As discussed in a previous tip, "Get Softer Lighting with Flash," direct, on-camera flash does not provide the most pleasing illumination for people pictures. You can get better results by bouncing the flash from a ceiling or a wall, or by using a flash modifier accessory. But there's another method that many photographers prefer: off-camera flash. Yes, it's slightly more complicated; but in truth, this technique can be quite straightforward.
While off-camera flash is more valuable for professional-looking effects in dark locations, it also works well outdoors for photos of people and flowers. Even the simple method discussed in the text can simulate side lighting from the sun but it also adds a catch light to a person's eyes. © 2009 Peter K. Burian
Serious photographers often shoot with off-camera flash for several reasons. For example, when a person is standing against a wall, this technique causes the shadow to fall below the subject, and not on the wall directly behind him. Hence, the shadow will be less obvious. It also prevents shadows in eye sockets and the flat, low-contrast lighting that's common when bouncing light from the ceiling. For gentler illumination, it's worth adding one of the bounce or diffuser accessories discussed in the previous Photo Tip about softer light.
Wireless Remote Flash
Many recent digital SLRs support off-camera flash without the need for a connecting cable. The built-in flash, or a second accessory on-camera flash, will automatically trigger one or more remote flash units. Your equipment's owner's manual will explain the few steps you must first take. Getting your equipment ready for wireless remote flash photography is fairly straightforward and will eventually become second nature to you.
With a Nikon D7000 for example, you would first access the Custom Function menu and scroll to the Flash Control for Built-in Flash item. Press the [OK] button, scroll down to CMD-Commander Mode item and press OK again. That will set the built-in flash to act as a "commander": to automatically trigger one or more remote Speedlights.
The method for setting the flash unit for remote operation differs, but with the Nikon SB-900, it requires turning the On/Off switch (while depressing its central button) to the REMOTE option. Afterwards, when the built-in flash is popped up, and a remote Speedlight is on, both will fire whenever you take a photo.
Wired Remote Flash
If you your equipment does not support the wireless feature, no problem. You'll simply need to buy an affordable TTL flash cable, such as Canon's Off-Camera Shoe Cord or Nikon's Remote Cord SC. One end attaches to the camera's hot shoe or to a terminal at the side of the camera with some brands. The other end is equipped with a second hotshoe; attach the remote flash unit to that component. Turn it on and begin taking photos.
Whether you use wireless or wired connectivity, photography with a remote flash unit should be uncomplicated, thanks to TTL smart flash technology. With a single off-camera unit, the most difficult aspect is finding the ideal location re: flash placement. Try holding it slightly above and to the side of the subject for a natural-looking lighting effect. Later, if your budget allows, and if you're adventuresome, you might try photography with two or more remote flash units.
Basic off-camera flash is simple and it's a good start but much greater versatility is possible with two or more remote flash units. Although this diagram was provided by Olympus, the concepts are identical for other brands of equipment but you'll definitely want some guidance about this technique from a good guide book about your own camera.
If you own a Nikon DSLR, download the free Fast Track to Wireless Speedlights brochure from Nikon's Website. If you own another brand, follow the steps and hints provided in the owner's manual, or in a book such as a Magic Lantern or David Bush guide to your camera.
If you find it awkward to hold the camera and the off-camera flash simultaneously, ask a friend to act as an assistant. Take several shots, each with the flash at a slightly different location in relation to the subject. All of the photos should be fine, but one of them will likely be even better than the others.