Want to take better flash photographs? There are lots of things you can do, but the basic idea for most of them is to get the flash coming from some direction other than the direction of the camera’s lens.
The easiest way to do this is to abandon the camera’s built-in flash in favor of a removable hot-shoe flash unit (sometimes called a strobe). You can improve things more by learning to bounce the light from the hot-shoe unit. Even better, if you have a camera that supports optical wireless control of remote flash units, you can get the flash units off the camera completely. But controlling remote flash units with optical triggering is not completely reliable and the slave flash units have to be placed where they can see a strong signal from the control flash on the camera. You can’t place optically controlled flashes completely out of sight of the controller, like, for example, behind a screen or around a corner. Optical triggering doesn’t suck, by any means. If it works in a given situation, it’s easy to use and it’s basically free, or it is for me, because my Pentax cameras and my Pentax and Metz flash units all support it. But when it doesn’t work well–which is a lot of the time–then it’s
So most serious flash photographers use radio controlled flash. The idea here is that you attach a small transmitter to the camera, usually by mounting it where you would normally mount a flash unit. And you attach your remote flash units to receivers. When you click the camera’s shutter, an electric signal is sent through the hot shoe. This would normally trigger a hot-shoe mounted flash, but when you have a radio transmitter mounted instead of a flash, the transmitter sends out a signal to its receivers, and they in turn trigger the flash units.
I’m working with FlashWave 2 units from G9Chron. They were recommended by some friends on the Pentax Forums list. They are a lot more economically priced than, say, Pocket Wizards, but they are reputed to be very reliable and easy to use. One advantage is that the FlashWave units come with built-in hot shoe adapters. This matters to me because my Pentax and Metz flash units don’t have the ports necessary to connect to the FlashWave receivers via cable. And even if they did, hot shoe is much easier. If you’re going to go wireless, why not go all the way?
Here’s a simple photo that gives a basic idea of what’s so neat about radio triggers.
This photo was taken with my Pentax K20D and one (just one) NIKON SB-18 Speedlight, a FlashWave 2 transmitter on the camera and a FlashWave 2 receiver attached to the Speedlight.
Note that the flash is down the hallway and around the corner. It is, in fact, around the corner and about 8 ft to the left. I could not use optical triggering with the flash placed like this: the triggering preflash would not make it to the remote unit.
I would also like to emphasize how neat it is to be able to use a Nikon flash with my Pentax camera. The radio triggering system doesn’t care whether the flashes it’s triggering are one brand or another, so I can use this little old Nikon flash (which I bought used for a few dollars, to use with my old Nikon N65 film SLR) even though I am not using a Nikon camera. Of course, I can also use my Pentax-compatible Metz 58 AF-1 or my Pentax 540FGZ units, but if triggering is handled by FlashWave 2’s radio signalling, then it doesn’t matter that these units are Pentax compatible. They’re just flashes.
I’m quite pleased with the FlashWave 2. It’s been 100% reliable for me. I thought it had failed to fire on me once, for a second or two, until I realized I hadn’t turned the receiver on. Duh. The units are well made. Set up was child’s play. Transmitter and receivers came with batteries and already set to the same channel. All I had to do was attach the units to the camera and flash units respectively and shoot.
If you’re used to shooting flash with your camera’s auto-exposure system (called P-TTL on Pentax systems), you’ll have to learn how to control the flash output manually. This is easier than it seems. Actually, in this photo, there was nothing to do at all, because the SB-18 is so simple it does not have any controls. When I did an earlier version of this shot with the Metz 58 AF-1, I set it to 1/4 power and that was about right.
If you do check out the FlashWave units, be aware that G9Chon currently sells two products: the FlashWave 2 radio triggers, which have been around for a little while, and a newer product called FW-1B. The FW-1B is not a FlashWave. It’s less expensive than the FlashWave 2, but it’s also less powerful (so it’s designed mainly for use in small studio environments) and it doesn’t come with the built-in hot shoe adapters, so with my flash units, at least, I’d need to pay extra to buy adapters separately. I have not tried the FW-1B. But I can certainly recommend the FlashWave 2.
Couple things I forgot to mention earlier. First, if you know little about off-camera flash photography and would like to learn more, The Place To Go on the Web is http://strobist.com. And once you start getting the hang of it, you might then like to read Joe McNally’s latest book, The Hot-Shoe Diaries. This guy’s one of my heros.