The Wireless Approach

Happy New Year! Today's post comes from the book Just One Flash: A Practical Approach to Lighting for Digital Photography by Rod & Robin Deutschmann. It is available from and other fine retailers.

Communication Through the Air
There are only two ways of triggering your flash wirelessly: optically (using another light source as a triggering device) or through the use of a radio transmitter and receiver.

Radio Triggering.
The radio option is, by far, the best; it’s cheaper, easier to use, and more reliable. To trigger your remote flash, we recommend a simple Cactus radio transmitter and receiver combination. At less than $40 a pair, there really is no better option for the manual off-camera flash photographer. Attach the transmitter to your camera and the receiver to your flash (any flash) and you’re ready to shoot. As a manual shooter, there will be no need to worry about camera or flash settings; you will have already dialed those in.

Beyond this, all of the same rules, processes, and techniques apply as before—except that you do lose the high-speed sync option. This isn’t that big of a deal, since you already know how to employ the cross-polarizing technique or to use several neutral-density filters to eliminate excess light.There are, of course, other radio systems available. Pocket Wizard is a very popular brand among photographers looking for a way around manual shooting. They offer a transceiver that allows for both manual and automatic shooting . . . but at nearly $200 a unit, this is a very expensive way of getting your flash to behave. As we tell our students, it really pays to be a confident manual shooter.

Off-camera wireless flash offers the optimum in control. With your flash now positioned well away from the camera, there is no excuse for an image not to appear as you like it. For these images, a volunteer (thanks Ed) held a flash and pointed it at our subject while each student in the workshop created their own version of the scene—changing the white balance, contrast, saturation, and focus to match their own unique vision.

When the flash is set to gently illuminate your subject, it should just caress, not overwhelm. In the image directly below, we see a perfectly illuminated model. In the bottom photo, we see what happens when the flash is set too high.

Optical Triggering.
You also have an optical choice when it comes to triggering your off-camera flashes. This comes in the form of small optical triggering devices that sit on the foot of your flash. When they sense another flash firing they send a small electrical signal to the flash they are attached to and force it to fire. This is called a “slaved” flash. The flash creating the triggering burst is the “master” unit.

This is a classic approach, but it has some drawbacks. First, it requires a line-of-sight triggering scenario. If the receiver can’t see the triggering flash, it will not fire its own unit. This prohibits certain placement constructs that you, as the artist, may feel are important—such as backlighting and complex side-lighting scenarios. Additionally, while slaved flashes are extraordinarily useful indoors, they don’t work so well outside. If there is an excess of ambient light (such as sunlight) there is a strong chance the receiver will not “see” the triggering flash. Plus, the price can be prohibitive. A good optical device will cost $50 or more . . . and if you’re going to spend that much on a tool that has limitations, why not spend less on a radio version that doesn’t?

To maintain the beauty of the sky above San Diego’s skyline, a single hand-held flash was employed. This extra light, aimed at our model and her concrete perch, enabled the photographer to choose a shutter speed that allowed the background to look the way it does. Any shutter speed slower than this would have created a background that was just too bright for the intended message.

Many camera manufacturers today offer an advanced lighting system that employs a similar optical slave/master technology. This is limited, as well, by line-of-sight prerequisites and requires expensive proprietary flash units to work. Again, a simple radio transmitter and receiver will outperform this advanced system—and will do it for a fraction of the cost. There is nothing advanced about a flash system that limits you to a line-of-sight firing scenario.


1 comment:

  1. the Deutschmans are fabulous teachers!! If you are in the San Diego area, do yourself a favor & take a class from them.
    kim curran