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The word “photography” literally means “to draw with light” and is a simple way of expressing how essential light is to our craft. At times, however, natural light can be a scarce commodity and thus, it falls upon the photographer to create it. Fast-forwarding through the days of flash powder and disposable bulbs, we arrive at the modern day, an exciting time for “strobists,” when a plethora of compact options exists for creating and shaping light. Below, we’ll review some of the classic, essential, and innovative accessories for the ubiquitous shoe-mounted flash units being used by photographers today, to hone their craft and reinvent one of photography’s constantly evolving art forms.
The bright, powerful, and at times harsh blast of light from your flash unit is rarely the most flattering light with which to fry your subjects, and commonly requires some control and finesse to bring out its optimal qualities. This role ultimately falls to the most popular of flash accessories—the flash modifier. The most common modifier found in almost every shooter’s bag is the bounce dome, also known as a bounce diffuser, which mounts directly on the flash head to soften light output. The bounce dome may not be the strongest modifier, but it has been favored by event photographers for decades due to its small form factor and ability to produce reliable and predictable results. Typically included with most flash units, but also made by third-party manufacturers like Vello, these are available for most flashes and speedlights and are a low-cost essential accessory for any flash user.
For those looking to control the light more than just diffusing it, the bounce card and reflector is another option to consider. Available in different sizes and shapes, the bounce card is intended to “bounce” light toward or around the subject when the flash head is pointed skyward. The resulting effect is a diffused and softened light that lacks unflattering hot spots. Bounce cards come in a range of shapes and sizes, and may also feature open designs that allow light to bounce off low ceilings or reflectors, providing ambient background lighting for a more natural look. Although the bounce card is an age-old standard, companies like Rogue are still reinventing the wheel with products like the Flashbender, a bendable, directional bounce card that can double as a softbox with additional accessories.
With such a beautiful and flattering light, it’s no wonder that the softbox has emerged as one of the most popular flash accessories for modern photographers. Designed to diffuse and spread light over a wide space, the softbox reduces shadows and hotspots while containing the power of the flash, producing pleasing contrast that adds depth and “pop” to the image. The interiors of many softboxes feature reflective surfaces that capture and direct excess light, allowing them to project flash over a moderate distance. Ultimately, the size of a softbox will determine the quality and range of emitted light, and while smaller softboxes are less cumbersome, larger softboxes will produce more pleasing results by further softening the light as they increase in size.
Another modifier loved for its distinct, flattering look is the beauty dish. Due to its design, it is able to soften the light output of your flash while still maintaining a crisp appearance, something unmatched by any other modifier. Another plus is that beauty dishes are round, allowing users to create natural-looking round catchlights in their subjects’ eyes. Normally reserved for larger monolights and studio strobes, many manufacturers have found a way to make versions for on-camera flashes, such as this Strobros Beauty Dish Version II from Impact.
Some photographers may need to take full control over where the light falls in the scene, or they might desire a narrow spotlight that creates images with dramatic tones. This task is fulfilled by the use of a snoot, a narrow, conical, or cylindrical modifier that contains and directs light at a narrow point within the image. Snoots are often sold in two main varieties, collapsible or rigid, and may feature internal reflective coatings that lend a warm or neutral tone to the projected light. Rigid snoots such as the Impact Strobros Snoot produce a well-defined circle of light that can be controlled further using attachable honeycomb grids. Soft, bendable snoots such as the Honl Photo 8" Speed Snoot will produce a feathered, less defined patch of light, but are usually more convenient to carry and store. Alongside the snoot is another classic accessory, barndoors. These are available with a number of different options, but in a very basic sense they allows photographers to easily flag off the light, offering better control over where light will fall in a scene or from what walls it can bounce.
