Easy Off-Camera Flash For Wedding Photographers

Easy Off-Camera Flash For Wedding Photographers

With so many options out there for off-camera flash gear, how do you know which is best for you? More importantly, how do you learn how to use it in a real life situation? Maybe my techniques and approach are just what you've been waiting for!

Do you remember the last time you were shooting at a less than ideal time of day, or maybe a less than ideal location for light? Think back to it. What did you do?

Were you a bit scared about what to do?

Did you crank the ISO and embrace the noise going for the natural look?

What about direction of light? Was it flattering for the subject?

I think back to the days before I knew much about flash and I can see a very clear and quick progression. At first, I was irritated at blurry, slow-shutter photos that never seemed to never have the right color to them. Then I realized that I could pop my built-in flash up and get crisp light on my subject, but then I had red-eye, battery drainage, and flat, boring pictures. Then I got a hot-shoe mounted flash and played around with ways to light my subject, or the room, or even both at the same time. I bought rigs to always have my flash on top of my camera even when nailing a dutch angle. I bought plastic domes to put on my flash head to make my subject look like a supermodel.

Then, one day I stumbled upon off-camera flash! No wires. No bulky brackets. Total control!

This control was a good thing, or so I thought. With all of this new found control, came new ideas, challenges, failures and successes. I would learn so much about light in such a short amount of time that it was all I would think about! I finally realized what direction of light meant, and how I can control light with my tools of the trade.


I think of off-camera flash like a hat. I wear them when I have to, or if I just feel like it at the time. Sometimes I wear it just to cover up some craziness that's going on that I can't take the time to deal with right at the moment. Sometimes I want to spruce up my look and go for something a little more fun.

In the same way, I use flash when I have to, or if I just feel like it. I don't use it all the time. In fact, I try not to use it almost at all if I can. I'm able to do that because of what I've learned about direction of light and camera settings. So when I'm adding flash, I'm really going the extra mile either creatively or technically, or I'm in a situation where I need to use it because of the lack of good available light. Something I always keep in mind when at a wedding is the experience of the couple. This means that if I think their experience is going to suffer because I'm going to be taking some time to setup an off-camera flash shot, then I will likely find another way of doing the shot, or skip it all together. If I'm really motivated about a certain shot and it needs off-camera flash, I will have my assistant set it up while I'm photographing the couple somewhere else, or give them a bit of down time together and frame it is a positive time for them instead of waiting around for their photo shoot to continue.

The Gear I Use

There are hundreds of options of flash triggers, speedlights, and other accessories that you could use for your off-camera lighting setup. Here are the items I use regularly at weddings:
Nikon SB-600
Nikon SB-700
Cactus V5 Flash Triggers (Transceivers)
Umbrella Reflector (shoot through/bounce)
Umbrella Bracket
Light Stand

When I Often Use It

Bride & Groom Portraits


Depending on what time of day you are doing your Bride & Groom portraits, you may want to use flash to bring out the mood of the moment. This shot was from a wedding in Cancun and we had a chance to sneak out after the ceremony for some pictures with just the two of them before their reception started. We had done a first look earlier in the day, so we had lots of Bride & Groom portraits already, but they were shot at midday. This timing allowed us to get some shots at sunset, so I setup my flash out of frame on the right and zoomed the speedlight to light them evenly without spilling unwanted streaks across the sand.

Reception Speeches


This was shot late at night in Tuscany, Italy. The reception was outdoors around a pool, so there were no ceilings or walls to bounce flash off of. I had one flash setup by the head table and one off to the side on a grassy area so that the speaking area was light with two speed lights from slight angles. Lighting in this way allows me to shoot overtop of the heads of people in the seats without lighting them up more than my subject, so your eye is drawn right to where I want it drawn to. If you had on camera flash and tried to do this shot, you would light up the people right in front of you more than the Bride and her father.

First Dances


This was shot at a Vancouver, BC venue that was a large room with high ceilings. I wanted to show the ambiance of the room while keeping the focus on the father's expression, so I adjusted my settings to allow for the room to be slightly under-exposed at 1/200 shutter speed, and then added flash from the side on a stand. With this type of setup, you can get various shots all in a row by just changing your position and waiting for them to come around for the shots that you want.

Party Dancing


This was shot at the United 2013 Conference Reception in Santa Barbara where I was teaching my system for lighting the dance floor. These fun-loving photographers gladly jumped on the dance floor and made an impromptu party in seconds! This is showcasing the 2 light setup that I run at wedding receptions where I get one of the guests to have fun with me and hold the monopod with my flash on it. This is a hit at weddings with the guests I choose, and always leads to building referral relationships with them.

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The EX600's are my dark-horse reason for sticking with Canon through thick-and-thin. No extra radio triggers, very reliable, and ridiculously easy to shoot with manual lighting all over the room. I just can't imagine shooting a reception without the three of them that I have.This isn't me thumbing my nose at Nikon, they'll most absolutely put out an SB with radio, but with the SB line kicking the crap out of everything Canon put out before the 600's, it's nice to know Canon was paying attention, eventually.

Good call! I love the EX600's as well, but being a Nikon shooter I'm happy with the setup I run that can easily switch through channels so I can choose 1st, 2nd, or both flashes in an instant. Can the EX600's switch between multiple setups quickly?

what cameras have built in RF controllerfor the 600 ?

i might have missed something but i got the 600-RTs but one thing i DOESNT do and I would love for this to work is:
- on camera EX600 to shoot in ETTL mode as usual AND trigger two other EX600 with MANUAL outputs
even a Canon rep told me it was impossible - even though it seems quite technically realizable! wish he is wrong! would you know how to do that?

