A feature guide on using Speedlights and triggering systems

Oct 18, 2009 | Flash, Location | 33 comments

Here is my guide to selecting and using Speedlights. I’ve pulled together this mini feature article to help get the basics covered ahead of the release of my new DVD on mastering Speedlight portraits. All the pictures in this article were taken during the making of my forthcoming DVD on how to master the Speedlight.

Canon 5D mk2 1/2000th second f/4 ISO 200 Lit with 3 Speedlites on stands triggered by the Pocket Wizard TTL system. The key light was a 580 EX11 in a Lastolite Eazybox on a stand rigged just out of the top of the shot.

Canon 5D mk2 1/2000th second f/4 ISO 200 Lit with 3 Speedlites on stands triggered by the Pocket Wizard TTL system. The key light was a 580 EX11 in a Lastolite Eazybox on a stand rigged just out of the top of the shot.

I have spent the past 18 months shooting location portraits almost exclusively with multiple Speedlights from both Nikon and Canon. I tested these units to near destruction and I can report that both the Canon and Nikon systems performed equally well. When all the features of the latest Speedlights are fully utilised, the kind of pictures you can create with these little flash units are truly outstanding.

Don’t be put of by the dreadful pictures in the instruction booklets that come with the Speedlights. I can’t believe how a camera manufacturer can make these books so dull. It is like shooting the pictures for a guide to Ferraris in a traffic jam on the A34 in the rain. Someone sat at a desk next to a potted plant is not inspirational subject matter. No wonder people can’t stand reading instructions.

Canon 5D mk2 1/200th second f/4 ISO 200 I shot Stina in a Bristol bar using 2 Speedlites on stands triggered by an ST-E2.

Canon 5D mk2 1/200th second f/4 ISO 200 I shot Stina in a Bristol bar using 2 Speedlites on stands triggered by an ST-E2.

Here’s a quick run down on the Camera manufacturers flash systems and a brief look at the alternatives.

Infra red triggering. Operating remote TTL metered flash using line of sight infra red triggering has always required careful flash positioning in order for the system to work reliably, and sunlight on either the sender or receiver infra red lenses causes problems too. Even with these restrictions I have found it possible to take dramatic shots in daylight if I plan the shot around the flash triggering limitations.

Nikon pop up flash triggering system. You can use the built in flash on the cameras that have them to trigger the remote flash units. This is a great feature and enables occasional use triggering without the need to buy the pricey SU-800 or use a second Speedlight as a master commander. The pop up flash system has three distinct disadvantages: 1. Even with the built in flash set to non firing mode it gives out a pre-flash that causes people to blink. I find the percentage of blink shots caused by the pre-flash makes it unusable for wedding work. 2. In order to make quick changes to the remote flash settings you have to access a sub,sub,sub,menu on the back of the camera. Yes, this menu screen can be assigned to a user button or favourites menu but it is still a bit fiddly. 3. When the pop up flash is activated the PC sync socket on the camera is disabled. So you can’t mix flash triggering systems.

Canon 5D mk2 1/4000th second f/4 ISO 200 Lit with 2 Speedlites on stands triggered by Pocket Wizards. A high viewpoint, the studio style lighting and a radiant smile gives this shot a 70s movie sort of feel.

Canon 5D mk2 1/4000th second f/4 ISO 200 Lit with 2 Speedlites on stands triggered by Pocket Wizards. A high viewpoint, the studio style lighting and a radiant smile gives this shot a 70s movie sort of feel.

The Nikon SU-800 commander. This commander unit is a dual system device and comes factory set in ‘macro’ photography mode. Many of my delegates are unaware that there is a tiny micro switch inside the battery compartment that switches the unit into remote flash commander mode. Without this switch position change allows you to alter the remote flash power with just one click and the status of the flash set up is on the display all the time. The SU-800.

The Canon flash control system. The Canon system has two controllable groups; A and B with group C assigned to a back-light role. You simply select the ratio function on the ST-E2 or a 580 EX11 in Master mode and you have control of the balance between group A and B with an impressive 6 stop range. An 8:1 A:B setting doesn’t boost Channel A as might be thought, it cuts channel B by three stops and visa versa.

Canon 5D mk2 1/2000th second f/5.6 ISO 200 Lit with 2 Speedlites on stands triggered by the Pocket Wizard TTL system. The low viewpoint and the key and kick lighting style add to the surreal nature of this portrait of Ben.

Canon 5D mk2 1/2000th second f/5.6 ISO 200 Lit with 2 Speedlites on stands triggered by the Pocket Wizard TTL system. The low viewpoint and the key and kick lighting style add to the surreal nature of this portrait of Ben.

