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How to use off camera light for outdoor senior pictures

Moving to off camera light for outdoor senior pictures wasn’t a simple decision, and along the way there was more than one “!?&$” moment. But in the end, making the decision to use off camera lighting was the best decision I could make as a senior photographer.

Some photographers are all natural light – meaning they only use the available ambient light in any given situation. And there is nothing wrong with that approach. The first step to using light is the ability to FIND light. Even if you add on off camera lighting later, you need to use it in balance with ambient light, so natural light photographers learn to master ambient light and that’s an amazing foundation if they decide to move into off camera lighting later.

Some photographers will use natural light and use a reflector to “bounce” light back into a subject, or even a diffuser to “scrim” light off a subject. These items are a must in any natural light photographer’s bag, because you can’t always find great natural light with a good background. The downside to scrims and reflectors is you need someone to hold them for you, and wind can wreck havoc with those items quickly.

While 100% natural light is a perfectly fine approach to senior photos, I prefer off camera light for outdoor senior pictures. I find the colors are more true and the contrasts are more balanced, and I prefer to be in control of the light sources so I can shoot in any location, and not have to settle for the one small piece of open shade I can find to keep my subjects from looking into the bright light. Sometimes it’s a very minor difference, especially if the off camera lighting is well balanced…but sometimes it’s dramatic & that can be really cool.

It’s a personal choice how a photographer wants to work, and I will say I do shoot natural light at times. But as an artist, I want to interpret the situations I’m in and make technical (and business) decisions on what will create a better piece of art, and what will sell to the client. So here are some of the options when you decide to use off camera light for outdoor senior pictures.

For clients, it’s best to know the difference when you are booking your senior portrait photographer – how they work affects your resulting senior photos, so be sure you understand what you might be getting.

On Camera lighting

When I first started, I had a camera that I just put a “branded” flash on (I shoot Nikon, so it was a Nikon speed light). It technically was high enough up, and it swiveled and flipped around, but it was still coming directly from the camera position, and it also added weight to my camera set up.

There are lots of contraptions that can sit on the flash head, that can help soften and diffuse the light. While they work ok, they don’t create larger light sources, and so they are taking a rather harsh light and directing it a bit.

Most on camera flash heads can be “controlled” either on the flash itself, or from the camera. This works fine – and great actually for late & dark wedding receptions, but it isn’t my first choice for lighting for outdoor senior pictures where we are moving around a lot and the chance of my bumping into things means I have a high probability of the flash breaking off the camera’s hot shoe. And that’s a camera AND flash down for repair, yuk.

But what I really didn’t like for the on camera flash was the amount of light – most on camera lights, or “speed lights” as some will refer to them, is that they don’t have big power. (So not as much light) And they can be a little slow on what is called “recycle” rate. Which you can improve incrementally with better batteries, and even a battery pack, but by the time you add all that to your on camera system, it makes sense to consider OFF CAMERA lighting as you then hauling a LOT of equipment around ON YOU. (trust me, it’s like being a pack mule)

I also didn’t like the angle of the light to the subject. It was harsh, and mostly not complimentary. Plus, I wanted to play more with light…since that’s what photography is all about, right? So off I went on my adventure of OFF CAMERA LIGHTING…and it was an adventure!

Off Camera Lighting for outdoor senior photos

So once you make the decision to try this, you need more gear. First, you either need a second speed light that can be controlled by the first (this is the master/slave concept), or a trigger that can fire the light off camera. You’ll need at least one light stand (but you’ll want more), and things that can soften your light, and diffuse it. So this is a journey, but don’t worry just yet. You can add on as you go…

Pros and Cons of Off Camera lighting for photo sessions

Pro

  • (or con, depending on how you feel) you will fall in love with the light and need to buy more equipment – more light stands, more modifiers, more lights to do more, and on and on.
  • You will fall in love with the light, the color, the choice you have to put your subject wherever you want, and be creative with the lighting because you are in control of it.
  • You can use it as a supplement to the available light – most often how I work – and again, you will see the amazing options you have.

Cons

  • it will get expensive fast. See point above.
  • It will involve carrying more gear, so you’ll possibly need a new bag (oh shucks, a reason to buy a new bag? My kind of “con”, LOL)
  • It will be frustrating at times – it takes practice with the system you go with to determine how to put enough light to make a difference, but not so much light it looks “flashy”.

