Using off camera Speedlites in manual mode ~ Technique

Jul 21, 2009 | Flash, Location, Studio | 21 comments

If you want to use a non TTL radio remote set up to trigger your Speedlights or you want to know how to use them in manual mode, follow this guide. Manual operation of Speedlights is desirable when you require a series of repeat shots of identical brightness, when shooting event pictures for instance.

Speedlights set to manual mode perform exactly like other manual flash units you might find in a studio or powered by a battery pack on location. If you are familiar with their operation you will be ready to go with Speedlights. (Speedlite is the Canon spelling of the word and Speedlight is the Nikon branding).

Nikon set up

If you are a Nikon shooter and are fortunate enough to have a camera with a pop up flash you can use the built in commander mode to set the manual firing of all your remote Speedlight without the need for any additional equipment. You just have to navigate to the ‘pencil’ menu on your camera, select ‘bracketing and flash’, then ‘flash control for built in flash’, ‘commander mode’ and then assign a channel and set each group A, or B, to Manual. You will want to set the ‘built in flash’ to off by asigning it ‘–‘ using the mode selector. Then set independent power values for A and B as required. This is great if you have flashguns high up on stands and avoids the need to grapple with each unit in turn.

If you don’t have a pop up flash and want to remotely control your Speedlights you will have to invest in an another Speedlight to act as a master unit or buy yourself an SU-800 commander. These cost about £250 and do the same function as the built in flash commander but have three added advantages:
1. There is no pre flash to cause blinks in your subject.
2. The functions are readily available without the need to navigate through menus. This means you can change the power of a remote flash with just 1 press of a button.
3. You get to be able to set 3 groups of flashes remotely.
If you don’t have either or you want to work at greater distances than the infra red trigger system will allow then you need to use a radio trigger system like a pair of Pocket Wizard Plus 2s. To enable this set up to work you need to connect each remote SB-800 or SB-900 flash unit to a PW unit using the sync socket on the flash using a PC sync to 1/8” mono jack lead. You will then need to set the flash to Manual mode and set the desired power level locally on the flash head. The other PW unit goes onto the camera.

Canon set up

If you are a Canon shooter you can set either a 580EX or a 580EX11 Speedlite to be a master controller or use a dedicated ST-E2 commander. The 430 and 430EX11 Speedlites do not have a ‘master’ enabled function. The ST-E2 commander has three distinct advantages over the 580 ‘master’ option.
1. It is a fraction of the weight of a Speedlite and when working hand held this makes a big difference.
2. It doesn’t emit a pre flash that causes blinks in subjects.
3. At just £150 it is a fraction of the cost of a 580 Speedlite and frees up your flash for off camera use.
Once you have set your master transmitter you can set the remote Speedlite to manual mode and select the power setting required without touching the Master unit. The power of each subsequent flash unit is then set locally and not by using the ratio function on the ST-E2 Master Speedlite.

If you don’t have a suitable Master unit or you want to work at greater distances than the infra red trigger system will allow then you need to use a radio trigger system like a pair of Pocket Wizard Plus 2s. To enable this set up to work you need to connect a remote 580EX11 Speedlite to a PW unit with the sync socket on the flash using a PC sync to 1/8” mono jack lead. If you have a 580EX , 430EX or 430EX11 You will need to use a hot shoe adapter with a PC sync take off. You then need to set the flash to Manual mode and set the desired power level locally on the flash head. The other PW unit goes onto the camera.

