We have discussed many aspects of using an external, hot shoe flash in the last several posts in this series on using small flash with your camera. All the while, however, the flash unit has stayed in the hot shoe atop your camera. Since this is the worst place for it, we have looked at ways to reduce or eliminate the flat lighting that a straight-on flash creates on your subject. We've considered twisting the flash head in a variety of ways so we can bounce its light off walls, ceilings, and reflectors of various types. We have also discussed an assortment of both commercial and DIY reflectors and diffusers for when bouncing is either impossible or impractical.
It is now time, however, to take that flash off the camera and explore its use separated from the hot shoe to create wonderful shadows on our subjects that add drama and character to our images, whether of a person or a rose! Being able to place our flash camera left or camera right (as you view your subject) at a 45° angle makes an amazing difference in the resulting images we now shoot. Where we place our flash on this "lighting compass," as Syl Arena calls it (http://www.infotor.com/blog/take-position-your-flash-on-the-lighting-compass/), changes the shadows cast on the subject and, as a result, the mood of the final image.
That's all well and good, you're no doubt saying, but just how do we get the camera to communicate with the flash if it's no longer sitting in the hot shoe? Very good question! Obviously, there has to be some sort of connection and, as it turns out, this is where you have options. Several options, in fact. The thing new flash users usually turn to is a short, 3-foot, coiled cable. One end fits in the hot shoe on your camera and you attach the other end to the base of the flash unit. Then you can either hold the flash in one hand and the camera in the other or you can buy a flash bracket to which you attach the camera using the tripod mount. The flash then attaches to a side piece of the bracket so that it does succeed in getting the flash off the camera, but not by very much. If you purchase a longer cable then you can put your flash on an inexpensive light stand off to the left or right side. Much better. Unfortunately, though, longer cables are not cheap, running in excess of $60, for example, and then you have the issue of the cable itself. It's length limits how far away from the camera the flash can be and people can trip over cables. Don't get me wrong! Using a cable can be a very practical solution, but let's hear the other options before we decide.
Your second option is wireless infrared. All camera manufacturers typically sell a transmitter unit that fits in your camera's hot shoe and connects to your flash via an infrared signal, but some cameras can do the same job using the camera's built-in, pop-up flash as the transmitter. The built-in flash signals the off-camera flash with a pre-flash signal and can even transmit camera settings so that TTL flash functionality still works! Most Nikon cameras support this with something they call "Commander Mode." Newer Canon cameras, such as the 7D, 60D, and newer Rebels, now support this functionality as well. This is truly phenomenal, as it is, essentially, free. However, the downside with this particular wireless mode is that it is line-of-sight, meaning that your flash unit has to be able to "see" the signal from your built-in flash so nothing can be in the way. And, it doesn't work real well outdoors in bright sunlight (and, yes, you DO sometimes want to use flash in bright sunlight!). (http://www.infotor.com/blog/flash-on-wednesday-controlling-your-flashes-wirelessly/)
The third option and the one that I and most photographers will recommend is the use of radio triggers. As I note in this post, http://www.infotor.com/blog/controlling-equipping-the-flash-stick/, within this option you have, basically, two more options. Since this piece is from material I cover in my first flash class series and is aimed more at those folks who are testing the waters with flash, let me comment only on the radio trigger option that is more appropriate for those who would prefer to stay more in the TTL shooting mode and not manual flash mode. If this is the case with you, then you will want to use radio triggers that support Canon E-TTL or Nikon i-TTL. The most popular triggers here - and the most expensive - are sold by Pocket Wizard. A set - two transceivers, meaning each can serve as either a signal transmitter OR a signal receiver - will cost you approximately $450 and up! There are several other radio trigger manufacturers and their newer entries, though much less expensive, are getting closer to the performance of the Pocket Wizard units.
I researched many of these alternatives and ended up purchasing a set sold by Pixel-King (http://www.infotor.com/blog/flash-friday-using-my-new-pixel-king-radio-triggers-for-the-first-time/). They are brand specific, so if you are a Canon shooter, you will want the Pixel-King radio triggers for Canon, etc. A set, consisting of a transmitter that goes in your camera's hot shoe and a receiver, to which you attach your flash, cost currently around $120. A much more reasonable price for amateurs and those just getting into flash.
So now that you have your camera "talking" to your flash, what do you do next? Take pictures, of course. Awesome pictures, in fact! We'll look at how best to approach that in the post next week.
I am offering two new classes this summer: "Mastering Manual" and "Mobile Flash: Using the Flash Stick." Check out the descriptions and register online at http://www.infotor.com/photoclasses/plannedclasses.php. I am also available to do one-on-one tutoring or small group lessons designed to meet YOUR needs and what you want to learn in the area of photography, using flashes, or the use of Apple products and software. Give yourself the gift of learning: http://www.infotor.com/photoclasses! Check out my new special tutoring bundle: http://www.infotor.com/photoclasses/tutoringbundle.php!