Triggers

If you go with the remote trigger option instead of two flashes that talk to each other, you might also have to purchase a receiver that the off camera flash/speed light sits on, or attaches in some way. There are a lot of systems out there for triggering, but you need to make sure you are getting one that works with your camera system. I shoot Nikon, and I did work with Pocket Wizards for a long time. I actually still use them in the indoor studio and have a set as a back up system for the one Nikon flash/speed light I still have. (But also note, some off camera flashes have a built in receiver, and therefore you might only need the trigger for camera position)

Trigger/receiver options can be tricky. Some need line of sight, some are radio frequency. Either way, you have to find a way to attach them to both the speed light and the light stand that you will need. And if you are using a modifier, you need to consider that also in your set up. (I always wanted to be able to set up quickly, and move around with the gear as most senior sessions involve moving around from place to place to get great backgrounds) Also, know when you buy a system if you are using your lights in manual mode only, or if they work in TTL mode.

When I first started out, I went with the Pocket Wizard brand because there weren’t a lot of other options at the time. Now there are speed lights that have built in receivers, and those would be the choice for someone starting out now. I use “Profoto” brand speed lights, but another popular brand is the “MoLight” system for GoDox branded speed lights. The GoDox brand is available through Adorama also, but if you are looking at just starting out, the MoLight people are great to work with and will also help you. (Again, be sure you are getting lights that are either both manual/TTL, or just manual. AND be sure to buy the lights for your specific camera brand.)

Profoto is a bit more expensive, and if I were starting out now I would possibly consider building a full kit of the GoDox system, but I have a lot of Profoto equipment now and I really like the reliability of all of it. I love the modifiers, the durability (I’ve dropped them and they either weren’t damaged, or needed just a little TLC by Profoto repair, who has been amazing for me), and I’m not so phased by the costs because I believe in buying gear that will last, and/or hold it’s value in case I want to sell it later. I do like the option to change up how I work, so I always buy equipment with good resale values.

So if you are just starting out, and you want off camera flash, you’ll need at least one light, and a trigger and/or receiver (if the light doesn’t have it built in), a light stand and you will want a modifier.

Light Stands

This one isn’t too difficult – there are a lot of them. You buy them by how tall they get, and how compact they can be. Don’t be fooled by the really small ones, they can be flimsy and more easily fall over in wind. And it doesn’t take a lot of wind to bring down a light stand, especially if you’ve put a kite, I mean umbrella, on it.

Some light stands have boom arms, which is great for studio work. But basically outdoor stuff just needs a sturdy base and one that can easily fold up, so you can move around quickly.

Manfrotto makes great light stands, but I really like this stand:

Savage MultiFlex Light Stand: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1399808-REG/savage_mf_10_multiflex_light_stand.html

I’ve purchased and broken many others, this one is a study stand, with lots of options for leg positions so different terrains are easy to work around. It also has it’s own handy carry bag, and trust me, once you get hit with the metal legs a few times from other stands, you’ll appreciate the transport pack.

You’ll also need a way to put the flash/light on your light stand. The top of most light stands do not have a “shoe”, which is how your flash slides on the stand. Some flashes come with a little plastic foot you can use, but that doesn’t accept an umbrella if you want to use that as a modifier. If you buy a soft box, it should come with a bracket for your light stand, but if you are starting out with just a flash or light on a light stand you need to attach it to your stand with a bracket.

One I really like is Morris umbrella tilt head –https://www.bhphotovideo.com/find/order-history.jsp#/734712130I&src=old

Diffusers

This ranges from umbrellas to soft boxes. All shapes and sizes and amounts of “diffusion”. Umbrellas are a good starting point because they are cheaper, but they will become a kite in the wind, so be cautious. You can get them with silver or white inside, depending on the specularity of the light you want in the end. White is safe, so I’d go with that. You can also get “shoot through” umbrellas, which basically shoot through a white diffusion fabric.

When you go the route of a soft box, you need to make sure it is attaching to the light stand securely (with it’s own bracket hopefully) and it fits your light “head”. Be sure to get one that collapses easily so you can around quickly, and one that is big enough to give the beautiful soft light you want. If the diffusion panel comes off, that’s a plus too. If there is an inner baffle of diffusion, another BIG plus.

I could go on and on about diffusers, but this a basic start – have fun with them!

Learning how to use off camera light is a big lesson for most photographers, and one that some will not want to learn because it is an expensive & sometimes frustrating road to go down. Investments like this in a photography business are important though, so you can offer your clients options no matter what lighting situations you are needing to work in, and to achieve more consistent results in your images.

And learning how to use and bend light is the point of photography, right? So it’s just the next logical step if you are a photographer….

See more of my work in my seniors portfolio HERE.

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