Some of the most basic methods for triggering flash involve wires. Most photographers who use off-camera flash know that if there is one thing that will compromise your professionalism, and put your camera kit and subjects at risk, it is a hazardous network of wires.
I once livened up a photo shoot – for the wrong reasons – by tripping over a studio flash wire. Fortunately, as a keen cricketer, I was able to catch the unit as it tipped towards my startled model. A much better and safer option, therefore, is to remove the wires altogether.
We are currently seeing wireless technology enhance the way we share and upload our images, but it has long been used by both amateur and professional photographers to control off-camera flash.
Lighting quality is greatly improved by removing the flash from the camera, and it gives a much more flattering light for portraits. Furthermore, a number of flash units used together offer greater versatility and more sophisticated lighting possibilities. A wireless set-up can offer a greater range, too, with some systems offering control at up to 1,600ft (around 490m) from the flash.
The number of wireless options available encompasses all levels of budget and sophistication of set-up. A wireless flash system can range from a lone off-camera flash to a theoretically limitless number of flash units, each with individual manual exposure control.
The good news is that if you own a camera with a hotshoe mount (which includes all DSLRs and some compact system and compact cameras) and a flashgun, your kit already has the potential for wireless functionality. Indeed, you may not need to buy any further accessories.
Of course, the level of control, versatility and reliability of output will be affected by the type and sophistication of the system, but wireless flash doesn’t have to be costly or confusing.
Wireless flash can be triggered via infrared, radio frequency or slave.
Triggering a flash using infrared (IR) works in the same way as using a TV remote control and operates in the invisible, infrared part of the light spectrum.
An IR trigger is present on most current DSLRs, while IR slave units are found on most flashguns. If this is true of your kit, no further outlay is required. If it is not, an IR trigger can be bought as a separate unit for those cameras without one.
The infrared wavelength of light is longer than visible light and its use does not affect the image. Handily, output can be altered using the manufacturer’s native TTL metering.
However, infrared triggering is not without its limitations. Before using this method, any obstructions between the camera and flashgun must be removed because the two units have to be in direct line of sight. The range of communication is limited up to around 30ft (9m) and can be even less outdoors.
Its reliability is also affected by bright and direct light, which can interfere with the communication between the flashgun and camera. In use, the infrared slave unit on the flashgun, which is usually found on the front beneath the flash head, must face the camera. This often means swivelling the flash head around at least 90°.
Radio frequency is the most versatile method for firing wireless flash. It makes use of a radio trigger and slave unit, both purchased separately.
The trigger is attached to the camera’s hotshoe and uses radio waves to communicate with the slave unit attached to the flashgun.
It has a greater range than infrared, and in some cases can be as much as 1,600ft (around 490m). Radio waves are not affected by light or obstacles as much, so flashguns can be used in bright light and even placed on the other side of a wall or tree.
Some of these systems are inexpensive, at around £50 for a trigger and slave unit, although the long-time industry leader for reliability and effectiveness has been the PocketWizard, which is more expensive.
Most photographers who regularly use off-camera flash opt for the PocketWizard, perhaps buying cheaper flashguns to offset the cost.
The best options for radio triggers include:
PocketWizard Plus II: £250
PocketWizard MultiMAX: £230
Elinchrom SkyPort: £100
HÄhnel Combi TF: £50
Quantum FreeXWire: £315
Although not a wireless option, a good alternative to a single off-camera flash set-up is to use a wired connection, via a camera’s PC socket or hotshoe.
This is a good alternative because using a flash off-camera, even when held at arm’s length, makes for more flattering light. Most camera manufacturers provide their own connections and these offer TTL flash control.
Other low-cost alternatives require aperture priority or manual control flash operation.
These devices transform basic and inexpensive flashguns into wireless units. The triggers are attached to the bottom of a flashgun and work by firing the flash when a sharp change in visible light (that is, a flash) is measured.
As they respond to and work using the light spectrum, just like infrared, slave triggers also have a limited range and can be compromised by bright light.
They are good options for use with DSLR cameras and older flashguns that lack a slave unit. Furthermore, for those starting out and on a budget, the triggers typically cost under £15 per unit. One slave trigger is required per flashgun.
Hama slave unit: £12
Kaiser K1501: £19
Generic options are also available on www.amazon.co.uk from £6.
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