Teaching an Intro To Off-Camera Flash workshop

For the past couple of years I wanted to facilitate a simple portrait lighting workshop with my favorite local photography group, the Hwy 9 Photography Group. Ideally what that meant was that I’d coordinate with a local portrait photographer who would actually do the presentation. After a few false starts I decided OK… why not me?

Behind the scenes with Katie

What I wanted to show was that you could create stunning portraits using low cost equipment. No need for high end lighting; this could be done with speedlights, diffusers, a backdrop, radio triggers, and a hand-held light meter.

I worked out a basic outline that I thought would take 20 minutes to present. I contacted Katie to model for us, worked out times, availability, and rates. Then I worked out a deal for the exotic location of the gym at the Boulder Creek Recreation Center. Fancy, I know.

I did my best to keep my actual talking to a minimum. I get a little tired of hearing my own voice. I also don’t really consider myself an expert on much, but like I said earlier “why not me?” I wanted to give the basic idea. What you could do with one light. Two lights. Three.

Snapshot of me giving the brief rundown. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Kahn

It didn’t matter that none of the attendees had never shot with off-camera flash before. It also didn’t matter that none had worked with an experienced model before! I had a series of emails with Katie where I explained the situation. What I needed from her was to be herself, know where the lights were, be at ease, and mostly just do her stuff without needing direction. She was magnificent.

One light

We started out with a single light at camera left. A simple manual Yongnuo YN-560 II Speedlight connected to a PocketWizard PlusX Transceiver. The speedlight was placed inside a 36″ Fotodiox Pro 36″ (90cm) Octagon Softbox. After determining the correct exposure settings with the hand held light meter we were ready to go. The single light at camera left created some very dramatic light and shadows.

A single light at camera left shot as low key and dramatic. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Kahn

One light and a reflector

Next I introduced a reflector at camera right to fill in some of the shadows.

Many thanks to Katie’s mom for (a) being there and (b) holding the reflector. The softbox at camera right wasn’t used yet.

The results from just adding the reflector were stunning. Each participant spent about 5 minutes each shooting with this setup. I would tell everyone the exposure recommendation based on my meter then I’d hand my radio trigger to the next participant.

Photo courtesy of Ian Webb
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Kahn

Two lights: one at camera left, one at camera right

I setup the second light; virtually identical to the first light. The only difference was that the second speedlight was triggered optically. That meant that I needed to have only the one set of radio triggers. As soon as any other speedlight would fire then the second light would fire too. The optical trigger itself was built into the speedlights. I setup the second light to be about a stop less than the main light. Now we started getting even more volume to our subject. The point isn’t just to light your subject, it’s also to provide depth.

A shot from me using two lights
Behind the scenes with Mike Gendimenico
Behind the scenes with Keith Wyner

Three Lights: gels

I added a third speedlight behind Katie and put a purple gel on it. This speedlight was also on an optical trigger so it would fire when any other flash would fire. I had a few goals with the third light:

  1. separate the subject from the background
  2. demonstrate that you could change the color of the background
  3. introduce rim lighting
By placing a speedlight behind Katie and pointing it at the backdrop I could change the color of the background to nearly anything I wanted.
Courtesy of Erik Elfring
I’m not remotely as attractive as Katie. This is what happens when I’m talking and I hand the radio trigger to somebody. Photo courtesy of Erik Elfring.

Another great look is a rim light. Ideally you’d setup a light higher up and pointing down from behind your subject. Here I simply turned the speedlight around to face into the camera. I left the same color gel so Katie’s hair lights up with purple.

Rim light demonstration
For fun we played around a little with lens flares just by moving the camera a bit.

The Popup Flash

Now that everybody was acquainted with the benefits of off-camera flash and getting a little comfortable with the idea I wanted to take a step backwards. I wanted to show where the typical popup flash falls short.

Photo with the popup flash on my Canon 7d Mk II

The flash built in on many cameras points straight at your subject and right above the lens barrel. The result is a flat look. There is very little volume now. Notice also the weird catchlight in Katie’s eyes. It’s right there in the middle of her eyes. It’s not awful, but we can do so much better.

Putting it all together

It was time for a wardrobe change when Jon had an inspiration. He saw a small plush chair and thought she would look nice seated in it. Katie came back out in a stunning red dress and Jon’s idea absolutely came to life.

Seating Katie in the chair now meant moving the lights and metering again.
Behind the scenes with Mike and Katie. This was the entire setup.
Selective color. Photo courtesy Jonathan Kahn
My own favorite for the day