Off-camera flash… on the cheap!

In Portrait by Jim Harmer201 Comments

Ruger - by Jim Harmer

Someone once told me that you're not a serious photographer until you have the gear to do off-camera flash.  While I'm not sure that this is an accurate statement for many reasons, most of us want to have this technique as an option in our tool belts; however, you've probably been down to the camera store and noticed how EXPENSIVE flash units are.  If this sounds familiar, then this post is for you.

There are two basic types of flash units: speedlights (sometimes referred to as “flash guns”) and monolights.  You've probably heard of strobes and think you want one of those.  Good news, strobe is just another word for flash unit, so both speedlights and monolights are types of strobes.

Speedlights are the little flash units that fit on top of the hotshoe of the camera.  Having a speedlight on the camera opens up a lot of possibilities over and above what the horrible pop-up flash can do, but it is still quite limited because the flash can only come from on the camera without additional gear.

Monolights are the studio lights that you see when your spouse forces you into the Walmart portrait studio for an hour of horrible torture and inexplicably disgusting backgrounds.  They are more powerful than speedlights and they recycle faster (can fire more bursts of light in a short period of time), but they are expensive, bulky, and not easily transportable.

I would recommend that most people choose a speedlight for their flash unless you're doing exclusively studio junk.  The Canon SB-700 or the Canon 580EXII are the most common flashes you'll run into.  There are several versions of the Canon/Nikon speedlights, but the decent ones cost about $500.  The advantage to choosing these flash units is that they are capable of ETTL (or ITTL depending on your brand of camera).  This basically means that the camera can pass exposure information to the flash, which in turn adjusts the power output of the flash.

While ETTL is quite convenient, it really is not necessary because it is dead simple to control the flash output manually.  There really is no trick to it.  You simply press the button which tells the flash how much power to use and how far to zoom in.  Easy.

The other benefit to choosing a speedlight without ETTL is the price.  You can easily get away with buying a nice little speedlight for $80 and get tremendous results.  I have personally tested (and commonly use) the YN-560 flash, which is available on eBay (that's the only place you can buy direct from the manufacturer).  It's a Chinese/Japanese/Korean knock-off of the expensive flash units offered by Canon and Nikon, but it's a VERY good knock-off.  It has a similar power output, recycle rate, zoom range, everything.  It's a very good flash and serves me well.

Note that if you choose to buy the YN-560, it will take two weeks to deliver because it's coming from the other side of the world.  Also, don't pay any attention to the ebay listings that say YN-560 for 5d mark ii, or YN-560 for Nikon D90.  They say that so they can assure people that it will work on their camera, but the truth is that the same YN-560 will work on any Canon or Nikon DSLR (and probably Sony's too….).

Now that you've bought a speedlight, you want to get it off of the hotshoe on your camera.  For this, you'll need a flash trigger.  If you're made of money, which you probably aren't if this post title grabbed your attention, then you should definitely buy a Pocket Wizard.  This is the undisputed champion of off-camera flash.  It works with radio signals and can reliably fire the flash from great distances with 100% reliability.

If you're on a budget, then there are many other flash triggers which are much cheaper and which work almost just as well for close-range (under 25 feet) simple flash set-ups.  These flash triggers use infrared which doesn't work well in bright mid-day light, but which works perfectly inside.  Don't get me wrong, infrared triggers DO work outside, but occasionally have difficulty.

So which flash trigger should you buy?  I'd recommend the Cowboy Studio flash triggers, which sell for the insanely good price of about $25.  Buy it here.

You've done it!  You can now do off-camera flash for only $100, instead of the crazy prices you usually hear quoted to you.  And no, your photos won't suffer because of your frugality.  I have personally made, and seen others make, absolutely incredible images with this budget flash gear.

Eventually, you'll want to buy at least one more speedlight since one is somewhat limiting.  Also, you'll want to buy a photography umbrella, stand, and flash bracket to soften the light from the flash.  You can get a kit that includes an umbrella, stand and flash bracket for about $40.  Buy it here from

Viola!  Reading this post just saved you hundreds of dollars and opened up the possibility to finally do off-camera flash.  Leave a comment below?

About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.


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    1. I found this as an informative and interesting post, so i think it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the effort you have made in writing this article.

  2. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for the article! Can you do another (or maybe a video) explaining how you would use all this on a shoot? I just got an external flash and unfortunately, the manual doesn’t explain things too well (or at all) so I have no idea how to use it. I’ve tried looking at youtube for videos about flashes, brackets and umbrellas and I feel like it’s all over my head! lol Any help would be greatly appreciated!


  3. Hi,

    the YN-560 indeed works also on Sony’s DSLRs, but only with an adapter for their iISO hot shoe (for around 15$ at eBay).

  4. Hi Jim! I got inspired by your article, but in amazon web-site found quite bad comments about the flash you recommended. Yes, I know, overall rating is good, but it was still terrifying that flashes stopped work totally for some people, and Chinese company just didn’t do any service.

  5. The simplest explaination on the web that covers everything confusing to do with off camera flash.

  6. very simple, thanks a lot.

    if you can’t explain something well .. thats because you don’t understand it well.

    1. Not to nitpick, but paragraph 5 should state, “Nikon SB 700” not “Canon SB 700, this can be confusing for someone new like me. ; )

  7. Hi there
    The links listed for buying the flash and umbrella kit dont seem to work?
    Can you please send them to me separately?

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