Simple Tip To Mastering Off-Camera Flash (2-Min Read)

Simple Tip To Mastering Off-Camera Flash (2-Min Read)

Over the last 12-months there has been a surge of photographers wanting to learn off-camera flash. Regularly I receive emails or Facebook messages from other photographers asking for tips. Over the years I have tried to remember what made learning off-camera flash so easy for me and time and time again it comes down to one simple tip.

The simple tip is to take your flashes off ETTL (or i-TTL if you are Nikon) and put them on Manual Mode. The ETTL (Evaluative Through The Lens) settings are equivalent to putting your flashes on Auto. Each time you fire your flashes on ETTL you might have a different amount of light being thrown on your subject. Sometimes it will be too much, other times not enough and occasionally you might even nail it in Auto, I mean ETTL. But what you miss is the ability to understand how exactly your flash is working, after all you are just spraying light and praying it looks good. You can use flash exposure compensation to add more or less light to the "auto" equation but when using ETTL adjusting your aperture or ISO will continue to yield the same results since your flash will compensate by firing more or less power.


So instead of using ETTL, I highly recommend switching over to Manual Mode and dialing in your flash power yourself. I typically fire around 1/32nd power, sometimes less if my subject is closer, sometimes a little more depending on the distance my subject is from my flash. But it's not very often that I am using flash powers more than 1/8th power unless I am shooting outside before the sun has set.

By switching your flashes from ETTL to Manual Mode you will quickly begin to understand the relationship between the flash power and your aperture and ISO. You will also begin to better understand the inverse square law as you increase or decrease your distance between the subject and your flash. These are all very important things to understand when learning off-camera flash, but you'll be unable to grasp the concept if you are shooting with the flashes on ETTL. Because instead of seeing any difference your flash will continue to change flash power to give you what it thinks you want.


Here's An Exercise

If you are interested in learning OCF go grab your flash and switch the mode from ETTL to Manual. Dial your flash power to 1/32nd. Put your flash about 8 feet away from your subject. Then experiment dialing your aperture up and down and your ISO up and down. Do one at a time and you'll notice the difference each makes. Once you have a recipe that works, move the flash in and out (closer and further away) from your subject and see how the inverse square law affects the amount of light that is landing on your subject. By doing this in Manual Mode with a consistent flash power you'll start to understand the relationship that the flash, aperture, ISO and distance all have with one another and in short time you'll be much better at off-camera flash.

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Trevor Dayley's picture

I realize this article is brief. Happy to answer any additional questions here in the comments.

Brief but very well done.

Trevor Dayley's picture

Thanks Manny and Sheri.

it might be brief, but it is good, and I do expect to take on the exercise for practice even though I already know how to do this, it will be fun to play around with it when I am not with a client or shooting at a wedding :)

The easiest rule to remember with flash. F-Stop controls flash "exposure" and shutter speed controls your ambient light. Cool article Trevor!

You must be a Canon user who KNOWS how wacky their ETTL metering can be. (winky face)

Trevor Dayley's picture

Don't forget ISO controls both. ;)

Yessir....I never would.

And of course, aperture controls both too...

As a Canon shooter I can attest that their TTL implementation is garbage. So inconsistent. I only use it when I'm forced to use it on-camera. Anytime its off-camera I have it on Manual.

Can you use manual when you are using your on camera flash as your trigger? And if so, is their anything special I need to do to do that?

You can use ttl or manual when triggering with OCF, you have to set that in your cameras flash menu (or on your master flash)

Thanks Tyler!

Trevor, where was your OCF in the last photo? Was it behind them on the ground or were you using an umbrella? Very helpful article. Thanks!

Trevor Dayley's picture

Emily glad you liked the article. The last shot the flash was behind them.

eric dany's picture

Do you shoot weddings in manual too ?

Spy Black's picture

Depends on how you prefer to shoot, I guess.

Trevor Dayley's picture

Hi Eric I do. Once you get the hang of it shooting your flashes on manual comes very quick and naturally.

"fstop controls flash, shutter speed controls ambient".
Sound simple, but what often gets overlooked is that if you drop the aperture one stop to alter the flash exposure you have to INCREASE the shutterspeed by one stop to keep the ambient at the same exposure. because, as any landscape shooter will tell you, changing the apeture does indeed change the amount of light that reaches the sensor.
This minute detail often gets overlooked when memorizing the rule.
so: "drop aperture - raise shutter" keeps the ambient constant.

kind of defeats the point of the Pocket Wizard Flex and Mini which - when used as designed - are TTL-based triggers.

Trevor Dayley's picture

I think that is part of the reason so many people struggle with flash. They are told to use them on TTL modes and never explore how to do things in manual and thereby never see the relationship between flash power and their camera's aperture, iso etc.

Trevor, do you normally have the beam of the flash pointed towards them or shooting up?

Trevor Dayley's picture

Pointed towards them.

Spy Black's picture

Are there any modern speedlights that don't automatically shut themselves off? I love my 285Vs but I hate that power "hole" between 1/4 and 1/16.

Matt Devlin's picture

Yeah, the YN560ii and the YN565ex both stay on for ages, not sure of the actual time but I've never found it an issue. They get a bad wrap but I've had mine for over a year of hard use day in and day out and they are still going strong.

Spy Black's picture

Yeah, I remember seeing an older YN that looked like it would stay on, a 4x series I think. I just wish they had override.

LumoPro flashes (fully manual) go for about 30 minutes before auto-sleeping. And their latest flash allows you to turn that off too.

Spy Black's picture

Latest model?...

LP180 is their current model, the one that allows you to turn off the auto-sleep mode. (I have an LP180 and the older LP160. I also have a couple of Yongnuo flashes, with which I'm quite pleased; I don't think you can completely disable the autosleep feature in those.)

My 430EX and 430EX II both have custom functions you can enable in their menus to turn off the auto power off

Spy Black's picture

That's cool. Too bad they're overpriced.

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