Off-camera flash on the cheap

6 Jan 2013

Santa brought cash this year, so I decided to use the proceeds (plus some leftover birthday money) to indulge my photography habit. I’ve been a huge Joe McNally and David Hobby fan since I bought my first DSLR, a Nikon D7000, a couple years ago. Those two photographers are masters of producing amazing photos with small flashes. I’m such a fan I signed up for a one-day “Flashbus” workshop with the two of them in April, 2011.

I bought a Nikon SB-900 flash soon after I bought my D7000, and I’ve been experimenting with it ever since. (The SB-910 is the current model, and I got my SB-900 on eBay for quite a bit less than retail.) Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (CLS) is a pretty cool way to incorporate what’s known as “off-camera flash,” that is, using a flash that isn’t mounted to the camera. The most common position for an off-camera flash is slightly above the subject and a few feet to the side of the camera. The built-in flash of the D7000 can be configured to communicate with and trigger the SB-900, even making it possible to adjust the power of the flash from the back of the camera. Cool stuff indeed. Check out this short little YouTube video that demonstrates Nikon CLS.

McNally is a CLS master who often utilizes many flashes simultaneously for a single shot. That’s great in theory, but hard on the wallet in practice. Several SB-910s cost as much as a nice DSLR itself. Even a used Nikon SB-600 flash goes for at least $200 on eBay. I’m afraid Santa wasn’t quite that generous.

Hobby uses a lot of expensive flashes too, but he also promotes cheaper, non-Nikon models. Cheap can be good, but as soon as you leave the Nikon universe you give up all the benefits of CLS. That was a tradeoff I was willing to make, so I ordered two Yongnuo YN-560 II flashes from Amazon.

Being non-CLS flashes, I lose my ability to control their output from my camera. The flash output has to be set manually using the buttons on the back of each flash. They will trigger optically, however, which means that they can look for a flash of light from another unit and flash in response. (This isn’t generally a problem for the photo since the duration of each flash of light is so much shorter than the shutter speed of the camera.) Sometimes though you might want to have a flash very far away or out of a direct line of sight. That’s where radio triggers come in.

Pocket Wizard makes the gold standard equipment for triggering flashes wirelessly. Their newest triggers, the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5, even support wireless CLS when paired with CLS-capable Nikon flashes. Amazing, but spendy. Four triggers (one for the camera and three for each of my flashes) would cost about $800. Again, I wasn’t that good last year.

How about the bronze standard then? Many companies make much less expensive radio triggers, though, like the Yongnuo flashes, you give up any fancy CLS-like features. Most of the least expensive ones seem quite unreliable based on the reviews I read, so I started looking slightly upscale. A bit more research led me to the Cactus V5 triggers which get consistently good reviews. At $75 for a pair of triggers, a set of four is cheaper than a single MiniTT1 or FlexTT5.

Are you keeping score at home? We’re at ≈$1,800 for the all-Nikon solution vs. ≈$300 for the Yongnuo/Cactus combination.

The final piece of the puzzle is the addition of a light modifier. Bare flashes generally make for unflattering portraits, so the standard solution is to employ an umbrella or soft box to create a larger, softer light source. Scott Kelby, a pro photographer and owner of Kelby Training, turned me on to a package deal from B&H Photo which includes a 24″ soft box, umbrella bracket, and light stand. Added to the small flash-mounted soft box I already own, a Lumiquest LTp, I’ve got some options for lighting portraits.

So there you go. With my new system I can employ up to three separate flashes and trigger them at a distance of up to 100 m from my camera. I hope my research will benefit another aspiring photographer who’s looking to expand his or her lighting kit.