Indoors Flash Photography – Off-Camera Flash

I have already shown you how to take pictures with your pop-up flash and use it as a commander to trigger other remote units. A detailed Nikon Speedlight Comparison has also been posted for those who are looking into buying a flash. This time, I want to show you how you can create some amazing portraits indoors, using a Nikon Speedlight in an off-camera configuration with an umbrella.

1) Getting Started

No matter what flash system you are using, if you want to be able to take great portraits, you want to soften the light that comes out of your flash. Direct light creates harsh shadows, similar to how the sun does when you take a picture at noon. While I have already shown you how to soften the light by bouncing it off ceilings and walls, the light does not always look very natural due to its angle. In addition, bouncing the light off very large surfaces typically does not yield nice-looking catch lights in your subjects’ eyes. There are a couple of solutions to this problem, which require some investment and a little bit of extra effort.

One method I would like to talk about, is to use an umbrella on a dedicated stand to soften the light from your flash – a very inexpensive way to soften the light and instantly improve your images. Lola and I use this method a lot for some of our commercial photography and the results do not disappoint. Let’s talk about the gear you will need to accomplish this:

  1. A DSLR camera with a built-in flash that supports master/commander mode and an external flash that can be configured as a slave/remote. For example, Nikon D90 and Nikon SB-600 Speedlight or Canon 7D and Canon 580EX II. If your DSLR does not have a built-in flash or the built-in flash cannot be used as a commander, then you will need two flashes with one that can be used as a master/commander and another as a slave/remote. For example, Nikon SB-700 and Nikon SB-600 or Canon 580EX II and Canon 430EX II. You do not need to buy radio triggers for indoors flash photography when using an umbrella – infrared works great for most situations.
  2. A light stand to mount an external flash and an umbrella. The Impact Air Cushioned Light Stand is one of the lightest and cheapest light stands you can find. When collapsed, it takes up very little space, making it a great candidate to take it with you when travelling or shooting outside.
  3. An umbrella adapter to mount on top of the light stand. I personally use the Manfrotto Swivel Adapter and it works great.
  4. A flash mount adapter to hold your flash on the adapter. I use the Stroboframe Flash Mount Adapter and it fits all flash units that I have, including the Nikon SB-900.
  5. A white umbrella. I have been using umbrellas from Westcott for many years now and I really like the 43″ Collapsible Westcott Umbrella with a removable black cover. It is perfect for indoors photography and it is not too small or too bulky.

All of the above, except for the camera and flash costs less than $100 and will serve you well for many years!

2) Setting everything up

Once you have all the components for off-camera flash, you have to put it all together. I know that most people out there will quickly figure it out, but for those who have challenges, I put together a small video on assembling a light stand and the correct way of attaching an umbrella to a stand (yes, there are multiple ways you can attach an umbrella):

3) Camera Settings

What about camera settings? When it comes to shooting flash, I always shoot in Manual Mode and I recommend you do, too. Why? Because both shutter speed and aperture are extremely important when using flash and it is best to keep a tight control on both of them. In our upcoming videos and articles, I will show you exactly how Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO affect the image and will demonstrate how to shoot everything in Manual Mode, even your flash units. For now, follow these instructions:

  1. Set camera mode to “Manual”.
  2. Set camera metering mode to “Matrix/Evaluative”.
  3. Set shutter release to “Single”, so that your flash does not fire multiple shots as you squeeze the camera shutter.
  4. Turn off “Auto ISO”.
  5. Set ISO to the camera base ISO (typically lowest number like 100 or 200).
  6. If you are shooting with a fast prime f/1.4-f/1.8 lens, set camera Aperture to a number between f/2.0 and f/2.8. If you are shooting with a variable-aperture zoom lens, set the Aperture to the lowest f-number.
  7. Set the Shutter Speed to 1/100th of a second.
  8. Set all your flashes to TTL mode (on Nikon Speedlights, choose either “i-TTL BL” or “i-TTL BL FP”). If you are using your on-camera built-in flash as a commander, set it to “–”, so that it does not fire any direct flash on your subject.

