Exploring Small Strobes: Why Use Speedlights Off Camera

Exploring Small StrobesWelcome to this multi-part series of articles on Exploring Small Strobes by Yanik Chauvin from Yanik’s Photo School.

In part 1 on Exploring Small strobes, I looked at why using flash guns instead of the built-in flash and studio strobes. Today, I’ll be going through the importance of using your speedlight off camera.

So, we already know that direct flash from your built-in flash gives unflattering results, to say the least. Using your speedlight in the same way won’t change much. I did mention that you can redirect the light by rotating the head of your flash gun and bouncing the light off ceilings and walls but you’re still very limited in your creativity. So what’s a photographer to do? I’ll tell you. Get that speedlight off your camera to unleash its full potential!

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To get back to the title of this article “why use speedlights off camera”, it can be summed up into a few words: Total creative light control. So there you have it! I hope you enjoyed this article…. Ok, ok. Just kidding. 😉 So what do I mean by total creative light control? Well, it can be interpreted very broadly so I’ve tried to break it down by giving it some practical applications. By all means, this isn’t a complete list but it’s a great starting point for you to define and explore your own creative light control.

I’ll look at:

  •  Replacing natural light
  •  Replacing artificial light
  •  Macro Lighting
  •  Background Lighting
  •  Backlighting
  •  Multiple speedlights

Replacing Natural Light

We have two main sources of natural light on planet Earth: the sun and the moon (and technically moonlight is sunlight reflecting off of the moon.). But sometimes when we want to use them, they’re just not there. So, do we give up? No, no, no. Why? Because we’re creative photographers who master off camera flash! Ok, master is a big word but hey, you’ll be close to that at the end of this series. 😉

Exploring Small Strobes - Replacing Natural Light

So how do you recreate sunlight or moonlight? It’s actually not that difficult. You first have to know that the light coming from these natural sources is hard (not diffused) so you just use your flash without any light diffusers on it. The next thing you need to know is that the light comes from above. So your flash should be higher than your subject. The next thing is the light color. Sunlight is warm and moonlight is cool. If you have colored gels, you can use an orange one for the sun and a blue one for the moon. If you don’t have gels yet, you can recreate it by changing your white balance. To get moonlight, choose Fluorescent and for sunlight you’ll need a camera that has the option to manually change the Kelvin values and it should be set to roughly 10000K. If you shoot RAW, this can also be done in your RAW camera software.

Replacing Artificial Light

There are lots of artificial light sources that can be imitated with your speedlight. You can fake light coming from lamps, TVs, laptops, candles… just to name a few. Of course, your speedlight must be off camera for that to work.

The key points to remember here are: 1- light source warmth, 2- light source direction and, 3- light source intensity. So you’ll have to adjust your flash accordingly.

Here’s an example of a candlelight setup. As you can see, the speedlight is at the same height as the candle and it has an orange gel to imitate the light’s natural warmth. Since candlelight isn’t a powerful light source, the flash is powered down.

Exploring Small Strobes - Replacing Artificial Light

Macro Lighting

If you need your flash for your macro photography, it has to be set off camera. Why? If your speedlight is on your camera, your macro lens will prevent the light from reaching your subject since you subject is so close to the lens. Some companies like Nikon, have even created a special off camera lighting system for macro photography that you can sometimes see in action in the popular TV series CSI.

Exploring Small Strobes - Macro Lighting

A part from lighting your subject, using your speedlight for macro photography will also give you creative control over speed and your DOF (depth of field).

Background Lighting

Sometimes you might need to light your background like I had to do for the intro shot of the speedlight or for this beer shot.

Exploring Small Strobes - Background Lighting

It might also be background interiors like hotel lobbies or light coming through a window with your main subject being in the foreground. Or even getting your background completely white for product shots.

Using your imagination could also create some pretty cool result like this shot that I took in western Canada. Yes, there’s a speedlight inside the tent but there’s also a speedlight shining on the background trees. You can see the complete tutorial here.


Backlighting basically means lighting from behind your main subject. This technique can be used to cut out your subject from the background like a hair light or creating a silhouette like in this example where 2 speedlights were used behind a glass wall.

Exploring Small Strobes - Backlighting

Multiple Speedlights

This is an obvious one! You can only mount 1 speedlight on your camera so once you add 2 or more, they are, by default, off camera.

And this is where the fun begins. Being able to control multiple off camera speedlights will give you tremendous creative opportunities. I recommend having at least 2 flash guns and if you plan on using them as a portable studio and having paying clients, go for 3 or 4. A few of the images above were shot using multiple speedlights.

In part 3 on Exploring Small Strobes, We’ll look at how to trigger and control your speedlights.

Yanik Chauvin is a professional photographer from
Ottawa, Canada. His main focus is on stock and commercial photography.
As a teacher with more than 10 years experience, he started Yanik’s Photo School as a way to give back to other passionate photographers.

All images on this article were taken by Yanik Chauvin  from Yanik’s Photo School