There is only one word in the off-camera flash world: Strobist. It’s an awesome website by David Hobby, dedicated to teaching you how to light effectively with small flashes. We can’t rate this website highly enough... it’s positively addictive.
If you want to become a flashgun lighting guru this is an excellent route:
- Absorb the tutorials and marvel at the examples on Strobist
- Assemble your ultra-light, portable, creative lighting kit (we can help!)
- Take part in the Strobist assignments and practice, practice, practice...
Part 1 – Learning with Strobist
Start your off-camera lighting adventure with the Strobist welcome page and lighting 101 – a series of about 30 posts taking you through all the basics. This video by Paul Duncan is great primer before you dive in:
Part 2 – Assemble your (small) Lighting Kit
The strobist ethos is firmly centred on less is more; it’s all about producing gorgeously lit images without lugging around 30 kilos of studio flash kits and portable power supplies. This means you’re nimble, flexible and most importantly, free to be creative. So think minimalist, but you do need some kit to get started, otherwise you’ll have to take a desk lamp and an extension lead everywhere...
Today’s flashguns have advanced TTL metering, wireless capabilities and huge power ratings – whilst these features are nice to have, the two features you should look out for are: full manual control (over power output & flash zoom position) and a PC-sync socket.
- For Canon: a 580 EX II Speedlite or a 430 EX II Speedlite*
- For Nikon & Fuji: a SB-900 Speedlight or a SB-600 Speedlight*
- For Olympus: a FL-50R flashgun* or a FL-36R flashgun*
- For Sony: a HVL-F58AM flashgun* or a HVL-F42 flashgun*
- Alternatives: a Metz or dusty old flashgun in your cupboard
* N.B: The flashguns marked with an asterisk don’t have a PC sync-socket. This isn’t an issue if you plan to use wireless hot-shoe triggers or in-built wireless camera to flash triggering (if you system supports this).
Unless you have an army of glamorous assistants, you’ll need a stand or a clamp to support your flashgun(s). To connect your flashgun to the lighting stand, use a tilt-head - which conveniently allows you to attach an umbrella.
- Manfrotto 001B Nano Stand (Light) – The 001B nano lighting stand weighs just 930g, has a convenient 48cm closed length, and can extend up to 190cm high. The maximum load is 1500g (enough for a tilt-head, flashgun, and medium 80-100cm sized umbrella).
- Manfrotto 305B Stand (Medium) – The 305B lighting stand can cope with a larger 4kg maximum weight and extends up to 217cm high. The trade-off is the 305B weighs slightly more (1.1kg) and is less compact when collapsed (64cm).
- Manfrotto 004B Stand (Heavy duty) – The 004B master stand has a maximum load capacity of 9kg and can extend to a whopping 385cm high. The closed length is 107cm and the weight is 2.15kg. Not the most portable option, but it allows a lot of gear to be attached.
- More lighting stands available from Giottos, Interfit, and Lastolite!
Lastolite Hotshoe Tilthead – The bottom of the tilthead attaches to a standard lighting stand and the top allows any standard hotshoe flashgun to be mounted. There’s a socket for an umbrella with a standard 8mm shaft.
- Lastolite Tri-Flash Hotshoe Tilthead – If you need to blitz you subject, then as the name suggests you can attach three flashguns. Additional power from multiple flashes is useful to freeze action or light a large scene with a big diffuser. Alternatively using three flashguns to produce the equivalent power of one flashgun on maximum power will allow quicker recycling times between flashes.
- WexPro Flash Bracket Kit – Our in-house kit includes a tilthead plus two 50cm umbrellas (one translucent and one white reflective).
- Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp – The Manfrotto 035 super clamp is highly customisable with different spigots (a.k.a. ‘studs’) and adapters. It supports 15kg and can be clamped to a tube, desk, or an open door – almost anything from 1.3 to 5.5cm deep. Combinations:
- Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp + 036-14 Lighting Stud + a Tilthead = Versatile setup allowing you to clamp your flashgun to an object with the option of adding an umbrella.
- Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp + 037 Mounting Stud = Attach your camera to the super clamp via a 1/4” (compact / DSLR camera) or 3/8” (medium format) thread.
- Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp + 036-14 Lighting Stud + 143S Flash Shoe Adapter = A quick way to attach a flashgun to the super clamp without a tilthead. The downside is less angle flexibility and no umbrella option.
- Manfrotto 175F Clamp with Hotshoe Mount – This clever little clamp features an integrated mini ball head with a hotshoe mount. Perfect for attaching a flash to a 5-40mm bar. The downside of the 175F is the lack of umbrella stem holder – but it’s still a handy option if you plan to use the flash bare, gelled or with a small clip on diffuser.
Beam Sync me up, Scotty!
Ok so you’ve got your flashgun, a stand and a tilthead. The next step is to figure out how to trigger the flash when you press the shutter release (they need to be synchronised – or ‘synced’). This can be quite simple if you are planning to use your camera manufacturer’s built-in wireless flash system (you need a compatible flashgun, camera and possibly a transmitter unit).
Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (CLS) allows you to use the camera’s in-built pop-up flash (on mid & high-end Nikon digital SLRs), another SB Speedlight on the camera, or a SU-800 Speedlight Commander. In contrast Canon requires another EX Speedlite on the camera or a ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter; you can’t use the in-built pop-up flash.
The benefit of using your manufacturer’s system is that TTL exposure metering is maintained, however the disadvantage can be the limited range. Most of the systems use infra-red to trigger, so the camera needs to be within a reasonable distance and angle from the off-camera flashgun.
There are syncing alternatives which are more affordable (cables or third-party triggers), plus premium options which use radio signal to provide greater transmission distances. Using a PC-sync cable or TTL cord will restrict where you can position your off-camera flash, but are quite handy if you’re on a budget.
- PC-Sync cables
- PC-Sync hotshoe adapters are useful if your camera doesn’t have a PC-sync socket. Options available include the Nikon AS-15, Interfit STR115, and Kaiser 1300.
- Nikon SC-28 TTL remote cord (0.9m)
- Canon OC-E3 off-camera flash cord (0.6m)
- Nissin SC-01 universal TTL off-camera flash cord (1.5m)
- Interfit Strobies Trigger Set (Entry-level) – This competitively priced trigger system has a 30m range and a choice of 4 radio channels. The receiver features at PC sync terminal which allows you to use the kit with studio strobes.
- Bowens Pulsar Radio Trigger (Intermediate) – Just place one Pulsar unit on to your cameras hotshoe and connect another to your off-camera flashgun via a PC sync cable. An additional single Pulsar unit is available to expand on the twin pack, if you wish to trigger two flashguns from one camera.
- Pocket Wizard Plus II (Premium) – Widely regarded as the best option in the market, Pocket Wizards are found in many professionals’ camera bags. They’re reliable and have an excellent range of 480 metres (1600 feet). Pocket Wizards can sync at shutter speeds of 1/500s, have 4 channels, and can perform tricks such as remote camera triggering (requires adapter cables).
- PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 (Premium) Added 13/09/09 - PocketWizard have just released new wireless triggers with full TTL compatibility. The MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 units are currently available for Canon users only (E-TTL & E-TTL II). Full E-TTL sync is available for up to 240m, with a choice of 35 channels, at a maximum of 8 frames per second! You can read more in our special PocketWizard FlexTT5 and MiniTT1 post!
The next step is to control and modify your light, whether it’s creating soft diffuse light with an umbrella or a tight restricted pool of light with a snoot.
- Reflective umbrellas bounce the light from your flashgun to your subject whilst diffusing the light to prevent harsh outlines. Different finishes vary the amount and quality of light retuned – white produces softer diffuse light, whereas silver reflects more light (useful when your light source is far away from the subject).
- Translucent umbrellas are useful to shoot-through, e.g. between a flash pointing directly at the point to be illuminated. This allows you to position your light source closer the subject, providing more power (distance = light loss) to work with for balancing daylight or being creative.
- Multi-purpose umbrellas have adjustable covers which allow you to swap between translucent and silver/white with a black backing.
- Interfit Strobies Softbox – This mini flashgun softbox is handy for use with your flash on or off camera. It requires an Interfit Strobies Flex-Mount.
- Lastolite Apollo Softboxes: Apollo 45, Apollo 60, Apollo XL
- Lastolite Ezybox Hotshoe: 38cm kit, 60cm kit
- Interfit Strobies Snoot – includes two honeycomb grids. Requires a flex mount.
- Speedlite Snoot for Canon and Nikon – includes two honeycomb grids.
Light Modification Kits for Flashguns
- Interfit Strobies Portrait Kit and add-on EFX kit.
- Speedlite Accessory Kit for Canon and Nikon.
- Honl Starter Kit – includes a speed gobo, barndoors, snoots, speed grids and colour correction & effects gels.
Bits n’ Bobs
Handy accessories to get the most out of your portable lighting setup:
- Bongo Ties – Useful for tying sync cables or wireless transmitters to the lighting stand or flashgun.
- WexPro Multi-Purpose Clamp – Secure backgrounds and cables. Also available with an integrated mini ball head or 1/4" thread spigot.
- Lastolite Ezybalance Grey / White Card 30cm, 50cm and 75cm. After all the effort to create an amazingly lit image, make sure you can nail the white balance while editing!
- Ansmann Photocam III Charger – rechargeable AA batteries and a battery charger are essential if you’re going to be experimenting with flash. Add some high power 2700mAh NiMh batteries for extended photoshoots..
Part 3 – Practice
Time to bribe family, friends and aspiring models! Checkout the Strobist "On Assignment" page for inspiration or consider joining in a lighting meet-up event. Remember to share your off-camera lighting masterpieces in the comments section, just post a link to a Flickr image or blog link!