Although you can survive with the pop up flash on your camera, the best results are achieved when you get your flash off your camera. Learn how to get the best and cheapest solution for more creativity. And a solution that does not depend on "line of sight" too!
Being able to move the flash away from the camera opens new options in terms of the creative use of light.
I am all for the use of the pop-up flash when there is nothing else available, but I do agree that when we get the flash away from the camera things start to get even more interesting.
Nowadays most DSLR cameras (and some Micro Four Thirds models like my Olympus E-PL1) will let you control external flashes, through Infrared or light pulses that provide communication between the camera and the external flash. It's a boon and something you should clearly learn to use.
Gone are the days when you needed to buy a big flash with master capabilities, just to control other external flashes. Now you can do a lot of things just popping up the small flash in your DSLR and getting it to talk with an external unit.
The Phottix Ares flash radio trigger set costs $62.50 and is a basic and functional solution for better control of light.
This means that you have more control over the light, but also that you do not need to spend too much money on two flash units (a master and slave), or even go and buy the most expensive and bigger flash from a brand. I'll refer to Canon, as it is the gear I use and know better, but I am sure you can apply this suggestion to your preferred brand of flash.
When people ask me for a cheap and versatile solution in terms of flash, I usually point them to the Canon Speedlite 430 EX II, a unit that is very similar to the big sized 580 EX II (the new version 600 EX II uses radio, and asks for another kind of solution and investment).
Most amateurs do not need a big flash, and in the end what is important for most of them is not the power of the unit, but the distance we place it from the subject we want to photograph. So, a 430 EX II is a good compromise.
The Phottix Strato TTL is a high-end solution and a modular system. If you buy a new flash, you just need to get a new receiver.
If the camera "talks" directly to the flash, then you just have to learn how to make them work together and start to explore. If you have an older model of camera that does not offer this option (Canon only introduced it in the EOS 7D, but Nikon and Sony have had it for longer time in their models), you have another option, and believe me it is not worse, but better. So much better, in fact, that even if your camera and external flash communicate, you'll want to use this solution most of the time.
I am talking about using a radio flash trigger. You see, IR has problems with day light and occlusion (when you place your flash behind something). IR systems need what is called "line of sight" to work properly. Using a radio trigger means you can place your flash almost anywhere and not worry about getting it to work.
Now, most people will go and buy cheap unbranded radio triggers. I do not like to spend money, but I prefer to go for equipment that I can rely on. I have used radio triggers from Phottix for the last two years and I do believe their price/quality is about right, even for amateurs not wanting to invest much.
One flash, one trigger, a nice pair
Controlling your flashes remotely, you can start to do some interesting pictures.
So, for someone just starting, I would advise the recently launched Phottix Ares for some $60, a new and simple way to use off-camera flash.
The 2.4 Ghz 8-channel transmitter and receiver units have a range of 200m and feature a “fire-all” channel function. No advanced bells or whistles, but simple, reliable and affordable radio flash triggering without TTL and with a maximum synch of 1/250.
If you do not need/want to go beyond that value and explore the possibilities of TTL and High Speed Sync (when the flash synchs with the highest shutter speed in the camera), this is your solution to even more control. Remember, you'll still have TTL and HSS using the communication system on new cameras and flashes, so you have the best of two worlds.
Still, if you want to go beyond that point and have some extra cash to spend, the option I generally point people to is different. It is based on a flash radio trigger like the new Phottix Strato TTL, that offers High-speed and second curtain sync on this 4-channel, 2.4 GHz transmitter and receiver set.
With such a kit, a small 430 EX II or similar and a couple of reflectors, you've everything you need to get absolute control of light. Now you just have to understand how it all works. Believe me it is simpler than most people say or think. Just don't buy a lot of flashes. Start by using one, exploring it completely, aided by reflectors, even a white wall. Learn to walk before you start to run!
Four Other Options
- Cactus V5 Duo Set - Cheaper than the Phottix, the V5 is their most recent, most advanced set. Cheaper sets are still available.
- NPT-04 Cowboy Studio Triggers - Cowboy Studio produces a variety of enthusiast quality accessories. The NPT-04 is probably the least expensive option.
- Radiopopper JrX Sets - Radiopopper is making what they claim to be the most advanced triggers in the world. The price is a bit more than the other options. The JrX series is cheapest Radiopopper model.
- Pocket Wizards TT Series - Pocket Wizards are the long-time leader in the radio trigger market. The TT series is the least expensive option, but is still more expensive than all the other options listed.