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.

First considerations

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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22 Responses to Deciding How To Start With Off-Camera Speedliting

  1. Drew says:

    Do you know where to get the Flash Zebra Long or XL E-TTL cords other than their site? Every time I try to order they are out of stock.

    • Syl Arena says:

      Drew -

      Don't know of another source. The long, coiled cords on eBay are not the same… when you try to stretch them out, they pull your light stand over.

      My suggestion: find the contact info on FlashZebra and email in a request that you be notified when they come in. I'm sure they will go fast when they do.

      They have more coming soon. And probably more after that. Hang in there. It's worth the wait.

  2. Drew says:

    Thanks for the reply and information!

  3. Fraser says:

    LOVE the site!

    I am just getting into flash photography and am using a 7D. In this article you made reference to the 7D's ability to trigger off-camera speedlites using the built-in flash.

    As someone new to speedlites, would there be any disadvantages to using this ability over E-TTL cords or other wireless solutions?

    Do you know of any situations where using the built-in flash as a trigger would be undesirable?


    • Syl Arena says:

      Fraser – This would be a good question to post on the Speedliting Forum. There are many who shoot the 7D on a regular basis. I'm a 5DM2 guy. One of the key factors in creating good off-camera light is to have an on-camera Master Speedlite either turned off during the exposure (it barks out the commands, then is quiet) or used as on-camera fill at low power. I can't recall if the 7D pop-up will work as a Master without firing during the actual exposure too. Again, I bet several members of the Forum will know.

  4. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this amazing site, Syl!

    So I have a 5DMII and two 580EXII's. I've been using the ST-E2 transmitter thus far…but I'm curious about the optical slaves. What is the difference in how these transmitters work? What are the pros/cons of using optical slaves vs. the ST-E2?


    • Syl Arena says:

      Sarah – Optical slaves can only be used in Manual flash. If you use them with E-TTL, the pre-flash will trick them into firing prematurely. Optical slaves are simple, inexpensive devices that can only say "fire now!" E-TTL, on the other hand, is Canon's system by which the camera measures the light coming back from a pre-flash and then sets the power on the Speedlite accordingly.

  5. Knut says:

    Fraser, I have the 7D and have had the same thoughts. I actually asked Syl about it in one of his earlier posts and his reply was quite helpful to me. Posted below:

    Syl Arena says:
    February 21, 2010 at 6:47 am

    Knut -

    The 7D pop-up will not work if the slave is inside a softbox. There needs to be a line-of-sight connection between the Master and Slave. Nor will the 7D pop-up work if you are shooting outdoors and the slave is behind you (indoors the 7D might be able to bounce the signal off a wall). The extra-long E-TTL cord gives you many capabilities that the 7D pop-up does not offer. If you don’t need to control Speedlites inside a softbox (at least for now), then the 7D pop-up can be another great way to get started with off-camera flash.

    That said, for the basic stuff I find the 7D master sufficient and quite effective. The pop-up flash can work as master without influencing exposure, or work as fill. You'll be able to control 3 groups of flashes directly from the camera menu which is also nice.

  6. Andrew says:


    I shoot with a 7D and use the pop up to fire up to 3 580exII's all the time. When you go to the flash control menu you can scroll down to Built in Flash settings and select Wireless function. You have three options there. The middle one is just the 580's.

  7. Harvey says:

    I have a Rebel XTI. I'm very new to this flask stuff and am traveling without access to my TA folks at home. I purchased a 430EXII and a ST-E2 before I left , primarily because of being inspired by "HotShoe Diaries" (even if it was Nikon specific I read the whole thing and can't wait for your book). I have read the manuals and Thomas' Speedlite System Digital Field Guide several times, but am still struggling with setting the ST-E2 for use with the single 430. Do the A and B ratio controls on the St-E2 apply to using one speedlite or do the ratios only apply to using more than one speedlite? I want to follow your advice regarding using the manual controls…..so, if I use the 430 manually do I simply forget the ST-E2 as anything other than a mechanism for firing the 430 and make all of my modification with respect to power of the flash on the 430?

    • Syl Arena says:

      Harvey – The ratios on the ST-E2 apply to using multiple Speedlites. With a single 430EX, set the Mode to E-TTL. Then, if you need more or less flash power, you can dial it up or down via the Flash Exposure Compensation on your Rebel. Look for the flash bolt with the plus/minus next to it. Hit that button, then the dial by the shutter button. You can do all of this through the ST-E2 so that the 430EX can be off-camera. If you've not checked out the Speedliting Forum, spend some time there. This is a great question to post. I'm sure that you will be many additional insights.

  8. Harvey says:

    Thanks again for you help. Did what you said. Could not find the flash bolt with with + or – next to it but did find the flash exposure comp in my second menu and fooled around with different + and – setting and definitely got different responses from the 430. One more question. When doing the above I had the camera in aperture priority and a EFS 17-85 (IS) zoom lens. On the 430 LCD to the right of the ETTL it had Mzoom 24mm. Do these numbers automatically change when I use my 85mm prime lens, or do I have to reset the zoom setting?

    • Syl Arena says:

      Harvey – The M in front of Zoom means that it's locked in Manual mode. The 430EX will follow the focal length of your lens if you put it back in auto zoom. Check the user manual for details on that.

  9. [...] Syl Arena: Deciding how to start with off-camera speedliting Part one (also 15 insights for a new Speedliter) [...]

  10. Chet says:

    I have a couple of 550EX strobes. I don't see this model mentioned much. Was it a quick turnover for Canon…did they come out with the next model soon after the 550 came into being?

  11. jim austin says:

    syl arena

    my compliments. you are an effective teacher, your enthusiasm comes across on TWIP,
    and your time spend on the forum, answering questions, is a quality that will come back to you
    infinitely. thanks for your site, your energy, and please add me to you update list.

    jim austin

  12. Ron Tencati says:

    Just a side note – I have read that the Canon 7D's built in flash will NOT do HSS. I think this is a major bummer as I just bought a 7D. I'm hoping they can patch this with a firmware fix. Happily, I can still use my 580EXII and do HSS, and thanks to your articles, I've ordered the 24' ETTL cable.

    Thanks for your information!

    Ron Tencati

  13. Bill says:

    paramount cords offers very long and custom length ettl cords for canon. Not cheap, but hey…

  14. [...] Deciding How To Start With Off-Camera Speedliting [...]

  15. Wil says:

    Anything that relies on an optical trigger may to subject to limitations imposed by line of sight and ambient light interference. Such a instance of interference would occur should ambient or other light sources washout the ability of the infrared/flash trigger source to communicate with the sensor on the flash.

    Optical triggers, the ST-E2, and the 7D built in pop-up commander trigger all use light to trigger to off camera units. Using such a setup outside in bright daylight is next to impossible. ETTL cords offer the most consistent solution but are not practical in high-traffic areas. Optics have their limitation but radio is the most versatile offering practicality, convenience, and with fewer limitations; however, radio is more expensive in most instances.

  16. -Shannon says:

    I just want to make sure I understand the difference between the two extra long (camera to flash) cords properly… the Flash Zebra Camera Hotshoe to Flash Hotshoe extra long Cord will NOT utilize ETTL communication that the OCFgear Extra Long ETTL cord fully will? Is that correct? Flash Zebra is manual flash only and OCFgear is fully ETTL but can also do manual, right?!

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