Three beginner off-camera flash mistakes you really need to avoid
When you’re first starting out photographing people with flash, it can be a bit overwhelming. Even if you’re used to shooting with natural light, the pieces don’t all click into place right away and it’s easy to make mistakes and not be entirely sure how to rectify the problem. So, here’s Francisco Hernandez with three of the mistakes he sees new off-camera flash photographers making and how to resolve them.
1. Confusing overexposure with harsh light
It’s easy to turn on a flash, ramp it right up and suddenly see your subject being massively blown out vs the environment and put it down to harshness. Even when using a softbox, a lot of new flash photographers can think the light is just “harsh” when it’s not. It’s simply overexposed.
A lot of people may feel it’s harsh simply because the overexposed areas are so bright compared to the shadow side, which is still being lit by the ambient daylight. But by dialling down your flash to better match the ambient and possible adjusting your ISO or aperture to compensate so that you get a good exposure, you’ll see that the light isn’t harsh at all.
2. Thinking many lights = better photos
This is one I fell into early on. I went out and bought half a dozen speedlights right off the bad. But hey, I spent a lot of my time when researching flash looking at photographers like Joe McNally, where half a dozen lights is a pretty low tech setup. Back then, multiple speedlights could be beneficial because you could position a whole bunch of them in one spot to act as a more powerful light source. These days, more powerful lights are available and it’s not needed.
Even now, I have a dozen battery-powered strobes ranging from 200-600Ws and AC powered strobes from 300-3,000Ws and a whole mess of speedlights. Each light has its purpose, and I grab the right tool for the job. I don’t have more lights because I need a whole bunch of light sources on a shoot but because different lights offer different benefits that might better suit one shoot vs another. The vast majority of the time I use only one or two, along with the sun/ambient as a third.
There’s a lot you can do with just one light. So, get one, learn it, master it, then expand your collection as needed.
3. Thinking expensive lights are necessary for great results
This is probably the biggest myth in lighting. Yes, more expensive lights do typically come with advantages, whether it’s output consistency from shot to shot, colour consistency throughout the power range, reliability, durability and build quality, warranty and customer service or something else. But it’s not needed when you’re just starting out. There are far more important things for you learn and get right before that even becomes a real issue.
Understanding how light works, where you need to place it, the effect that different modifiers have, etc. That’s common to all lights, whether it’s a $60 speedlight or a $7,000 Broncolor. Sure, if you need more power, you’re going to need to pay more for a light. If you want faster recycle times, you’re going to need to spend more, too. But to learn how to light? You can do that with a cheap speedlight and still get some great results.
Once you master that and understand the shortfalls of your inexpensive lighting, you can start to look at taking your flash gear to the next level with some more advanced or more powerful gear. But that way, when you do go to buy that gear, you’ll know exactly what features you need and what you’re spending your money on. You’re not wasting it on gear that still won’t be able to do what you want.
What mistake do you see flash beginners making all the time?
John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.