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Add some indoor fun to your photography with off-camera flash units

Updated on December 18, 2011

Off camera flash units have a lot of capability for fun

Looking for a great gift idea to go along with a digital camera? Looking to add a new dimension to your photography without spending a lot of money on new cameras or lens? Add a speedlite or flash unit with off camera capabilities to your list of camera equipment.

Speedlites, Flash or Strobe?

All three of these terms are used to describe equipment that build up power using capacitors and release it as light in a flash. Some define the differences as:

  • Speedlight - Camera mounted or mountable flash
  • Flash - Generic term, could mean camera mounted flash or studio strobe.
  • Strobe - Studio Strobes with or without light modifiers attached.

But what really matters it that these devices provide a lot of extra light for low light situations. Most cameras these days come with inboard flash units but typically they have a lot of drawbacks including:

  • Low power - typically designed for snapshot range photos
  • Non-movable - typically they shoot in one direction - straight ahead
  • No diffusion - typically they provide harsh light with deep shadows

Get Your Flash Off Your Camera And Let The Fun Begin

Off camera flashes allow for all kinds of unique lighting effects and lead to better, less snapshot looking photographs. If you think about it, direct forward flash rarely leads to good looking photographs, rather the results are typically red eye as the light bounces off the back of the eye and exposes the red blood vessels and dark, harsh shadows. If you've ever seen a professional photographer at a wedding or an event, you might have noticed they had some kind of diffusion device on the flash unit, had it pointed up to the ceiling to bounce the light around the room, or had the flash mounted on a bracket that put the flash up higher to reduce red eye.

Off camera effects allow one to put the light off to one side for side lighting or bouncing the light off the ceiling or through a diffusion device such as a softbox or umbrella.

Off camera flashes can be triggered in a variety of ways. Many of these flash units include sensors so that the flash is triggered when it senses a quick burst of light. These slave units flash so fast that they combine with the build in flash of your camera or another slave unit. The flashes can also be triggered with PC cords attached to the hot shoe on your camera.

Another way is to buy flash "triggers". These are wireless triggers. The main unit attaches to your hot show and sends the signal to other units when the shutter button is pushed. Each slave flash has a receiver with a hot shoe for the flash unit. You can use a combination of units with the receivers and using the sensor method.

Recommendation for an inexpensive speedlite

I have a Yongnuo YN560 Speedlite that I paid less than $70 and its been great. For half the price of a Lumipro unit or $200 less than a speedlite from Nikon or Canon, for my purposes this unit give me everything I'd want out of an off camera flash unit.

Features of the Yongnuo YN560 include:

  • A reflector board for diffusing the light
  • A wide-angle diffuser for spreading out the light
  • A socket for an external power pack
  • PC port for input
  • Optical control sensor for using the unit as a slave
  • Hot shoe stand
  • Power zoom function to cover focal lengths from 24 to 105mm
  • Wireless triggering sensor with S1 and S2 modes
  • 3 second recharging
  • Super speed recharging when used at 1/8th power
  • Automatic setting saving - it remembers your previous settings

This unit puts out a ton of light (it takes 4 AA batteries as opposed to weaker units that only use 2 AA batteries). Recently I used it to provide the main overall light for a shoot in the kitchen about making Christmas cookies. I set the flash on its stand on top of the kitchen island and pointed at the ceiling to provide light all around the scene. I used another flash unit mounted on a stand with a shoot through umbrella to provide some more hightlight lighting.

Manual control is also available on this unit as well as more expensive stobes. With manual control you can use it to add supplementary light in certain areas of your photograph or balance it with the rest of your lighting scheme.

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