Off-Camera Flash Systems for the Wedding Photographer

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When you photograph a wedding, you are faced with a wide array of lighting conditions, ranging from bright sunlight to dimly lit interiors. Using ambient light as your main source is often preferable; however, in a situation such as a wedding where time is of the essence, you will need to know how to properly expose all of these varying scenes using both natural and artificial light sources. Being resourceful with your lighting setups lends greater efficiency, and having a lighting system you can easily move from one situation to the next, quickly and efficiently, is crucial. One of the mainstay techniques of lighting multiple scenarios is to work with an off-camera flash system, either wired or wireless, and to be able to have it function in a modular manner to best suit the spontaneous nature of a wedding.

Working with an off-camera flash requires the knowledge of a handful of technologies and terminologies. It should be generally understood that off-camera flash simply means that you are using one or more external flashes to light the scene, and your camera will be communicating with these flashes using some kind of remote method, either a hard-wired connection or a wireless one. Beyond this, there are also two distinct ways to determine how to expose properly when using flash: TTL and manual flash. TTL flash is similar to the way a camera computes its automatic exposure information, whereas manual leaves all of the settings up to you, with no automatic interface determining exposure settings. Both of these systems have their pluses and minuses, and both can be used interchangeably if needed, depending on the subject.

TTL and Manual Flash Metering

Through-the-lens (TTL) metering with flash is a system that balances your camera’s exposure settings to that of the flash output and the distance of the subject. In order to do this, you must be working with a flash and a camera that use the same TTL system. Most brands have their own TTL system, such as Canon’s E-TTL II or Nikon’s i-TTL, and similarly branded flashes or third-party flashes are available in the same system. You must pair a flash and a camera’s TTL system, or else you will only be able to work in manual mode with your flash. TTL metering functions by using a brief pre-flash just before the exposure is taken; this pre-flash will strike the subject and then—at the speed of light—the proper exposure settings are determined based on the ambient light and the distance your subject is from the camera. Once this has been calculated, both the flash power and the camera’s settings will be in tune to render a properly lit subject.

On the other hand, when working with manual flash, you will be setting both the flash’s power level as well as your camera’s settings to properly expose your subject. The benefits of working this way are that you have greater control of the ratios between ambient and flash light falling on your subject, and unlimited control of how light or dark your images are. The reasons for using manual flash settings are much the same as those for working in manual exposure mode with your camera versus shooting in an automatic mode. It can be a slower method of working compared to TTL metering, since you determine the exposure settings yourself, but you will have greater overall control of your lighting.

When working with manual flash, a flash meter can quickly determine proper exposure settings, versus using a more complex system of figuring for guide numbers. A flash meter is a type of light meter that is capable of recording short bursts of light and displaying subsequent exposure values. Flash meters can control test flashes to help with light-reading accuracy for final exposures. Flash is read in incident mode, not reflective mode; this means that the meter will be measuring the light that is falling upon the subject, not the light reflected from the subject.

Flash Brackets and Cables

One of the simplest ways to remove a flash from the camera to provide you with more options and control is to use a flash bracket, and then connect your flash to your camera using a cable, to either a sync port or to the camera’s hot shoe. A flash bracket is a structured grip or plate that attaches to a camera, typically via its tripod socket, and then allows you to attach a flash to it in order to move the flash away from the lens. Aside from giving you a wider range of positioning for the flash by moving it away from the axis of the lens, you will also be preventing red-eye in your subjects.

Brackets are available in a variety of shapes and sizes, and each provides a different functionality. A straight bracket is the most basic, and simply places your flash off to the side of your camera. An L-type bracket is similar, but it incorporates a handle into its design to give an additional point of stability for working with your flash. Flash-rotating and camera-rotating brackets are a bit more sophisticated, as they allow you to shoot in either horizontal or vertical orientations and maintain an upright flash position. For a more in-depth profile on the variety of flash brackets available, please click to read the B&H Flash Bracket Buying Guide.



 

For connecting your bracket-mounted flash, a cable is the most common method, due to the short distance between the flash and the camera itself. Cables do the simple job of relaying when an exposure is being made so the flash can fire. This is the only task a simple sync cable does, whereas a TTL cable passes the exposure information between the flash and camera. Basic sync cords are used when working with your flash in manual mode, as they do not transmit any information aside from firing the flash. These cords are available in a wide selection of different connection types, and need to be chosen according to the type of camera and flash you are using.

If you're working with a basic cord and a camera that does not have a dedicated flash sync port, you can use a hot-shoe adapter to provide a dedicated sync port that uses the camera’s hot-shoe functionality. One of the benefits of working with an adapter is that you will still have the option of placing an additional accessory, such as a monitor or external microphone, on the hot shoe in addition to your cabled off-camera flash. If you choose to work within a TTL system, there is also a range of flash cords that feature TTL connectivity so you can reap the automatic exposure metering benefits of TTL while using your flash on a bracket, or handheld. The TTL flash cords are available for numerous TTL systems and need to be selected in deference to your flash-and-camera combination, to maintain accurate flash metering.

