When 2021 first dawned, an online photography community I’m a part of, Offbeat Photography, gave us a theme: The year of personal growth.

We were tasked with setting a specific goal and working on that goal throughout the year. I knew it was time to set a goal that I’d long been putting off: Get more familiar with off-camera flash and incorporate it into my outdoor photography. My long-standing, irrational fear of OCF had held me back for too long. Being a sport and landscape photographer, I wasn’t really interested in shooting portraits or weddings. But I wanted to add this skill to my photographic toolbox simply in the pursuit of being a better photographer.

I publicly stated my goal for all to see, and then promptly avoided all thoughts of it for the next month.

Finally, the day came where I mustered up the courage to dust off the two Canon Speedlites that had been sitting on a shelf in my office. They’d been mocking me daily as walked past them, trying to ignore them. I spent a lot of time with the manuals learning how to change the settings and communicate with the receiver. I grumbled and fumbled and cursed a lot. 

First attempts

My first attempt using flash was a commercial shoot for a local bike company. The location was an old, abandoned building, covered in graffiti. Because it was a company I’d worked for previously, I was honest about my skillset with flash. They encouraged me to try to get what they needed, with no pressure. I will forever be grateful for that trust and opportunity.

I practiced in my yard the days before, and didn’t sleep the night before the shoot. Somehow, with the teamwork of the people on location with me, I pulled it off. Insert shock and awe.

commercial flash use
A screenshot from the webpage from my first commercial photoshoot using flash for Forbidden Bike Company.

Next, I practiced portraits with my 10-year-old neighbor during a rare snowy day here on Vancouver Island. I flailed with cold fingers, not knowing where to start with settings. At first I couldn’t get one of the flashes to fire at all. But somehow, I pulled off a few decent shots. I wrote an article about this first experience attempting portraits here.

flash portrait
Using a softbox as a key light and a Speedlite behind to help backlight the snow. One of my first portraits ever with flash. The snow looks more like rain, but I was happy with it for a first attempt.
flash portrait
Throwing snow while shooting the photo as the snow had stopped falling.

My husband and dog also got in on the action, patient subjects with a cantankerous photographer. I did a backyard ski shoot with a friend where hilarity ensued but I got a cool shot and made some great memories. Next, I tried some mountain biking shots while getting devoured by mosquitoes in the muggy, summer night air. Almost all of these shots didn’t turn out. But I took them back to a cohort of photographers who helped me troubleshoot what had gone wrong. Lessons were learned.

I put a random call out on Facebook to have someone come be my practice model in the forest. Again, I was frustrated when I didn’t get the exact results I was aiming for. But still, I was trying and learning. I also attempted flash during a commercial shoot for a local brewery. I realized that gradually, I was bringing this newfound tool out of my toolbox more often.

ski photo with flash
This image was shot with two Speedlites and a wide-angle lens, in my friend’s backyard. I was laying on the ground shooting up while she “jumped” about a foot in the air off of a makeshift pile of firewood covered in snow.
night portrait with flash
An attempt at a night portrait with my husband. I counted over three hundred bug bites on me the next day. We also had a cougar very close to us, calling out and letting us know we were in his area.
failed night shot with flash
One of my failed attempts at some night mountain biking shots.
flash in the forest
I had a Speedlite behind the tree to the view’s left, attempting to put some light on the subject.
using flash in the forest
I had a softbox to viewer’s left of the subject in this image. Again, I was really just guessing with settings at this point. But I was trying!

Getting out of my comfort zone

In September I attended a four-day workshop, Portraits in High Places, in Banff, Alberta, Canada. Believe me, I never thought that I would be attending any workshop with the word portrait in it. But I wanted to branch out, meet like minded peers and learn something new.

I will never forget the first time we broke off into partners on our first day. After some in-field instruction, we were given a light and a model and told to go create. I crossed my fingers and prayed that I had a portrait photographer for a partner. Much to my dismay, I quickly learned that he too was a portrait newbie. We both looked like deer frozen in the headlights as the other groups quickly dispersed into their creative genius.

I reminded myself that I was paying a good chunk of change to feel this fear, and be forced past it. And I did. It made me to put my big girl pants on and start trying. And isn’t that always the hardest part? Just to start trying.

portrait workshop
The first image I successfully created at the Portraits in High Places workshop in Banff. I will always be thankful to have had the amazing Maiya as my first, patient and supportive model.
creating portraits with flash
Creating images completely out of my usual genres at Portraits in High Places.
creating portraits with flash
One of the first portraits that I set up completely alone and managed to pull off at PIHP.
creating portraits with flash
Learning to nail a “safe shot” was a major goal of mine during the PIHP workshop.

At the end of the year I even used my softbox in a couple of jobs for a local magazine. Outwardly I was playing cool, but internally I felt like there was a wasp nest in my chest. I setup my softbox and proceeded to take a ton of test shots before getting something that I hoped would sort of work out. And they did — with some photoshopping — and if you didn’t look at my unexperienced posing jobs.

Oh right, don’t forget to look at the actual person too, Sara. One thing at a time right? Have I mentioned that I’m not a portrait photographer? But overall I felt proud that I’d tried. 

commercial image with flash
Using flash on an image for a local brewery.
commercial image with flash
One of my first attempts using flash indoors.

Adding to the toolbox

I set up my softbox again, with another portrait for the magazine (wait, all of a sudden I’m taking portraits?!). I took all of my standard natural light images, and then asked if they had time to work on another shot with the flash. They obliged. It took so long — well, in my head it did, maybe it was 10 minutes total — to get that one right that I only submitted one image created with flash. But guess which photo ended up getting used in the magazine? Yep, that one.

creating portraits with flash
I used a softbox with a Godox AD200 to create this image for a local magazine.

Overall, could I have put way more time into flash this year? Definitely. But did I get out of my comfort zone with it as well? Yes. One checkmark for personal growth. Of course, as I look back now and reflect on the funky year that 2021 most definitely was, my growth as a photographer involved much more than some technical flash knowledge. But, knowing that I set a goal and stuck with it while persevering through fears and insecurities, I can be content in moving forward into 2022.