Intro to Speedlites, Modifiers and Off-Camera Flash

Updated: Sep 28

It can be confusing trying to understand how to use speedlites as off-camera flash and what you need to get started. In this post, I'll discuss some of the basics and options for off-camera flash using speedlites including my go-to setup.


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What is a strobe/speedlite/flash? These terms are all used somewhat interchangeably. "Flash" and "strobe" are more generic terms for non-continuous photography lighting. While continuous lighting setups have lights that are always on, flash or strobe lighting setups only flash, or turn lights on, when the image is being captured. This saves power and is less intrusive than continuous lighting. "Speedlite" and "Speedlight" terms apply more specifically to battery powered, portable units that can be mounted on camera (in the "hot shoe") or controlled off-camera. Canon spells it "Speedlite" while Nikon spells it "Speedlight." As a Canon user, I tend toward the former spelling.


Where should you start? Most Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras do not come with a flash. Some have a built in flash. While it is better than nothing, built in flash will be harsh, flat, and not very powerful. There are two benefits to built in flash: It's better than nothing and it can be used to trigger some off camera flash units. If you can afford it, I recommend purchasing a speedlite. It can be attached to most DSLRs and provides more power and flexibility. It can be modified, it can be bounced (bounce flash), and it can be controlled off-camera. I use bounce flash for most of my candids, party photos, and spontaneous family photos. It's easy and it creates nice, even lighting. Make sure to buy a speedlite that is compatible with your camera. Canon's most affordable speedlite that is fully adjustable for bounce flash is the Canon 430EX III-RT while Nikon's is the Nikon SB-500. If you cannot afford the name brand speedlites, there are alternatives from Altura, Neewer, and Yongnuo. I do not use these brands as they have not proven as reliable as the Canon speedlites. However, some models do keep pace with the technology and are used successfully by many strobists.


Here's a photo of my Canon 6D with my 430EX III-RT in the hot shoe. Notice that the flash head is twisted to the left and tiled down. You can twist and tilt the flash head in order to face your subject (hard) or bounce off a wall or ceiling to diffuse the light (soft). Check out my SUPERBABY post and Newborn Photo post for an examples of using bounce flash to create soft light.

Controlling the speedlite on camera is easy because the speedlite is connected directly to your DSLR. You can use your flash in ETTL mode or Manual mode. In ETTL mode, the flash will calculate the correct power to provide fill light for your photo. I use ETTL most of the time for party pics and spontaneous family photos. You can adjust the flash power in ETTL mode on the camera or on the flash itself. This adjustment is called Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC). If you want to use ETTL/TTL functionality using an off-brand speedlite, make sure it supports ETTL/TTL. If you want to get creative with your flash, you should shoot in manual mode. In manual mode, you can adjust the flash power to your taste. When I use manual flash mode, I pick a flash power that I think might work and then adjust up or down from there. If I want ambient light in the photo, I adjust my camera settings first for ambient light and then add flash and adjust as needed.


Modifiers for on-camera flash: A "modifier" is anything you can use to augment the light from your flash to give it different characteristics. Examples include umbrellas, grids, gels, or bounce cards. If you are trying to produce soft, even light, bouncing your flash off a wall or ceiling is generally going to offer the best results for your effort. The wall or ceiling is going to be the largest modifier you can use and when the modifier is larger is produces softer, more even light. There is not always a light colored wall or ceiling to bounce your flash off of, so you may need to supplement with modifiers. The newest Canon speedlites have a built in white reflector (see photo below). I often use it with my flash point upward so that it throws some light forward onto my subject in addition to pointing up and bouncing light around the room. I don't often use any other type of modifier for on-camera flash. If anything, I throw on a Sofen Omni-Bounce. Even then, keep in mind all it is doing is bouncing light around unless there is a large, light surface to make your light bigger. If you want to hang out in the on-camera flash world a little longer, other fun modifiers are dome diffusers (don't buy the expensive Fong diffuser), or reflectors. To me, they all seem to work very similarly, so I default back to my bounce flash with the white card up.


This is how I shoot with my speedlite >50% of the time. It's not off camera but it creates well lit images to capture candid memories of family and friends.


Getting started with off-camera flash: Once you've dipped your toe into the speedlite world, your next adventure might be off-camera flash. This is where things can get a little confusing as there are multiple ways to connect your camera to your flash and control your flash. Here are the methods and the pros and cons.