Wireless Flash

The second, and ultimately more versatile, method of using your flash off camera is through wireless triggering. Wireless triggering is an overarching term that encompasses three distinct methods for firing a flash without the use of a cable. These methods—optical, infrared and radio—each have their own benefits and can all be employed to accomplish types of lighting that is either very difficult or simply not possible if you were to fire your flashes physically.



 

Optical

An optical trigger, or optical slave, is the most basic way to trigger flashes wirelessly, as it requires no additional power and is incredibly minimalistic. These slaves contain light receptors that, once another flash has been detected, instantly trigger the flash to which they are connected. Many current flashes contain a built-in optical slave, and require no additional slave to be triggered optically. However, if you're working with an older flash, a flash without an optical slave, or when you need to increase the optical sensitivity of your flash, an optical slave can be a useful accessory.

Additionally, since optical slaves typically do not require additional power to function, they are ideal backups to other triggering methods in case of battery or other electrical failure. The one drawback to working with an optical slave in a situation such as a wedding is that, if other guests or photographers are also photographing with their own flash-enabled cameras, they can unintentionally fire your flashes. While this might not affect your own images, it can cause confusion if the flashes are firing at a substantial rate, which can also lessen your flashes' battery power and recycle times. Regardless, an optical slave is a proven method for wireless triggering and an ideal remedy for other equipment’s failure.

Infrared

Infrared triggering is similar to optical triggering with the exception that the receptor functions after detecting a burst of infrared light, rather than a visible one. This is to say that an infrared transmitter still produces a burst of light to transmit its signal; however, there is a strong infrared filter in front of the light source that attenuates much of this light and converts it to an infrared signal. This is beneficial because you are not dependent on a visible beam that emanates from either your camera or a flash directly wired to your camera; you can use a single flash off-camera and wirelessly trigger it from anywhere. Like optical triggers, many cameras and flashes have built-in infrared slaves or transmitters, but an auxiliary infrared system will often be much more sophisticated and powerful than those contained in your existing equipment. An infrared system functions best indoors, or in other situations where you have direct line-of-sight between the transmitter and receiver.

Radio

A radio slave is the most refined system of wireless triggering, as it requires no optical or visual sort of transmission and is entirely invisible. This allows you to trigger flashes without direct line of sight, and often at greater distances than optical or infrared transmitters and receivers support. For photographing a wedding, radio slaves are likely the most efficient means of wirelessly triggering lights because they can support numerous groups of lights. This ability lets you work with several lighting scenarios and transition between them quickly and easily.

PocketWizard has long been a notable choice for radio slaves, and most of their units feature the unique quality of also being transceivers—a combination of both transmitter and receiver in the same device. This provides more versatility, as you can purchase several PocketWizards and use them on either multiple cameras or flashes to suit different situations. The most recently introduced PocketWizard, the Plus X Transceiver, is one of their most simple models to operate, and as such, has very few controls on it. It supports the use of 10 different channels, which are selectable through a physical, backlit channel dial.

For greater channel support, the Plus III Transceiver supports 32-channel triggering for working with multiple groups of flashes or when working in crowded areas where other photographers are using radio triggers. There are also options available that work directly with either Nikon’s i-TTL or Canon’s E-TTL II systems; the FlexTT5 transceiver or the MiniTT1 transmitter. These function similarly to the Plus X and III, but with the inclusion of TTL compatibility, they are able to transmit exposure compensation information wirelessly between the flash and camera. Additionally, all PocketWizards are backward compatible with previous iterations of all PocketWizard radios, making them a sound investment for long-term use.

Another viable option for wireless radios is the Impact PowerSync16 system. These radio slaves feature 16 channels and support flash sync speeds up to 1/250th of a second. The receivers feature the ability to be converted to use AC power, which is ideal for working indoors and does not require replacing batteries throughout use. Similar to the Impact radios are the Vello FreeWave Fusion wireless triggers and receivers. In addition to being radio triggers, these also support the use of remote shutter triggering for making hands-free exposures.

Wireless Flash with TTL



 

Using your flash with manual settings wirelessly is a straightforward, albeit more difficult, way to remotely trigger a flash. It is more difficult due to the fact that you need to develop and adhere to a system, metering or testing, in order to calculate your exposure settings. It is simpler in nature, though, because there are fewer compatibility restrictions and you have a broader range of options and methods to tether your flash wirelessly. When working with TTL metering in a wireless fashion, equipment compatibility is paramount in order for everything to work seamlessly. However, when accounted for, TTL and wireless flash afford you a number of options relating to convenience, efficiency and speed that cannot easily be accomplished when using a fully manual setup.

Channels and Groups

Wireless radio slaves usually function by using different channels, or frequencies, in order to communicate with the flash or the receiver attached to the flash. This benefit is twofold: it allows several photographers to photograph wirelessly in the same environment without accidentally triggering each others’ flashes and it allows you to set up different lighting schemes that you can transition to and from without having to manually adjust each unit. This can provide immense benefits when photographing a wedding where you might be transitioning between ambient lighting scenarios very quickly; the ability to pre-plan and set up tested lighting arrangements and oscillate between them by simply changing channels can save a great deal of time and effort that you'd rather spend documenting the event.

