Get started with off camera flash photography (beginner tips)

You hear all the hype and people talking about OCF, or off camera flash. But how does off camera flash work and how do you get started?

With so much hype you’d think it was rocket science, but don’t worry, it’s not at all.

We’re going to look at how to take your first steps into off camera flash. Nothing too complicated, just an introduction to setting up off camera flash so that you can move onto the really exciting stuff later on.

What is off camera flash?

Off camera flash is just a term for using a light source off camera.

In other words, not your pop up flash, or one that’s attached to the hotshoe of your camera.

Tips for getting started with off camera flash

For the purpose of this article, I’m keeping it simple so I’m just talking about using flashguns, also known as speedlights, as off camera flash.

Also, I won’t get into manual settings for flash, we’re just looking at using flash in TTL (Through The Lens) mode.

For more advanced information on where to place the flash for portraits, download my helpful lighting clock cheat sheet. This walks you through how to light your subjects using:

Side lighting portraits – 3 ways

Front lighting portraits – 2 ways

Backlighting portraits


PS:  This post contains affiliate links. Buying something through one of the links won’t cost you anything extra, but we may get a small commission, which helps to keep the site running. Thanks!

What is TTL mode?

TTL stands for Through The Lens and means that your flash will do the hard work of calculating the power output so that you don’t have to.

You just need to concentrate on where you want to place your flash and how to fire it.

Why use off camera flash?

Using speedlights vs natural light is a control thing.

You can’t rely on natural light to show up exactly the way you want it in exactly the place you want it every time.

4 reasons for using off camera flash:

  1. Fill light
  2. Separation
  3. Freeze motion
  4. Drama

Let’s take a closer look.

1. Flash for fill light

What if the light’s coming from the side of your subject? Half of them will be in shadow.

You can set up a flash off camera to light the shadows. In other words, use it as fill flash to fill in the shadows for a more flattering look.

2. Use off camera flash to create separation

If your subject is in shadow and your background is in shadow, the lighting will be flat.

Lighting your subject with off camera flash makes them stand out in the photo and separates them from the background.

3. Flash to freeze motion

The best way to freeze motion in photos is with flash, but it doesn’t look good when the light comes from directly on top of your camera.

With off camera flash you can freeze subject motion and light your subject from a flattering angle.

4. Create drama with off camera flash

Create striking images by backlighting a subject, as in the image below.

Or what if you want to photograph somebody facing you, in front of a great background with the light coming from behind them, and you want to light the subject?

If you expose for your subject, you’ll blow out the background. If you light your subject, you can have a well exposed background and a well exposed subject.

Ultimately, you’ll spend a lot less time “fixing” an image on the computer afterwards.

Off camera flash on a tripod

For this backlit image I set the flash, which is in shot, off camera on a lightstand behind the subject

How to fix off camera flash in place

So, it’s all very well saying take your flash off camera, but how do you stand it up? There are a number of options.

The cheapest and easiest method is to use the flash stand that came with your speedlight – if one was included with your flash of course. If not, or if it’s gone missing, they’re not expensive, so you can easily buy a replacement.

Once you slide your speedlight in, it can be positioned on any flat(ish) surface. Even better, if you flip it over, you’ll see a thread underneath. This can be screwed onto any tripod, including a GorillaPod.

Another method is to purchase a hotshoe mount, which can be screwed onto a tripod, GorillaPod or a light stand adaptor (preferably with an umbrella bracket) and then fitted to a light stand.
Nikon speedlight stand for off camera flashMy Nikon speedlight stand. The image above on the right shows the thread underneath the stand for fitting to a tripod etc.

Speedlight on a stand for off camera flash

Off camera flash limitations

Whilst flashguns are incredibly easy to carry around, making them a very versatile and easy source of light, they do have their limitations for using off camera.

Or use battery operated strobe lights, which are much more powerful than speedlights and my favorite way to light subjects.

Here are 4 limitations of using speedlights off camera:

1. Shutter speed

Speedlights and strobes sync to your camera at a maximum shutter speed of 1/200, 1/250 or 1/320, depending on your camera. So, as with using flash on camera, you can’t go above the maximum flash sync speed of your camera.

If you go above the maximum flash sync speed, you’ll have a black bar on your photo, which is the shutter not getting out of the way in time.

Unless your lighting has high speed sync capabilities.

2. Range

Speedlights aren’t massively powerful light sources, so you’re very limited to how far from the subject you can go, especially in daylight.

3. Power

Even with the better quality flashguns, they aren’t incredibly powerful, so they may not be powerful enough to use outdoors in sunlight.

You can, however, add more flashguns to the shot to get more power. 

