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A Portrait Photographer’s First Experience with Off Camera Flash

A Portrait Photographer’s First Experience with Off Camera Flash

A Portrait Photographer’s First Experience with Off Camera Flash

Written by Kyle Rodden

All images shot with the Sony A7RIII and 85mm f1.4 GM

The Background

Since I got started with photography a few years ago, I have fallen into the dreaded “natural light

photographer” category. For me personally, the main reason was simply ease of shooting. I

don’t have a studio, so outside of my in-home newborn sessions, all my shoots take place

outside. Most of these shoots are family sessions, and I never liked the idea of lugging around

a bunch of equipment from location to location while trying to interact with a family and get some

shy kid to warm up to me. Quite frankly, I don’t see the need for it in this situation.

However, last year I started shooting portraits and “individuals” quickly became my favorite

subject. I bit the bullet on an 85mm 1.4 lens and began to practice as much as I could. I

researched anything and everything I could about natural light portraits. What’s the best way to

get catch lights? Do people really only shoot at specific times of the day? How do you find

models? My quest for knowledge led me to many great photographer’s social media pages,

and I started to find new inspiration in images shot with off camera flash. I decided it was time

to step up and purchase a flash! My next big purchase went towards two lights, two stands, a

softbox, and a few other accessories. Hey, it was Black Friday.

The gear showed up, and I had some new questions for my friend Google. How do you attach a

strobe to a light stand? How do you open the legs of a C-stand? Why won’t high speed sync

work? It was embarrassing to say the least, but eventually I figured out the basics. I think…

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The Shoot

Using my extensive Instagram following of 200, I put out a feeler to see if anyone was interested

in being the test subject for my first shoot. I was able to get something set up for the following

weekend. Naturally, it snowed the day before and there was a 50% chance of snow the day of

the shoot. I was nervous with my brand new gear out in the elements, but we decided to shoot

anyway. I was also nervous because I spent a grand total of 5 minutes testing the flash with my

son. Not smart on my part, but sometimes you just have to get started.

I packed one strobe, a C-stand, a 15 pound sandbag, a 36” softbox, and my camera bag. The

first thing I learned is why I see so many photographers with assistants and/or carts. This stuff

is heavy to carry around! I hauled everything across a small snow covered field to our first

location and got set up. The whole time I’m thinking, “At least it’s not too windy, my gear should

be fine.” A few minutes into the shoot I was chatting with my model about how my biggest fear

was the light blowing over in the wind. As I’m talking, the thing literally started falling

backwards! Thank goodness I wasn’t mid shot and was able to catch it. Would breaking my

light on the first shoot have been more embarrassing than those questions I asked Google?

Pretty close call.

We continued to shoot a few spots in close proximity. Each time we moved, I botched my

settings a bit. The gloves I was wearing also didn’t help. At one point, my images started

getting brighter while I increased my shutter speed. This made no sense, but I didn’t have time

for another round with Google. After a few minutes of panic, I realized I bumped my ISO to Auto

by accident and the camera wasn’t handling that very well. I finally got it righted and we finished

up the shoot.

Final Thoughts and Overcoming Nerves

I was nervous to step into the world of off camera flash, there’s no doubt about it. I did not like

the feeling of having to learn something from scratch after spending years to get where I was

with my “natural light” work. If you’re feeling the same way, you’re not alone.

Here’s what I did to overcome my nerves.

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Research, Research, Research!

While I didn’t really take the flash out and shoot with it other than the five minutes I spent with

my son the day before the shoot, I prepared in other ways. One way was to watch instructional

videos on YouTube on how to work the menu, what some of the settings do, and how to shoot

completely manual using the trigger. I also looked at hundreds of behind the scenes shots for a

few months prior to even purchasing my lighting gear. I was trying to understand how each

image was created and the why behind it. For example, why was the light where it was and

how was it affecting the shot? What settings were they using that I might want to start with?

Why did they choose the background they did? Dissecting the images I liked helped me figure

out why I liked them and gave me ideas on how to achieve similar looks.

Get There Early

I hate being late, and knowing I’m running late for something does nothing but stress me out.

Also, it’s unprofessional and your client is not going to be happy. I give myself more than

enough time to get to the shoot, and arriving early helps me get a plan together for how I want

the shoot to go. I typically walk around the location to observe the lighting in different spots and

fire some test shots to check out what the background will look like. For this specific shoot, I got

caught in traffic on the highway because a car had flipped. It took about a half hour to go a

quarter mile, and I was still early. Plan for the unexpected.

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Make it About Practice

In the words of Allen Iverson, “We talkin’ about practice?!” Yup! I did this shoot for free, and I

will most likely do a few others at no cost as well. Many photographers will disagree with this,

but without any experience in a given situation, it is hard to be confident in your results.

Shooting for free helps to reduce the stress and nerves that many of us experience on shoots

as the expectations are significantly reduced. I usually practice with my kids (they have low

expectations of my photos), but often they are not interested and it is hard to get even 2

seconds of a still pose. Finding a model that is willing to test with is the best bet. Just make

sure they are aware that this is your first shoot with lighting gear!

Get Started

As with anything, you just need to get started. It always sounds easier than done, but

regardless of the situation, it is usually true. So do some research, make some plans, and get

out there and shoot!

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