This is part 7 in the Flash Photography Basics Series. To start from the beginning, click here.
Flash photography can be useful when the flash is attached to the hotshoe of the camera, but flash photography can absolutely transform your photography once you understand how to use off-camera flash.
Learning how to get the flash to wirelessly fire as the camera takes a picture is probably the most daunting aspect of off-camera flash photography. This is daunting because there are dozens of different setups for off-camera flash and many different companies creating proprietary technology in the flash photography space.
If you want to simplify this daunting process, I can simply tell you the solution that will only cost you $20 and will work consistently. It is the way I make my camera fire wirelessly off-camera and the method that I have found to produce reliable results. If you follow my recommended setup with your YN-560 flash, you can read and apply the following paragraph and then simply SKIP the rest of this article and head to the next article in this series. If you are a geek like me and want to know all the possible ways to do things, then you have a lot of reading to do 🙂
My Simple Setup for Off-Camera Flash
The setup I recommend is to have one piece of gear (called a flash trigger) that you slip onto the hotshoe of the camera. This is an inexpensive $20 purchase. The flash trigger simply sends out a radio signal to any and all flashes within range and tells it when to fire.
Then, you need a way for the flash to receive this message. A flash receiver is a simple device that connects to the bottom of the flash and tells the flash when to fire based on the information it receives from the trigger on the camera. If you purchased the YN-560 III that I recommended in the last article (hint, hint!), you do not need a separate device to do this. It is built in to the flash.
So the simple way to do this is to buy a Yongnuo flash trigger for $20, put it on your camera, and call it a day. All you need to do is slip one on the hotshoe of the camera and you are done. No special camera settings. No slave mode. No commander mode. No camera upgrade. Done. Simply put the trigger on your camera and it will do the rest.
The flash trigger I recommend actually isn't a trigger at all. Or, more correctly, it isn't only a trigger. It is a trigger and receiver in one, which is called a tranceiver. That is handy because you can put one on the camera to be the trigger, or buy two and use the second one under a flash that doesn't have a built in receiver like the YN-560III does.
For links to buy the tranceiver, YN-560 III, as well as other flash photography items, check out my flash photography gear recommendations (click link and it will open in a separate tab so you can keep reading here). As a side note, I spent several thousand dollars trying out all kinds of speedlights, umbrellas, light stands, and other flash photography items to put together that list of recommended gear. I wanted to help you save as much money as possible and still get high quality durable gear that will last you many many years of photography. I hope you enjoy that list.
You are set! If you follow my recommended method for off-camera flash, you can skip to the next article in this series here. You won't need any of the information below.
Other Methods of Triggering Off-Camera Flash
Every camera and flash manufacturer uses their own proprietary technology for firing the flash wirelessly. If you have different gear than my recommended setup or you prefer to use other technology, the information below should help you get started.
I don't pretend my recommended setup is perfect for everyone, after all. I only recommend my way of doing it so that new flash photographers can just buy an inexpensive kit that works easily so they can get started.
There are four basic ways to trigger an off camera flash: built-in infrared triggering , dedicated infrared triggering, radio triggers, and using a flash as a slave.
Built-in Infrared Triggering
Some cameras have the capability to trigger a flash built-in to the camera. This type of system does not require the purchase of a third-party flash trigger or receiver for the camera to get the flash to fire wirelessly.
Unfortunately, not all cameras have this capability and it generally only works in conjunction with a flash unit that is made by the same company as the camera brand. Most Nikon cameras have this capability built-in. Some recent Canon DSLRs have this capability as well: for example, the Canon 60D and the Canon 7D. Some Sony models also have this capability. The best way to know if your camera can trigger a flash without a dedicated trigger is to check your camera manual.
If your camera model has built-in flash triggering capabilities, you will need to know how to set the camera up to fire the flash wirelessly. This depends on each camera model, but there are numerous resources online to help.
If you use a Canon camera and own a Canon flash, watch this video for a simple tutorial on how to use the built-in infrared trigger.
If you use a Nikon camera and own a Nikon flash, watch this video for a simple tutorial on how to use the built-in infrared trigger.
If you use a Sony camera and own a Sony flash, watch this video for a simple tutorial on how to use the built-in infrared trigger.
There are many limitations to using the built-in infrared triggering device. For me, the principal reason not to use this method is that it takes too long to set up, I lack the control to trigger various groups of flashes, and it can only be used to fire flashes that come from the same company as the camera.
I must include a small caveat in my last statement. There are actually ways to trigger a third-party flash using the built-in infrared capability of your flash; however, I guarantee that trying to do so will cause severe headaches. It simply isn't worth the trouble.
Dedicated Infrared Triggering
For most photographers, I find this to be the most simple and cost-effective solution to triggering an off-camera flash. This method involves purchasing a cheap (usually around $20) wireless trigger for your camera, and a receiver to go on your flash.
If you use a Canon, Nikon, Olympus or Pentax DSLR and ANY brand of flash, you can purchase this flash trigger.
If you use a Sony camera and ANY brand flash, you can purchase this flash trigger.
Obviously, there are many other companies that produce infrared flash triggers and receivers for your camera, but I have found that this model that I have linked to is simple to use, works like a charm, and costs less than any other option.
Keep in mind that if you want to trigger multiple flashes at the same time from one camera, you will either need to purchase a flash receiver for each flash (recommended), or you can use receiver on one flash and set the other flashes to slave mode.
The radio trigger is the most popular option for triggering off-camera flash among pro photographers. The advantage to using a radio trigger over an infrared trigger is that it is capable of firing the flash from long distances and it is not susceptible to infrared light interference.
Infrared triggers work great from a distance under 40 feet (12 meters); however, few infrared triggers can consistently trigger a flash from any greater distance. Also, infrared light can often be interfered with by the ambient light. For example, it can be difficult to fire a flash using an infrared trigger when shooting at sunset near the bright sun. The ambient light will often drown out the signal and prevent the signal from being passed from the trigger to the receiver.
Unfortunately, most radio triggers are significantly more expensive than infrared triggers. The two most common brands of radio triggers are Radio Poppers and Pocket Wizards. It would seem that Pocket Wizards are slightly more popular among professional photographers than Radio Poppers, but both brands are capable of working quite well.
Most radio triggers do not come as separate triggers for the camera and receivers for the flash. Most of them are transceivers, which do both the triggering and receiving. This way you can use any unit on either the DSLR to trigger or the flash to receive the signal.
The trigger in the recommended setup I included above is a radio trigger.
Firing a Flash as a Slave
Almost all flash units come with the capability to fire when the flash unit sees a sudden increase of light. This is called slave mode. Slave mode is used when the photographer either uses the pop-up flash or has only one trigger/receiver set, but wishes to fire multiple flashes simultaneously.
Consult the manual for your specific flash to learn how to set it in slave mode. This is usually a very simple operation.
Many photographers worry that firing a flash in slave mode will cause a delay so that the slave flash does not fire in time before the exposure ends. This simply isn't the case. The flash is capable of responding to a burst of light in only a matter of a few milliseconds… much shorter than a typical flash exposure.
The limitation of slave mode is that it can be very difficult for each flash to see the burst of light from another flash, which often produces sporadic and inconsistent results. The only time I use slave mode is when I'm shooting indoors and I find myself in a pinch without enough flash receivers.