250 (this depends on which camera I am using; each of my two has a different max sync speed).  The aperture is for maximum sharpness and depth of field on my subject(s), the ISO is kept low to reduce noise, though most modern cameras can handle a much higher ISO, and the high shutter speed to block out ambient light so that my off-camera light is the only thing lighting my photo.  I am constantly checking my histogram when taking photos and if I find my photos are too dark (or too bright), I first start by raising (or lowering) the power of my off-camera light.  I also will occasionally raise my ISO in the case of dark photos or move the light closer to, or further from, my subject.

Now to the good stuff!

How to use that off camera lighting to achieve a lovely, interesting, and  possibly dramatic result?  (I am a fan of Dramatic Lighting!)  Several factors come into play here:  what you are using for a modifier, how big it is, and its positioning (how close to/far from your subject as well as your angle).  One other thing to keep in mind is your composition.  When I take portraits, especially in landscape orientation, I like to have my subject off to one side.  And often, no matter the orientation, I like to have them not looking at the camera, or not exactly smiling.  Perhaps not your “traditional” portrait, but I think it makes thinks interesting.  Another thing is that dramatic lighting lends itself to some really nice black and whites, which I gravitate towards.

The following three photos were taken using a shoot-through umbrella.

This first one was shot with the umbrella approximately 45 degrees to camera left and pointed down 45 degrees at my subject.  Notice my subject is to the right of the frame.  I used my flash with this photo.

Shoot through flash umbrella 1

In the next photo, I used flash and the umbrella was placed at a 90 degrees to camera left and slightly above mummy’s belly level.  The flash was shot through the umbrella on this shot as well.   Notice that the shadows are more pronounced in this photo due to the angle of the light.  All this with just an umbrella and a flash!

Shoot through flash umbrella 2

This third photo was taken with my Alien Bees bounced out of the umbrella (rather than shot through).  It was just slightly less than 90 degrees to camera right; you can tell this by the division of light and dark on my subject’s face as well as the catchlights in his eyes.  The 90-degree angle allows for much more dramatic lighting, but the umbrella is a rather large modifier so is still able to spread the light relatively softly despite the sharp lighting angle.  Again, notice the subject slightly off-center.

Black and white bounced umbrella portrait 1

Now onto the beauty dish, which is my favorite modifier.

I have two beauty dishes:  one to use with my flash and a larger one to use with my strobe.  They are very versatile; you can use them by themselves, for a relatively hard light; with a sock, for a softer, wider light resembling a softbox, or with a grid, for a dramatic, directed light.  Again, some qualities of your light will depend on angle to subject and distance to subject.

My first example is a slight variation in butterfly lighting; my light was above my subject but not quite directly in front of him, as we can tell from the shadows on his face; more like a 15-20 degree angle.  I took this photo using my flash off camera and a beauty dish with a sock on it.

beauty dish portrait black and white

My second example was taken using my strobe and naked beauty dish.  The dish was placed at just slightly less than 90 degrees to camera right, feathered slightly, and slightly above subject height, tilted down.

black and white portrait with beauty dish

And for my third example, taken with my strobe, the beauty dish was at camera right, 90 degrees to my subject at their height.  The beauty dish had a 30-degree  grid on it.  You can get an even more dramatic look with the grid if your subject is facing forward but I liked how my subject was looking towards the light in this photo.  Also notice how the background is blacked out due to the use of the grid.

color portrait using beauty dish with grid


Now for a few pull-back shots so you can get an idea of what some of my typical lighting setups are.

Be warned, my house is the size of a refrigerator box and I may or may not have been sitting in the sink for one or more of these photos.  When I shoot at my house I typically use my kitchen or sometimes my living room.  Pull back shots can sometimes be difficult due to the light being in a whole separate room!

lighting pullbacks 1

The above photo shows at left a shoot-through umbrella at 45 degrees to subject and pointed 45 degrees downward.  The middle photo is a gridded beauty dish; notice how much closer the light is in this case.  Beauty dish portraits are typically shot with the beauty dish quite close to your subject and you sometimes need to be very bendy to get a shot without the dish in it.  The dish in this shot is a typical standing adult subject height, though due to the angle I took it, it looks a bit higher.  Sometimes I will have the beauty dish right at subject height with the grid on and sometimes I will have it slightly above subject’s height and pointed slightly down.  It depends on what look and lighting angle I am going for.  You can also see that the light is angled slightly forward here.  The third shot is a shoot-through umbrella at 90 degrees to subject.  This setup is very similar to what I used in the maternity shot above, except the light was on the other side in that shot.

Lighting pullback 2

Lastly we have the above photo which I took with my phone while setting up for an actual shoot last month.  You can see I have my boom stand set up directly facing where the backdrop is.  I put my Alien Bees and beauty dish, facing downward, on the boom (and put a sandbag on the opposite end of the boom!  Very important!  Also, the fan was turned off before I added the light and the beauty dish!)  Due to the boom angle, the light was above my subject’s head, directly in front of them, and angled at about a 45-degree angle down towards them.  This setup creates a butterfly lighting effect.

Off-camera lighting is one of the most fun, easy, and dramatic things you can do for your photography.  There are so many variations and they can all give amazing results.  Try taking your light off-camera and see what it can do for you!

Amy Short is an emerging portrait and maternity photographer in the Wakefield, RI area who is in love with off-camera lighting.  You can see more of her work on her new website or on Facebook.


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Create Dramatic Lighting With Off Camera Flash