A confusing point for many Speedliters is how to start with off-camera flash. Frequently, I am asked, “I have one 430EX. What’s the best way for me to get it off-camera?” The person asking thinks of this as a simple question. After running through several options, the complexity of the question becomes more apparent.
Budget – There are $40 solutions and there are $400 solutions. Starting with the expensive solution because it gives you future options is not necessarily the best way to go. Often, a small investment in a basic solution is the best way to start learning off-camera flash. If you spend all your time reading an owner’s manual and debugging why your expensive solution is not working, then you are really not learning off-camera flash. I’m a big proponent of starting with the basics and then stepping forward. The alternative, blindly taking a big leap to start, often means that you miss the mark entirely.
Quantity of Speedlites – If you have one Speedlite and a low budget, then you have a different set of options from a shooter who already has three Speedlites.
Camera – If you have a 7D you have an option not provided with other camera models
Manual or E-TTL – If you are just starting with off-camera flash, I suggest that you work in Manual mode until you get the hang of it. (You can read more insights for novice Speedliters here.) Once you have the hang of Manual, then E-TTL can be a powerful tool. Jumping straight into E-TTL without an understanding of the mechanics of Manual flash can be frustrating because you do not get direct insight from E-TTL into why the camera decided to use a specific power level on the Speedlite. If you jump into E-TTL and into wireless at the same time, then your workflow can get very, very complicated. My suggestion: learn the basics of Manual flash, then jump into either E-TTL or wireless off-camera. Get the hang of that, then begin to work with the other. Wireless E-TTL is a powerful tool — once you’ve worked your way up to it.
Corded or Wireless – Cords are cheaper than wireless solutions. Don’t think that you need to spend hundreds of dollars to have off-camera, E-TTL. As described in this article, I’m a big fan of using an extra-long E-TTL cord. As a pro, I use a really long E-TTL cord all the time. I think this type of cord is a fine way for a novice to start. You can shoot your Speedlite in Manual mode through an E-TTL cord. The only time that wireless is essential is when I’m firing an off-camera Speedlite at an event where people are milling around (happy people with drinks in hand are not a good combination with a long off-camera cord).
Sub $30 Off-Camera Solutions for Manual Flash
Sync-cord directly from camera to 580EX II – If you have a 580EX II, you have a Speedlite with a PC socket built right in. You can run a sync cord directly from the PC socket on the side of your camera into the side of the 580EX II. I prefer a sync cord with a Screwlock PC fitting as it provides a more reliable connection. Read this article for more info on Screwlock PC cords and links to sources. (Manual mode only – about $15)
Sync-cord directly from camera PC to any Speedlite – If you don’t have a 580EX II, you still can go from your camera’s PC socket to a Speedlite via a cord that has a flash hotshoe built in to the other end. This Screwlowck PC cord from FlashZebra works great. (Manual mode only – about $25)
Sync cord with camera hotshoe and flash hotshoe – PC-sync cords can be finicky if the fitting on either end gets a bit loose (which is why I always use a Screwlock PC cord). If you want to skip the PC-sync all together, then use a cord that has a camera hotshoe adapter at one end and a flash hotshoe adapter at the other end. Another advantage of this cord, if you have two Speedlites, is that you can fire one Speedlite on-camera at low power for fill flash and the off-camera Speedlite at higher power as a key light. This cord from FlashZebra is a favorite of many. (Manual mode only – about $25)
Optical slave directly into 580EX II – You can also use the PC socket on the 580EX II to hold an optical slave. The trick here is that you must have a Canon-compatible optical slave. The only ones that I know of are the green-based optical slaves made by Sonia. The orange- and yellow-based Sonia slaves will not fire a Canon Speedlite. To plug directly into the 580EX II, you’ll need this slave with a PC male fitting. (Manual mode only – about $16)
Optical slave to any Speedlite – If you use a hotshoe adapter under your Speedlite that has a female PC socket (like this one), then you can fire virtually any Speedlite via an optical slave. Again, it has to be Canon-compatible. The optical slaves from Sonia with green bases are the only ones that I know of that are Canon-compatible. (Manual mode only – about $30)
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