I am an available-light devotee. I prefer shooting with the light that’s there rather than adding light with flashes. I think a photograph shot with available light conveys more accurately conveys the character of the scene than does one that’s lit with strobe(s).
However, my preference for available-light photography is just that – a preference. Sometimes it’s just too darn dark or there is so little contrast in a scene that the resulting non-flash image will be photographic mud. Also, using a flash can sometimes add a little spice to an otherwise-dull photo.
This doesn’t mean you have to carry around multiple strobes, remote triggers, umbrellas, light modifiers and the like. You can accomplish a lot with a single strobe and an off-camera strobe cord (a cord which allows you to take the flash off the camera and still have the strobe triggered by the camera).
Sure, using multiple strobes, etc. may result in a cooler-looking photo. But using a single strobe allows the photographer to be more mobile. Also, by using a single strobe there’s not so much the temptation to make the photo an exercise in technical lighting proficiency. The photographer is able to concentrate more on the subject and the content of the photo than a whole bunch of lighting paraphernalia. An excellent tutorial on single-strobe flash appeared semi-recently on the photo website PetaPixel.
Follow this link to read how one photographer is able to achieve great results with a single strobe.
It’s a pretty long story so here’s my personal CliffsNotes technique to achieve much the same results.
1. Set the camera on manual exposure. Take an ambient light reading using your camera’s light meter. I try and get an aperture of around 5.6-ish to ensure my subject is completely in focus and then set my shutter speed accordingly to achieve a properly-exposed image. I’ll try to get a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second or so, if possible. Depending on the darkness of the overall scene you may have to shoot at a high ASA to get these settings. Most recently-produced DSLRs will yield decent – or excellent – quality images at high ASAs so this is not a problem.
2. Set the flash on manual exposure (I haven’t used TTL flash exposure in a long time because I’ve had little luck with TTL producing properly-exposed images). I use a Canon Speedlite 580EX.
3. Assuming the flash is relatively close to the subject I will set the flash power at 1/64th power to start.
4. Take the flash off the camera and connect the off-camera cord between the flash and the camera.
5. If you have a flash diffuser panel built into the flash flip it down over the strobe head. This spreads out the light.
6. Hold the flash off to one side of the camera and point the flash directly at the dark side of the subject. This is a little tricky if the flash needs to be on the right side of the camera but it can be done. Or get someone to hold your flash off the right.
7. Take the photo and check the exposure. I may need to increase the power of the flash up to 1/32 or more to achieve the desired exposure.
Here’s an example of this technique:
This was a pretty bland scene (from a lighting perspective) so I set the flash to 1/64th power and 1/125th of a second to add a little light to the left side of his face and create some shadows. I had a public relations person (there representing Memorial Hospital) hold the flash out to the right of the camera for me.
That’s it. Simple but effective.