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.



An engagement shoot, this morning. It was cold, but the young lovers, Kristen and Dan, aren’t showing it:

In a shoot like this, you may want to keep in mind a few things.

  • There is bright stuff – the sky and directly sunlit areas – and dark stuff – the rest. It is impossible to get both in a shot well exposed (unless, of course, you use flash to light up whatever darker areas are important to you. Like your subjects.).
  • The White Balance of both areas are different. Shady areas look very blue if you white balance for the sunny areas (or for your flash, which is equivalent).
  • You need to simplify. Take out annoying branches, cigarette butts, and so on.
  • Do not pose. Position, instead.
  • Spontaneity is good. But sometimes you need to direct. Take a detached view.
  • Use the Rule of Thirds.
  • You can shoot a little wide and then crop later, if you wish.
  • However nice the wide angle shots are, also shoot some close-ups. Or vice versa.

Here’s a couple more samples of this wonderful couple – with minimal adjustments made in post. It is good to shoot it in camera if you can.

Technical details: I shot with the camera on manual, set for the right background. For light, I used an off-camera flash on TTL (using light-driven remote TTL).

So what do I do for a shot like this, which needs slow shutter?

Tricky. To get the slow shutter, I need a small aperture. But that kills my flash power. So I compromise:

  • I use the flash with no modifier (which also steals light).
  • I manually zoom the flash in to 200mm. This concentrates the beam, leading to higher available power.
  • Then go to the smallest aperture that gives me acceptable flash output.

Note that “just use an ND filter” is the wrong answer. Unless you have lots and lots of flash power to get through that filter. Which brings me to my last suggestion: use multiple flashes. Each doubling of the number of flashes gives you an extra stop of flash power!


Michael teaches these techniques and many others. Contact him to see how he can help you through a course, some coaching, or through a number of other methods all designed to increase your state-of-the-art speedlighting knowledge quickly.


Direct flash

You cannot use direct, unmodified flash.

Oh wait.

Yes you can. and sometimes you have to.

Like when you are outdoors and you want to reduce the ambient light, and light your subject with flash. This gives you control over the light. But it is not simple, at first.

  1. You want to reduce ambient exposure.
  2. You do this by setting your aperture , ISO and shutter to give you a darker background.
  3. You start with choosing a low ISO and fast shutter speed. But your ISO cannot go below 100, and if you wish to add flash, your shutter cannot go beyond 1/200th second, if that is your “flash sync speed”. So you set those values. 100 ISO, 1/200th second.
  4. But… too much light still, on a sunny day.  So now you must reduce your aperture to what you are happy with – say, f/5.6.

When you do this you will find that you get darker backgrounds. All right. Not as dark as you would like but not bad.

Now the challenge will be: at 100 ISO and f/5.6, how far will your speedlight reach? The answer: not far. Not if you add softboxes, umbrellas, reflectors or other modifiers, anyway.

So now we are where I thought we would get: you need to use a bare flash.

And that is fine. But take it off camera.

Direct flash is just “OK” if the flash is near the lens. Like in this image of volunteer model Vanessa in today’s class:

Not bad, and well eexxecuted. But there could be more shape to the face, no?

That is why it is often nicer when the light source is off to the side. The face now gets shape, like in this example:

Now, to be clear: light straight into the face is OK – just as long as that is not also where the camera is!

Like this example – this is just fine:

And that is direct flash, unmodified.

So yes – you can do this, whatever anyone else says. Just as long as the light is not in line with the lens.





Pocketwizardry Tip

Quick tip.

When using Pocketwizards to fire your flashes or speedlites (use Flashzebra cables for the latter if necessary), perhaps for pictures like this:

Evanna Mills by Michael Willems

Evanna Mills, photo by Michael Willems

You get a choice of three settings: local, remote, or both.

Local means “when triggered, fire the device connected to the Pocketwizard”. “Remote” means “when triggered, use your radio transmitter to fire the remote devices that may be listening”. Both means both.

Tip: In any normal situation, set your device to remote on the camera, and to local on the others, that have a flash attached.

Why not just set them all to “both”?

  1. Many radio signals will be sent each time, leading to an increased chance of confusion.
  2. More power is spent this way too.

Yes, I know, radio all over can even make things more reliable. But in my opinion it is as likely to make things less reliable. And yes I know, radio does not use a lot of power and the PWs last forever on two AAs. But “forever” does not actually mean “forever”. The longer you make the batteries last, the better.

It’s one of those engineering things.

PS: in the menu on the right, you can sign up for email notifications every time I post – which is typically once, or sometimes twice, a day. Handy and recommended so you do not miss anything.

One more quick recipe

Quick recipe for you.

Remember this shot, done in the workshop I taught three days ago in Las Vegas with David Honl?

Yasmin Tajik in Las Vegas, by Michael Willems

Yasmin Tajik in Las Vegas

Shot how, you ask? I mean – at what settings and such?

  • Camera: 1D Mark IV with 35mm f/1.4L prime lens.
  • 100 ISO.
  • Camera on manual, 1/320th second at f/16 (slightly exceeding the 1/300th sec synch speed).
  • Flash is an SB900, also on manual (“M” rather than “TTL”); set to full power (“1/1”).
  • Flash is on a boom, and is fitted with a Honl Photo Traveller 8 softbox (notice the nice round catchlights), and is held a couple of feet from Yasmin’s face.

And you know that at full power, with a softbox, an SB900 will give you those settings.

A 430EX will need to be about twice as close to her face.

Try your own flash at those settings: how close do you need to hold it to ensure proper exposure, using the modifier of your choice. Once you know that, it will always be the same. Simple, really.

