The key to any studio or even photography in general is having good control over your lighting. In that sense an on camera flash really isn’t that controllable. It is from an awkward angle, and can’t be directed. Using a studio strobe or off camera flash can be an excellent way to achieve dramatic and flattering lighting effects. I opted to try out one of the Wireless Flash Trigger’s found on eBay. Mine was sold by Photoland168, and is of the RF 4-channel type. There are some pretty nice advantages to going with this unit.
Most importantly to me was going to be cost. Pocket wizards are probably one of the best wireless flash trigger options available. There is also the new Microsync device which is very tiny. But these options are extremely expensive. The money I would need to spend on these would actually cost more than the lighting I have. In fact I could’ve easily spent more than my camera is worth. So these were not an option.
A really interesting option was actually to pick up a 2nd flash unit such as Canon’s 580EX or the Sigma Super units. These could be used on camera and act as a master to my 420EX which would than be a slave.
The only disadvantages to this option is that the master flash has to be mounted on camera thus limiting it’s usefulness, and that because it’s an infrared signal the flash units would have to have some kind of line of sight, and it wouldn’t work that well outdoors.
There are a couple of huge advantages though. First you’re getting a 2nd flash unit, and a 2nd light source. Because the flash is on camera, you would actually have full E-TTL functionality with this setup. The camera would be able to control the flash unit how it sees fit.
I choose to go with these low cost wireless flash trigger units for a few reasons. One being cost of course. At only $30 CDN it didn’t cost much at all. They provide good range. These work on a radio signal so they are not disturbed by Flash triggers like the Wein, or bright lights. They can even be used around a wall. The cost to expand the system is cheap as well. Adding more lights to the system doesn’t increase cost too much.
The biggest downfall in my situation was my 420EX. It is fully automatic flash unit. It does not have controls for power output. Therefore it is fired at full power every time when it’s not on my camera or controlled by a master unit. So the only way to control the unit is by distance and coverings over the head.
A good solution is to get some cheap Vivitar 283/285, or Sunpak flash heads. These can be manually adjusted and are very cheap. I personally think it’s an excellent way to learn about lighting.
The system consists of a radio sender unit which sits on the flash hotshoe of your camera. When you take a photo it sends out a radio signal to a receiver unit. In my case my receiver unit actually plugs into a hotshoe adapter since the 420EX also has no connections like a PC Sync. The units can be operated on 4 channels, so if you get interference you can always change. It also means you can set off different lights by co-coordinating lighting on different channels.
The range is good with my unit. It’s at least as good as the range of my 420EX. I’ve never tried it from down the street because otherwise the flash would be useless.
I have also found battery life to be good. There is no real on-off switch with these devices. I just unplug them and put them back into my bag. I plug them in when I want to shoot and it just works. The receiver is the only unit that actually requires a battery and I have yet to change mind after hundreds of shots, and a few months of use.
I would highly recommend these units for anyone who wants to start out in studio photography. It’s an excellent and cheap way to go, and the advantages of this system far outweigh any disadvantages it might have.
One tip I would suggest is to use some Velcro on the receiving unit and your flash head so you can attach the two when you are using the system. That way it doesn’t just hang down by the cord. Also don’t forget to hit the test button every few minutes otherwise the 420EX will actually shut off to save power and you will have to go manually cycle the power. I find this particularly annoying when I’m trying to setup a shot.