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Light that comes into a scene off-axis from the camera view will ALWAYS look more dynamic, interesting and pleasing. It looks more three-dimensional, and it creates shadows on textures, shapes and form that enhance the visual appeal of the image.
And aside from that, using the flash off-camera prevents red eye and that horrible “deer in the headlights’ look that straight-on flash usually gives. You probably already know all this, though.
Of course, the main issue with using off-camera flashes is how to trigger them. Essentially, there are five different ways to trigger a remote lighting unit:
So, which method works best? I’ve used each type, and they all have limitations. Here are the pros and cons of each type.
This is the easiest, cheapest, and most reliable way to get your flash off-camera. It will never fail unless you break it. You never have to worry about wireless signals being lost, or remotes not being able to see the master. Your main limitation is range, although you can daisy-chain up to three 9’ cords together and still retain full TTL capabilities.
Sync cords work great for handholding the flash—I use one all the time. If you don’t have a spare hand, you can always put the flash on a light stand, or clamp it to something.
You should have a sync cord. Period. If you don’t have one, get one. They’re cheap. Nikon has the SC-28 (3’) and 29 (9’), while Canon has the OC-E3. Nikon users, you can still find SC-17’s on eBay. I recently found one for about $15.
Some cameras allow you to control remote flashes with the on-board pop-up flash. This usually works pretty well, especially inside. I use mine on the Nikon D700, even outside. The limitations are distance and line of sight, although I’ve triggered flashes that are behind me while shooting inside. On most cameras, you can only control up to two groups of flashes, but often times, that’s all you need.
The pop-up flash doesn’t work well as a commander when you’re shooting close-ups or portraits. The monitor pre-flashes from the pop-up flash are still picked up by the camera, and they often make your subject blink, or else they show up in your photo. Also, note that some high-end camera bodies like the Nikon D3 and the Canon 5D don’t have pop-up flashes.
Using Another Flash as a Master
This method works even better because you can rotate the flash head to point directly to the sensor on your remote flash. In addition, range increases as you zoom the head. The disadvantage is that you obviously eat up one of your flashes by using it as a commander. You can still use the unit as an on-camera flash/commander combo, but this could be a problem if you don’t want a flash up front and center. And you still have the potential blinking problem.
Outside, this is often my preferred method, but only if I have a flash to spare. and I'm not overly concerned about space and weight in my bag. Although I usually travel with at least two flashes, oftentimes I’m really only using one flash to light the scene.
Radio Poppers and the new dedicated Pocket Wizard MiniTTL systems are becoming very popular with photographers these days, and for good reason. They don’t require line of sight, and they work up to a quarter mile or more.
The only downside is that they’re much more expensive.
After you buy the controller, you need a receiver for each unit, and each one costs over $200. If you have three Speedlights, you could end up spending a grand to trigger them all. (Extra credit: How much does Dave Black’s 8 SB-900 Radio Popper rig cost?) As of right now, Pocket Wizard is testing their next generation of MiniTTL units, which should be out very soon.
Pocket Wizard Plus transceivers are another great option. I’ve got three of them, and can thus control two external flashes. They’re a little less expensive than the newer models, but they don’t work in TTL mode, only Manual.
You can’t combine wireless systems with the Pocket Wizard Plus. For example, you can’t trigger one flash with CLS and one with a Pocket Wizard. However, this is rarely a problem. You just need to make sure that all your flashes are set to Manual mode.
When using radio triggers, your creative boundaries are greatly expanded. Just imagine the possibilities. Essentially, you can light multiple subjects and background elements that are very far away from each other, or that are hidden from your line of sight.
Wireless Commanders allow you to trigger an unlimited number of Speedlights, and control them in multiple separate groups. They’re WAY cheaper than buying a radio system, and since they use infrared, they pretty much solve the blinking problem when shooting portraits. Also, you don’t have to burn one of your flashes by using it as a controller.
Before I bought a wireless commander, I considered just getting another flash to use as a master. However, a commander is smaller, and costs less than a top-of-the-line flash like the SB-900 or the 580EX II. Also, using a flash as an on-camera master doesn’t allow you to take full creative advantage of its impressive capabilities.
My thought is this: If you shoot off-camera flash inside, then it’s a no brainer. Definitely consider the SU-800 or the S2-E2. It will give you excellent versatility at a reasonable price, and it gets rid of the blinking problem with models. For the same reason, it’s almost essential for macro flash photography.
If you shoot primarily outside, then you should weigh your needs and your budget. A radio system might be in your future, however if you’re not ready to make that kind of investment yet, something like the SU-800 or the S2-E2 will certainly get the job done while you’re saving up for all those receivers.
The Nikon SU-800 will trigger an unlimited number of flashes in up to three groups. Inside, the SU-800 absolutely rocks. Its signal will bounce all over the place, and even travel around corners; you can trigger flashes that are not line of sight, or that are even in the next room.
Its capabilities are a little more subdued outside. Since there is nowhere for the signal to bounce, it has to be within sight of all the other units. If your flashes are off-axis from your commander, you might have to affix it via a sync cord to a light stand in order for the signal to point the right way. In really bright sunlight, you often need to shade the unit with your hand, or tape on a piece of cardboard to shield it from the direct sun.
Canon’s own wireless controller, the ST-E2 transmitter, will control an unlimited number of Speedlites, but only in two groups, A and B. It has similar functionality to the SU-800; it works great inside (better in smaller rooms) but has a limited line of sight range outside where the same issues apply.
This post above is an excerpt from Dan Bailey’s brand new eBook, Going Fast With Light, an 83 page off-camera flash manual that shows you how to get great light with minimal gear. As a pro outdoor photographer, Dan often carries everything on his back, and over the years he’s refined off-camera flash fit with his highly active photography style of action, adventure and travel.
Going Fast With Light explores strobist style tools, techniques and tips for using simple one-flash setups, and multiple flash options that won’t slow you down.
Buy Going Fast With Light in the next two weeks at the special introductory price of $12.95, and you'll automatically be entered into a drawing to win a $500 Gift Card from B&H Photo. The winner will be announced on Thursday, November 10.