Using External Flash – Part 2; Going Wireless

If you’re a photographer on a budget (like me), then you have to make the most of what you have. This principle applies to cameras, lenses, lighting, computers, software, and basically anything that you use in your photography workflow. Today I’m going to talk about how you can get your external flash (speedlight) off of your camera and without the use of cables. I mentioned this on Friday, but this article goes a little deeper and focuses heavily on getting incredible results for very little money. At this point in my own photography, I prefer speedlights to studio strobes because speedlights are ultra-portable and average to high-end speedlights are very flexible. Studio strobes can be portable too, but not without bulky power packs and those can cost a pretty penny. That said, here’s how you can go wireless without breaking the bank.

Getting Rid Of Those Pesky Wires:

  • For Nikon and Canon shooters who shoot with their brand of speedlight, both manufacturers include a built-in wireless feature provided that your camera supports it (most DSLRs today do). To do this, it requires that your camera support the feature through it’s on camera flash and firmware or that you either have (1) another speedlight that can be used as a master or (2) a controller that acts as a master. Nikon’s camera support is called Commander Mode and their external controller is called the SU-800 which controls the other flashes via infrared. Commander Mode works by using an imperceptible flash of light to trigger your other flashes and you can also control the power (light output) of your wireless flashes as well.
  • Another way you can go about getting wireless is by setting up your speedlight in “slave” mode. No, this doesn’t mean that you work your flash all day and all night in exchange for letting it live in your camera bag. By setting your speedlight up as a slave, you can use your on-camera flash to fire your speedlight. It doesn’t take much to do this and it works around corners, down hallways, and I’ve even tested mine at 110 feet away and it still fired! This method works well for someone like myself who shoots with a Nikon D40 which doesn’t have Nikon’s “Commander Mode” for me to use my flash wirelessly. To do this, I set my Nikon SB-800 speedlight in SU-4 (slave) mode and then change my on-camera flash to manual power and set it to 1/32 (the lowest power setting on the D40). I do this so that my on-camera flash doesn’t affect the exposure. You can also put a small piece of a deep red gel over your on-camera flash which will prevent it from affecting exposure and can still be detected by your wireless speedlight’s sensor.
  • The third wireless method I’m going to talk about today is the method that uses a radio transmitter and receiver. The way this method works is the transmitter sits in your camera’s hot shoe and the receiver connects to your wireless speedlight either via PC Sync cord or via the hot shoe connector on the flash. There are a lot of options when it comes to this. Most pros use the ever-popular Pocket Wizard Plus II. It’s a great unit, but it’s costly. Another method for casual users would be a great little transmitter/receiver unit from a company called Gadget Infinity. The V2s claims to work with all popular DSLRs and speedlights. You can pick the transmitter/receiver combo up for $32.95 and extra receivers (for more speedlights) are only $19.95. Compare that to the $190.00 price tag of the Pocket Wizard Plus II (which you will need two of) and it’s an easy choice for those of us on a budget.

How Many Speedlights?:

This is a common question. Fortunately, you don’t really need more than one to get good shots. By utilizing some sort of diffuser (like an umbrella, softbox, or diffusion panel) you can soften the harsh light of your speedlight and then you can use a reflector to reflect light back onto your subject and fill in the shadows. (More on this later.) If you have two speedlights, you can use the second as a hair light or to create dramatic lighting on your background. If you want light on the background (and don’t have two speedlights), you can even use a $20.00 work light from Wal-Mart or Home Depot.

Reflectors and Diffusers:

For reflectors, you don’t have to spend a lot of money. You can go to Staples or Office Depot and buy some foam core presentation boards that are white and make excellent reflectors. You can also use a $3.00 silver car shade from Wal-Mart. A 3-pack of 20″x30″ foam core will run you about $20.00. As far as diffusers go you can get an inexpensive light stand, umbrella, and flash mount for about $50.00 from B&H Photo. You can also get a Lastolite 33″ 1-Stop Diffusion panel for about $68.00 from B&H Photo and put it on a light stand with a clamp or have an assistant hold it. If money is really tight you can even use a frosted shower curtain. Believe me, it works! The important thing is that you diffuse the light to make it soft and flattering. The smaller the light source, the more harsh it is. This is why is SO VERY IMPORTANT to diffuse light coming from speedlights.

How To Set Up:

When getting your flash off camera you ideally want to have it higher than your subject and off to a 45 degree angle from your camera. This gives the same look that you would get with natural light. Having the light stand and flash mount will allow you to do this. The umbrella attaches to the mount and allows you to reflect the light back or shoot the light through the umbrella. Your main light source should be roughly about 3 feet away from your subject without getting it in the frame. Remember, the closer the light the more wrapping and soft it will be. Not the other way around! Your reflector should be close to your subject on the unlighted side. Again, get it as close as you can without getting it in the frame. Feel free to experiment a little bit until you get the look you are going for. If you are using a hair light, position it directly above and a little behind your subject. You don’t want the light to spill over onto your subject’s face. You want it to just hit their hair and shoulders. You will want your hair light to be one full stop brighter than your key (or main) light. If you have a light meter, now is the time to break it out. If not, you will want to put your camera in Manual and adjust shutter speed and aperture to get the proper exposure.

Summary:

This article isn’t meant to be an all-in-one lighting solution. I wrote this to get you in the ball park. I am by no means an expert at this, and continue to learn every single day. I encourage you to experiment and see what works for you. Please feel free to drop me a line and let me know what has worked for you. By sharing information, we can only become better artists. I hope this helps you in some way whether it be a little or a lot. Have a great week and happy shooting!

Resources:

A lot of the information in the article came from what I have learned from the book and websites that I have linked below.  Please check them as you will be very glad that you did!

Strobist
Lighting Essentials
The Digital Photography Book, Vol. 2 by Scott Kelby

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5 thoughts on “Using External Flash – Part 2; Going Wireless

  1. I’m currently upgrading from a Canon S2 IS to a Olympus SP570UZ, Depending what Canon does with the S6. Any way the big thing I like is the fact it has the hot shoe for the flash, this way I can set up better pics w/o the horrifying glare. What are your opinions on the Ultra Zooms. The biggest benefit for me is I don’t have to carry around a bunch of lenses. Am I missing out on that much quality for convenience?

  2. Hi Mark,

    Ultra Zooms are cool and convenient, have great optics, and also have a lot of the features that Prosumer DSLRs have too. However, if you need an ultra-wide or really long telephoto lens, you’re up the creek if you don’t have a DSLR. The other downfall is that the sensors are smaller than those in most DSLRs. Sure, there are 8 and 10 megapixel models but you are cramming more pixels onto a smaller sensor which in turn induces more noise in your photos. Unless you’re printing 24×36 prints you’re probably not going to notice the noise. I hope that information helps.

    Stephen

  3. hi. I have this Nikon SB-26 speedlight. How can I make use of its wireless feature using my d40 dslr without using any transmitter or receiver? I believe the SB-26 has a sensor..

    is it possible by using just the built in flash to trigger the speelight?

    thanks in advance

    • Hi Pipo,

      The SB-26 has a built-in slave so that you can trigger the flash wirelessly with another flash. You can trigger it with your on-camera pop up flash, but remember that the light coming from on-camera is going to affect your exposure. You can dial that down in your menu by changing your pop-up flash setting from TTL to Manual and dialing it down to the lowest setting.

      If you have any other questions or need help setting up your on-camera flash or getting into slave mode on your SB-26, please let me know.

      All the best,

      Stephen

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