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Getting Started with Off-Camera Flash in Photography: Equipment

off-camera-flash-in-photography

When you are just getting started with it, off-camera flash in photography can feel incredibly difficult. You then look at all the amazing work of others and begin to wonder why your photos never look like that.

In this short series, we will look at getting you started with off-camera flash. We’ll take you from a complete novice through to someone who will feel confident and able to get the most out of their flash.

Let’s start with the things that I will cover in this series:

  1. How off-camera flash works
  2. What gear you will need
  3. The technical bit
  4. Using modifiers
  5. Adding more flashes.
Off camera flash photography with a Hasselblad

Off-Camera flash in photography is something that can take your portraits to the next level. It is also not as scary as you might think.

The Gear

If you are getting into off-camera flash, you have several options. Some of you may have a flash for use on-camera, some of you may not. For this article, I will go through what you need.

If you are looking for a shopping list, it is as follows:

  • A flash
  • Flash triggers
  • A flash stand
  • Umbrella bracket
  • A flash modifier

I will then suggest a setup for those on a budget and a setup for those with a little more cash to spare.

As with all recommendations for gear, I am not paid by any brand to push their gear (I should really push this out with a plug shouldn’t I? hit me up camera companies!!) And they are my opinions, so please let’s not argue about this in the comments guys.

Right, Let’s go through each item one by one.

A Flash

Off camera flash in photography Vivitar 285 flash

The Vivitar 285Hv, AKA “The Tank.” Smashed, missing pieces and hit by skateboards. It still works fine. I even replaced the flash foot with a metal one when I snapped it.

This can be any flash. You can use an old manual flash bought for under $20 on eBay, through to the latest and greatest speedlite from your camera company, which will cost you over $400. Going even further, you could get a battery-powered studio strobe. What you need or want will depend on your budget and your needs.

There will be very little difference in these in terms of light quality. The difference will be in the ease of use and the power of the light.

The temptation may be to go with the same brand as your camera, but in all honesty, you can get much better value for money.

Now at the budget end, you can still get great mileage out of an old, fully-manual flash like the Vivitar 285. This flash is an ugly beast of a thing that is full manual. It doesn’t even have an LCD screen.

However, it is built like a tank, and you can buy it for around $20 to $30 on eBay. You can also get old flashes by Canon and Nikon for a little more. Remember, when using manual flash, you do not need to worry about which brand you are using. You can just as easily use a Canon flash on a Nikon camera and vice versa.

If you have more money to spend, then you really cannot look at flash these days without looking at the Godox brand. Godox produces a great range of flashes in all shapes and sizes. They also come with triggers built-in. This means you only need to buy a trigger for your camera and you are good to go.

By going with something like the Godox system, you also have the luxury of being able to change your flash power from the camera. This makes the process a lot easier, but it does come at a cost.

If you are buying a new flash from Godox or similar, make sure you invest in the flash specific to your camera brand.

A great mid-range flash would be the Godox 860II. This flash has Godox’s wireless system built-in and uses a Li-ion battery and recycles quickly even at full power. You also get a huge amount of flashes per charge (over 500) that will last even the most eager photographer for a full day of shooting.

From here, you can get bigger options with more power, but my honest recommendation is that, when starting out, you generally won’t really take advantage of what these units offer. Save your money and then invest in these later as you need them and, more importantly, once you know why.

Godox triggers for off camera flash

Two of the most popular flash triggers made by Godox. they are rebadged under several names. In this case, PixaPro.

Flash triggers

Okay, you have the flash, now you need to trigger them.

Flash triggers come in many varieties. From a super simple trigger and receiver, through to a controller with an LED screen that allows you to see exactly what setting your flash is on and change them remotely.

What you need here depends on the type of flash you have (or purchase). For the budget option – old school flash with no built-in trigger – we will stick with the basic, but functional, option.

You can get a set comprising of a receiver and two triggers for around $20. They are as basic as they sound; however, they generally do the job and are pretty reliable. There is no screen, and from past experience, you may need to carry both triggers even when using one flash as they can occasionally be temperamental. There is no control of the flash at all. If you need to change your flash power, you need to go to your flash and change it by hand. It does the job and does it well without any bells or whistles.

Stepping up, look at the Godox trigger.

When you add the Godox trigger to a Godox flash, you can change the power remotely, and as you get more advanced, you get to do other things such as change groups, and high-speed sync. Basically, this trigger will allow you complete control of your flash from wherever you are shooting.

You will expect to pay around $50 and up for the trigger. You won’t need a receiver in this setup as the flash has one built-in (one less thing to forget to put into your bag). Overall, you get much more control here.

The more you invest in a trigger system, the more reliable it will be. For an amateur, this isn’t a huge issue, but if you are doing paid work, it really is worth investing in a decent set of flash triggers.

Flash stand

Unless you have an understanding friend or family member, you need a stand to put your flash on. If you are doing this on a budget and already have a tripod, you can use that as an interim measure, but flash stands are cheap. You can get a flash stand for $15 to $20. When stepping up in price, the main things you gain are better build quality, better quality knobs, and air cushioning.

Air cushioning means, if you undo the stand, the light doesn’t simply drop, it is cushioned by air, reducing the risk of damage to your flash. However, this is designed more for larger, studio-style flashes, so there is not a huge benefit in this for a speedlite-style flash, especially if you are looking to save money.