4) Umbrella configuration

Another thing you will need to decide on, is how to configure your umbrella – in a shoot-through or reflective configuration. I mostly use umbrellas in a shoot-through configuration, because the light is much softer and nicer than when using it in a reflective configuration. The nice thing about the shoot-through configuration, is that you can position the light very close to your subject, which will soften the light even more (remember, a bigger and a closer source of light in flash photography always results in a softer light). You cannot get very close to the subject with an umbrella in a reflective configuration – the umbrella end, along with the lightstand will be on the way.

So, when should you use the reflective configuration? Only when you want to control the direction of the light without spilling it across the room. You would do that by putting back the black cover on the umbrella, which would keep the light from spreading out. Do it only in cases where you only want to have light on your subject and nowhere else.

5) Positioning the light

When positioning the light, you need to decide from which direction the light will be hitting your subject. The classic way to use off-camera light is to position it to your left (or subject’s right), raise it higher than the subject and angle it approximately 45 degrees, so that the light directly hits the subject. Start off by position the light to the left, then experiment a little by position the light to the right of the subject and then the center. I personally do not like how images come out with the light in the center, because the shadows look unnatural and the image has a flat look to it. Here is a simple diagram with the light position to the left:

Classic Umbrella Setup

Classic Umbrella Setup

The diagram doesn’t show that the light is higher than the subject and tilted at about 45 degrees down. Experiment with your umbrella and try repositioning the light to the right and to the center and see how you like it.

6) Taking pictures

Now that you have everything set up, let’s take some shots. One thing to note while taking pictures with flash, is flash recycle time. I am not just talking about how long it takes for the light on the back of the flash unit to light up again, indicating that it is ready – I am also talking about how long you should wait after each shot, before taking another one. When shooting in TTL mode, if the room is very dark, your flash might fire in full power. What this means, is your flash is doing a lot of hard work to illuminate the subject. If you notice that your flash takes a long time to recycle when you are using new batteries, you are most probably shooting at full flash power. Slow down and don’t take too many pictures at once when this happens, since you might overheat your flash and possibly even damage it.

Besides waiting, one thing you can do in situations like this, is increase your camera ISO to a bigger value. Most newer DSLRs have no problems with grain when increasing ISO to 400, 800 and even 1600. By pushing ISO to a higher number, you are decreasing the workload on your flash. Less load means your batteries and your flash will last much longer and you could trigger the flash to fire more often without worrying about overheating it.

Don’t forget about placing the light close to your subject. As I have indicated above, the closer the light to the subject, the softer it will be. In addition, your flash will have to fire less flash power when shot at close proximity.

Comments

  1. January 18, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    Nasim,

    Thank you for the great resource and your willingness to share your knowledge with the others. I’m an avid reader and subscribe to your blog.

    I’m originally from Uzbekistan myself (although I’m from Tashkent), but have been living in New York for the past 15 years.

    Also have been to Denver multiple times. Love that part of the country for it’s numerous scenic views.

    - Daniel

    • February 22, 2011 at 1:57 pm

      Thank you for your feedback Daniel. If you happen to be in Colorado next time, drop me a line!

  2. 3
    ) Alex Green
    March 24, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    great info, and well put together…thank you kindly!

  3. 4
    ) edgar guaymare
    April 28, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    Hi,

    Could you explain why you don’t use softboxes?

    Thanks

  4. 5
    ) suzy
    May 9, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Hi Nasim
    I have just discovered all your online video tutorials and they were so so helpful.

    At present I have a Nikon D300s and a SB600, after watching your tutorials on off camera flash, I set my pop up flash to fire the SB600. I am considering buying a ‘proper’ flash set up. My questions are:
    should I keep my SB600 and go for a SB800 or SB900 to add to this? Is there a major amount of difference between the two other than price ( I know the 800 is not being made anymore, but I’m trying to keep the budget down) Also, if I am going to be doing /offering professional studio type photography, is it worth buying triggers,( if so which ones, how many) or just sticking to the pop up flash ( though as you mentioned it does give a pre flash) ? I will also buy two umbrellas and the stands, cold shoe and umbrellas and Manfrotto adapter, you suggest on here.
    So, my question in, what do I need to add to the kit I already have to get myself properly set up.
    Thanks again for explaining so well in your videos, I can now get to grips with flash!

