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Off Camera Flash

July 21, 2011

I have been on more of a natural light photography kick lately, however one of my favorite things about photography is using off camera lighting. I have used both small flashes as well as studio strobes and they both offer many options for creating more depth, drama and beauty to your photos. In this blog post, I want to concentrate more on small flash units and how to get them off camera. Before I go on, I have to give credit to probably THE best source of information about off camera flash, strobist.com. Check it out if you want to learn more.

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The photo above was made using a Canon 580 EX II flash fired through a white umbrella at camera right. It was triggered by Radio Popper JrX’s

The first step in off camera flash, is to buy a flash. Duh! I use Canon cameras and Canon flashes, however when using a flash off the camera, the brand doesn’t always matter. That being said, most people would probably want to start with a flash made by the same company as their camera, since there are definitely times when you will need to use the flash ON the camera too.

The second step is to have a method of triggering the flash once it is not attached to hot shoe on top of the camera. The cheapest method of getting the flash off the camera is to use a sync cord. You can get a 15 foot cord for about $15-20. The cord plugs unto a jack on the side of the camera and goes to the input on the flash. Obviously there are limitations to using a cord. You are limited by the length of it and it can create a tripping hazard for both you and your subjects.
It is also possible to trigger other flashes via an optical slave. An optical slave can either be built into the flash unit already or added separately as an additional module that connects to the flash. The optical slave senses the light from the flash that is triggered by the sync cord and then causes it’s flash to trigger as well.

My preferred method for triggering the flash is to use radio triggers. I use Radio Popper JrX units that allow me to be completely wireless and fire the flashes from a good distance away if necessary.

The transmitter (center) sits in the hot shoe of the camera and sends the signal to the receivers which are attached to the flash units. All you need is a short cord to go from the receiver to the input on the flash.

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This photo shows how the receiver is connected to the flash unit via a short cable. I use velcro to attach the receiver to the side of the flash.

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With both the radio triggers and the sync cord, the flash is set to manual mode. In manual, you dial in the power level of the flash to get the desired amount of lighting power. Both Canon and Nikon offer TTL solutions for automating the amount of light power. TTL means “Through The Lens”. Essentially, TTL uses the metering built into the camera to figure out how much light the flash needs to emit to make the proper exposure based on what the meter is reading through the lens. Canon calls their version ETTL II and Nikon calls theirs iTTL. Both Canon and Nikon sell infrared transmitters that sit in the hot shoe on the camera and send a signal to the flash telling it to fire and how much power to put out. In addition, if you have more than one flash unit, one of them can be used on camera as a transmitter to fire the off camera flash. Some Canon and Nikon cameras can also trigger an off camera flash by using the built-in pop-up flash on the camera. Either of these methods offer a wireless TTL solution, where the camera does the math to figure out the amount of light you need.

There are limitations to using infrared transmitters or triggering one flash with another mounted on the camera. This method is line of sight, so if anything gets in the way, the flash may not fire. Also, the distance of the flash to the camera is limited because the signal doesn’t travel very far.

The ultimate TTL solution is now offered by Pocket Wizard. They make wireless transmitter and receiver units that use a radio signal to transmit the TTL signal. They have models for both Canon and Nikon. By using radio signal, the line of site and distance problems are overcome.
The MiniTT1 sits in the camera hot shoe and transmits the TTL signal to the FlexTT5 transceiver attached to a flash unit.

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The FlexTT5 transceiver is both a transmitter and receiver in one, so it can also be used on the camera to transmit to other FlexTT5’s attached to flash units.

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I have not personally used the Pocket Wizard products myself, but their Plus II has been an industry standard radio transceiver for years.

I would recommend that you start out with one flash unit made to go with your camera model and just use a sync cord. As you begin to learn the nuances of setting the power level for the flash and getting the results you want, think about moving to a wireless solution. Wireless opens up a lot of possibilities with off camera lighting and can take your photography to the next level.

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This photo was made using an Alien Bee B800 strobe in a 22″ beauty dish. The strobe was triggered with Radio Popper JrX’s.

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