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:
- 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.
- 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.
- An umbrella adapter to mount on top of the light stand. I personally use the Manfrotto Swivel Adapter and it works great.
- 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.
- 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:
- Set camera mode to “Manual”.
- Set camera metering mode to “Matrix/Evaluative”.
- Set shutter release to “Single”, so that your flash does not fire multiple shots as you squeeze the camera shutter.
- Turn off “Auto ISO“.
- Set ISO to the camera base ISO (typically lowest number like 100 or 200).
- 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.
- Set the Shutter Speed to 1/100th of a second.
- 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:
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.