Photography tips: using a portable flash

By Bill Hatcher 26 March 2014
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Adding flash to a photo can add that extra punch, even to outdoor shots

I THINK ONE of the most under-utilised pieces of camera gear available to outdoor photographers is the portable flash. Often my flash use in photos are subtle actions to fix small details at the time I make the photo – adding a catch light in a person’s eye or creating fill light to remove a shadow, but if I have I am not afraid to use the same flash as a broad stroke to illuminate the entire person.

I love using flash because even a small flash can do so much to improve the light and pop colours on my subjects, especially when the natural light is crap. Most people shy away from using a flash because, if not used carefully, the results can look horrendous. The problem starts when the unsuspecting photographer locks a flash to their camera and fires it at full power straight at their innocent subject.

Used this way, the flash is as subtle as a light bomb; a photo style that’s popular with the paparazzi, but who wants their buddies to look like Mel Gibson on a 2am bender?

How to avoid ‘ugly’ flash in photos

A quick fix to ugly flash photography is one, move the flash off the camera and two, set the flash to the TTL setting. Canon calls it e-TTL and Nikon i-TTL. TTL stands for Through The Lens – why it’s named that is a whole other story.

I use TTL flash because it allows me to shoot quickly, concentrate on my photo and not become mired in complex flash calculations. With TTL flash if my flash is too bright I just turn it down with the push of a button (you’ll have to read the instructions on your particular flash to find how you do this).

Moving the flash off the camera and holding it to the side or above you toward the subject instantly creates natural-looking shadows that will greatly improve definition on your subject. This means no more ugly, flat light and that harsh deer-caught-in-the-headlights look. This method of overhead or side lighting is the go-to pro technique for single-light flash photography used by fashion, portrait, skateboard and mountain-bike photographers the world over, so it’ll work a dream for your adventure photos.

The simplest solution to off-camera TTL flash is the TTL flash cord. This is a metre-long coiled cord that connects the flash to the camera hotshoe. It’s magic and fits easily into any camera bag. The flash cord allows you to hold the flash in one hand, from the side or above the subject, while shooting. These cords have a reach of about 1m and you can also link a few together to attach the flash to a light stand.

To move the flash even further from your camera using a long flash cord is old school. Step up to either the TTL optical infrared or new TTL flash radio triggers. These units are vastly more expensive than the simple cord, but they give you complete freedom for remote TTL flash.

My portable flash, the Nikon SB-900, has the i-TTL optical trigger system built in and is called the ‘commander mode’. In commander mode the flash on my camera can control my second flash that is off camera.

Indoors, the optical triggers work great, but outdoors these guys have their faults: they can be unreliable in bright sunshine, require a line of sight to work, and their range is limited to 20m.

Wireless flash units

The latest TTL wireless radio units made by Radiopopper and Pocket Wizard solve all these issues. These precious units translate the complex TTL optical signal of the Nikon or Canon flashes into a radio signal. They have a maximum range of about 250m and do not require a line of sight to work. Non-TTL radio triggers are much cheaper, but require a hand-held flash meter to calculate the correct flash settings.

A Pocket Wizard radio trigger is what I used to fire my off-camera flash in the mountain-biking photo here (right). I used the flash because it was a grey overcast day and I wanted the extra light to punch up the colours and help separate the rider from the background.

I placed the flash almost in front of the rider so (from my position) it created a sweeping sidelight across the subject. The flash was set on the ground and tilted upward a bit so the light would not illuminate the rock in front of the subject. My position when I made this photo was about 20m away and above the rider using a 70-200 zoom lens.

A cool bonus is the radio triggers can also be used to fire your camera’s shutter remotely. This possibility opens all kinds of creative possibilities for remote-camera use that I will dive into in a future column.