Manual or TTL?

When making flash pictures, your camera will be on manual mode—I hope so, anyway. It’s the way to go. This means you set ISO, aperture and shutter yourself.

But your flash does not need to be on manual. That is to say, flash power can still be metered and be adjusted by the camera, automatically. We call this “TTL” (Through The Lens metering). And TTL can work even when the camera itself is on manual.

When your flash is in TTL mode, the back looks something like this:

You see TTL, ETTL, TTL-BL, i.e. something containing the letters TTL. This means the flash power is adjusted automatically by the camera. If you are close to something, the flash will fire at low power; if you are far away, a high power flash will be emitted. Magic!

The alternative is that you set the flash power. Manual flash, in other words. Press the MODE button on the back of the flash and set it to Manual:

In the photo above, the flash is set to half power (1/2). It could also be set to full power (100%, or 1/1), or to quarter power (1/4), or one eight power (1/8), one sixteenth (1/16), and so on; or to some level in between.

Try this now. Set your camera to manual mode, 1/40 second, 400 ISO, f/4. Now turn on your flash and set it to manual, and set it to 1/64 power. Using the viewfinder, take a photo. Check the photo: You will probably be hard pressed to see the flash, especially if your subject is far away.

Now set it to full power (1/1, or 100%). Do the same again. Whew, probably a grossly overexposed picture!

But you probably noticed something else. You did not see the flash through the viewfinder. “Did it work?”, you may well have asked. That is because when the flash is on manual, it fires just once, at the power level you set. You do not get the metering pre-flash that it uses when set to TTL mode (a flash at 1/32 power that is used to determine the needed power level). And that preflash is the one you can see through the viewfinder. The actual flash you cannot see!

Now, an exercise.

  1. Find an object to photograph. With the camera set as before, and the flash on MANUAL, find the correct power level for a good picture. Aim the flash straight ahead for this exercise.
  2. Now move 40% farther from the object. E.g. if your original distance was one metre, make it 1.4 metres. Or if you were 4 feet away, make it 5 feet 7 inches (that is 40% farther than 4 feet).
  3. Now find the correct power level for this picture. How much more power did you need? And (an advanced question for mathematicians): why? (Hint: it’s actually 41.4% farther).

Have fun.


Connecting Your Flash

When you use an off-camera flash, you somehow have to connect that flash to your camera.


You could use an old-fashioned cable, of course. But cables are a bit of a pain: they have people fall, or drag cameras to the floor, their connector reliability is less than stellar, and they are hard to get. But fortunately, there is good news: there are a few other practical ways to connect your flash or flashes to your camera.

Let’s look at all possible ways to connect:

  1. Using a cable from camera to flash. As said, not a terribly good idea.
  2. Using optical remote operation; using the “TTL”-system built into the flash. This works well, but only if there is line of sight, or a reflected light path, between camera and all remote flashes.
  3. The same, but using radio; the system is built into the flash (currently, Canon 600EX only).
  4. Operation using “TTL” (full function) radio triggers (e.g. Pocketwizard Flex, Yongnuo 622).
  5. Operation using “Simple” (restricted function) radio triggers (e.g. the “old” Pocketwizards, Yongnuo 603) and a special cable from Pocketwizard to flash.

This short article is about the question “4 or 5?”. i.e. you have decided to use wireless triggers, like Pocketwizards, and now the question is :”which ones: triggers that give you full TTL control or just simple ones that do not support TTL, i.e. that need you to set flash power manually.”

In this case, I argue for 5.

Why? Why not use TTL control?

  1. When doing pro shoots with Off-Camera Flash (OCF) you are more likely to use manual flash settings than TTL anyway, so the additional benefit of TTL is minor, and needs to be offset against the following drawbacks.
  2. Triggers that support TTL (Through The Lens metering) need to be reverse engineered, since the protocols are proprietary. Reverse engineering always carries the risk that it will not always work properly under all circumstances, now or in the future. (The history of the TTL Pocketwizards proves this.)
  3. TTL triggers need to use all the contacts on the flash, as opposed to the single contact a simple manual system needs (ground plus one signal lead). And again, extra stuff means extra complexity, which carries with it the risk of malfunction.
  4. TTL triggers need to send actual data. Non-TTL triggers merely turn a switch, as it were; a signal lead without binary data. As before: complexity…
  5. TTL triggers are brand-specific (you cannot use a Nikon Flex on a Canon camera, for instance). So if you have a problem you cannot just reach out and borrow one from a colleague. You need to stick with Nikon- or Canon-versions of your triggers.
  6. Because of their complexity, TTL triggers need firmware updates. One more thing to worry about: life is complicated enough already, in my opinion.
  7. TTL triggers need you to use a flash made by your camera maker. Non-TTL systems have a huge advantage here, namely that your flashes can be any make, any age, any brand: as long as you can set the power level, the flash will work.
  8. Many TTL triggers use small batteries, while Pocketwizard non-TTL triggers use two AA batteries. If there is anything sure in life it is death, taxes, and AA batteries.

And that is why I prefer non-TTL triggers.

It is rare that a post has me falling asleep while I am writing it. But it is 2:46AM: time to get some sleep. More tomorrow.


