How to use Off-Camera Flash to Create Dramatic Images with Cross Lighting

Learning to use off-camera flash allows you to create and shape light, giving you plenty of new opportunities for dramatic photography.

But for many photographers, starting up with flash can be intimidating. It’s not just a matter of aiming a flash at your subject and hoping for the best. Choosing the wrong angle or positioning for your flash can have a negative effect, casting unflattering or irregular shadows.

A tennis player lit by off-camera flash cross lighting

A tennis player lit by off-camera flash cross lighting

I remember when I was starting out with off-camera flash I would sometimes get images where the light simply didn’t look right. But when it’s used effectively, flash adds to an image – it shouldn’t make the lighting seem unnatural or otherworldly (unless, of course, that’s the effect you’re going for – to each their own!).

But where’s a good place to start? Where should you put your flash in order to get good light? This article will show you one method you can use called cross lighting that you can use to create dramatic images with off-camera flash.

What is cross lighting?

For both beginners and pros alike, cross lighting is a very quick and simple setup that results in a dramatic, well-lit shot.

Like the name implies, this setup features two light sources on opposite sides of the subject. Hitting your subject from both sides adds a sense of depth to the image, while still producing natural-looking light.

An example showing an off-camera flash cross lighting setup for a portrait of a tennis player.

An example showing an off-camera flash cross lighting setup for a portrait of a tennis player.

The key or main light

Typically you want your light that will provide the most illumination, also know as the key light, placed in front of the subject and a bit to one side. For portraits, you will typically want to use a modifier on your light, such as a softbox or umbrella. This isn’t a requirement – but it will help soften the shadows and create more flattering light on the subject.

The purpose of this key flash is to light up the subject’s features and put a sparkle of catch light in their eyes.

A demonstration of the key light only in a cross lighting setup - How to do Cross Lighting to Create Dramatic Off-Camera Flash Images

We convinced this model to act as our stand-in for a few quick portrait shots. Here is an image with only the key light, an off-camera flash positioned to the right of the camera.

Add a second flash as a rim or separation light

The second light is placed behind the subject on the opposite side as the first one. The purpose of this light is to create an “edge” of light around your subject. This is traditionally called a “rim light” or a “separation light” since it helps to separate the subject from the background.

Demonstration of cross lighting on a subject

By adding a second light to the left of the camera and behind our model, we’ve created a rim of light that separates him from the background for a much more pleasing and dynamic image. Notice the highlight on his hat and hand on the left side.

Voila! This quick setup is an easy way to get started and start exploring the creative potential of a shoot. As you begin to snap pictures, you may find something about your setup that you want to change, but the cross lighting gives you a solid foundation from which to build.

An alternate setup of the previous cross lighting example with the off- camera flash locations reversed

We’ve flipped the orientation of the lights for this shot – while keeping the same cross-lighting style. Now our key light is on the left, and the rim light is provided from the right.

Quick to set up

One of the reasons I love using this setup for off-camera flash is that it takes away the guesswork and provides a solid foundation of light that you can then begin to work with and modify.

And also that it takes only moments to set up! When you start lugging around multiple flash units, light stands, and modifiers, it’s nice to have a consistent starting position that provides even lighting.

An example image showing the setup of flash units for cross lighting - How to do Cross Lighting to Create Dramatic Off-Camera Flash Images

An overview of our setup, with the flashes oriented for cross-lighting and our subject right in between.

The final image of a carpenter, photographed using cross lighting - How to do Cross Lighting to Create Dramatic Off-Camera Flash Images

The final shot, where the light has given a sense of depth to make the subject stand out from the clutter behind him.

It’s a good idea to get the correct flash power for your key light dialed in before adding your second flash. Trying to figure out the correct outputs for two lights at the same time and adjusting in your camera on the fly is a recipe for a headache.

Cross lighting with a single flash

One of the reasons this setup is so easy and versatile is because you don’t necessarily need to use two flash units – the sun can step in as either your key or secondary light.

This approach is particularly effective at golden hour. As evening falls and soft, warm light floods across the fields, you have a ready-made separation light. Many natural light photographers are already familiar with this and use this rim light in their shots.

Example of a portrait shot with cross lighting using a single off-camera flash as a key light and the sun as a secondary light

The key light here is an off-camera flash fired into an umbrella just outside the left edge of the image. The sun, coming from the right, acts as the secondary light. The key here is in balancing the flash with the natural light.

The benefit of adding an off-camera flash as a key light is that you can create a much more dramatic image with dark, rich colors. Colors lose their vibrancy as they get brighter. By keeping the exposure low and using your off-camera flash to light up your subject, your background can be full of vivid contrast and color.

Using the sun as your key light

The sun doesn’t always have to play second fiddle to your flash. You can create the same effect by using the sun as your key light – coming in at your subject from a slight angle – and then using your off-camera flash as the rim or separation light.

The biggest drawback here is that you can’t adjust the power of the sun quite as easily as you can on the back of your flash! However, taking the time to learn how your camera settings can make a picture darker or lighter, and how you can use this skills in conjunction with your off-camera flash, will give you allow you to build the shot you want.

Cross lighting with a flash and a reflector

Here’s the last variation of this setup. By setting up your off-camera flash on one side of the subject and angling a reflector just right on the other, you can mimic the effect of two light sources. This approach might take a bit of practice and a steady hand, but it’s a fun way to learn what you can accomplish as you learn how to control light.

An example of a portrait using a reflector and sunlight to create cross light

Here we used a reflector to provide the key light from the left side of the shot, while the sun comes from the back right.

Give it a shot

Learning to maneuver and shape light is a fun challenge. Being able to quickly and reliably get top-notch results with flash is an important aspect of photography – especially if your model or clients are waiting impatiently for you to get your lighting figured out.

By starting with cross lighting and working from there, you have a reliable method for nailing some great shots. Please share your comments, questions and cross lighting images in the comments section below.

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