Off Camera Flash Suggestions
I remember being completely intimidated by off-camera flash. Where do I start?!? Early attempts were discouraging, but I kept at it.
Now that I feel comfortable with flash in my work, I often get asked what kind of gear I like to use and what is good for beginners. Thus, this page was born! Below you’ll find my flash gear suggestions.
(Please be advised that links on this page are affiliate links, meaning that I receive a part of the sale if you follow this link to purchase the item. However, I only suggest here products that I 100% believe in and personally use / have used.)
But before we get to the tech stuff, here are some places to help you learn OCF once you do get some gear in hand:
If you’re just starting to learn OCF, bear in mind that in addition to the Strobist site, Creative Live offers many courses on lighting. In particular, I recommend Crazy Stupid Light by Scott Lim, and Understanding Light / Speedlights 101, both by Mark Wallace.
If you’re more the book type, I adore Shooting in Sh*tty Light by Lindsay Adler and the Speedliter’s Handbook. I also thought that Photography Concentrate’s e-book, Fantastic Fundamental Light Skills, was a SUPER good read, laying the foundation for understanding light in general, which makes learning OCF so much easier.
Also, I highly recommend joining FB groups that allow you to see the lighting behind the shot- for example, Strobist.com FB group, Off Camera Flash Community, and Rock That OCF. Don’t be afraid to ask for critique as you learn!
One more thing. I go into great detail of how I actually SHOOT with OCF (my thought process, how I figure out my settings, etc), right here on my Belovey You feature on nighttime portraits and also in this feature on how I shot an incredible rainy-day portrait with off-camera flash. Check them out and follow the easy steps I provide to get a handle on OCF!
..okay, let’s get to it! :D
– Speedlights –
If you’re looking to learn and use off-camera flash, you’re going to need a flash! ;) One kind of flash unit is a speedlight. Small and unobtrusive, these little guys pack a punch! I use speedlights for 99% of my reception lighting, and much of my nighttime portraits. :) They are perfect for beginners, as they are easy to learn and inexpensive- and you’ll continue to get use out of them even after you’ve become a lighting master!
The Yongnuo YN565 for Canon – $85. The only difference between the YN568EX II (listed below) and this YN565 model is that the YN568EX II is capable of HSS (high speed sync) and the 565 is not. So although I love having a few YN568EX II speedlights on my team for when I need HSS, I primarily use the YN565 models. :D If you want a reliable, option-rich flash for beginners or experienced pros, this is the one, no contest!
When paired with the 622c triggers that I list below, I can change my speedlight’s power settings right from the back of the camera, saving me from having to stop in the middle of the first dance and run over to my flash to change settings. :D (I can also set each flash to be in a different “group” with different power settings, and then fire them all at once!)
The Yongnuo YN568EX II for Canon – $104. This flash is as close to my previous (far more expensive) Canon 580exii speedlight as you can come, and at nearly $400 less, it’s a powerhouse. This flash is capable of Master/Slave functions, ettl (or ttl), and even High Speed Sync! (to check camera compatibility, go here and select “compatibility”)
The one downside to this flash is a design flaw which sometimes causes the clips holding the battery door to break off. This results in the battery door being unable to hold closed- so you would have to throw a rubber band around it for the flash to function. However, newer builds of this model seem to have been fixed. Also, even if you happen to receive an older build version and experience this issue, you can buy a replacement door for $5 here. :) Still WELL worth the small cost- in fact, I bought a couple at once just to keep handy, in case. ;)
A more powerful kind of flash, strobes are a staple of studio lighting. However, since I’m a wedding photographer, I mainly use mine so that I have the power to balance my “added” light with the sun! (I also use it for some nighttime shooting, depending on the situation and my needs)
I use the tiny and powerful AlienBee 800 from Paul C. Buff for my strobe needs! It’s simple to use and compatible with my 622c triggers. (however, I don’t have control of the strobe’s power with the 622c triggers.. I have to use the slider on the back of the strobe to change the power levels)
I keep my strobe in my car for every wedding, just in case I want to call on it’s abilities. :) Strobes must be plugged in, so I have my Vagabond Mini Battery Pack, (designed to work with AlienBee units) to bring the power.
