How to Trigger an Off-Camera Flash with the Pop-up Flash

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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.

trigger-off-camera-flash-popup-flash

Your built-in flash can probably do a lot more than you might think.

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.

Setup for Nikon cameras

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.

trigger-off-camera-flash-nikon-menu-flash

Select 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.

trigger-off-camera-flash-nikon-menu-commander

Next, select “Commander mode” – press the right button to get to the next menu below

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.

trigger-off-camera-flash-nikon-menu-commander-control

Change “Built-in flash” to “–” and you’re all set.

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.

Setup for Canon cameras

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.

trigger-off-camera-flash-canon-menu-flash

On Canon cameras, start by choosing the Flash control menu.

trigger-off-camera-flash-canon-menu-flash-control

Next choose Built-in flash func. setting

trigger-off-camera-flash-canon-menu-flash-settings

Set Flash mode to E-TTL II, and then set Wireless func. to the icons displayed above. Alternatively, you can select EasyWireless if that appears as an option.

Testing your setup

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.

trigger-off-camera-flash-nikon-sb700

Makesure your external flash is set to “Remote” (Nikon) or “Slave” (Canon). It should also be in the same Channel and Group as your camera, but if you have never changed these then the default values should work fine.

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.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as sringsmuth.

  • Streetiebird

    The low end Nikon Cameras mentioned (D3000, D5000) actually do not support the Commander Mode feature of the Nikon Creative Lighting System. Their flash cannot be used to trigger external flashes unless the flashes are simply using SU-4 optical slave mode which any flash (even point and shoots) can trigger.

  • bob

    When you can’t get passed the second sentence without blowing the entire premise of the article, I don’t need to read it further. No Commander mode in D3x00 or D5x00 ….

  • Matthijs Muilwijk

    Great article, not so great research…. :/

  • Dan Burke

    There are sellers online who will supply flashes like Yongnou and Metz configured to work with most makes of camera. I purchased a Metz for my Oly E5 for about a third of the cost of the makers flash and the same unit can be ordered to be set up for Canon or Nikon and other brands too! Works perfectly with the on camera flash trigger as described in this article.

  • CS Farrell

    The stock photo used is a Nikon D7100 which I happen to own and the article states this won’t work with 3rd party brands such as Yongnuo which I also own.

    I was initially disappointed but decided to test it out anyway and voila! It works! Set my camera to commander mode following the article’s instructions and set my Yongnuo to slave mode and boom, it fires.

  • grammerman

    A little harsh, buddy, don’t you think?… be like me saying: If you can’t tell the difference between “passed” and “past” I have no desire to read your comment any further.

  • mariska

    Perfect timing for this article, I was just trying to figure this out with my D7100 last night. Thank you for the info because the manual for the camera or the SB910 did not help me (y)

  • Juliersantana

    we read this digital < Make It Easy

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  • lbrilliant

    I can’t seem to do it with my A-580 either. It fires the pop-up BEFORE it opens the shutter for focus and/or red-eye reduction. I cannot turn it completely off and so cannot use my pop-up flash to trigger my slave flashes. Instead I use a small, non-ttl flash with adjustable output. at 1/16 power it does not contribute to the overall illumination but sets off the slaves at the right time.

  • Bume

    I was waiting for the good news regarding the Nikon D3xxx and D5xxx series. Nope, there’s no commander mode in those models if that’s what you are referring. But the article is very helpful for those who have higher-end models. But please edit the article because the first paragraph is very misleading to newbies. Sorry if I can’t say that more politely.

  • Ved

    when you said Canon rebels I thought my 1100d also included. But this feature isn’t in my 1100d 🙁

  • Predrag Simic

    I have tried to use my Canon 430 flash to trigger my off camera flash but I ended up with pictures with no light coming from the off camera flash at all. My off camera flash was actually a 300Ws Monolight working in optical slave mode. I double checked all settings and switches and still was not able to find what was wrong. What was confusing is that I have seen the off camera monolight firing at the moment of taking picture but it was not showing on the very picture. At the end I tried to switch the on camera flash from Ettl mode to manual and that solved my problem.

    Problem with the Ettl setup was that when using Ettl mode, on camera flash is actually firing twice in a very short period of time. First time to help camera do the light metering and second time to actually expose the picture. It happens instantly and human eye can not distinct those two separate flashes. But monolight can.

    What happened with my “Ettl flash triggering setup” was that on camera flash was triggering my monolight with the first burst of light and for the second burst when exposure should take place, my monolight was actually charging and missing to fire.

    Solution was to switch my on camera flash to Manual mode, meaning it will fire only once and triggering my monolight at the right moment to expose the picture.

    Maybe Ettl mode is good if you work with flashes of the same brand (two Canon or two Nikon flashes) but if you mix flashes of different types and brands then try to switch the on camera flash to manual. That might help. Or buy a separate radio trigger device to do the job which I eventually did.

  • okay good to know thanks! The author may not have the gear to test that and have relied on information from the manufactures or suppliers.

  • You said it perfectly politely thank you! Others – not so much.

  • Okay it’s possible that it’s only T4 and newer? Bottom line – test with your gear.

  • yes I’d say that sounds about right

  • agreed and thanks for your support/defence of our author. You do know that “grammer” is spelled wrong in your profile name right? Or is it meant to be a pun?

  • I googled and it seems that you can with your camera. Read pages 167-170 of the manual http://gdlp01.c-wss.com/gds/0/0300004730/02/eosrt3-eos1100d-im2-c-en.pdf for flash modes built-in and external. It wouldn’t list external if it didn’t have this feature.

  • Julian Milano

    My D60 doesn’t have that ability when used in conjunction with my SB910.

  • Dale

    My Nikon D80 has the commander mode but my later Nikon D5100 did away with it. Very disappointed in that. I have the latest firmware, too.

  • From what I’ve read the 3rd party flashes are often receptive to all brands remote triggers but the Canikon Flashes are only receptive to their own brand.

    I’ve even been at parties where my S95 point and shoot flash was triggering the 3rd party strobes across the room.

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  • jdizzl

    Same, didn’t realize it when I bought it, had to upgrade to a D7100.

  • Stoffers

    ” 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.”

    Canon only works with Canon
    Nikon only works with Nikon

    “Most” third-party don’t work with these methods

    That last line would mean some third party solutions would work, however the first two entirely refute that statement. Word count requirement?

  • Newbie

    Immediately grabbed my Canon 1200D but no Commander option *sigh

  • Amman

    There is no commander option bt you just need to set up ur flash to slave mode n it does the reat

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