In addition to working on different channels, some TTL systems also support groups of flashes within a single channel. Groups can consist of one or more flashes that are all controlled by a master controller, or "commander." By grouping flashes, or several flashes within a single group, you can control the output levels of each of these groups when working with multiple light sources. An example would be to have your main lights set to one group, and your accessory, fill, or any other secondary light sources set to another group; this provides you with the ability to control the light ratios between groups wirelessly, to fine-tune the overall look of your ultimate image. In order to utilize wireless TTL groups, you must use some kind of commander; either a master flash or a dedicated controller. This commander, if using an on-camera flash, will contribute to the overall exposure while also giving you the ability to modify the light output of the other lights in your group. A dedicated controller is a TTL-enabled radio or infrared unit that performs the same functions. However, it does not emit a flash, and thus does not affect the lighting setup. The TTL settings, including the ability to alter light output levels among groups, are typically made through the camera’s menu system, while the master flash itself is controlled through the flash’s own menu system.

Non-Flash-Emitting Commanders

Aside from the PocketWizard TTL-enabled radios, there are also commanders available from both Canon and Nikon that are well-suited to their respective TTL systems. The Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter is compatible with a wide array of Canon’s Speedlites and supports full E-TTL and E-TTL II capabilities to an unlimited number of flashes. Two groups are available when using this transmitter, which provides more room to creatively engineer multiple light setups. The more recently introduced ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter is a radio transmitter that is specifically designed for use with the Speedlite 600EX-RT. When using the ST-E3-RT, you are afforded up to five groups with a total of 15 individual flashes, for an extensive range of control over how your flashes perform. This transmitter, however, is currently only compatible with the 600EX-RT, due to its  unique built-in wireless radio capabilities.

In regard to Nikon and its CLS (Creative Lighting System), the Nikon SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander is compatible with many of the current Nikon Speedlights and supports control of an unlimited number of flashes within three separate groups. When paired with CLS-compatible cameras and flashes, this commander can provide wireless control from up to 66’ away and offers four independent channels for use among other photographers also using Nikon CLS devices. 

The advantages of working with one or several flashes off-camera are enormous in regard to the freedom and creative possibilities you are afforded by not relegating a flash to the top of your camera. Especially when you're photographing a wedding, where the lighting circumstances are often mixed, difficult or fluctuating, having controllable lighting systems that can be placed and manipulated puts you in control of how the resulting imagery looks.

When building an off-camera lighting setup, you should consider the type of environment you will be working in and previsualize the type of lighting you want to achieve. The combination of these two factors can help you decide if you will need radio transceivers with more than 10 channels because there will be other photographers around, or if you can just work with a simple single-channel infrared receiver because the situations are controlled. The main goal when shooting a wedding is to be as unobtrusive as possible and working with an off-camera and, even better, wireless flash system is a guaranteed method to accomplish refined lighting in a low-profile manner.

For more information, speak with a B&H sales professional at our New York SuperStore, over the phone at 1-800-606-6969 or via Live Chat.

7 Comments

Here lately, I am having a real issue with all of my shots coming out with a real blue hue to every one of the photos?? I have made many adjustments to camera and flash, and just can't seem to get them right?
I am shooting alot of photo inside dancehalls where the lighting is low to begin with, so I have my camera set for that in manual mode.

Can you please tell me what I am doing incorrectly?? Very very frustrating!

thank you!

Have you tried adjusting your whitebalance to compensate for the flash? Auto-whitebalance settings aren't aware that you're using flash. Strobes usually have a bluish color temperature, and this might be the reason why your photos have a strong blue cast to them. Many cameras have a whitebalance "flash" preset that eliminates the harsh effect of certain bulbs.

I know this is an old post but I've seen in a class where they use gels or the colored plastic over the flash. Just tape on the color you like. I've seen an orange work well.

What about Quantum and their Trio and CoPilot system?

I started out with a Trio Basic and later got a Pilot on camera controller and had my "basic" upgraded to a full Trio with the built in TTL radio.

The Pilot was a little big on top of the camera so I moved to the CoPilot and got myself a second Trio. I really love this system. The CoPilot is small and light and controls up to 3 off camera Quantum flashes.

I was always an Auto or TTL shooter but the easy to adjust dials on CoPilot made it easy for me to finally move to Manual.

Great round up Bjorn. Wish I had seen this information before plunging into off camera speed lighting! Started with infra red but now moved onto radio triggers with no TTL. Enjoying the whole experience, but really surprised at the expense of the Flex system from PW. Not sure if it's worth going down that path. Anyway great article.

You seem not to have noticed that Olympus also has wireless flash technology and supports wireless flash ttl. The FL600 can operate as either a slave or commander unit. The built in flash of many models and the kit flash with the EM-5 also can operate as a commander unit. Slave flashes can be the FL-36R, the FL-50R, the FL-300 and the FL-600.

I am sure some chinese no-name brand has wireless TTL too. No one ever notices Olympus, or Panasonic, or Samsung, or any other marginal, and minor, brands.

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