Photography 101: Off-Camera Lighting

I might be digging myself a rabbit hole with this post. The world of flash and off-camera lighting may not be dark (ba-dum-pshh!), but it is a deep, never-ending learning experience. Just when you think you’ve mastered a technique, a new angle is thrown at you or new light is thrown into the mix and the starting line welcomes you back into its arms.

Though I’ve grown a lot over the past three years in how I use and control off-camera light, I’m certainly no expert. These are just my opinions and what I’ve found to work for me!

Last summer I had the incredible honor of photographing the wedding of my dear friends, Erica and Derek. That morning, Erica was getting ready in her family’s living room—the place where she’d played, slept, prayed and lived for most of her life, and I love that that room now holds yet another precious memory for her and her family. Her dress hung on the glass doors that led to the dining room, and I knew I wanted that location for photographs of Erica’s beautiful, flowy bridal gown. The only hitch? The light that fell on the door was flat and did nothing to show off the little intricate folds of fabric that highlighted the bodice of the dress and made it so special. I didn’t want to move the dress and I didn’t love the light. So, what to do?

Cue: off-camera flash. I always keep my flash with me during the getting ready portion of the day, just for times like this. I was lucky enough to study strobes and studio lighting during my photography classes at school, but the concept of folding that knowledge into wedding day photography didn’t really click for me until I attended Justin and Mary’s Lighting Intensive almost a year and a half ago (which I wrote about here!) I was afraid of using flash in instances like these, because I wanted my photos to have a soft, natural light feel to them, like they were all taken in front of a big, beautiful window. And no way flash can achieve a feeling like that, right? So, so, wrong. J+M helped me understand how to reign in my flash to do exactly what I wanted. No flat strobe light, no super-contrasty images.

In the case of Erica’s dress, I needed to create an angle for the light to fall across the dress, and I needed something to diffuse the brightness of the strobe light. So, I popped open my white umbrella in front of a strobe set on low power, placed it an an almost 90 degree angle from the dress, and achieved the exact image I wanted! The angle here is key. The ambient light on the dress was flat because the only light falling on it was from a door directly in front of it. By moving the light source to the side, I created a pattern of shadows and highlights that showed off just how special this dress really was! Check out the difference:

It’s not that the dress looks bad here, just that it doesn’t look its best… The flat light does nothing to show off the details of the fabric, and it loses so much of its wow factor! ericadress-1
 Much better, right?! And if I hadn’t told you that it was a flash, and not a giant window off to the right of these images, would you ever have known?! EricaDerek-78 You can actually see each little ripple and detail that creates the beautiful pattern in the dress—one of the reasons Erica fell in love with in the the first place! EricaDerek-80 EricaDerek-87 EricaDerek-91

So, if you’re feeling afraid of flash, or like some of your images are stuck in detail-less, flat, lighting, I totally know those feels! But don’t be afraid of your flash—be friends with it! Figure out how to use it in a way that complements and pushes your style forward. And practice! This wedding day certainly wasn’t the first time I’d used an off-camera lighting set-up; my little bedroom often became a late-night lighting studio last year. You’ll never better understand your equipment if you don’t spend some time getting to know it. To practice for this shot, I gave myself shooting assignments and treated it like homework each week. I never know exactly when they’ll come in handy, but I know that if I’m ever stuck in a place like this again, I can shine a light on it and find my way out!

[Equipment used to achieve these photos: Nikon D800, 50mm 1.4, Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 (on-camera), Pocket Wizard Plus III (attached to off-camera flash), Nikon SB-910, Westcott 43″ White Umbrella]



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