(I find that the straps given to attach the Vagabond to a lightstand are pretty useless, so I also got this awesome attachment device to clamp it tightly to a stand.. SO much easier!)
– Triggers –
In order for your flashes to know when to fire, they have to talk to the camera! The easiest way to achieve this is typically by using triggers/receiver sets. These typically come in pairs- one goes on your flash, and one on your camera. (think of them like walkie-talkies for your camera and flash!)
Yongnuo YN622 ETTL Trigger Receiver for Canon (here’s the Nikon version)- $90 for set of two (or $45 for one). These are the triggers I now use, and I’m in love!! These Yongnuo triggers are SO easy to use, and also offer more reliability, better build quality, high-speed snyc, and ETTL functions. If your flash supports it, these triggers will allow you to change your flash controls from your camera– so you can do it across the room. :)
(note: the Canon Speedlite and the Yongnuo YN568EX both will be able to use this function. The Yongnuo YN-560 will not- it will fire just fine, but power settings will have to be changed manually on the flash. :) ) For anyone who expects to make flash a regular (and easy) part of their shooting, this is the easy choice.
NIKON USERS, please note: You will also need to also pick up the controller piece for $45 (Canon folks have this function in-camera). Canon users with older cameras that cannot support power setting changes in-camera (for example, the classic 5d), can also get a controller if they wish, here.
CowboyStudio NPT-04 4 Channel Wireless Hot Shoe Flash Trigger Receiver for Nikon or Canon – $23. These are my recommended “beginner” triggers.
These triggers are inexpensive, and while they’re not as powerful as big-name triggers, they are SO easy to learn. Once you have these, you can put the trigger on the camera, the receiver on the flash, and boom! – the flash will fire when you press the shutter.
Keep in mind, though, that these triggers are manual only, which means that to change the settings on the flash, you have to walk over to the flash to do it. None of that fancy-dancy “changing the settings from the camera” stuff. ;) You’ll need a trigger for the camera, and a receiver for each flash you plan to use. (there is also an option to buy one trigger and two receivers for $30)
– Video Light –
Video lights offer a different kind of flexibility to your toolkit! Although I prefer flashes for lighting my portraits, my videolights are essential as support for making those flash shots happen.
NEEWER® 160 LED CN-160 Dimmable Ultra High Power Panel Video Light – $35. In order to help my camera to focus, I sometimes use a video light in addition to flash units. In a pinch, a video light can substitute for a flash completely!
These are essential to have for flash emergencies, and are also useful for learning to visualize light. I also love using it for ring shots- it’s easy to hold with one hand, and light enough to pack in my small reception bag.
CameraPlus CP-MTLII Video Light – $112. For times when I need a bit more from a video light, I use this “ice-light” style video light. :) It is dimable and can be “gelled” to match CTO via an included cover piece, or can be daylight balanced without the tube.
This light is my secret weapon for getting-ready time on wedding days! Often, the hair and makeup team have to set up in the ugliest lighting EVER (for example, in order to be near enough outlets). So, I whip out this light and say: “Oh goodness, this light is so hideous, it must be hard on you to see what you’re doing! Here, let me help- this light is daylight balanced, so it’s just like a huge lovely window- that way your colors will be accurate and you can see better!” HMUA’s *love* this “help” I give them- and of course, it’s helping me, too! ;)
– Modifiers –
In order to make sure that your light is soft and flattering, you’ll want to use a modifier. Remember, the larger the light source (including the modifier) in comparison to the subject, the more soft and gorgeous the light will be!
For use with my speedlights, I use PBL 43in Photo Softbox Umbrellas ($12). These are the perfect blend of umbrella and softbox: they fold up easy and are simple to carry (like an umbrella), and they have gorgeous light (like a softbox!).
That’s because when the speedlight fires into them, the light is “gathered up” inside the umbrella, and then bounced back out through a white diffusion panel, making the light both powerful and soft… the perfect blend for portraits. :)
For use with my AlienBee strobe, I often use my easy and compact (kinda.. haha) Fotodiox EZ-Pro 48in Octagon Softbox ($94).