An additional directional modifier is the grid, which produces a controlled but feathered beam of light. Larger, more spacious grids such as the Vello 1/4" Honeycomb Grid will produce feathered softer spots of a greater diameter, while narrow grids like the Honl Photo 1/8" Speed Grid will produce a sharper, narrower spot with greater contrast. Those looking to experiment with different grid styles may want to consider the ExpoImaging Rogue 3-in-1 Flash Grid, which offers three different beam angles and includes colored gels for enhancing lighting effects.
A photographer trying to foster emotion in their photographs needs to know how to use and control light, but also how to balance it and charge it with feeling. For this reason, colored gels have been an essential component of every photographer’s lighting kit for decades, and have found creative ways to enter the world of portable flash. Often used for lighting effects, gels can be purchased in sets that cover broad spectrums of color, designed to fit multiple purposes or a specific mood or intention. A prime and popular example of one such kit is the Photo Color Effects Filter Kit by Honl. Corrective gels may also be used by photographers to balance color and remove color casts from ambient light or from mixed-lighting setups. In these situations, many event photographers will find a kit such as the Honl Photo Color Correction Filter Kit extremely useful.
One other accessory isn’t very common, but can be useful in the right situations: the flash extender. These lenses will boost the range of your flash by focusing the light into a narrower beam. The immediate downside is that you will get less coverage and a harsher light, but the flash will reach more distant subjects and will work better with long telephoto lenses.
The last modifier we’ll discuss is the Ring Flash Adapter, which is designed to provide balanced, even lighting at mid to close ranges. Often used for product and macro photography, the ring flash has a substantial following in the world of portraiture for the effects it lends to an image. One of the most notable and desirable stylistic effects of the ring flash is the ring-shaped catchlight that can be produced in the subject’s eyes in a close-range portrait. Ring flash adapters are sold in large, collapsible versions, like the RoundFlash Magnetic Ringflash Adapter or in smaller, rigid versions, like the ExpoImaging Ray Flash 2.
Regardless of the task at hand, proper communication between your camera and flash is essential to take full advantage of your lighting setup. In today’s market, numerous tools, both old and new, are sold to facilitate wired and wireless communication between your camera and one or numerous flashes. Many of these accessories can also take advantage of more modern innovations such as TTL flash, allowing inexperienced or on-the-go photographers to achieve great results without the need to calculate exposure.
The first and simplest of these communication tools is the TTL cord, an easy-to-use direct line of communication between your camera and flash. As the name suggests, TTL cords can transmit exposure information to and from your camera to a TTL-enabled flash, providing accurate and even exposure in most situations. Preferred by event photographers, they are typically used on flash brackets for close-range portraits but longer TTL cords can also be used for some off-camera flash tricks. Keep in mind that all TTL-enabled flashes and cameras speak a slightly different language, and it is essential to purchase the proper Vello, Nikon, Canon, or other brand cord to suit your needs.
A more traditional form of direct camera-to-flash communication is the PC sync cable, a fully manual, non-TTL line to a flash or strobe that simply gives the command to “fire” and nothing else. Many professional series DSLRs still feature built-in PC ports to support this classic format, but for those without a compatible body, hot-shoe PC adapters like the Vello Universal Hot Shoe Adapter or Nikon AS-15 can be used without any compatibility concerns. The simplicity of PC sync cables allows them to cover a wide range of cable lengths, so whether you need three feet or thirty-three feet, you’ll find them all here.
The modern world is a wireless world; our phones are wireless, our speakers are wireless, our computers are wireless and, of course—our flashes are wireless, too. Of the two major wireless options we’ll discuss, the older and, in some ways, cheaper option is infrared. Many current DSLRs, especially those from Nikon and Canon, feature built-in IR flash triggering that can control multiple flashes using either TTL or manual exposure. However, the ease of infrared integration comes with a catch—infrared systems must maintain line-of-sight contact at all times to function properly. Essentially, any obstruction that blocks or obscures the view of one IR sensor to another will prevent the flash from firing. On the same note, distance is also a limitation to be considered, since IR beams can only travel a certain distance before dissipating in strength and don’t work as well outside in bright lighting. Despite these drawbacks, IR is a great and relatively inexpensive way to experiment with and utilize wireless flash. If you are unsure whether or not your camera and/or flash feature IR control, refer to the manufacturer’s website or your owner’s manual for details. Should you find that you require an IR transmitter for your wireless needs, you may choose from first-party options like the Nikon SU-800 and Canon ST-E2 or third-party manufacturers like the Vello FreeWave Flash Commander for Nikon or the Vello FreeWave Flash Commander for Canon.
