Understand How to Use Off-Camera Flash in 10 Minutes or Less

In Portrait by Jim Harmer43 Comments


Last week, I asked the community on our Facebook page what they would like us to do a video tutorial on.  About half of you answered that you wanted to see step-by-step in simple terms how to shoot flash photography. Dustin and I put together this video yesterday to explain off-camera flash photography.

In the video on this page, we frequently refer to this article where we give specific gear recommendations about what to buy if you're anxious to learn flash photography.  We spent THOUSANDS of dollars on inexpensive flash photography gear on eBay and Amazon over the last year to find the best-quality inexpensive gear, and recommended the winners on that page.

how to use off camera flash

Dustin is TERRIFIED of flash. Seriously. I catch him crying in the corner all the time.

How Do I Fire a Flash Wirelessly?

Off-camera flash is actually quite simple.  All you need to fire a flash off camera is (1) a speedlight flash, (2) a trigger/receiver to wirelessly fire the flash, and (3) your camera. If you're note sure what a speedlight flash is, you should read this handy FAQ on flash photography, where I explain some common terms in flash photography.  But a speedlight is basically just a small flash that is capable of attaching to the hot shoe on top of your camera, or being fired off-camera.

Once you have your speedlight, you need a device to make the flash fire.  There are three ways to fire a flash wirelessly: (1) Built-in capabilities, (2) Infrared trigger/receiver, 0r (3) Radio trigger/receiver.

Canon and Nikon (I'm not sure about Sony) have both released cameras and flashes in the last year that enable the photographer to fire a flash wirelessly without the need for a trigger receiver.  The only trouble with this solution is that they are usually using infrared technology, which has some major limitations because it won't fire without line-of-sight to the flash, and it doesn't do well outdoors when there is a lot of sunlight.  Also, infrared won't fire the flash from very far way.  The other trouble with using this built-in capability is that it requires the photographer to figure out how to make the flash fire wirelessly by going through the complicated menu system on the camera.

The second solution is to use an infrared trigger/receiver system.  This means that a small flash trigger device will attach to the hot-shoe of the camera, and you'll put a simple receiver device under the flash to receive the signal from the camera that it's time to fire the flash.  An infrared trigger/receiver works just fine indoors, but the sunlight can dramatically impact the ability of the system to fire the flash consistently.  Also, I usually only achieve about 20 feet (6.1 meters) between the flash and the camera before the infrared systems start to fail.

The last solution really is the best.  Radio triggers are amazingly consistent, and will work in any lighting conditions outdoors from 200 yards (183 meters) away.  Fortunately, if you buy the off-brand radio triggers/receivers, then it doesn't cost much more than the infrared systems.

What Else Do I Need for Flash Photography?  Do I Need a Softbox and a Light Stand?

You certainly don't NEED anything else to fire your flash off-camera, but you'll soon find that you want a light stand to hold your flash for you, as well as some kind of light modifier like a softbox or an umbrella.  If you're not sure what the difference is between a softbox and an umbrella, then read this article.

You'll also need a flash bracket to attach the speedlight to the light stand.

Conclusion

Don't be afraid of off-camera flash photography!  It may seem difficult, but if you simply go out on a limb and buy the basic flash photography gear that we recommend, you'll soon find that it's really quite simple to get started. Once you're ready to learn, you can pick up my “Jim Harmer's Lighting in a Flash” video workshop in the Improve Photography Store.  It's a 2 hour video tutorial that you can download or stream.  I'll walk you STEP BY STEP through the fundamentals of flash photography.

I've produced dozens of video tutorials here on ImprovePhotography.com over the last 5 years, but my “Lighting in a Flash” video tutorial is–by far–the highest quality training I've ever made.  I think you'll love it.  Check it out here.


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.

Comments

  1. I was wondering what the black thing is around the flash at 1:40 in the video. I do most of my photography out side and am looking at doing an in church wedding for a friend, so I am trying to get as much flash info as I can.

    1. Tessa, that’s a Rogue FlashBender (large size). You need to buy it and a diffusion panel to go with it. I bought mine at Amazon.

  2. Good timing on the info Jim. I am going to be heading into the flash zone.
    Can you also contact me off board. I tried to find your contact info on your site but no go.

  3. Thanks for those incredible tips! I am using this speedlite for 2 weeks now and it is really fun and easy to use.

  4. Great article wondered if you could share the brand and where you purchased the flash stand bracket and the triggers from.

  5. Great, thanks for the information because I was not about to spend the $ on the SB-910. I think i’ll start with your suggestion 🙂

  6. I wish I would have read this message before buying my speedlight for the canon, now could you let me know where to buy a trigger and receiver and will it fit on the speed light for canon.

  7. I also wish I would have seen this video before spending all of the money I spent on expensive flashes!!!

  8. I’m a cheapskate to begin with, so it’s great to see knowledgeable people extolling the virtues of quality third party gear! I shoot YN460s with e-bay umbrellas, etc. I use the YN radio triggers. My whole set up (with six YN460s, five umbrella stands (two serve to hold the background), a twelve shoot through umbrella, 5 silver reflecting umbrellas, cost me less than a single Nikon SB900. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

  9. heya i was just wondering , can you use any brand of trigger and reveiver for any falsh and camera? or are there sertain types?

  10. what happens if you have 2 flashes? does that mean you would buy one trigger and two receivers?

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