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If you have ever wanted to explore off-camera flash but don’t know where to start, I have some good news. Many consumer-grade cameras such as the Canon Rebel series and the higher end Nikons like the D700, D300, D300S, D7000, and D90 (the D3x00 and D5X00 models do not offer this) models have a fantastic feature that might be just what you are looking for.
One challenge with off-camera flash is that you need a way to fire them at precisely the right moment. That usually means outfitting them with tiny little remote controls called triggers, that are tied into a transmitter unit affixed to the flash hot-shoe on your camera. When you want your off-camera flashes to activate, the transmitter sends a radio signal to them, and they go off at precisely the right time to give you the photo you want. Some triggers are inexpensive, while other, more customizable one,s will set you back hundreds of dollars. But, if you own one of the cheaper Canon or Nikon bodies, you already have a handy trigger built right in to your camera; the pop-up flash.
Several manufacturers have this feature built-in to their cameras, but since Canon and Nikon are the most popular, those are what I’m going to focus on in this article. Both types of cameras require you to change a few menu settings that may seem a bit confusing at first, but get easier with practice.
On a Nikon camera the first thing you will need to do is set your internal flash to Commander mode. This means it will still fire a burst of light when you take a picture, as a way of communicating with your external flashes. You will see this when you take a picture, but don’t worry, this brief burst is not bright enough to have much of an impact on your photo. This quick flash instead serves as a signal to your external speedlights that they need to fire. To do this, press your camera’s Menu button, then choose Custom Setting Menu (Bracketing/Flash) and the “Flash control for built-in flash” option.
The default value for the “Flash Control” option is “TTL,” which means that your built-in flash functions exactly how you normally expect, and has no control or interaction with any off-camera flashes. Change this value to “Commander mode” which will then allow you to use it to trigger external speedlights.
The final menu looks a bit complicated, but you only need to change a few settings in order to get everything set up initially. Change the Built-in flash option to display two dashes (–) and leave the rest of the values as shown below; Group A TTL, Group B TTL, and Channel 1.
You can do more complicated operations involving multiple flashes or even groups of flashes, but for a basic off-camera trigger setup not much else is required.
If you have a Canon camera, the process is similar but involves a few different menus. Go to your main camera settings menu and choose Flash Control. Then select Built-in flash settings and choose the EasyWireless option. Make sure your channel is set to 1, and you’re ready to go. If you have a higher-end camera like a 60D you won’t see EasyWireless, so leave Flash mode as E-TTL II and change Wireless function to an image of two flashes with a colon between them. As with the Nikon settings there are other options you can change to customize how your external flashes behave, but this is enough to just get you started.
Now that your camera is set up, all you need to do is put your flash in Remote (Nikon) or Slave (Canon) mode and make sure there is an unobstructed line of sight between the receiver on the speedlight, and the flash on your camera. Some speedlights allow you to twist the base so it faces a different direction than the flash itself which is useful if you want to get a little more creative with your lighting angles.
Before you get too far into all this you should be aware of two caveats: Canon cameras can only control Canon flashes, and same with Nikon cameras and Nikon flashes. Also, most third-party flashes such as those made by companies like Yongnuo are not compatible with the on-camera remote trigger setup described here. To use those you will need to purchase a remote flash trigger, but since the flashes themselves are cheaper than their first-party counterparts you should have a bit of money leftover to buy a trigger setup.
As you get more experience with off-camera lighting you might find yourself wanting to expand your horizons with diffusers, colored gels, additional flashes, and more. But if you just want to get some basic experience with this technique, learning to use your built-in flash as a remote trigger is a fantastic way to get started.
Have you tried using this method before? What has your experience been like, and what are some of your favorite off-camera flash tips? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.