A flash stand by a company such as Manfrotto will cost you in the region of $80-$100. However, these are a purchase for life. Unless something major happens, a good-quality flash stand will last you for years and never need software updates.

Umbrella brackets for off camera flash photography

Two different types of umbrella bracket. The metal cold shoe is the reason I had to put a new foot onto the Vivitar 285 you saw above.

Umbrella bracket

This is the key piece of equipment that allows you to fix your flash to your light stand. It also allows you to add modifiers to your flash, such as umbrellas and softboxes.

As with light stands above, the only difference with flash brackets is the build quality and the quality of the knobs.
A good umbrella bracket will cost around $20 to $30. I would suggest investing in this straight away. You can get cheaper, but not by much. It is worth the extra few dollars to buy a higher quality one.

A thing to remember here is that you may also need to buy a cold shoe for your umbrella bracket. This screws into the umbrella bracket via a spigot and has a shoe for your flash to mount to. These only run at a few dollars and some umbrella brackets have them built-in. Make sure you check and purchase as necessary as you may end up incredibly frustrated if your shiny new gear turns up, and you cannot connect your flash to your light stand. Trust me; I’m talking from experience here.

With a cold shoe, the main question is do you go for a metal or plastic one. Personally, I prefer plastic. The reason being that if your flash does happen to take a tumble and you are on a plastic cold shoe, it will usually snap. This may seem like a bad thing, but with a metal cold shoe, physics means it will snap at the weakest point. This is usually the base of the flashgun. Instead of snapping the cold shoe, you will snap the base of your flash off.

Now hopefully, your flashes never take a tumble, but I know mine definitely has. A gust of wind can come from nowhere. I have replaced several plastic cold shoes, but have luckily never snapped the base off a flashgun yet (touch wood, fingers crossed, etc.)

Off-camera flash in photography with a simple umbrella of a woman in a green coat at sunset

One of the first off-camera flash portraits I shot. Simple gear can create great results.

Modifiers

Softboxes, beauty dishes – there are many different modifiers, and the prices range from the insanely cheap through to the incredibly expensive.

I would always advise starting with umbrellas as a modifier as they are cheap, cheerful, and versatile. Also, learn one modifier inside and out before investing in more. When you know a modifier, you can use it in several ways and will allow you to create a variety of looks as you get used to working with it.

You can buy a 30” convertible umbrella for under $10 (you can shoot through it or shoot it reflectively). You will not get a better price-to-performance ratio from any other modifier.

It is tempting to buy a bucket load of modifiers if you have the money to invest, but what happens is, you become unfocused and try different modifiers, not really knowing the uses of each.

Buy one, learn it, then buy another. Don’t waste your money buying fancy gear just for the sake of it.

Extras

Please, please invest in (or make) a sandbag. A sandbag goes onto the bottom of your light stand and holds everything down, which means a minimal risk that your nice new equipment gets smashed on the floor.

You can make one of these incredibly cheaply, but they are worth their weight, literally. If you don’t have one (or have forgotten to get one), a camera bag will do in a pinch.

When using an umbrella outside, it is like having your flash gear attached to a kite. If you don’t weigh it down and the wind catches it, you may be picking your flash kit up in pieces.

Buy one and use it. If you don’t, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So, how much are we talking about?

I have priced these beginner kits for those on a tight budget, and those with a bigger budget. Please note, I haven’t gone crazy with the larger budget. What you see here is what I truly believe to be the best beginner kit for getting started.

You will gain nothing from spending lots of money. The aim here is getting the gear to get started without over-complicating things.

The cheap and cheerful

Image: This shot was taken on a setup almost identical to the one below.

This shot was taken on a setup almost identical to the one below.

Flash: Vivitar 285HV from eBay: $30

Triggers: Alzo Trigger Set $21 (There are several weird and wonderful companies producing this type of trigger, check Amazon/eBay for them.)

Flash Stand:  $23

Umbrella Bracket: $10

Convertible Umbrella: $7.50

Sandbag: Use your camera bag

Total: $91.50

You read that right, $91.50. You can get started in off-camera flash for the price of a meal out.

A little to invest

Off-camera flash photography with one light and a reflector.

This portrait was taken with only one light and a reflector. There is so much to learn when getting started in off-camera-flash photography that adding more lights will add problems.

Flash: Godox 860ii: $179

Trigger: Godox XPro C: $69

Air Cushioned Flash Stand: $29.65

Umbrella Bracket: $29.48 plus cold shoe $9.95

Convertible Umbrella: $7.47

Sandbag:$21.95

Total: $346.50

What do you get for the extra cash?

More control.

You can control the flash output directly from the camera plus advanced features such as add groups when you add more flashes in the future. You also get a flash that will take a lot more shots and recycle much quicker between photos. Lastly, if you don’t get on with off-camera flash, you have an awesome flash to use on your camera.

Right, so now you have your shopping list for off-camera flash in photography, next up comes the science part. I’ve just got to go out and get myself a new lab coat, so enjoy this article and see you next time.

Is there a set up that you use for off-camera flash in photography? Please share with us in the comments.

 

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Carl Spring
Carl Spring

Carl is a Lincolnshire living, skateboard-riding, Rock N’ Roll listening, pet-loving, trainer-addicted photographer.
Along with his wife Lisa, they photograph weddings and portraits under the name 166 Photography
Carl has also spent many years photographing musicians and extreme sports. You can see more of this work on his website