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Complete Guide to Getting Started With Off-Camera Flash Photography On A Low Budget

Cheap way to get started with off-camera flash photography

Using a flash off-camera is a low-cost way to experience studio-like lighting opportunities without the bulk, weight, and cost associated by traditional studio lighting equipment.

While there are hundreds of products out in the market that caters to portable off-camera flash photography, this article concentrates on the bare minimum equipment required to get your feet wet in shooting with an off-camera flash system.

Why off-camera flash

While I’m a big proponent for on-camera, automatic TTL flash photography for general use. One thing on-camera flash cannot provide is consisntency and flexibility. If you have read my post about bouncing on-camera flash, you might realize that a lot of it relies on nearby surfaces to bounce the light off to create directional, shaping light.

Naturally, when we’re shooting in large locations, particularly outdoors, we do not have this luxury and we may also need the accuracy of being able to control the direction of where the light is coming from in relation to the subject.

That’s where an off-camera flash system comes in.

By having your flash location independent of your camera’s position, you can tailor your light according to how you want the light to land on your subject, not where your camera is.

off-camera-flash-portrait

Can’t I use wireless systems proprietary to my camera brand?

Of course you can! Unfortunately, using a proprietary wireless system requires the following that doesn’t fit into the “affordable” requirement of this article:

1) A camera body that can act as a signal transmitter (often available on higher-end models only – though this will inevitably change as technology gets cheaper).
2) A wireless TTL-capable flash gun, which often cost a lot more than basic, manual-only flash units. Especially true with manufacturer-specific models.

Checklist to Get Started With Off-Camera Flash Photography

  • Full Manual, Adjustable Power Flash Unit
  • An Adjustable Flash and Umbrella Bracket Adapter
  • Lightstand or Clamp
  • Umbrella or Portable Softbox
  • Wireless Radio Trigger

That’s basically it! The items I’ve listed all cost less than $200 or so combined!

Full Manual, Adjustable Power Flash Unit – $100 Approx

An external, fully manual, adjustable power flash gun cost less than $100 these days. Some models such as the Sunpak PZ40X II and the YN-560 Speedlight Flash offers TTL metering support as well!

If you prefer even more basic flashes, the ever-reliable Vivitar 285HV Auto and LumoPro LP160 Manual Flash are available as well.

Nikon SB 600 for Off Camera Flash PhotographyMy higher-end (over $200) recommendation would be going OEM with the Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash and the Nikon SB-600 Speedlight Flash. Those are no-brainer purchases, they’re worth the money.

For the budget conscious, the Yong Nuo 560 Speedlight Flash is hard to beat.

Some key points to consider when choosing an external flash for off-camera flash photography:

  • Uses 4AA batteries – Some flash only use two AAs, while this results to a smaller flash that’s easy to transport, it also means slower recycling times and higher odds of running out of juice during a shoot.
  • Manual power – Adjustable at least in half stops increments. This is CRITICAL as you don’t want to buy a flash that you cannot adjust the power manually.
  • Adjustable zoom head – The ability to zoom the flash allows you to ‘shape’ the light easily and maximize range, if required. Most flashes offer this anyway.

Flash and Umbrella Bracket Adapter $20-30

After buying your flash, you’ll need to mount it on something to keep it still!

A flash and umbrella adapter will be the key to keeping your flash in one place. Most flash brackets come with a provision to insert an umbrella shaft into it in order for you to aim/adjust the flash and the umbrella in unison.

There are many similar products in the market, but basically you’re down to three types of bracket adapters.

The first type has a vice-like system to keep your flash in place.

The second is a cold-shoe type that lets you slide the flash onto the bracket as you would on your camera flash.

The last is a basic 1/4″ screw bolt that lets you choose what kind of mounting to use.

The choice is up to you, but in my experience, I prefer the simple bolt end and add a Frio Cold Shoe to secure my flash unit.

