How To Trigger An Off-Camera Flash
This is a question that gets asked a lot and there are actually 4 different answers, but there is usually just one right answer for each person and that’s because it depends on your shooting style, location and subject. Let’s dig in, shall we?
Cable – This one seems like a pain to me. So what is a pc sync cable? A PC-sync cable connects you directly from your camera to your flash. The benefit of this is that provided your cable doesn’t fall out or explode, your flash will trigger on time every time. There are two types of cable, male to male and male to female. They are pretty cheap ranging from about $0.50 to this $15.00 one from Protog. Sometimes your camera can send your through-the-lens (i-TTL) settings through the cable to your flash, allowing you to leave it in auto. The downside of cables is that you either need to be shooting your flash off pretty close to your camera or have a VERY long cable. Another downside is that you can only fire one flash this way, the one you’re plugged into, but from there you could trigger off more flashes if they have optical slaves.
Optical Slaves – An optical slave look like a little plastic bubble and all it does is sense light. When the amount of light changes suddenly, it sends a signal to your flash to tell it to fire. That means that you can trigger an optical slave using any other flash, even the flash on top of your camera. It’s possible to set the power so low on your camera’s flash that it wont show up in the picture that much at all, but it’s still enough to trigger an optical slave. Optical slaves range from VERY cheap to $20-$30. There isn’t that much difference except for performance. The problem with optical slaves is that they need to be able to sense an increase in light, so if you are shooting outdoors on a sunny day you need to have a pretty powerful flash to over power the sun.
Built in camera – this isn’t a feature that’s very common with lower grade cameras. Usually you need lower end of the professional scale at least. Your camera sends an infrared signal to you flash telling it to fire. I’ve never tried this but reports I’ve heard are varied. Some people say it works pretty well, others say it hardly ever works. Of all the ways I’ve listed here, this seems like the least reliable. The biggest problem I see with this is that the flash has to be somewhat inline with your camera, since it works kind of like a TV remote control. Plus, if it worked so well then companies like Nikon who use that technology in their cameras wouldn’t release products like the SU-800 which is an infrared commander unit that you put on top of your camera to trigger your flashes wirelessly. You might say, “They make it for the cameras that don’t have the infrared thing built in, duh!” to that I say, the SU-800 is a pretty expensive piece of kit, if you could afford it, you’d buy a set of wireless radio triggers instead. One thing the infrared system has over most of these options is that your cameras i-TTL settings can be transmitted wirelessly to your flash, so you can leave your flash in automatic if that’s what you want to do.
Wireless radio triggers – This is my favorite option. You attach a little commander to your cameras hot shoe and connect the receiver to your flash. You can connect as many receivers as you want to your transmitter and the range is usually pretty good, depending on which brand you get. As far as prices go I get mine for about $15 per unit. That’s $30 for a transmitter and a receiver, then $15 for every additional receiver you add. I really like the PT-04NE triggers and I get them off eBay HERE. I really believe these are the best eBay flash triggers. They have a range of about 30 meters but as soon as you get them, throw away the batteries they come with because they suck and when your receiver stops working after 3 days you’ll think “well, that’s what I get for buying electronics that cheap off eBay” then you’ll be about to throw them away and your girlfriend will say “are you sure it doesn’t just need new batteries?” and you’ll say “of course I’m sure, they are brand new batteries, red ones from china…” then you’ll become suspicious and put in brand new Energizers and you’ll feel pretty stupid.
The PT-04NE triggers also have a built in umbrella brackets that work surprisingly well. I have been really surprised with the quality and ability of these babies, I have even triggered them from the other end of a house before, and the house had steel framed walls. These particular triggers have an on/off switch that, if you forget to switch off, WILL drain your batteries. Other triggers such as the Yongnuo YN-04II set have a standby setting that will switch off your trigger after a while. I don’t like this because if you take a break from shooting you might miss a shot when it goes on standby and you don’t know it. If you’re paying less than $15 per unit, then I think you might be running the risk of getting a lemon. The big downside of radio triggers is that if another photographer is nearby using the same channel you’re using to trigger your flash, they may cause your flash to go off when they take a picture. That’s why MOST radio triggers have up to 4 channels to fire on. If there are 5 of you, tough luck.
If you need your flash to fire every time and from huuuuge distances, then you’re going to want to get a set of Pocketwizards. You will be very happy with the performance of these, but it’s going to set you back about $200-$400 per UNIT, not for a transmitter and receiver, that’s $200-$400, per transmitter and receiver. It’s a little bit nuts but if you’re making good money then hey, why not? I’ll tell you why not. I like to shoot with a hat, especially when I’m out doors (I’m bald btw) and these things stick up in your cameras hot shoe so much that shooting with a hat is nearly impossible. Basically if you are in my boat then it’s either beanies or those cabbie hats worn backwards which makes you look like a douchebag “artist” in college from the mid 90’s.
So that’s about it. If you missed my post on picking an off-camera flash, then you can find that post HERE. If you have any questions, think I missed something or want to add our two cents, let me know in the comments below!