Off-Camera Flash Photography Tips – How to Trigger Your Flash

Posted on June 25, 2008 by Bo

Previously, we discussed which flash to buy. It should go without saying that, once you have a flash, you must have a way to trigger it off-camera.

There are various ways to do this, both wired and wireless. We’ll be covering both methods here, but be forewarned that it’s easy to sink a lot of cash into triggers, as you’ll soon see.

Sync Cords
This is the least expensive and most basic route. Many camera manufacturers, such as Canon, offer a cord that connects from your camera’s hot-shoe to your flash. Other cameras have PC terminals which enable you to make use of PC cords. Either way offers the same functionality.

The advantages of a sync cord or PC cord are lower price, dependable operation, and sync speed. Just connect the cable and you’re ready to shoot. The main restriction is, obviously, the length. This can range from 2 feet to over 15 feet.

My first off-shoe cord was only 3 feet long, but this was the perfect length for me to hand-hold the flash while taking a picture. This short cord would also come in handy if you’re going to be using a flash bracket. A longer cord will obviously give you more versatility.

Sync cords typically have a faster sync speed than the wireless options. Each camera has a built-in max sync speed (around 1/200 – 1/250 sec) which is what the manufacturer notes as the highest dependable sync speed. Both wired and wireless options will work fine at these speeds. However, it’s possible to shoot at higher speeds, but you may be required to use a sync cable.

Wireless Triggers
Triggering your flash wirelessly gives you the most flexibility for your lighting setup, but will be more expensive than using a sync cord. When dealing with a wireless setup, you will need two units; a transmitter and a receiver.

Let’s get the top of the line system out of the way: Pocket Wizard. Weighing in at $190 per transceiver, these guys don’t mess around. Pocket Wizards will give you the most versatility and dependability, but with a high price tag.

On the complete opposite end of the money spectrum, a company called Gadget Infinity offers some nice lower-cost combos that can give you some good results. You’re looking at about $32 for a transmitter and receiver combo, and $20 for each additional receiver. These units became popular on eBay because most beginning photographers can’t afford $380 for a set of Pocket Wizards. For this reason, the Gadget Infinity triggers became known as “eBay Triggers,” or more suitably, “Poverty Wizards.”

There are other wireless options, as well. Both Nikon and Canon offer their own proprietary infrared systems. These infrared systems require that you have the triggers within sight of each other and have a shorter operating range than the 1600-foot range boasted by the Pocket Wizards. These systems can also be expensive; the Canon ST-E2 transmitter costs $220.

It’s Your Call
You may be feeling overwhelmed with options right now. I can say firsthand that figuring out how to trigger my flashes has been one of the most frustrating experiences of off-camera flash lighting. But it’s also been the most fulfilling.

It really all depends on what type of photography you’re doing and how you’ll need to light your subjects. If you’re mainly going to be using flash for family gatherings, special events, weddings, etc., then a sync cord would be a good choice. These cases require you to move around a bit, so having your flash in hand (or on a bracket) is important. At this point, you may not need the long range and flexibility afforded by the wireless systems.

If you’re wanting to get a little more experimental with your lighting and delve into studio-style lighting, portraiture, abstract, etc., then you may want to consider one of the wireless routes. It’s hard to beat the flexibility of being able to move the camera around independent of the flash.

Overall, the idea of triggering your off-camera flash seems pretty simple at first, but the options available and the things to consider may make it a frustrating experience. I suggest taking the time to find out which options are going to work best with your equipment, your style of photography, and lastly your wallet!

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5 Responses to “Off-Camera Flash Photography Tips – How to Trigger Your Flash”

  1. charles on August 2nd, 2008 10:20 pm

    i’m selling my two Cactus recievers plus one transmitter on eBay, used, for $60.

    I really like the “community” aspect that we photo tutorial website users have, which is why it’s a good price. I’d rather sell at a loss and see someone take awesome photos with the gear I sold them…

    I’ve used them quite a bit, and I really think off-camera flash is a powerful tool. It definitely gives photos / portraits the appearance of being sharper, at least, since the light illuminates edges very well. I think beginners or people who’ve never used off-camera flash should read and re-read this article, since it’s a great aspect of photography.

    Oh, and be sure to check out the place where I, and many other photographers [probably including the author of this post!] learned how to use off-camera flash,

  2. Hector M Torvisque on October 8th, 2008 11:58 am

    Haven’t you forgotten that with a sync cable, you can use TTL – which you can’t even do with a pocket wizard? A big plus. Your article is really skewed because of this omission.

  3. Off-Camera Flash Photography Tips - Where to Mount the Flash | Photoshop X on December 9th, 2008 7:09 am

    […] article is a continuation of the previously discussed how to trigger your flash article. Once you have your flash and are able to trigger it remotely, now you have to figure out […]

  4. photoman022 on December 8th, 2009 9:02 pm

    don’t forget hat you can use optical remotes to trigger your off camera flash.

  5. Robin on August 8th, 2010 5:57 pm

    Not sure about other cameras, but if you have a Nikon SLR and the SB-600 or SB-800 then you can trigger the flash using the flash on the camera! It’s free:)

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