Note: the SB900 flash will overheat at these settings, especially in Las Vegas. A dozen shots in you will suddenly get no more flashes. The Nikon flash cannot be used at full power, while the Canon flashes can. With a Nikon SB800/900 flash, I would simply go to half power and live with that. If I needed more light, I would add another flash.

Want to know more? Want to learn all this and go home with a few cool portfolio shots? There is still space on the all-day Advanced Flash workshop Sunday in Mono, Ontario. Book now to get a spot.

Oh, one more thing. Am I cheating? Is this just sunlight lighting up Yasmin?

I think not. Here is the same shot without firing the flash (always a good thing to do to test your settings!):

I rest my case.

Replacing the sun

The sun, most photographers would agree, is not the friendliest light. It is like a studio with one direct light:

  • Too contrasty for the camera’s dynamic range to handle dark to light;
  • It throws shadows;
  • It makes smooth surfaces (like, um, skin)  look wrinkly.

So you get this, of Joseph Marranca on Monday at the Mono, Ont venue of the advanced creative light workshops:

Back yard in sunshine, by Michael Willems

Back yard in sunshine

Nice, but it suffers from all the problems of direct sunlight.

When you would rather have this, two seconds later when the sun went behind a big sky-mounted softbox: a cloud.

Back yard in shaded light, by Michael Willems

Back yard in shaded light

Nice and soft. Saturated colours. Smooth.

Now the only problem is that if you want highlights, you don’t get them. Can’t we have both?

Yes. And that is where flash comes in.

In the portrait shot below of Oakville’s mayor, yesterday, I first took away the sun, using a diffuser. And then I added a flash. Off-camera , with a Honl grid and a Honl quarter CTO gel (with my white balance set to flash). Plus a bit of fill flash on the camera.

Oakville's mayor Rob Burton, photo by Michael Willems

Oakville's mayor Rob Burton, June 2010

I think that being in control is better than just relying on too-harsh direct light. Do you agree?

Battery tips

Sunday’s country workshop in Mono, ON prompts me to talk for a moment about batteries.

Background: We used small speedlights Sunday, with simple and effective Honl modifiers and gels. The studio lights and large softboxes stayed packed away.

Tara Elizabeth in the rain, by Michael Willems

Tara Elizabeth in the rain

In a shot like this, you make the background darker by “nuking the sun”: overpowering the sunlight with flash.

Overpowering the sun takes, um, power.

In general, therefore, you will set your Pocketwizard-powered speedlites to full power. On many shots we have five speedlites firing at full power. Full power gives you not that many flashes – in the order of maybe 100 flashes if you are lucky.

To use flash effectively, then, here are a few practical tips:

  • Turn off the “Auto power down” on your flashes (this is in your flash custom functions).
  • Move the flashes as close as you can to your subject (remember the inverse square law).
  • Allow 3 or more seconds for the flashes to recharge before you shoot again.
  • Occasionally, fire a test flash to verify that  all flashes are still working.
  • Use NiMH rechargeable batteries.
  • Ensure these are “low self discharge” types like Sanyo Eneloop, etc.
  • Carry a lot of spares. Several sets per flash.
  • Before each new shot setup, replace them. So you never run out.
  • Use a “conditioning charger” that can discharge your batteries fully before charging. I have three of the Lacrosse chargers (check Amazon or the web).

And yes, go wild, and use speedlites for creative purposes!

Model Tara Elizabeth, photographed by Michael Willems

Model Tara Elizabeth

Tara Elizabeth, photographed by Michael Willems

Tara Elizabeth

Tara Elizabeth, photographed by Michael Willems

Model Tara Elizabeth striking a pose

Tara Elizabeth, photographed by Michael Willems

Tara Elizabeth and umbrella

Where's the light?

In the picture I posted the other day of the female runner, did you notice the light? No, really, did you notice the direction of the light?

Here, let me post another one from the same shoot. Straight out of the camera (i.e. this is not the result of photoshopping):

Female runner running down the hill, shot by Michael Willems

Female runner running down the hill

You can see the sun is behind her: look at her shadow.

Normally that would lead to her front being dark. Bad light!

But instead, she is well lit and even has a bright side light on her face. That shapes her face and makes the picture much more interesting than it would otherwise have been.

You may recall, two flashes were used – two simple speedlites (Canon 430EX speedlites, fired by Pocketwizards). One bare, and one, the fill light, with a Honl Photo Traveller 8 softbox on it.

Light from “unnatural” directions like this leads to a look that is not natural, but rather, hyper real. A sort of otherworldly look. And as you may have noticed in many of my photos, I believe that that is a good thing to strive for in artistic photos.

Exposing the background correctly is also important – it is darker than your camera would have made it if it has had the final say.

Colour is important here too – I am partial to a combination of red, blue and green; and the pink is close enough to red to make it interesting.

Can you see that the background is a bit blurry? That is becasue I was pannign – following th emodel with the camera as I shot.

(Want to learn more? Well, you can: these are just some of the techniques we teach in our workshops: stay tuned or contact me for more information)

Reiterated Trick

I mentioned this once before as an aside, but it is worth a post: a trick that tells you which flash is casting what light in your images.

Say I am lighting a person (like me) with a flash outside. Nice:

Subject lit with an off-camera flash

Subject lit with an off-camera flash

But how can I be sure this light is from the flash? I mean, is that really all the flash? Or is the subject in the sun? Or in a mix of light?

Solution: put a coloured gel onto the flash. Now you see:

Subject lit with an off-camera gelled flash

Subject lit with an off-camera gelled flash

Ah. So it was the flash! Not only that – you can see exactly where it is -and importantly, where it is not – illuminating the subject.

Useful trick, eh? One more reason to always carry gels along with you.