4. Recycle time

It takes time for a flashgun to recycle once fired, so you’ll need to wait a few seconds between shots.

This varies from one flashgun to the next, with the more expensive models having a faster recycle time.

Off camera flash options

You don’t need to break the bank to get started with off camera flash. Just make sure when you buy a flash not made by your camera manufacturer, that you get the right one for your camera. So, if you use a Nikon, the flash must be made to work with Nikon cameras.

Here are some of the most popular flashes around today:

How do you take a flash off camera?

3 ways to use a flash off camera:

  1. TTL remote cord
  2. Optical flash triggering (aka commander mode)
  3. Radio transmitters

I’ve listed them in my preferred order, ending with my favorite method.

1. TTL remote cord

Triggering off camera flash with a a remote cord is really easy and simply involves your camera to your flash with the cord.

The disadvantage of triggering a flash off camera this way is that you’re limited by the length of the cord.

2. Optical flash triggering

Optical triggering is a fancy way of saying use a flash to trigger another flash. In other words, use the pop up flash on your camera to trigger a flash off camera.

If your camera has the ability to use the pop up flash as a trigger, then this is a really easy way to get started.

To use your pop up flash as an optical trigger in commander or master mode, you need to set it up through the menu. You can set it so that it doesn’t actually light your subject, but sends out enough light to trigger your off camera flash.

If you’re using a Nikon, this is called Commander Mode on your flash menu.

Disadvantages of Commander Mode

The main disadvantage of optical triggering is that it applies to branded equipment, so a pop up flash on a Nikon camera will remotely trigger a Nikon speedlight. Likewise for Canon speedlites etc. The terminology and steps varies from brand to brand, but it’s basically the same.

Other disadvantages:

  • It works over a limited distance. The distance varies, but the range is up to 10m (33 feet)
  • It won’t work if there are obstacles between the transmitter and the flash or if the flash is too far to the side
  • Bright sunlight can prevent it from working

How to use a Nikon camera in Commander Mode…

Nikon custom setting menu for flash

Step 1

Go to the custom setting menu and select bracketing/flash.

Setting in built flash to commander mode

Step 2

Select flash control for built-in flash.

Nikon control settings for pop up flash

Step 3

Select commander mode to open up the next menu.

How to set up commander mode for off camera flash

Step 4

Use the dial to select – – for built-in flash so that your pop up flash emits just enough light to trigger the off camera flash.

Comp stands for flash exposure compensation and should be set to 0, which is the default. At this stage, ignore the Group A and Group B settings, make sure that Channel is set to 1, which is the default.

Step 5

Now you just need to position your flash off camera and set it to remote (Nikon) or slave (Canon) so that you can start photographing.

Nikon speedlight set to remote for off camera flash

My Nikon speedlight set to remote

3. Radio transmitters

The advantage of radio transmitters over using the pop up flash in commander mode is that radio transmitters are more reliable as they’re not as easily affected by bright sunlight.

It doesn’t matter if something’s between the transmitter and the flash and they can be used over a greater distance. Simply attach the transmitter to the hotshoe of your camera and the receiver to your flash.

I’ve found Pocket Wizards great, but they’re not the only brand of radio transmitters.

Disadvantage of radio transmitters

The disadvantage of using radio transmitters to trigger a flash is that you can’t always them in TTL mode (Through The Lens), especially with the cheaper brands.

If you’re using transmitters made by the same brand as your camera, TTL is possible.

Types of radio transmitters

Here’s a selection on Amazon of the most popular options on the market, including budget and higher end options.

Make sure that you buy the correct radio transmitter for your camera.

Manufacturers make different versions suitable to the different camera brands. The product name indicates if it’s for a Nikon, for example, with an N in the name and Canon a C.

When I was photographing weddings, I often used Pocket Wizards to fire two flashguns on lightstands on opposite sides of the dance floor during the first dance for beautifully backlit shots of the bride and groom. On other occasions my assistant held a flash with a Pocket Wizard attached on the opposite side of the newlyweds from me.

I’ve also used my pop up flash in commander mode to trigger the off camera flash on the opposite side of the dancefloor. In the black and white image of the child towards the top of this article I’d set up my speedlight (flash) on a light stand and when she wandered onto the dance floor, I took the shot. You can see the flash of the speedlight in the shot.

If you have a flash and haven’t yet tried it off camera, give it a go. What’s the worst that can happen?

Creative off camera flash

Once you’ve got the hang of off camera flash, a whole world of creativity opens up for you. Not just for taking photos in places that were too dark for you before, but you can also add color to flash with gels for really creative portraits. 

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If you have any questions about using flash off camera, let us know in the comments.

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