One Flash Off Camera Lighting Setup for Portraits

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One Flash Off Camera Lighting Setup for Portraits

For those of you venturing into one flash off camera lighting for the first time, there’s a lot of things to consider. A few of the most popular questions include:

  • What flash do I need?
  • Do I need a lot of expensive gear?
  • How do I control the ambient light?
  • How do my flashes work?

MCP Actions is here to point you in the right direction so you can start using flash to make your already amazing work even better!

First … the good news. No, you do NOT need incredibly expensive gear to begin working with flash. Although some speedlights can cost hundreds of dollars, there are many options available at very affordable prices.

We suggest checking out the Yongnuo YN560-III Speedlite to start. It can be used on or off camera with a trigger, and although it’s not Yongnuo’s latest model, it has everything you need.

For a trigger we suggest the Yongnuo YN560-TX Wireless Flash Controller and Commander. It works perfectly with the YN560-III flash and allows you to trigger and control your flash settings right from your camera’s hot shoe.

You’ll also need a light reflector, like this. There are a lot of options available on Amazon at very affordable prices.

Lastly, you’ll need a shoot through umbrella (we recommend a 43” white umbrella), a stand, and a bracket. Here’s a very cheap bracket option just to get the ball rolling.

Set Up

Once you have the trigger on your camera’s hot shoe working with the flash on your light stand, all you need to do is set up the umbrella. For the following sitting, the umbrella was placed at 45 degree angle in relation to the subject, just above eye level.

How to Control the Ambient Light

This concept can be very confusing, but once you understand what’s really happening, controlling the ambient light is a snap. There are two important things to remember here:

  • Shutter speed has absolutely NO EFFECT on your flash exposure.
  • The ambient light is controlled by the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO (just like shooting natural light).

In order to control the ambient light (or eliminate it entirely), you need to set your camera accordingly. Here we set the camera to its max sync speed (which in this case is 250). If you don’t know your camera’s max sync speed, check your manual. Next we set the aperture to 3.5 and the ISO to 250 to reduce noise. Your settings should be pretty similar. You may prefer a slightly higher ISO around 400 or a different aperture, but in any case, the desired result from your settings is this:


Now you have a very dark image. Congratulations … you’ve controlled your ambient light, which means the constant light in your space won’t contaminate your shots. They will be lit by flash ONLY.

Now that you’ve got the ambient light on lock down, it’s time to work on the flash, which is acting as what we call a “key light.” This is easily accomplished by some minor trial and error. You can begin by setting your flash power around 1/16, take a test shot, and adjust accordingly. Depending on your results, you can either turn your flash power up or down, change your aperture, ISO, or change the flash to subject distance. REMEMBER, the closer the flash is to the subject the more powerful it is … however, the light will also be softer. This may seem counterintuitive, but the larger the source appears to be, the softer the light is.

Once you’re satisfied with the look of your key light, you can add the light reflector to act as a fill. In this sitting the reflector is silver side up, directly below the subject.

Pro Tip: Many photographers prefer to set the fill light first to determine how much shadow will be present (if any), however, seeing as you’re using a reflector and not a second flash, setting the key light first is a must.

Now that we have our off camera flash and reflector working together, you can get very well balanced shots with sparkling catchlights in the eyes by using one simple flash and an inexpensive set up.

So … don’t be afraid to give it a try. One flash off camera lighting is easier than you think and you may find that flash opens up a world of opportunities for shooting that would be otherwise unavailable using only natural light.

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One Flash Off Camera Lighting Setup for Portraits