This guy packs a punch and is my go-to when I want a large, portable light source. :) (I do not use a grid as the photo shows, just the white double diffusion panels)
It’s a bit harder than the average umbrella to set up in a hurry, but the gorgeous light it produces is well worth it.
For when I want the best. possible. light. period…. I go with my 86in (7 foot) Soft Silver parabolic PLM bounce umbrella ($80) with a white diffusion panel ($23) from Paul C Buff.
I chose to buy the silver bounce version because (1) the fact that it’s a bounce umbrella means that it’s “collecting” more of the light, directing it to where I want it- unlike a shoot-through, where a lot of light scatters around where it’s not needed, and (2) because the silver also adds to the ability of the light to bounce back in full force, rather than dissipate a bit. Overall, this is a great choice for powerful light- which tends to be of a better quality.
I also additionally bought the matching white diffusion panel because diffused light is a softer, prettier light. :) (think of the difference between direct sunlight and a bright but cloudy day!)
Unfortunately, this thing is HUGE and very hard to set up alone- it’s best used with an assistant. :) With practice, an assistant and I can set it up in only a minute or so- but alone… fahget about it! ;)
– Lightstands –
Manfrotto 5001B 74-Inch Nano Stand in Black – $58. These stands are SO awesome! Sturdy but very, very light, they are perfect for speedlights (but too light to hold big strobes).
They fold up small for easy carrying and storage- in fact, they fold up to only 19 inches, making them the most compact stands I’ve ever seen.
This has been the most reliable lightstand I have ever owned- I ended up buying many of them to have on hand, as I like to scatter a lot of speedlights around a reception room in order to get the even lighting that I prefer.
CheetahStand C12 – $120. A strobe needs a beefier stand to support it’s weight- so when using a strobe, I use this bigger, sturdier stand. In fact, I tend to just keep my strobe + vagabond attached to my CheetahStand full-time to make unloading and setting up easier. :)
One thing I really love about this stand is that the legs are designed very uniquely: when picked up, they automatically fold up to allow you to move the stand around easily. Out it back down, and the legs expand back into place. Very easy!
Model 8 Original Rollup StandBagger – $110. Designed by a photographer that was sick of a tangle of lightstands tossed into a duffle-style bag, this roll-up bag is pure genius! The Standbagger has 6 pockets designed to hold lightstands, so I can slip them in and out easily instead of having to pluck a lightstand out of a random pile.
After rolling up, the whole bag is small and easily carried with one hand. I repeat- 6 lightstands with ONE HAND. Awesome!!! (although I kind wish I would have gotten the Grab ‘n Go version, with the pockets on the outside to hold a couple flashes, too)
– Other Accessories –
Flash Shoe Holder – $7. In order to put a speedlight on a stand, you generally need a flash shoe holder (which sits on top of the lightstand). This model also has a space to attach an umbrella if you wish. I leave my brackets on my stands.
HonlPhoto Color Correction Filter Kit– $20. If the light from your flash is a different color temperature than the ambient light, your photo will suffer. This gel pack allows you to color the light coming from your flash to make sure it matches. Balanced white balance- yay!
Honl Photo Color Effects Gel Filter Kit (CTO Warming) – $19. Just like the other gel kit I mentioned, this allows me to control the color of the light coming from my flash. This particular pack is CTO only, which is the gels I need the most, since they make your flash match tungsten (orange) lights- the most common lighting I see in receptions. I bought both packs in order to have some variety, and also to have enough CTOs to cover all my flashes.
Honl Photo Speed Strap – $10. In order to attach the above gels to a flash, you need velcro. This is an easy on, easy off strap made especially for the purpose. (you can also buy sticky velcro at a craft store much cheaper and use the sticky-back of the velcro to stick it to your flash- that’s what I do these days… but then it’s permanent, of course)
ICE 77mm 10 Stop ND Filter – $30. A ND (Neutral Density) filter is kind of like sunglasses for your camera. It allows me to force my camera to see less light- which means that even when it’s super bright, I can choose to shoot with a low shutter speed… and that means that I can use flash! (more info on when and how to use ND filters can be found right here) I also use a Hoya brand 3-stop version as well, which is a bit less powerful.
I hope that helps you kick off an exiting new adventure in flash!
Now go make some magic! :D