Today I would like to talk a little about electronic flash. We have all seen photos and the harsh light that is created by using a cameras built in flash. Sure the people in the photos are exposed fairly good but are those monsters lurking in the background or are they large shadows created by on camera flash ? The flash units that are built into DSLR’s and mirrorless cameras are at best used for fill flash (outdoor photography supplemented by the onboard flash to fill in harsh shadows bright sunlight causes).
A couple of Friday’s ago I briefly discussed the benefits of the Nikon CLS system (Creative Lighting System) and how easy it was to use. Hmmm, I really can’t go there now because last week I had told you that I traded all of my Nikon gear for Fuji gear but I had withheld a couple of items to sell on my own. Those couple of items happen to be a Nikon SB-910 Speedlight and two Nikon SB-700 Speedlights. I also have an older Nikon SB-28DX Speedlight but more about that later.
OK Joe why would you save Nikon Speedlights and switch to Fuji equipment ? The next thing you are going to tell us is the Nikon Speedlights will work with the Fuji.
Actually the answer is yes and no.
The Nikon CLS system will not work with the Fuji but the flash units will work in manual or automatic mode. Most of you won’t remember automatic modes on flash units but being I am “older than dirt” I do remember. Most flash units have automatic modes on them. You input what ISO your camera is set to and place your camera to manual mode. You then place your flash to “auto” mode and set your shutter speed to its maximum flash synchronization speed. The LCD on the back of the flash will inform you which aperture to set your camera to and what your working distance will be. You should already know what your cameras maximum flash sync speed is. If you don’t please check your manual. Most focal plane shutters sync from 1/200 of a second and down. There are exceptions of course and some cameras sync at higher speeds and some lower.
So how do we improve the quality of light from flash units ?
One way to get more flattering light using on camera flash is to try to diffuse the light.
Did you ever notice on a bright sunny day the sun produces harsh distinct shadows ? This is because the light is known as “Point source light”. When it is overcast the lighting is a lot more pleasing and even. This is because the clouds are diffusing the light. The sun is still the same size and brightness but its just being diffused. So we could say that a diffuser tends to convert a small point source light source into a larger looking or diffused light source.
There is a whole aftermarket for these diffuser products that can be purchased and some electronic flash manufacturers include small diffusing domes with their units. Some of the better portable diffusers are sold by a companies like Lumiquest, Stofen and Photoflex. They are an inexpensive way to improve the quality of light when using electronic flash.
The product below is made by Lumiquest and is called the “Pocket Bouncer” and works well if you are on a budget. It simply mounts to the top of your flash unit with Velcro and instead of facing your flash at the subject you pion your flash up and bounce the light off the diffuser. There are a multitude of products that are available to diffuse light from flash units including ones that fit over the built in pop up flash.
Personally I am a big fan of Soft Boxes, and convertible umbrellas (umbrellas are far less expensive), but in order to utilize these items you have to move your flash off camera. This was easy when I owned the Nikon because I just used the CLS system and raised the pop up flash in the camera as a Commander for the external flash units to control them automatically and wirelessly. There are a number if ways you can trigger your off camera flashes. You can use a cable but I’m not too keen on using cables. Remember to take “Murphy’s Law” into account when thinking about using cables (If anything can go wrong, it will). Most of the time someone will trip on cables or knock your expensive flash units over. So what is the solution ?
Pocket Wizard to the rescue. OK, ok for those with dirty minds its not what you think 🙂
Below is a photo of basic Pocket Wizard transceivers.
Pocket Wizards are automatic radio transceivers (auto sensing transmitting and receiving). You mount one on the hot shoe of your camera and you plug the other one into the PC port on your external flash. You then set them to the same channel and it works like magic. You can place your external flash up to 1500 feet from the camera and fire it wirelessly. The units I purchased were the Pocket Wizard Plus X and are fully manual units but Pocket Wizard also makes units called TT5 and Mini which are fully CLS compatible and work with your cameras TTL flash metering.
So why did you only buy two Pocket Wizards when you said you had four flash units ?
Because I only needed a way to trigger my SB-28DX Speedlight wirelessly from my camera. The SB-910 and SB-700 units have what they call optical triggers built into the units. It’s called SU-4 mode and the way it works is when the flash unit in SU-4 mode senses another flash firing, it fires. Being I will be working in full manual mode it really does not matter whether the units are being fired wirelessly or optically.
Please note: Never mount an older flash unit to the hot shoe on your newer digital camera. Older flash units use a much higher trigger voltage than the newer units designed for todays cameras and can wreak havoc on newer electronic systems. This is one of the beautiful things about the Pocket Wizard system. Only the radio gets mounted to your hot shoe and the receiver to your flash. If you are using an older flash unit the Pocket Wizard is designed to work with low and high trigger voltages.
There are many brands of radio systems available to trigger your off camera flash but I find the Pocket Wizard brand to just work every time. They have ten switchable channels so if you are working in the vicinity of other photographers who are also using Pocket Wizards you can set yours to different channels. They are very reliable triggers and for the price ($179 for the 2 pack) I feel they are with the price.
Below is a photo of a portable softbox made by Lastolite called the EzyBox. This unit folds flat and sets up in minutes.
From the rear you can see the opening where you would insert the flash.
From the front you can see the white diffuser material that helps spread the light out evenly. The interior of this unit is coated with a silver reflective material so it does not reduce the power of your flash unit drastically.
Any way you look at it the quality of flash photos greatly improves by simply removing your flash from the camera. You can shape the light, diffuse the light, concentrate or feather the light or even just use the light to create different effects.
In the photo below I used the Pocket Wizard radios combined with an older Nikon SB-28DX Speedlight mounted high on a lightstand and set to manual mode, 1/64th power. I exposed for a black background then added the flash without changing the exposure. I then had my wife look up towards the flash (she looks thrilled doesn’t she) as if she is seeing some sort of light from a divine source or maybe a spaceship, LOL.
I hope you will consider trying off camera flash if you already own an external flash unit or you are planning to get one, or a few. There are numerous websites that describe off camera flash techniques. One of my favorite sites is David Hobby’s – Strobist There is a wealth of off camera flash information on this site.
Here is a YouTube video of David Hobby taking the Cheap Camera Challenge from Kai Wong of DigitalRev TV It will show you that it is technique and not equipment that matters. DigitalRev TV also has videos of Chase Jarvis and Zack Arias taking the cheap camera challenge. They are both funny and cool videos that will really make you think.