What’s the best way to improve your flash photography?" This is the most frequently asked question when I teach my flash photography workshops. If only there was a silver bullet to fix a photographer’s flash woes. But there is one technique that almost fits the bill: Try using your flash off-camera.
With a speedlight attached to your camera’s hot-shoe, your creative lighting options are severely limited. I think of on-camera flash as "mug shot lighting." The flash is on the same axis as the lens and aimed directly at your subject. The result is flat lighting and a boring shot. Sure, some situations require on-camera flash since it’s the only practical way to shoot, but shooting with your flash off-camera is a lot easier than you may think.
Why does off-camera flash improve your lighting so much? Because off-camera lighting allows you to create shadow, highlights, contrast and texture. Instead of just illuminating your subjects, you can light them. Add some light modifiers like softboxes and grids, and you have all the tools you need to create captivating portraits using a single speedlight.
The good news for photographers is that now, more than ever, there are exciting new ways to trigger speedlights off-camera. These options range from inexpensive dedicated cords to long-range transmitters that can fire flashes a third of a mile away. And many of these triggers allow full control of flash output—you never have to leave your camera to adjust flash power. No matter what your budget, you’ll find an affordable method to trigger flash off-camera. So get flash-liberated and start shooting with off-camera flash!
1. Bounce Flash
One technique that doesn’t require a remote trigger and simulates off-camera flash is bounce flash. All you need is a speedlight with a rotating head, which most speedlights offer. Bounce flash works by aiming your flash toward a reflective surface, such as a white ceiling, and bouncing the light off this and back onto your subject. Since the light comes at an angle from the bounce surface, the light appears directional, not straight from the camera. Often, the light is much softer and almost shadowless if you’re bouncing off a large surface like a ceiling. Just remember that bounce flash will pick up the color of the surface off of which the light is bouncing. Green ceilings and orange walls will result in alien portrait lighting.
Bounce flash also works outside. Just aim your flash to the left or right at a simple reflector and bounce light back onto your subject. Try this using the sun for a bright highlight on the opposite side of the bounced flash, and you have a nice portrait.
2. Built-In Optical Slave
This off-camera technique doesn’t require any additional gear, as well, but your flash must have slave-eye capability. Optical slaves operate by triggering the flash when the slave eye "sees" another flash go off. Most studio packs have a slave eye built into the unit. This allows you to use one transmitter to trigger the flash, and the rest will fire once they see the first flash go off. Output is controlled manually.
Many speedlights also have a slave-eye function. My Nikon SB-900s have a setting called SU-4 mode. This setting puts the flash into a slave-eye mode. You can use either Manual or Auto flash modes with the slave eye. Auto mode enables a flash sensor to meter output for correct exposure; in Manual mode, the flash fires at the output you set.
3. Dedicated Cord
The first way I ever used flash off-camera was with a dedicated cable. These cables are inexpensive and maintain complete functionality of the flash as if it was still on the camera hot-shoe. One end of the cable attaches to the hot-shoe, the other end to the flash, and you’re ready to go.
One advantage of cables is that you never have to worry about signal interference. I’ve covered many events walking around with my flash attached to a cable shooting spontaneous moments. When shooting alone, I hold the flash in one hand and the camera in the other. I put my camera on autofocus and in Aperture-priority mode so all I need to do is aim at the subject for correct exposure and focus. It takes a little practice to get your aim down holding the flash in your other hand. When I first started using this technique, my aim was bad and I flashed (blinded) a lot of unsuspecting bystanders.
My Nikon SC-28 cable is nine feet long. I can attach three of these together to shoot further away from my subject. Attach your speedlight to a weighted stand to keep the flash in place when the cables are stretched.
4. Optical Transmitter
When Nikon first introduced the SU-800 optical transmitter in 2005, my photography world was rocked. This was a revolutionary device that allowed me to trigger my speedlights from the camera, but even more exciting, I could control the output of multiple speedlight groups. Now I could increase or decrease the flash output right from my camera without taking a step. Complex lighting solutions became simple affairs.
Optical transmitters work by sending an infrared signal to the flash at the moment of exposure. Their range varies. Optical transmitters work really well in dark areas and in rooms, but are less effective in bright, sunny conditions where the signal can get interference. Technically, this type of transmitter needs line of sight to work, but I’ve found my SU-800 works around corners and behind furniture in rooms. Most likely, the signal is bounced around and still hits the flashes.
A big advantage of using a dedicated optical transmitter for your brand of flash is that the speedlights have a receiver installed. Just attach the optical transmitter to your camera, put your flashes in "remote" mode, and you’re ready to shoot. No extra receiver accessories are needed. And if your camera has a pop-up flash, you may be able to set it to "commander" mode and use this flash as your optical transmitter. Check your camera manual to see what features your pop-up flash offers. Also, speedlights like the Nikon SB-900 can be set to "commander" mode and used to trigger other speedlights.
Another great feature of a dedicated optical transmitter like the SU-800 is that I can shoot in different flash modes. I often use high-speed sync to darken my backgrounds or help freeze action. Other times, I’ll use Manual mode to keep my flash output consistent during a shoot.
5. Radio Transmitter
Radio transmitters are similar to optical wireless transmitters except they use a radio signal instead of an infrared signal to trigger the flash. You need both a transmitter and a receiver unit for this system to work. The big advantage using a radio transmitter is the increased range and reliable sunny day performance. Radio transmitters don’t need line of sight.
Radio wireless systems come in a variety of configurations. I really like using the Elinchrom Skyport system to trigger my flashes. It has a small transmitter that’s attached to the camera hot-shoe and a receiver that’s attached to the flash via a small cord. I can’t adjust speedlight output or use high-speed sync with the Skyports, but they work fantastic triggering my flash in Manual mode.
Skyports offer another huge advantage to my shooting. I use Elinchrom lighting equipment, which is also triggered by the Skyports. Being on the same wireless system allows me to use both speedlights and studio packs in the same image. I’ll often shoot a portrait using my Nikon SB-900s as accent lights, with an Elinchrom Ranger studio pack and head—shot through a large octabank—as my main light.
Another type of radio transmitter is the PocketWizard. PocketWizards have long been the standard wireless transmitter for many photographers. Recently, they began producing the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5, a new dedicated radio wireless system for Nikon and Canon flash, offering the same control of optical systems but in a wireless system. You can change output, control three different groups and use high-speed sync with this system. It works with both Canon and Nikon flashes, and is upgradeable to work with new cameras that are introduced.
RadioPopper offers another wireless trigger system that takes a different approach to wireless flash from its predecessors, with some notable advantages. The RadioPopper PX system uses a transmitter that fits over your dedicated optical transmitter and a receiver that fits onto your flash. This system works by converting the optical signal into a radio signal, transmitting this to the receiver, which then converts the signal back to an optical signal for the flash receiver to use. What this means is that all the functions I have available on my SU-800 are available using the RadioPopper PX system. Since the signal is converted to a radio signal, I don’t have to worry about line of sight or interference from the sun. The system is simple to set up and use.
But where the RadioPopper really shines is the distance and reliability it offers. I’ve been astounded at how far I can trigger my speedlights using RadioPopper. While the official range is stated as 1,500 feet, I’ve done tests and triggered my flashes close to a third of a mile away—and they never miss a shot! Since I shoot a lot of adventure sports, this extended range allows me to use flash on mountain bikers riding on a distant trail or kayakers paddling in a canyon below me.
Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. You can see more of his photography at www.tombolphoto.com.