Knowing how (and when) to use your flash can elevate beautiful images and save mediocre ones. But there are limits to the power of a pop-up. Here are three cases in which using an off-camera flash instead can create magic.

1) Main light. The directional light of the magic hour gives your photographs great texture. But if you can’t wait for sunset, fake it by placing your off-camera flash to one side of your subject and moving in close. To avoid extreme shadows, diffuse the flash with a small, portable softbox. When shooting macro or product shots indoors, surround the object with white paper to make a light tent, and bounce the flash off of its top and sides for even illumination.

2) Fill light. If you’re taking a photo on a sunny day, fill light is essential to brighten harsh shadows or avoid silhouetting. By freeing the flash from your camera, you can control its power and direction so the right areas are filled in with the right amount of light.

3) Background light. Using an additional light source behind a portrait subject separates the subject from the background. Aim it at your subject’s back to create a rim light around the hair and torso, or at the ceiling to create a hair light. You can add interest to translucent macro subjects by placing your off-camera flash behind them, as well.

—Kathleen Davis
Assistant Editor