Exposure balance system for both Nikon and Canon

This is what it’s all about. How do you get the balance between the ambient light and each flash set so that the picture looks right? Follow these steps…

1. Set the camera shutter speed to a value within the sync capability of the camera. If you are hand held you might want to choose 1/125th second.
2. Set the ISO to a desired value, only experience will tell you what value to use for a given situation. For bright daylight I suggest ISO 100 or 200.
3. Leave the flash units off and set an aperture that gives the desired exposure to the background. Use a test and measure system to achieve this. Adjust the aperture each time you take a shot until the correct look is achieved.
4. Then switch each flash on in turn and adjust the power of the flash as required, or move the flash in or out from the subject to set the desired brightness. If you move a flash that is 12ft away from the subject to a new position that is 6ft away you increase it’s brightness by 2 stops.
5. Finally shoot with all the flashes switched on and make fine adjustments as required. Adjusting the shutter speed up or down will affect the ambient exposure and adjusting the aperture will affect the ambient and flash exposure together.

To go from 1/125th at f/11 to 1/60th at f /16 will leave the ambient exposure exactly as it was but cut the flash by a stop and to go from 1/125th at f/11 to 1/250th at f/11 will cut the ambient exposure by a stop but leave the flash exposure exactly as it was.

The new DVDs will be showing this technique in use with both Speedlights and big flash units.

Damien Lovegrove


  1. Richie

    Many Thanks Damien.
    You are a legend!

  2. Richie H

    As a late comer to off camera flash, I recently bought your Speedlight Mastery dvd and it is superb.
    after watching it (for the 10th time) I bought and extra SB900 and the new Nikon Pw’s.
    One point of confusion for me though; am I right in thinking that when shooting with flash’s on manual then the shutter speed controls the ambient lighting, but when shooting in TTL the apeture controls the ambient?

    Thanks again for a superb training dvd.

    • damien

      Hi Richie,

      Thanks for your kind words. The question you pose is a common one and many photographers struggle with the concept. Let me explain here as best I can:

      1. Using Pocket Wizard TTL units to control Speedlights enables any shutter speed, aperture combination.
      2. Above 1/250th second the available flash power drops off at the same rate as the ambient exposure due to technical reasons.
      3. TTL will always try and deliver a correctly exposed burst of flash whatever aperture and shutter speed settings you choose to use.

      So if you want to shoot in daylight and make the flash dominate the picture you can use any of these typical settings:
      ISO 200, 1/200th second at f/16
      ISO 200, 1/4000th second at f/4
      ISO 100, 1/4000th second at f/2.8

      All three settings will render the ambient about two to three stops under and the flash will be working flat out to give you a perfect exposure.

      I hope this helps.


  3. Alan

    @Damien – I think you’ll find that Minolta (the forebearer of Sony’s Alpha system) invented many of the features that you find on your Canon and Nikon cameras including off camera TTL flash control, HSS flash combined the 2 to give off camera TTL HSS flash.
    Minolta took its eye off the ball and failed to develop the support network that Canon and Nikon did. However with the Sony takeover of Minolta and the development of the Alpha range Sony are closer to Canon and Nikon than the other manufacturers and given the network of pro support they have for their pro video customers I think its only a matter of time until they provide a similar level of support to their pro DSLR users.
    Don’t forget that Sony also manufacture most of the imaging sensors used in several other brands (including Nikon) so are in a stronger position than you seem to think.

    • damien

      Hi Alan,

      Thanks for your comments :) I am aware of all the facts you mention but the big fact remains that Sony have virtually no penetration into the professional photography market. They are doing well in the keen amateur market. They are popular among camera clubs etc because of their features versus price point loss leader advantage. As soon as Sony make inroads into the pro market I will be ready to provide training and support. It will be a new market for me so I am keen to see it happen. Pentax with their 645 digital will win over quite a few pros and so will Leica with it’s S2. Both of those companies have gone USP in order to win customers. Sony doesn’t have a USP – Yet. Sony seems to be a mid market brand across it’s product lines at the moment. From TVs to Walkmans the leading brand has relinquished its market position. I do believe though that Sony wants to become the leading brand in the imaging market. They have stiff competition though and missed the HD video DSLR trick that Canon stole from under their noses with their 5Dmk2. The future will be interesting.