  5. 6
    ) Armene Loise Gallardo
    June 29, 2011 at 9:09 am

    hi nasim,

    good day to you. i’d like to ask your suggestion regarding reflector and umbrella. what do i need to buy? i’am a new photographer. i’m using d60 and d7000. i dont know what umbrella to buy. i dont know the purpose of color white/black etc. thanks

  6. 7
    ) Dion Baseleres
    July 16, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    Hi Nasim,

    How are you? Your site’s been really hopeful in providing valuable information to us just starting out. Anyway, my question would be: would it be better for me to start with a 43″ Umbrella as suggested by you above, or go with a much larger 60″ Umbrella? I wonder if this would make a really big difference in terms of the quality of light made.

    Thanks,
    Dion

  7. 8
    ) Subra
    August 16, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    Hi Nasim,

    Gd day, Your wedding pictures are amazing and i’ve read your using speedlights off camera techniques. How do you handle light in your weddings? i’ve seen a group photo in INNA AND JEFF: TERRACE GARDENS AT KEN CARYL WEDDING where everyone is well lit. Please advise how this was achieved.

    Thanks
    Subra

    • 11
      ) subra
      August 23, 2011 at 11:27 pm

      Greatful for the amount of knowledge that is being shared on your site. Your wedding photo’s are simply sharp and the colours stand out. Any suggestions how i can improve my picture colour quality.

      Thanks
      Subra

      • August 24, 2011 at 10:08 pm

        Subra, we have plenty of different tutorials on our blog for improving colors and you can find lots of different tutorials on youtube on correcting skin tones and colors. I would start with those and work on your skills…

  8. 9
    ) Lloyd Flores
    August 23, 2011 at 1:14 am

    In setting camera white balance, what do you prefer?

    • August 23, 2011 at 10:46 pm

      Lloyd, I typically leave it on “Auto”, since I shoot RAW. When shooting JPEG, it depends on what lighting conditions I have around me. If you are getting nasty blue colors on your subjects, you might need to gel your flash.

      • 12
        ) Lloyd Flores
        August 23, 2011 at 11:29 pm

        Thanks! I’ll do that…

        Still, any other techniques you can share for JPEG shooters? Cause right now, i don’t have any apps that can open RAW images.

        Regards,
        Lloyd

        • August 24, 2011 at 10:06 pm

          Lloyd, do you know how to use a gray card? Check out this article from Wikipedia. Basically, you can pretty much nail your white balance in JPEG images by using a gray card…

  9. September 27, 2011 at 1:40 am

    Great suggestions. Thank you for your information.

  10. 16
    ) Kathy B.
    November 9, 2011 at 7:26 am

    Hi Nasim,

    Thanks so much for sharing your expertise!!!! Watched your video on lighting. I’ve been thinking about getting something for extra lighting but didn’t know what to purchase.

    After watching your video, I’m sold on the Collapsible Westcott Umbrella ! Found it on BH Photo and Video. I have the SB 600. I was thinking of purchasing 2 umbrellas and an additional flash (SB 700 or 900).

    If I purchase an additional flash and use 2 umbrellas and my SB 600 w/ a 2nd flash, will that work using only one camera?

    The reason I’m thinking of using 2 umbrellas is b/c it’s that time of the year for those Christmas pics. The 2 houses I take pics in have Juniper (a type of wood with a rich amber color) on the walls w/ vaulted white ceilings…….and my pics always have too much amber tint! So, I’m thinking the umbrellas will help with that!

    Will one camera work w/ 2 flashes and is one umbrella sufficient or will 2 be more effective?

    Thanks
    Kathy B.

    • November 13, 2011 at 10:46 pm

      Kathy, if you have a Nikon D90 or better, then you can buy another flash like Nikon SB-700 and use the camera as the trigger and your SB-600 + SB-700 as slave units mounted on two umbrellas. Or you can use the SB-700 as a master and your SB-600 as a slave on a single umbrella – either way works. Two lights would be a better idea, since you can use one as primary and the second one as fill.

