With the Strobist revolution in full swing, more and more photographers are looking to jump into the world of off-camera flash as a means to exercise greater control over the image-making process.
In my mind, window light rules. If I could shoot everything using soft sunlight coming through a window and diffusion cloth, I would.
But more often than not, I have to create the light I need. The easiest and best way to do this is with an off-camera flash setup.
Well, first of all, on-camera flash sucks. It’s extremely harsh, and you have almost no control over it, unless you have a white wall very close to you to bounce.
Contrarily, off-camera flash gives you a ton of flexibility in shaping the light and putting it where you want it.
And best of all, it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.
A starter Strobist/off-camera flash setup requires the following components:
1) A Lighting Source (in this case, a shoe-mount speedlight)
2) A Light Stand
3) A Triggering Mechanism That Allows Your Camera to Tell the Flash When to Fire
4) A Mechanism That Allows You to Attach the Flash to the Light Stand
5) A Lighting Modifier To Soften the Light
Now I’m going to discuss the best ways to budget your money for an off-camera flash setup. I’ve made some buying mistakes in the past, but with some smart planning, you can avoid making those same mistakes.
First, let’s talk about your light source. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to be focusing on shoe-mounted speedlights.
If you own any shoe-mount flash with manual flash-power controls already, you’re pretty-much good to go.
Now if you don’t have a flash, that’s going to be the first item on your shopping list.
Unless you specifically need TTL-flash functionality (automatic flash exposure) for event work and things of that nature, an off-brand flash will do the trick just fine.
Two years ago, I spent over $250 on a Canon 430EX II flash, a colossal waste of money since I used its TTL functionality exactly one time.
If you’re shooting weddings or events – then yes, go for the more expensive flashes. But for the vast majority of off-camera flash work, a cheap manual flash will do everything you need.
Remember, in manual mode, your flash is dumb – it’s only responding to the power and zoom levels you set. All the fancy features are worthless.
Now, I will say that the Canon and Nikon brand flashes are much, much better built than any off-brand flashes I’ve played with, including my own relatively-pricey Lumopro LP160.
However, I just don’t see the point of paying $500 for a top-end Canon 580EX II or Nikon SB-900 if they’re just going to be used in manual mode anyway. For that much money you could buy an entire lighting setup, complete with backups!
Okay, so now you have a flash.
The next thing we’ll discuss is light stands.
Whatever you do, unless you need something really small that fits inside a carry-on bag for air travel, do not get a cheap, flimsy light stand.
Good light stands will last for years and years, and more importantly, are less prone to falling over.
This is especially important if you’re going to be shooting outdoors. It doesn’t take much wind to knock over a light stand and damage your flash and/or subject. (for this reason, always weigh your stands down with sandbags or your gear bag)
This Manfrotto is a great choice for a first light stand. It’s not cheap, but it will last a really long time and will support heavier lights should up move up to monolights or pack & head systems.
If you absolutely need a small, inexpensive stand, check out the Westcott 750, which retails for just $25.
For triggering, you’ll want a radio transmitter and receiver set that will allow you to fire your flashes without having cords to trip over.
I have been using the CowboyStudio NPT-04 trigger/receiver set for three months without a single problem. Just keep in mind that for $22, you shouldn’t expect Swiss or German levels of build quality. They’ve been flawless for me, but I won’t use them without a backup, and I will likely upgrade to the Cactus V5 system in the near future.
Nonetheless, you won’t find a greater bang for your buck than the NPT-04’s.
Next up is your umbrella swivel adaptor, which allows you to connect your flash and umbrella to your light stand.
I’ve owned a few different umbrella swivels, and the Manfrotto 026 is by far the best. At $30, it’s a little more expensive than competing models, but it is extremely sturdy. Don’t cheap out – the 026 will last you a lifetime.
And finally, you’ll need a light modifier to soften the light. A speedlight flash is a very small light source, and thus it is a hard one.
Light modifiers make that small light source bigger, and thus softer. I always recommend a white umbrella with removable black backing as a first modifier.
Here are a couple to choose from:
Any such umbrella will give you a lot of versatility with which to experiment. If you can spend a little more money, get the 46″ Photek Softlighter. It’s a baby Octabox for less than $70. If you need a celebrity endorsement, Annie Leibovitz uses them.
That’s pretty much everything you need to get off the ground with off-camera flash.
To recap, here’s the kit I recommend:
1) Yongnuo YN-560 flash – $70
2) Manfrotto 367B Light Stand – $70
3) CowboyStudio NPT-04 Radio Triggers – $22
4) Manfrotto Umbrella Adapter – $20
5) Westcott 45″ Umbrella – $25
If you want to take things a step further, consider the following add-ons to your system:
If you’re going to be shooting with speedlights, you’re going to burn through batteries in no time at all. Eneloops are the most popular brand of rechargeable batteries among working photographers, and they’ll pay for themselves after just a few photo shoots, ESPECIALLY when you start using multiple flashes.
This is a complete set of color-correcting and special-effects gels, specifically cut to be used with a shoe-mount flash. It also includes a Lumiquest gel filter holder that easily velcros to your flash.
Off-Camera Flash Techniques for Digital Photographers by Neil Van Niekerk
This is the single best book I’ve seen for getting started with off-camera flash. It is very clearly written, brand-agnostic, and basically serves as your ocf textbook. I would rate it 6 out of 5 stars if I could.