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How To Move the Flash Off Your Camera for Better Photo Lighting

Welcome back to 'Introduction to Flash Photography'. I hope our last lesson has you inspired and you're ready to learn the nuts and bolts of how to take your flash off of your camera.

A Note on Vocabulary

We're going to start this lesson with a little bit of vocabulary. Two words that you will see a lot in flash photography lessons, especially older ones, are Master and Slave, but after many years of consumer pressure the industry is, thankfully, moving away from this paradigm. We use words that describe the technology more accurately, Transmitter and Receiver.

Going Off Camera

As we explored, there are a lot of creative benefits from moving your light away from the camera. Let me give you an example of how this all works together.

When I press the shutter button on my camera, there's a lag of a little less than 1/10th of a second between when the button is pressed and when the shutter actually starts to open. This tiny amount of time is when the magic happens in off-camera flash. The first thing that happens is a signal to fire a flash is sent to the flash hot shoe, right here:

These little contacts make connection with whatever you put into the hot shoe. If there were a flash in there, then it would fire. In this case, it's a Yongnuo Radio Trigger set to Transmitter Mode.

The radio trigger takes the signal and turns it into a radio wave and sends it out in all directions. On the other side of the room is an identical radio trigger, only this one is switched to Receiver Mode, which means it's listening for a radio wave from a transmitter.

When the radio away from the transmitter trigger hits the receiver, the receiver turns the radio wave into an electrical signal, the same as what came out of the camera's hot shoe. When you place your flash into the receiver's hot shoe, if everything works together correctly, the flash will fire in sync with the shutter opening, and it will give off all of its light during the fraction of a second that the shutter is open.

This is basically what happens in any off-camera flash situation, but there are many different off-camera flash systems that change up different parts. The biggest difference between off-camera flash systems is the method that the signal travels from the camera to the remote flash.

Hardwired Connections

The first and simplest way to send the signal to your remote flash is a Hardwired Connection. Within wired connections, there are basically two styles of connection:

  • a sync cord
  • an optical system

My camera uses what's called a PC style sync cord, but other cameras use different kinds, so make sure you get one that fits your camera. You simply hook up one end of the cord to the camera, and then you run the other end of the cable over to your remote flash and you hook it up the same way. Then you're ready to click away.

This style of wired flashed syncing is what is known as a Dumb Sync, which means that the signal that is sent is just a signal of the fire the flash, and that you will have to actually walk over to the flash unit and change the power on the back of the flash, manually.

If you want to retain TTL, or want to be able to control the flash from in your camera, you'll need what's called a TTL sync cord. One end plugs into the hot shoe of your camera, and the other end is the hot shoe. So your camera and flash work together the same way as they would with the flash connected directly to your camera. With this cable you'll retain your TTL capabilities and your high-speed sync capability, while giving your flash a lot more flexibility, and without spending very much.

A TTL Sync Cord

Obviously the TTL cable is preferable to the dumb sync cable, but the general theme that you will see emerge is that the complexity involved in the TTL systems mean they are more expensive than the more simple, dumb or manual-only systems.

The benefits of a wired off-camera system is that they are generally much cheaper than a wireless system, and because of their simplicity, they're usually very reliable.

The downside is that you're limited by the length of your sync cable, to how far away your flash can be away from your camera. You also have to deal with a wire running around that constantly gets in the way while you're trying to shoot. It can get wrapped around your leg, and be a total pain.

Optical Triggers

The next off-camera flash system is the Optical Trigger System. Optical triggers for flashes use light, either visible or infrared instead of a wire to send the triggering signal to the flashes. The most simple version of an optical system is a flash that can be put into Optical Mode.

When this is done, you activate a photo sensor on the flash that acts like an eye that's looking for another flash to go off. In the instant that it sees another flash, it fires also, an adds it's light to the scene. The advantage of the system is that because of its simplicity, it's relatively inexpensive and it's relatively easy to setup. You also get an increased range between the camera and the flash of about 25 to 50 feet, depending on the brand that you get.

The downside is that this system requires two flashes and it provides you with only a dumb sync and no TTL or remote power control. You also have to have line of sight between your units, so you can't hide the off-camera flash around the corner, you have to actually be able to see the flash to fire it.

Pre-flash Systems

The other kind of optical flash system is the proprietary pre-flash systems used by Canon, Nikon and other major manufacturers. These systems suffer the same downsides as the dumb optical system with the exception that you now have TTL and remote manual controllability. You also retain your high-speed sync capabilities.