I don't actually! I'm not really sure when it happened, but I realized I haven't used TTL in a very very long time. I just find it easier to figure out the light behavior in a room and make adjustments as I move around.

What you are describing is only possible with newer Canon bodies (5DIII and 6D, not sure of others). It is the "group" mode on the flash and is not compatible with 5DII, 7D, etc. If you have an older body you have to shoot either all manual or all ETTL.

for real? i should check it out since i do have the 5D3 and tried doing the group mode but it seems like my main flash would give me erratic results (some way to strong/weak fires). have to test it again. does it work for you?

I have the 5DII so I've not had a chance to use group mode. I can tell you though that my experience with ETTL in general is that it can be pretty erratic. I hesitated to upgrade to the 600s because of not being able to do exactly what you describe, but after shooting all manual now for about a year I wouldn't go back to ETTL even when I eventually do upgrade bodies.

It can be done but the reason that you will get erratic results is because depending on how much light you get from your flashes set on manual in your frame it should change the results of how much your on camera ETTL flash power is putting out. I love the 600's though. Great little devices.

how many wedding photographer need a tutorial about off camera fash?

such articles leave me puzzled about the state of the businnes and the experience of wedding photographers.
when i hire a photographer i expect he knows such things.. this is an article for amateurs not wedding photographer.

I was thinking the same thing, and to be honest this seems more like a marketing ploy for Matt's webinar then anything else.

Agreed. Wedding Photographer knows what to do. If he wants to learn something, I don't expect him or her to be around here.

For the article. MiniTT1 and FlexTT5, dream tools for Wedding Photographer.

So hey... all you amateurs... get off Fstoppers and quit trying to learn. Go on... get out of here. No need whatsoever for you to be on any site about learning about photography. Go on now. Beat it.

so how else does new comers to photography learn. i don't intend to do weddings but this has implications to other aspects of what i do eg night time macro and portraits. the other part is amateurs and pros have good and bad photographers, this lets the bad ones learn and the good ones brush up on skill sets

I would guess if you are using SB flashes you are shooting Nikon...why do you use the cactus triggers, as opposed to using your camera's commander mode?

Commander mode can be pretty finicky at times with line of site if you're moving around a room (yea, there are some workarounds). The flash triggers let you put your lights anywhere in a room with no worries.

Also, if you're using a D3/D3S/D4, you don't have built-in commander mode, so you'd need to purchase another flash (SU-800, SB-800, SB-900, etc.) The Cactus or Cactuses or Cacti...are a lot cheaper and having used them myself, are pretty reliable.

Before I bought my PW TT5s, I had a Cactus trigger system, and it was highly unreliable. Less than half the time it wouldn't fire my strobes. I always kept fresh batteries handy, and the electronic connections were sound. But, this was back in 2007-2008. If they have made a more reliable system, good for them. But my PWs work 9.5 times out of 10. Worth the investment for me! :)

Wow! some arrogance with these comments. I think some of you are just worried about others getting better than you. Please, get over yourselves

I was thinking the same thing, I am so glad everyone is perfect off the bat, such little geniuses amongst us...
I learned over time too, people hired me knowing what level I was at and they paid for that level and now as I get more experienced I charge more and more, all my weddings have increased by almost double each time until I am got where I feel comfortable with my prices and knowledge... Great article it was a nice read

so I'm reading these comments and seeing how many people there are that just continually down others about trying to learn, this i absolutely don't agree with. Of course you may not know me and i might get some hate comments after this, but i couldn't give a crap less. A photographer that's trying to learn knew techniques about off camera lights will read this article and think hey i can apply this to my niche in photography, not everyone that reads this will be a wedding photographer, i read it and I'm sure as hell not a wedding photographer (no offense to wedding photographers out there) but yet it still inspired to me to try new things with my own light rigs. So everyone just take a second and look at your own style maybe you can too,pro or not, even find something new to do with your lights, so go on get off here and go try something new.

Good read. I have a wedding in Nashville, and while I should try these....I'm just a little bit nervous to do it. :-P

Make sure to put in fresh batteries before the reception :)

These are good tips. I have done these techniques before, but never done a wedding. I was asked by family to do one next August. I will be shooting second and holding bags for some wedding photogs from November to the actual day. It is a great start. Pros don't like it when someone with little experience jumps aboard, but how else will they learn?

BTW, Syl Arena has great books on Off Camera Flashes. I highly suggest his series.

All I know is that I read the http://strobist.blogspot.com/ and I am progressing along quite nicely with just one flash off the camera finally. Believe it or not I have learned more about strobe light with my manual flash than I ever thought I would. I understand the power settings, the aperture settings, and after some practice with placement and diffusion it started to come together for me. It all started with that blog. I now believe that you should start with a small investment to learn it first and then progress slowly to things like speed lights and Alien Bees when you understand the fundamentals and the basics first.

The photography community is really filled with a bunch negative people. You would think that photographers both amateur and professional would try to encourage each other and make each other feel welcomed but it's the complete opposite. I'm glad I don't have many friends who also shoot weddings and or do photography, the negativeness, and the drama disgusts me.

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These photos are amazing! I need to learn more about <a href="http://www.usedcamerasportland.com/" rel="nofollow">camera flash. Beaverton or</a> is where I live and sometimes I see something I think would make a good picture, but I need to learn more on this. Thanks for sharing what you know.

Thanks Brandie! I'm sure you would find my workshop valuable, and the recordings are now avaialble. Check it out at the link at the end of the article :)