Flash 101: Off-Camera Flash

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This is the second part of Flash 101. You can read the first part here, which tackles on-camera flash basics.

I associate on-camera flash with necessity. I mean, if I simply need to take a photo and there’s not enough light, then I use on-camera flash. For more creative shots, it’s best go for an off-camera setup.

PROS

1. Direction. With off-camera flash, you decide where the light is coming from. This is the biggest and most important factor that differentiates on-camera and off-camera flash. The ability to move your flash independent from your shooting perspective gives you the ability to make the lighting more natural. You are in control instead of being dependent on existing lighting conditions.


CC Photo by Derek Dysart

2. Bounce flash. It’s the same flash unit so you still have this ability.

3. When you use a cord or infrared to communicate with your flash unit, you still have access to TTL metering, fill-flash mode and AF assist. Connectivity options will be discussed below.

CONS

1. Expensive. This is also the biggest barrier that prevents more people from trying out off-camera flash. For one thing, you need to spend on the device that connects your camera to the flash. Second, off-camera flash is most effective when you have two or more flash units. You will also need to purchase a light stand to mount your flash on unless you plan on putting it on the ground or you have an assistant to hold it up.


CC Photo by joshuacraig

2. No mobility. Having your flash units mounted on a stand will definitely not allow you to move with your subject.

3. Time. It takes some time to setup since you’re dealing with more equipment.

OFF-CAMERA TRIGGERS

Since the flash unit is no longer connected to your camera, you will need some way for your camera to trigger the flash modules so that it still keeps in sync with your shutter release. Below are the three ways for you to do this.

OFF-CAMERA SHOE CORD

This is the cheapest way to get into off-camera lighting. It’s simply a cord with one end attached to your camera’s hot-shoe and the other attached to the flash. The most common use of the off-camera shoe cord is with a flash bracket picture below. The good thing about using dedicated cords is that you still get the on-camera flash ability of TTL metering, fill-flash mode and AF assist. The bad thing is that you can only move your flash less than a meter away from your camera.

INFRARED TRANSMITTERS

If you want to move your flash farther away then the next step would be using an infrared (IR) transmitter. An IR transmitter is a small device that mounts on your camera’s hot-shoe. It emits infrared (of course) light to communicate with your flash units. These units have a range of about 40 to 50 feet indoors and half that outdoors. This gives you more freedom than a shoe cord to really step away from your flash and position it any way you want.

Dedicated IR transmitters also retain TTL metering and AF-assist capabilities. Most people will tell you that the transmitter and the flash unit/s need to have direct line of sight for it work. This is not always true since IR light bounces off most surfaces. As long as the IR light is able to reach your flash, even if it’s covered, then you’re good to go. Some experimenting is needed, however, to test the limits of your transmitter.

Some cameras like the Nikon D80 have an infrared transmitter built into the camera body. You just need to enter Commander Mode to trigger other Nikon Speedlites.

RADIO SIGNAL TRANSCEIVERS

Radio transceivers are the best way to do off-camera flash photography. This is due to it’s long range of about 1600 feet and its reliability. You also do not need line of sight for your flash to fire as long as you stay within the effective range of your transceiver. The biggest down side to this option is the price. You will need one unit to attach to your camera and one for each flash you use. With one transceiver costing about $200.00 it can quickly add up to a lot of money.

There are cheaper alternatives to buying the top of the line transceivers like the Pocket Wizard. The cheapest one around is called the Cactus V2 but there have been reports of flash misfire floating around different forums. You also will not be able to use TTL metering or fill-flash mode. You need to manually set each flash’s output for radio triggers.

The high cost is probably the reason why only pros and photography addicts use this option for off-camera flash. Unless you plan on doing a lot of outdoor flash shots or turning pro then go for the other options we discussed above.

OFF-CAMERA FLASH TECHNIQUES

No, I’m not going to discuss off-camera flash techniques. This is not our expertise so I will direct you the greatest off-camera flash resource you will ever find online. The Strobist is run by David Hobby who is a photojournalist by trade. When you go to his site, be sure to start at Lighting 101 and read everything in order so you won’t get lost.

By the time you get to Lighting 101: Balancing Flash and Ambient Light, your brain will start to melt and ooze out of your ears and nose. Do not be alarmed. This is perfectly normal. Just carefully scoop up your brain matter, shove it back in, and read again. It’s more than worth it.

Miscellaneous Notes:

1. When purchasing a flash unit, off-camera shoe cord and IR transmitter, it’s always better to buy a brand that is the same as your camera so you can take full advantage of your camera’s advance features like TTL metering and flash exposure compensation. These features may not be available with other third party flash manufacturers.

2. You need to fiddle around with your camera’s white balance setting to make sure that light coming from your flash is not distinctly different from the ambient light color. Canon cameras supposedly have a built in system wherein it automatically tries to balance flash and ambient light color whether you’re on Auto White Balance or Flash White Balance setting when it detects and external flash being used. This is not true in our experience. Our 400D and 40D produce a more neutral flash color when left of Auto White Balance rather than Flash White Balance. Study your camera so you know which setting will match your preference.

3. There are times when there’s really no way of balancing the color of your flash with that of ambient lighting especially with fluorescent and tungsten. There are gel color modifiers that you can purchase and attach to your flash head to solve this problem. The green filter is for fluorescent and the orange filter is for tungsten light. Be sure to set your camera’s white balance to the appropriate setting.

4. Whether you’re using on-camera or off-camera flash, it’s still a good idea to use a diffuser when you can. Read more about diffusers here.

Related Reading:
Flash 101: On-Camera Flash
How To Get Soft Diffused Light From Your Flash

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