The way that these systems work is that during the shutter lag time, the flashes send out a bunch of small pre-flashes that the system uses to determine the correct power to use for the automatic TTL. Then, the lead flash sends out another series of pre flashes that tell the secondary flashes what power setting to use. After all of that, the flash burst syncs up with an open shutter. This is a very complex system and thus it's quite a bit more expensive than a dumb slave option, but if you need TTL or high-speed sync, it's a price you'll have to pay.

Radio Triggers

The final, and in my opinion, the best system for firing off camera flash are Radio Triggers. Like we saw in the very first example in a radio trigger system, the wires and pre-flashes are replaced with a radio wave. The main advantages to this are that radio waves will travel through walls and other substances, which means you don't have to see your flash to fire it. These radio signals used in these flashes generally have a much longer range than any other system, sometimes reaching into the hundreds of yards.

In the past, radio triggers were limited only to non-TTL, dumb syncing, however over the past few years flash companies have begun to make great strides in bringing TTL and remote manual control to radio triggers.

Take for example Canon's 600 EXRT (debut 2012), which was the first Canon flash to use a radio signal to trigger remote flashes instead of an optical system.

Canon 600 EXRT

With all of these advantages and practically no drawbacks, I think a radio trigger system is definitely the way to go to get your flash off of your camera.

Light Stands

So now that you know how to get the flash off of your camera, where you going to put it? On a light stand, of course! And when choosing a light stand, there's just a few things you want to base your decision on.

First is how portable you need the stand to be. Some stands are really big and bulky, and they're not fun to travel around with, while others are lightweight and they fold up into a very small package.

The next thing you want to look at is how tall the stand is. Generally, I would recommend a 7-foot or taller stand, especially if you're shooting people so that you can get your light above a 6-foot person.

Finally, you want to find a balance between build quality and price, since very often you get what you pay for when it comes to build quality and durability.

Flash Recommendations

To bring all of this together, I'm going to give you one option out of literally thousands of different possibilities for an inexpensive, beginners, off-camera flash set up. Based on a bunch of research that I've done and reviews from trusted sources, I've decided on these particular components, and after just a short time using them, I'm extremely impressed with them.

Good-value Basic Flash With Radio Trigger

Okay. First things first, the flash I have chosen for you in this kit is the Yongnuo YN560-III, which currently sells for about $75 online.

This is a manual-only flash, so you will not have the option of using TTL with this flash. The guide number on this flash is, in reality, a little lower than advertised, but it's not too far behind the Canon flash that it's a copy of.

The flash head is plenty flexible and you'll do fine if you're using it for bounce flash. This flash also has a manual zoom head and the ability to plug in an external battery pack. But the thing that I love most about this flash is that it has a built-in radio trigger, which greatly simplifies the process of using it off-camera.

Radio Trigger

If you already have a flash, or want to experiment with an inexpensive second-hand unit, you can put any flash on a simple radio trigger to create an affordable multi-light setup. The trigger that I've chosen for this kit is the Yongnuo RF-603 II. The main reason that I chose this trigger is because it works directly with the flash that I've recommended. Otherwise, this is a basic, manual-only trigger and it works with just about every flash in existence. You can pick up one of these triggers for about $20, which is all you need to fire this flash off camera.

And if you already have a flash, you can get two of these triggers for $35 -- one to act as a transmitter attached to your camera, and one to act as a receiver attached to your light. A really cool added bonus is that if you buy the two pack of these triggers, they'll throw in a free shutter release cable that will allow you to actually take photos wirelessly from across the room. Just make sure that you ordered the two pack that has the correct shutter release cable for your camera, whether it be Canon or Nikon or other.

I have to say that I am pretty impressed with the features that they have been able to pack into these flashes for the money. And I'm pretty convinced that you would be hard pressed to find a better setup for the price. And if they prove to be reliable, you can bet that they'll get a ton of use for me.

If TTL is a deal breaker for you and you can't live without it, Yongnuo also has TTL versions of their flashes and triggers, which will only set you back about $200, which is still a really great deal compared to the other options available.

Stands

The final piece of our budget, off-camera flash kit, is the light stand.

There are of couple companies that make $20, 8-foot light stands. Cowboy Studio is one of them and Impact is another one and they would do fine to hold your flash and keep your budget around a $100. However, if you want to stand that's a little more portable and has a better build try the LumoPro LP605, which goes for around $45.

So that's the nuts and bolts of how to get started in off-camera flash. I'm guessing that you're really excited about today's homework lesson, which is basically to go shopping for your new off-camera flash system. Just make sure to save a few dollars for our next lesson on flash modifiers.

In our next lesson, I'm going to show you several different flash modifiers and what each of them does and how to use them to get the results that you want.

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