    • damien

      Hi Sara,

      Well Sony are not yet mainstream. They want to be but there are a few issues that are holding back them back in the pro market. It’s probably only a matter of time. When the likes of Pocket Wizard make decent flash systems for Sony cameras then they can be taken seriously as professional solutions. The support that Canon and Nikon professional services plus the thousands of repair and accessory dealers around the globe offer photographers using Canon and Nikon cameras is in another league. The gap is narrowing with the likes of Samsung, Olympus, Pentax, Leica and Panasonic all in the race too to become the third pro supplier. Interesting times ahead.

      Kindest regards,


  4. Peter

    Hi Damien – great article however I’m looking for advice on…

    What the best way to remotely fire a metz and couple of vivitar flashguns (all will be on stands and in maual mode) from my Nikon D40.


    • damien

      Hi Peter,

      You can buy regular Plus2 Pocket wizards, however the new Flex TT5s for Nikon are due out in under 2 months. They will do everything that the Plus 2’s do and they will work with the Nikon flashes in full TTL mode too. But there is a snag, they are not the cheapest solution for your needs. It will be quite an investment and I’m expecting your budget is limited so why not try using these.

  5. Heinz Schmidt

    Great post Damien.

    Any chance of a workshop here in the north of England? Would love to do a off camera flash / urban portraits / street fashion day course.

  6. Pat Bloomfield

    Beautifully explained Damien.

    To add to your article. If users don’t have the ST-E2 or SU-800 cheap radio triggers can also be used as an alternative to Pocket Wizards. Being in manual mode the flashguns will be limited by their sync-speed regardless of radio trigger used.

    However as word of caution; I tried a cheap trigger off eBay and it didn’t work on my Canon cameras as it randomly triggered the flash. Having the trigger on a TTL cable did resolve this. My friend was able to use these on his Nikon with no problems though. This is going back two years, so this issue will almost definitely be fixed now – but buyer beware.

    I now use the ST-E2 but the cheap trigger was a great way to try things out before splashing out a lot of money. The trigger is now used in my studio and works absolutely fine :-)

  7. Linus

    Thanks for the pointers!

    Can’t wait for the DVD….

  8. Paul Gallagher

    Thanks Damien for that explanation, that really clears up some issues I had :-)

  9. Dave causon

    Sounds like an ideal Christmas present, nice planning.

  10. Dave

    Thanks for the explanation of the technique – it all adds to the knowledge bank.

    You mention pocketwizards etc, to fire the flash, so can I assume that if the flash unit was a non Canon or Nikon unit that the manual exposure method you describe would work with any unit that was capable of being linked to the PW?

  11. Pete

    How weird.. I just came on to suggest that with all this Speedlite shooting you do it was about time yuo produced a DVD about it… good work.

    I’m umming and arring over speedlites and portable flash heads at the moment.
    Is my main benefit from portable studio flash heads the extra power in very bright conditions and lighting large spaces?

    This blog site of yours really is gem… and free… amazing really.

  12. damien

    Hi Dave,

    The DVDs will be out in December. It’s a long wait I know but there is a vast amount of planning, shooting and editing to be done first.


  13. damien

    Hi Steve,

    You are right, the important things to remember when shooting with flash units on manual are the aperture affects the flash exposure as well as the ambient exposure and the shutter speed only affects the ambient exposure.

    However when shooting TTL the aperture only affects the ambient and has no affect on the flash exposure.


  14. Steve

    Many thanks Damien. That makes sense and is clear. The aperature has an effect on the flash exposure, the shutter speed doesn’t as the speed of the flash of light is always going to be tens of times faster than your fastest shutter exposure. Not easy to explain clearly is it!?

  15. Dave causon

    Cheers damien, you’ve answered all my questions in one go, when are your DVDs out? I’ll be buying them for sure.

    • damien

      Hi Dave,
      There will be a Blu-Ray full high definition version and a DVD standard definition version of the new 2.5 hour video. Both versions go on sale within the next 2 weeks in a pre-order special offer. All the pre-orders will be delivered by Christmas :)


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