What do you have in common with Ansel Adams? Like Ansel, who learned flash photography, it is never too late to learn a new technique to expand your skills.
In this three-part series on the subject of ‘off camera flash photography’ we’ll look at this flash technique:
Part 1 here shows how Off-Camera Flash (OCF) gives you a lower ISO for less noise
Part 2 will show better texture and improved detail created with the light from OCF
Part 3 will show OCF gear and special applications.
Off Camera Flash Photography Part One
Photographers who master OCF and Ansel Adams himself knew the pros of low ISO/ASA. Choosing to use, or not to use, flash is a personal, stylistic choice. For instance, Henri Cartier-Bresson never used flash. Here are a few reasons I chose to learn off camera flash.
This perspective, and the gear discussed in part 3, are in no way influenced by product endorsements, and are my own direct experience.
GETTING NOISY IN HERE ?: A LOWER ISO with OFF CAMERA FLASH REDUCES NOISE
12,800 vs 32. For the photo directly above, taken at ISO 12,800 with a Nikon D810, noise and low contrast were issues in print. Taken at ISO 32, the street dancer photograph shows little noise and better contrast between the light and dark values.
IN PRINT. Most photographers know how to raise ISO. The disadvantage of higher ISOs is that we tell our camera: “Hey, Sensor, take those expensive pixels we paid for and throw them together in a group to capture more light.” Our sensors have to boost sensitivity, and the images they capture show increased noise. Although this noise can be minimized with presentation on screen, it can ruin the appearance of a fine art print.
LIGHT. Compared with just raising your camera’s ISO, or compared to your camera’s built-in flash, getting your flash from off of the camera allows you to add more light to the scene in a controlled way. As a result, the camera sensor can lower its sensitivity and you can dial in a lower ISO.
This is valuable in outdoor and nature photography, especially when printing enlargements of natural scenes. Along these lines, Adams took advantage of low ISO film to make huge murals for Grand Central Station. The Kodachrome slides he used for color photography landscapes had no unacceptable noise that would have been seen with higher ISO films.
OCF PROS. While there is nothing wrong with putting your camera on P (Program) mode and letting it automatically raise the ISO, the advantages of OCF are reduced noise, a smaller aperture with greater depth of field, and softer shadows that add a sense of depth. Take a look at these two un-modified images below. Both shots were handheld.
Under fluorescent lights, a spice rack was photographed at left, using a Nikon D810 built-in flash. Then, the flash was triggered from off of the same camera, using a Godox strobe and transmitter (more on this gear in Part 3 of this series) to highlight the difference with off camera flash photography.
LIGHTING A STILL LIFE WITH OFF CAMERA FLASH
I photographed a lamp and an oil painting in a friend’s home to compare OCF with no flash and built-in flash. With built- in flash, at left, the camera’s P (program) mode popped up the camera’s built-in flash automatically.
Using NO Flash, Auto ISO and Aperture Priority mode in the middle picture captured light from a lamp in the room, which made the hues overly yellow and threw off the color. At right, the colors matched the painting when flash was used off camera. The lamp and painting were both in focus due to the aperture of F/5.6 at right, compared with F/1.8 in the center image.
EVEN BETTER: OCF ALLOWS SWEETER APERTURES
SWEET SPOTS. The pervasive habit of opening up one’s aperture as wide as possible has encroached upon photography today. This method works for some situations, especially natural light portraiture, and when backgrounds with mind-blowing bokeh are obligatory.
However, the use of wide-open apertures often means that our lenses are not at their sweet spot. For expensive, high-quality lenses, this does not matter as these lenses show excellent micro-contrast and sharpness at or near wide open apertures. For those of us who enjoy lenses we can reasonably afford, and for optical lens design reasons, however, sweet spot apertures lie between F/2.8 and F/8.
When we boost light levels in our scene with OCF, we can close down our lens aperture. The ISO is now lower, as apertures close down from wide open at F/1.8 to openings smaller than F/5.6.
LETS GET PHYSICAL. These smaller lens openings, for optical reasons, give the best contrast and resolution. There is another excellent reason to use apertures smaller than F/5.6. The lens aperture is the primary and only physical control that we have to isolate our subject from the background for refined aesthetics.
At f/5.6, there is greater depth of field. This can be seen in the image of the lamp and painting above. Both are in focus when OCF was used.
MAIN POINT: Greater depth of field, and the sweet spot of the lens, combine to give you, the photographer, a much higher quality image when you spend just $250 on an OCF trigger and flash.
Off-Camera flash photography excels in some, not all, situations. Mainly, the pros of the technique involve better contrast, use of lower ISO’s, and cleaner prints that output with less noise. My own favorite reasons to use OCF are that it gives greater depth of field and softer shadows.
COMING SOON: The Off-Camera Flash Advantage Part 2.
Jim Austin MA is an adventure photographer and master photography educator. He travels and lives aboard the sailing catamaran Salty Paws. His print work has been on exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, Loveland Art Museum, Photographer’s Gallery and Smithsonian.
Austin has contributed over 75 articles to Apogee Photo Magazine and was featured in The New Yorker Magazine. He studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design.