With the clear shortcomings of infrared came a question: what wireless technology offers users a more reliable and powerful communication method for off-camera flash? The answer: Radio. Radio transmitters are the professionals’ choice when it comes to firing one or more flashes at a great distance, and unlike infrared, radio transmitters can be programmed to different frequencies, allowing multiple photographers to work in close proximity without the risk of accidently triggering each other’s strobes. While some newer flashes are coming to market with built-in radio capabilities, most photographers still require radio receivers and transceivers for their current flash equipment. The most popular manufacturer of radio triggers has traditionally been PocketWizard, whose PlusX Transceiver and Plus III Transceiver have set the industry standard for manual-exposure radio triggering. However, after years of research and development, PocketWizard was also able to successfully bring TTL communication for both Nikon and Canon to the third-party radio-triggering world with the release of the FlexTT5 Transceiver Radio Slave for Nikon i-TTL and the FlexTT5 Transceiver Radio Slave for Canon E-TTL II systems. Currently, a wide array of manufacturers is producing radio-triggering systems for off-camera flash, including Impact, Vello, Phottix, Yongnuo, and many more.
Taking your flash off-camera is an experimental and rewarding process that can teach any photographer, regardless of experience, new techniques for achieving dramatic and intriguing lighting effects. This process often requires the use of a separate flash support to position the light in a way that complements the subject or enhances the photograph.
The first and most recognizable of these supports is the classic flash bracket, a simple but effective tool for event, wedding, and portrait photographers who need their gear to move just as fast as they do. The idea of the flash bracket is simple—to keep the flash positioned directly above the lens to avoid unnecessary and unflattering shadows at close range, as well as red-eye in portrait subjects. The most traditional design is the standard flip bracket, such as the Vello QuickDraw Rotating Flash Bracket, or its slightly more robust cousin, the Custom Brackets CB Digital-S Flash Rotating Camera Bracket. These two examples feature a simple rotating arm, which flips the flash into position above the lens in portrait or landscape orientations. For those looking to achieve the same effect but with a smaller rig, look no further than the Vello Quickshot Rotating Flash Bracket or its similar cousin, the Custom Brackets Rapid Fire PRO. These two brackets feature a rotating collar that moves the flash directly around the lens, reducing travel distance. These are just two examples of traditional and popular flash bracket styles—those looking for a more customized rig can find our entire selection of flash brackets here.
While keeping your flash close by may offer slightly more control, moving the flash way off-camera can yield far more pleasing results when the situation allows for it. The first and most popular method of utilizing off-camera flash is by mounting your light atop a light stand, typically accompanied by a modifier like a shoot-through umbrella or a larger softbox. While some modifiers may come equipped with integrated brackets made for light-stand mounts, most will require a separate mounting bracket such as the Impact Umbrella Bracket with Adjustable Shoe.
However, if you lack space for a light stand or simply want to position your flash in an unconventional way, you can always turn to a slightly more versatile option—the clamp. Clamps typically hold between 15-30 lb, depending on size, and can be mounted on almost any object around which they’ll fit; pipes, crossbeams, tree branches, anywhere a light stand may not fit or simply cannot reach. Like light stands, most clamps feature or can be outfitted with a stud that will support an array of cold shoes or umbrella holders. As long as you keep the weight limitations in mind, you can rig a clamp to suit most of your lighting needs.