Easy way out?

The Easy Way Out Is Not The Right Way.

I just read a post on a Facebook group from a photographer who is about to shoot portraits at a wedding, in a photo booth. She has two softboxes, two flashes, and a camera and a few triggers, and her question was basically “I have no idea what to set the camera and all these other things to, and it is so confusing”.

This is a good example of trying to take the easy way out, and it is seldom a good way. Things do not come that easy. Her question sounds to me like “I bought an airplane and I need to fly it to Sydney but I have no idea what all these meters and levers and dials do, but I don’t want to read a book”. This sounds almost insulting to those of us who did take the trouble to actually learn stuff.

Guess what: you will have to read a book, and take some lessons.  Trying to shoot professionally while not knowing even the basic facts gives photographers a bad name.

I see this in students sometimes: the “but but but syndrome”, I like to call it. “I can’t learn this”. “Yes you can”. “But but but…”, and every further argument or fact or attempt to help is answered by a “but but but”. This is someone who “just wants it to be easy”.

Well, guess what. Yes, you can learn this. Everyone can. But yes, you will need to learn things, like the workings of aperture, shutter, and ISO; the inverse square law; flash power settings; shutter limitations when using flash; balancing ambient and flash; how modifiers work; and a whole lot more. Just like to fly an airplane, you do need to know how all the levers and handles and switches work.

B737 flight deck

The good news: flash is simpler than a B737 flight deck.

The bad news: you do have to learn it, and some of the theory behind it. Here are the easy ways:

  • Go to and buy the Pro Flash Manual, and if necessary, the “Mastering Your Camera” manual. These are non-DRM PDF files, i.e. you can read them on any computer, pad, phone or similar, and you can carry them with you for convenience. They will teach you everything, There is no excuse for “not knowing things”.
  • Then take a course (email me on to arrange a date/subject).
  • Read this daily blog, here on
  • Then do all the exercises mentioned in the above resources.

“But I don’t learn that way; I don’t learn from reading. I need to be hands on.”

Yeah, sure, and the books are full of practice. But just like Pythagoras’s Theorem, Shakespeare, Brain Surgery, or Quantum Electrodynamics, it does start with reading. Sorry. The cold, hard, realities of life. trust me on this: I know how people learn. You will learn this.

“But I don’t do math.”

Some minimal math is needed, just like when you go to your local supermarket. When you hand the cashier a $100 note for a quart of milk and she hands you back 23 cents, you do not say “that’s OK, because I don’t do math”, do you? No—you smile at her, hold out your hand insistently, and say “and the rest?”

“But my friend just presses buttons.”

Sure, I can come set up your camera and flashes and you can just press buttons, Sears “minimum wage” style. But what will you do when something goes wrong? Or the batteries run out? Or you need to change cameras? Or you need to shoot in a different room? You need to know what you are doing.

And by the way, it is not confusing. Here, then, since you asked:

  • Camera on manual exposure mode (“M”).
  • Set it to 200 ISO, 1/125 sec, f/8. (no auto ISO!)
  • Flashes on manual mode, 1/4 power.
  • Picture too dark? increase flash power or bring flashes closer to subject. Picture too bright? decrease flash power or move flashes away from subject.
  • If you have these settings, then trigger on camera is on TRANSMIT/REMOTE; triggers on flashes are on RECEIVE/LOCAL.

That’s all. Not complicated at all. But to see that it is not complicated, and to see why I recommend those particular settings, you do need to know the background. Otherwise flashes will always seem like that B737 flight deck.

PS: the photographer who asked the question did, I am sure, do lots of re4search. I am arguing not against her, but against other who do not do the research. All too common.

Bokeh, anyone?

I have mentioned before that the quality of the background blur is an important indicator of a lens’s quality.

The lens I used for this photo (the 35mm f/1.4 lens)  has very good bokeh (wonderful creamy background blur):

(1/50 sec, 1600 ISO, f/2.2

A cheap lens lacks the wonderful “creamy” bokeh you see above; its blur is more “mottled”, “chunky”. I can easily tell whether a good lens was used, or not.


I notice that sometimes, students do not want to ask basic questions. Well, my message is clear: do not worry. Ask.

A student recently had half completed a course and still did not know how to change the “f-number”. (Hint: on small cameras you may need to press and hold the diaphragm button while you turn the wheel).

So today, a basic basic point: aperture.

Here’s a photo taken at f/2. I focused on the hand:

And now I do it again, this time at f/8 (all other settings are the same). Again, I focused on the hand. The image now looks like this:

We see the following:

  1. I focused on the hand, so the hand is sharp in both cases.
  2. In photo 2. f/8 is a higher f–number, but the photo is darker; hence a higher f-number means a smaller opening (“aperture”) in the lens.
  3. In photo 2, the background and foreground are sharper. In photo 1, it is blurry. So, all other things being equal, a lower f–number means a blurrier background.

You need to understand these basics and be fully familiar with them.

So, a low number like f/2.2 at close distance gives you this: a great blurred background.

To make things easy, the camera was in manual mode for all these shots.

Q: The second shot has a sharper background, which conceivably is what I wanted; but it is darker, which is not what I wanted. How could I have fixed this latter problem?