By the way, this is one component I don’t advice skimping on. Buy the good ones so you won’t have to experience a flash gun sliding off a 10ft stand! The good ones aren’t that costly anyway.

For specific recommendations, my pick is the Manfrotto 026 Swivel Lite-Tite Umbrella Adapter and the universal umbrella adapter with hot shoe mount.

Don’t get the plastic/aluminum ones.

 

Lightstand or Clamp – $25-50

Now that you found a way to secure your flash gun and make it easily adjustable, you need to find a way to attach the whole contraption onto something so you can go back and take pictures!

manfrotto nano light stand for Off Camera Flash Photography

The most common item to purchase is a light stand.

Personally, I prefer light stands that are light and easy to carry. As with most equipment, the bulkier they are, the lesser the chance we bother taking it outside our homes.

With that in mind, your options narrow down to two great light stands, the fan-favorite Manfrotto 5001B nano light stand and the Lumopro LP-604 (my review”).

The beauty with the two light stands above is that they collapse to a size that will fit most standard school backpacks. There’s no need to carry an extra lightstand bag or bring a tripod holder, for example.

The parts are made of high-quality brass and steel instead of plastic pressure plates like the cheap knock-offs.

However, if portability is your main concern, nothing beats a clamp system. You can use a spring-clamp or a ‘super-clamp’ system that is portable and  lot less likely to get knocked over as well.

For A-clamps, I recommend only the Manfrotto 175F-1 Spring Clamp with Flash Shoe .

For super clamps, nothing beats the Bogen – Manfrotto Super Clamp with Standard Stud, but it is quite heavy for its size.

Lastly, the Pedco UltraClamp Assembly is a very interesting product with rave reviews as well.

Umbrella or Softbox – $20-80

I believe that this is the main item in our list that can save a bit of money on, especially with digital photography where color temperature (white balance) can be adjusted so quickly.

For flexibility, a basic white, shoot-through umbrella with removable backing is highly recommened.

Go for an umbrella with a minimum diameter of 33-inches. My personal favorite is a 44″ White Satin Umbrella with Removable Black Cover that I can use as a shoot-through or reflective umbrella.

For softboxes, a generic collapsible portable softbox will suffice in many cases. If you want to splurge, the Lastolite LS2420S Ezybox is another good choice.

Wireless Radio Trigger – $30-50

OK, you have flash, the bracket to mount the flash, the flash modifier to mount on the bracket, and a stand/clamp to secure everything. We’re ready to shoot!

Hold your horses, my friend!

We still have one last critical piece of equipment to complete, the ‘bridge’ between your off-camera flash and your camera, the two pieces of equipment need some way to communicate to each other so the flash knows when the camera is firing so it can light your subject.

yongnuo-rf-603 for off-camera flash photography

The Yongnuo RF-603 Wireless Flash Trigger/Wireless Shutter Release Tranceiver Kit has worked really well for me (as well as the older RF-602 version). They can act as wireless remote shutter release units and they’re really affordable.I recommend you to go straight to radio triggers instead of saving a couple of bucks by using cables and optical slaves because the price and quality of modern day, budget radio triggers are pretty damn good already.

The nice thing about the new RF-603 is each unit is already a transceiver, so you can just add more transceivers if you need to control more than one off-camera flash.

Final Word

So there you have it. You can have a complete flash system that you can use to create wonderful and professional-looking photographs using off-camera lighting for about $200, and even if you do decide to splurge a little and get multiple flashes right away, you still won’t reach $500 in total spending!

The quality of products these days have improved significantly compared to, let’s say, 2009.

Radio triggers are so reliable these days that most issues can be traced to battery quality/life.

Flash units have improved so much that they can cram even more features while keeping the price low. There’s no reason for you not to get your hands dirty and start your own off-camera flash system.

Once you’ve experienced light control through off-camera flash photography, your understanding of light quality, direction, shadow manipulation, and more will exponentially increase your photo’s quality.

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