Using a Speedlight as an Off-Camera Flash

We all know on-camera flash stinks. Between the Red-Eye and the unflattering flat contrasty shadows, it can take a great photo and lower it to a “snap-shot”.

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There are three main reasons why we want to get our speedlight’s off of our camera:

  1. Eliminate Red-Eye.
  2. Control the Angle of the Light
  3. Control the Size of the Light

Red-Eye

Red-Eye happens when the flash bounces off of the subject’s retina back to the lens. The closer the flash is to the lens the greater the likelyhood this will happen. Since we tend to use our speedlights in dark conditions, the subject’s pupils are wider which amplifies the problem. Since this is about angles, the subject-camera distance factors in as well. The further away the subject is the further away from the lens the light has to be to avoid red-eye.

Generally using an external speedlight mounted to your hotshoe will be much better than a camera’s built-in flash. Most photographers though will invest in a flash bracket, which

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attaches to your tripod socket on the bottom of the camera. You mount your speedlight at the top of the bracket and use a cable to run from the speedlight to the camera.

If you’re shooting modern camera’s using TTL flash metering, you will need a special (and expensive) manufacturer’s specific cable to make this connection. For Nikon users, its an SC-29 and is rather expensive ($70 at online stores). You attach this cable to your hotshoe, mount the other end at the top of the bracket and then put your speedlight into the hotshoe at the end of the cable.

This should solve most red-eye problems, except for subjects at a distance. You will also get some better shadows with this setup, but they will still be strong, hard shadows.

Angle of the Light

You can’t be very creative if your light only comes from one direction. Being able to move the light around expands your creative options. Hotshoe mounted speed lights, and even bracket mounted lights basically still give you frontal only light.

Most studio lights have long cables that allow the camera to trigger the light. They also have built-in sensors called “optical slaves” which lets them trigger when they detect that another flash has fired. But we hate cables and we are not going to be using studio strobes.

Luckily for us, the camera makers have given us a cool, wireless way to trigger our speedlight’s off camera. Different makers will call it something different. Nikon calls this their CLS or Creative Lighting System.

If you have an SB-800, SB-600 or SB-900 strobe, you can set it into a remove slave mode and then using your camera’s popup flash or a second speedlight (or a dedicated trigger), you can, from your camera, set the remote strobe’s power settings. Canon and Sony offer similar systems.

Unfortunately, not all camera’s will work with their popup lights. The D100 and D50 do not. The D70 has limits. Cameras that don’t have popup’s, like the D3 or D2X, or the camera’s that don’t support CLS with the popups can use an SB-600, 800 or 900 in the hotshoe or the specialized SU-800 to manage the remote lights.

For Canon users, you will need a 550EX or 580EX to act as master flash. In addition the 420EX and 430EX can be used as slave flashes. I don’t believe Canon pop-up flashes can drive and control remote lights. So Canon users will either need a 2nd speed light or the Canon wireless Infra-red trigger.

The Nikon SB-800 and possibly others ships with a small plate that you can slide the flash into and sit it on a table or other flat surface so that you can sit the flash off camera. This plate can also screw into a standard tripod so you have the ability to place the flash any where you want in respect to the subject. Then you use your on-camera light to trip the off camera light.

You can move the flash close to the subject, place it above them, behind them, to the left, to the right and create different looks.

A popular setup that photographer’s use is to buy a light-weight “light stand” and a hot-shoe compatible “swivel”. The swivel attaches to the light stand and lets you plug your speedlight in to its “hot shoe”. Of course there are no electronics so its really not “hot”. The swivel has a vertical adjustment that lets you aim the light up and down. Most speedlights give you the ability to aim it up, but not down, so the swivel helps in this situation.

One of the major benefits of this off-camera lighting is you can use multiple lights, so if you have two speed lights, then you can use one as a main light and the other as a fill light or a background light. Though there is a lot you can do with one light.

Of course, we are still using our speed lights, which in the grand scale of things are small light sources. Small lights tend to contribute to harsher shadows.

Size of the Light

Shadow hardness is determined by two factors:

  • The Size of the Light
  • The Distance of the Light

The size and distance both factor together to become a relative light size. A simple way to think about this is that the biggest light source we have, the sun, is 93 million miles away. In this case a really big light is so far away it becomes a small light source. Our speedlight’s small, business card sized light sources are very small lights, but we can get them close to the subject.

At the end of the day, the speed light even when close to the subject is going to be small.

The reason we have harsh shadows from small lights is the direction the light rays hit the subject. The sun being very far away, means almost all light hits the subject from the same direction. When you get a light close to a subject, the light rays start coming in at different angles which softens shadows. So for a given sized light, the closer the softer the shadows. This is backwards thinking since you would think the further away the less intense the light, but closer lights are softer shadows. Try it!

We need to be able to make our speed light larger. There are multiple ways to do it, but I highly recommend an inexpensive shoot-thru umbrella. They are generally around 3-4 feet in size and are made from a translucent white fabric. Using the light stand and swivel above you can now attach the umbrella to the setup (the main purpose of the swivel!). Now you can get really large lights close to the subject for very soft shadows.

The combination is light weight, very portable and very flexible which is why so many photographers use this setup.

Yea, but I don’t have these fancy speedlights and cameras?

Don’t panic. You’re not out of luck. There are plenty of other options from radio remotes and triggers to long cables which let you get your flash off camera. Several people, including myself have the Cactus V2s Radio Remotes to trigger off camera lights.

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2 Comments

  1. photoman022
    Jan 2nd 10:29pm

    Optical slave “buds” are another alternative for off camera flash. They cost around $10 each (shipping included) on major auction sites. I can use the pop up flash on my Nikon d40 set at 1/32 power as the master and the optical slaves trigger my off camera flashes.

  2. Jan 2nd 10:52pm

    Thanks for the comment photoman022. Indeed low cost optical slaves, like Wein peanut work wonders . . . unless you have Canon 580EX’s or 580EX II’s. They apparently don’t like unpowered slaves. I know I can attach radio triggers to them, but putting them on a Hotshoe or PC socket attached optical slave is an exercise in frustration.

    You don’t need (or in most cases want) expensive speedlights for these off camera lights if your not shooting in your system’s wireless system. A $30 Vivitar and a $10 slave will make an excellent hair light or kicker or background light.

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