Off-Camera Lighting with Two Strobes
28 Jul 2014
One muggy evening in a dimly-lit garage. The sun had expired, and everything began to lose their supplied illumination. I saw my dear friend, Chicken, starting at me from the couch. A shipment had come in a few weeks ago, a second radio receiver for a wireless camera flash. I had two strobes (or flashes), two receivers, a camera and a trigger, a model, and darkness. It was time to do a brief experiment lighting a subject with two off-camera strobes.
Off-camera lighting allows for great creativity. Unlike an on-camera flash with obliterates any dimension in your images, having an off-camera flash (or better yet, two) puts a paintbrush of light into your hands. Rather than relying on natural light, using strobes puts the whole scene under your control. It’s more meticulous, but the results are beyond reach of a natural light snapshot.
I’ve read a bit of David Hobby’s Strobist, the de-facto guide for making use of off-camera flashes. There are several ways to trigger an off-camera flash. I use radio triggers. The CowboyStudio NPT-04 is a ridiculously cheap, but nails, trigger. Place the trigger on the hotshoe, and attach the receivers to the flashes. Make sure your camera is on manual and your shutter speed is below the maximum flash sync speed. It’s also nice to a flash capable of manual operation (to set power).
A good workflow for getting a scene set up is to:
- Start without any flashes. Lower camera exposure as much as possible while still keeping all detail and legibility in the image. We start with an underexposed image, and paint the light on.
- Add one flash at a time, illuminating what you wish to illuminate.
- Through trial-and-error (it gets faster over time), tweak camera exposure and flash power until the scene is lit as desired.
Normally, when I’m indoors, I like to bounce the flash off the ceiling for a nice even swath of light. But there’s less dimension and it’s a one-pony technique. So let’s first start without any flashes:
It’s…dark. But no worries, a lot of the detail is still legible. We see the entire model (even the dark right hand), and details in the background. I’m shooting RAW so I still have a lot of dynamic range, and we’ll layer in light in the next step. Let’s add one strobe:
We now have a strobe on camera right. It’s pointed 45-degrees towards the subject from camera right. This one isn’t manual so I’m forced to use it at full power, but it is not too overpowering. Since it’s only one flash from one side, we see a lot of dimension on the model with the shadows on camera left.
However, too much dimension can sometimes not be flattering. We see lot of the model’s wrinkles (hadn’t had her beauty sleep). We can flatten the lighting by adding yet another strobe:
And we have a nice even studio lighting. This strobe is set up on 45-degrees camera left pointed towards the subject. This set up of two strobes behind the camera each pointed 45-degrees toward the subject is fairly common to achieve even lighting. Here’s a rough photo of the setup (one strobe on the left, one strobe within the shelves):
I took it outside to the backyard. The sun was done, so no hope for golden hour, but as strobie-doos, we don’t need no sun. We can make our own sun. I placed our model, Chicken, in front of the garden on a little wooden stool. Then one flash for a sidelight fill on camera left:
With one flash, it doesn’t quick look natural, though it makes for a cool scene. I imagine Chicken waiting at home for her husband on the porch, and the headlights slowly rearing in towards her. So our model is now pretty well lit, but the background leaves something to be desired. We can creatively use our second flash to accent the background!
It looks like sunrise! I actually had to manually hold the flash pointing down 45-degrees on camera right towards the plants, while setting a 12-second timer on the manually-focused camera. It’s times like these where a stand to hold the flash would come in handy. The second flash created a nice warm swath of light, overpowering the first flash to create a sense that the sun is on camera right.
Off-camera lighting gives complete dictatorship over the lighting of the scene. It can make night into day, or add an extremely dramatic punch. With no strobe or on-camera flash, you are forced to make do with what you have with little choice. With multiple flashes, lighting modifiers (umbrellas, boxes), there are no limits.
Photos taken with Pentax K-30 w/ Pentax-M 50mm f1.7.