Off-Camera Flash Portraits

Can you improve your portraiture by moving your hot shoe mounted flash off-camera?

The answer, of course, is YES!

Here’s the scoop. . .

Portraits lit with flash look amateurish for two reasons:

1) The flash is mounted in the camera’s hot shoe. (See Portrait 1)

This is called direct flash, or maybe better termed, non-directional. Flash that comes from the lens position lights your subject’s face with flat, dimensionless light. This flat lighting makes the subject’s face appear, well, flat. The cheekbones, nose, chin, eye sockets and mouth become dimensionless. Simply put, on-camera flash flattens facial features.

2) On-camera flash is harsh.

Unless modified, an on-camera flash is a small light source relative to your subject’s size. Small light sources create harsh, specular light. Telltale signs include a bright highlight on the tip of the nose, reflections on teeth, points of light on eyeglass frames, and washed-out skin detail on the forehead and cheekbones.

So what can you do to make a flash lit portrait look more professional?

At bare minimum we need to modify the flash and make it less direct. A simple way to do this is to add an inexpensive modifier to the flash unit. In Portrait 2 an Omni-Bounce has been added to the hot shoe mounted flash unit. (http://www.stofen.com)

The flash has also become less direct by raising the head to a 45-degree angle. This simple modifier-angle change has softened the light source. We now see less of a “flash look” in the portrait. This combination spreads the light out as it leaves the flash head effectively making it larger. You can see this in the additional light now reaching the background.

Okay, so we have improved the portrait. Can we do better yet?

Portrait 2 still lacks facial definition. The facial features still look flattened. To change this we need to get the flash source away from the lens axis.

We need to move the flash off-camera. . .

In Portrait 3 the flash has been moved to a light stand. Using a long off-camera shoe cord the flash is still communicating with the camera in TTL mode. The light stand is at the camera position with the flash raised about four feet above the camera.

I have also made the flash source larger by attaching the flash to a softbox. In this case it’s a 24” Lasolite Ezybox Hotshoe. (http://tiny.cc/ev2lc) This light position is known as butterfly lighting and gets its name from the butterfly shaped shadow it creates under the nose. This large light source is also bouncing light off a silver reflector located on a posing table in front of the subject to lighten the shadows under the chin.

As you can see, moving the light source above the camera and using a larger modifier, has softened the light even further. The light is now less flat and we start to see some form to the facial features as compared to Portrait 1.

How can we add even more dimension to the facial features?

In Portrait 4 the flash and softbox have been moved from high above the camera to approximately 45-degrees left of the camera. By moving the flash high and to the side we now have directional light that creates highlights and shadows on our subject. These highlights and shadows now allow us to see the shape of the face. The facial mask is no longer flat; cheekbones, nose, lips, and chin now have dimension.

Directional light creates a highlight and shadow side to the face. A simple way to lighten the shadows is to bounce light from the flash for fill by placing a reflector at camera right as done in Portrait 4.

As you can see, it is possible to improve your portraits by moving your flash off-camera. You’ll need a few basic tools including an off camera shoe cord, a softbox or umbrella, a light stand and a reflector. These tools and a little practice will allow you to create professionally lit images your portrait subjects will love.

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2 Responses to “Off-Camera Flash Portraits”

  1. what do these actually do? Says:

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  2. Showing Texture and Detail in Your Photographs | RG's Digital Photography Tips Says:

    […] Off-camera Flash For Portraiture […]

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