  11. 18
    ) José Carlos
    January 1, 2012 at 11:36 am

    I started watching your explanation by youtube (using speedlights indoors), I thought it would be a more boring one video but not! You have a truly capacity of teaching people how to manage with all kinds at photographic equipt. As for me whose english is very poor, I can understand perfectly and I got a lot of knowledge about this matter. Congratulations and go on sharing with us most of that you can. From now on I´ll be your pupil, I have a lot to learn from you. José Carlos – Brazil

  12. 19
    ) KL Win
    February 4, 2012 at 3:03 am

    Hi Nasim,
    I am one of your reader and I bought D7000 after reading your review and I also own SB 900, and some other lens( such as 50mm 1.4G, 70-200 VRII and 14-24 1.8 after reading your reviews).
    After reading this article , I tried to set up my D7000 flash light as a commander and my Sb 900 as a slave, but I can’t get this step,
    in Camera setting ,
    step 8. Set all your flashes to TTL mode (on Nikon Speedlights, choose either “i-TTL BL” or “i-TTL BL FP”). If you are using your on-camera built-in flash as a commander, set it to “–”, so that it does not fire any direct flash on your subject.
    After setting to “-” in commander mode in my D7000, the build-in flush still fire for each shoot, and slave SB900 as well.
    My Question is D7000 can set this commander mode so that the camera build-in flash not fire ,only the slave flash fire , same as your instruction in step 8?
    Thanks for your time.

    • 20
      ) Andrey
      February 24, 2012 at 4:51 am

      The flash you see is for slave sync purposes and does not contribute to the exposure of your subject.

  13. 21
    ) Jerry M.
    May 18, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Hi Mr. and Mrs. Mansurovs,

    I just wanted to drop by and say that this is a great site. All the work and tips that you guys provide for us are excellent!! Def. enjoy the site.

  14. 22
    ) lilantha
    June 11, 2012 at 5:10 am

    Dear Nasim
    Currently I’m having D3000 with Sb900 and need another flash for as a slave. Checked Sigma EF610 DG super. Will it be worth to buy instead of buying SB700? Please advice me as soon as possible because I have a function in very near future. thanks in advance.

  15. 23
    ) Paul
    July 8, 2012 at 8:20 am

    Thanks so much for such educational material Nasim. so nice to see professionals share their knowledge with beginners like myself.

  16. 24
    ) jeff
    January 16, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Just shot a wedding and used 1 umbrella and a olympus 510 and remote flash-very good results-now I want to use another flash for fill-where should that be placed general-so as not to overpower the main flash. Also have a d510 and would like to use it , but am covering the camera flash with a business card to get rid of it’s influence. Have not had as much luck doing that-then i set the flashes on manual-but find it hard to get the same results as with ttl on the Olympus-any ideas?

  17. 25
    ) JD Mark
    March 19, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    I want to attach my Nikon SB 700 Speedlight to Nikon D80 with Strobo Frame Flash bracket. How do I make camera & flash communicate with each other? Do I use a Hot shoe sync cord attached to camera hot shoe and flash hot shoe?

    Thank you so much.

  18. 26
    ) Ashley
    May 17, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    First off……your website is amazing!!! I came across it b/c I think I am having some focus issues with one of my older lenses, but then I started checking around and I think the whole site is great!! When will there be more on flash photography?? That’s where I struggle. I’m perfectly fine outdoors, or when there is plenty of light-but when I have to try to add in my strobes/speedlight, things don’t go well!! More videos please!

  19. 27
    ) Riaz
    July 10, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    This is really a great to listen you,you are a marvelous teacher,very easy to understand and very useful,I would like to listen your all the posted lecture,how I can ask some questions please let me know

  20. 28
    ) tatan
    September 2, 2013 at 1:41 am

    hello nassim,
    Just purchased the YN-622N and now I am in the exploring status as a hobbyist photographer. As a D90 user in the past two years, I think I need to step up in terms of flash/off flash method to make any difference. I used SB-400 and SB-600, at the moment I am concentrating in single light off flash method.

    Your instruction are very useful to me as always since when I started photography two years ago.
    Very well appreciated, thanks and GOD BLESS you and your family.

  21. 29
    ) Ellen G.
    February 8, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    If walls are like a desert brown color but the ceilings are WHITE….Can I just bounce off the ceiling? Would the colored walls still interfere even though my ceiling is white?

  22. 30
    ) sincere enthusiast
    May 11, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    I love your articles!
    anway I am a newbie to photography and i just bought myself an external flash unit, 3rd party manual flash that supports auto fp (hss) as an experiment. and i couldnt get hss to work for some reason. i reread the flash manual and it states hss cannot be used on camera. i dont get it, I know how the mechanics behind hss but i just dont get the reason why i need to get a trigger for hss to work (not even on camera!).

    I think i am missing something obvious… help?

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