Sync or ETTL Cord: The cheapest and easiest way to get your speedlite off your camera is using a sync cord or ETTL cord. You can purchase short ETTL cord if you want to hold your speedlite in your hand or long ETTL cord if you want to mount your speedlite on a stand. These cords connect to your camera's hot shoe or other sync port and run to the speedlite. The ETTL cord offers ETTL functionality which automatically chooses flash power while other sync cords offer only manual control of flash power. I got started with off-camera flash using a long ETTL cord, light stand, speedlite mount, and shoot through umbrella. Sync cords are reliable and affordable. However, you are limited by the distance of your cord and having the cord from the camera to the strobe is can be inconvenient and a trip hazard.


Infrared (IR): Introduced in the late 1980s, infrared was the first wireless method used to control off-camera flash. While infrared adds the convenience of being wireless, the drawback is that is is "optical," meaning it needs to be within view of the controller. An infrared controlled or "master" flash cannot control "slave" flashes through a wall because it does not have a site line. Many photographers today use flash systems that rely on infrared communication to control slaves and it can work well indoors and outdoors as long as the master or controller can see the slave speedlites.


If you want to get into wireless flash with reliable gear without paying extra for the latest radio frequency gear, you can find reasonably priced older canon infrared flashes used or new. The Canon 580 is a work horse and very reliable. You can probably find a used one on Amazon or Ebay for under $200. To control it you can find a Canon ST-E2 used for around $100, or simply buy another 580 to act as master.


Radio Frequency (RF): Strobists began using radio frequency to control flashes in the late 1980s. Radio frequency grew in popularity because it does not rely on having a line of sight between controller and strobe. Without the risk of obstructing the view, radio triggers fire more reliably. Radio triggers can control slave speedlite through walls and across farther distances compared to infrared. However, this technology was not built into Speedlites initially. Seeing an opportunity to improve on flashes manufactured by big companies like Canon and Nikon, other companies began developing radio trigger products that could be attached to speedlites and monolights, allowing strobists more functionality and flexibility with their wireless speedlites. Many photographers today still rely on Pocket Wizards or RadioPoppers to control their legacy off-camera speedlites and moonlights.


Finally in 2012, Canon became the first big photo company to incorporate radio control into a speedlite when it released the Canon 600EX-RT and controller Canon ST-E3-RT. For the first time, photographers did't need to buy and maintain a radio trigger system in addition to their DSLR and flash in order to experience the benefit of wireless flash control. Canon continued to include legacy wireless technology as the 600EX-RT also accommodates infrared and sync ports. Soon after, third parties like Yongnuo introduced similar products. More recently, Nikon has also began to offer speedlights with radio control.


What do I use for Speedliter's Blog? I've tried Yongnuo flashes but both I owned failed. I want a reliable flash that's going to fire when I expect it to fire and offer ETTL for when subjects are moving and I can't continually adjust flash power. I use and recommend the Canon 600EX-RT and Canon 430EX III-RT. Both are radio compatible and super reliable. I wanted a good controller but was reluctant to spend $275 on the Canon ST-E3-RT. Yongnuo offers its YN-E3-RT for only $80 and it offers an autofocus assist beam to help your camera focus in low light. For the price and benefit of focus assist, I decided to buy 2 YN-E3-RT controllers rather than the Canon (still cheaper even buying 2). The only problem I have had with them is that the battery door is flimsy. I am careful when replacing batteries and carry an extra YN-E3-RT and extra battery doors.


Modifiers for Off-Camera Flash: This is where things get exciting! Taking your flash, or flashes, off camera without cords gives you all kinds of options. You can use shoot through umbrellas, reflective umbrellas, soft boxes, beauty dishes, and more. Once you have your gear, expirament with different lighting and modifiers to find what is right for you and your style. Don't let the variety distract you. Just pick something and get started. When in doubt, go with an umbrella. At the end of the day, it's the size of the light that is going to matter most. A small light modifier is going to create hard light where a larger modifier is going to create softer light. A 30" umbrella isn't going to look noticeably different than a 30" softbox - It's just going to spill more light which can be good or bad depending on what you are trying to accomplish.


For mounting your speedlite on a stand, I recommend bracket style s-type holders over more common e-type speedlite mounts. The former are more sturdy and grip the speedlite tightly where the latter just clamps onto the foot of the speedlite. Often the material used for the flash shoe holders is flimsy and can break easily.


Now that you know the basics, check out other posts on Speedliters Blog to get ideas for your next photo shoot! I would love to answer any questions you have in the comments below.



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