The Canon ST-E2 commander. This little box of tricks costs about £100 less than the Nikon unit but does not have the same functionality. The lighting balance between groups is controlled by ratios rather than specific group settings. The ST-E2 has a mechanical design weakness that lets the lower red lens ‘pop off’ when removing the unit from the camera. The simple remedy is to remove it from new and super glue it in place. This will ensure you don’t have to replace a lost one. The other weakness is the indicator LEDs on the rear panel are hard to see when shooting outside in daylight. Both the Nikon and Canon commanders take odd sized lithium cells and would be better designed to take AA or AAA lithium batteries.

Here is the Damien Lovegrove exposure system for infra red triggering: I set my camera to ISO 200, and select 1/200th of a second as my shutter speed. Then I adjust the lens aperture to taste depending upon the look I’m trying to achieve. The smaller the aperture the more dramatic the picture and the harder the flash has to work to correctly expose the shot.

Nikon D700 1/250th second f/22 ISO 200 Lit with 1 SB-900 Speedlight on a stand and of course the sun. You can see the double shadow on the steel wall behind Ben that shows the full lighting story. When faced with full sun don’t rule out banging in a bit of flash too.

Nikon D700 1/250th second f/22 ISO 200 Lit with 1 SB-900 Speedlight on a stand and of course the sun. You can see the double shadow on the steel wall behind Ben that shows the full lighting story. When faced with full sun don’t rule out banging in a bit of flash too.

High speed sync. One of the many features of both Nikon and Canon systems is that you can take pictures at settings higher than the standard sync speed but there is a drawback. As the shutter speed increases the power of the flash recorded on the CCD diminishes. So It is possible to use fill flash for instance in sunlight at high shutter speeds and wide open apertures but It’s not generally possible to cut the ambient exposure by a couple of stops at the same time. The only way to compete with the sun with a Speedlight at a sensible working distance and be creative with the exposure is to work at the flash sync speed. Until now that is. Pocket Wizard, a US company known for it’s radio flash triggers has reinvented the flash timing system in it’s Mini TT1 and Flex TT5 units and can eak out between 1 and 2 stops more flash power at high shutter speeds. This means Canon users can now shoot at f/4 and be creative with our exposure. How cool is that. This new Pocket Wizard radio triggering system was recently introduced into the UK market in Canon guise and the Nikon version of the Pocket Wizard system is just around the corner, probably available in the first quarter of 2010 (my guesstimate). Please click for more information and my experiment findings on the Pocket Wizard TTL system ratio tests ~ findings and Pocket Wizard TTL exposure comp tests ~ findings

Canon 5D mk2 1/200th second f/10 ISO 200 I lit Natasha with just one 580 EX11 on camera. On camera flash lit shots don’t have to look boring with the right know how.

Canon 5D mk2 1/200th second f/10 ISO 200 I lit Natasha with just one 580 EX11 on camera. On camera flash lit shots don’t have to look boring with the right know how.

Here is the Damien Lovegrove exposure system for TTL radio triggering using Pocket Wizards:
I shoot at my beloved f/4. I set my ISO to 200 and I adjust the shutter speed to taste. I suppose I could use ISO 100 but to be honest I can’t see the difference and when I get my Nikon Pocket Wizards I can use the same ISO 200 as my base. That way I can keep things simple.

Speedlights

Nikon SB-800 Speedlight. This flashgun has been the main work horse of the Nikon system for quite some time having been recently replaced by the SB-900. However it remains a favourite amongst many pro shooters because of it’s rugged reliability and it’s compactness. The SB-800 offers a fifth battery option within a battery block attached to the side of the unit. Few people use this as it makes the unit uncomfortable to hold and often blocks infra red signals when the flash is rigged off camera. The SB-800 has a complicated menu system and strange notation for the buttons. For instance in order to zoom the flash lens in to a tighter setting you have to press the button with a picture of a tree on it. Do tree photographers use flash? Apart from a few oddities the SB-800 remains a fully featured pro lighting tool.

Canon 5D mk2 1/200th second f/11 ISO 200 lit simply with 1 zoomed in Speedlite on a stand triggered by an ST-E2.

Canon 5D mk2 1/200th second f/11 ISO 200 lit simply with 1 zoomed in Speedlite on a stand triggered by an ST-E2.

Nikon SB-900 Speedlight. How could Nikon have bettered the wonderful SB-800, well in the new 900 they have addressed some of the 800s failings and built in some more at the same time. The zoom button is now labelled ‘zoom’ and the complicated multi stage procedure to switch the flash between remote and local use has been replaced with a simple switch. Many shooters have reported overheating of the SB-900. I have disabled the function that stops the flash from working under thermal overload by changing the custom function settings in order to not get caught out in a critical situation. I risk melt down but it hasn’t happened yet. The new SB-900 is about 30% bigger than it’s predecessor and comes with a clumsily fitting diffusing dome. When designing the SB-900, Nikon took the opportunity to fit a 360 degree rotating head rather than the 270 degree head of the SB-800. Don’t be fooled by the new 200mm setting on the zoom though, it really isn’t that much tighter a beam of light than the SB-800 set to 105mm.

Canon 5D mk2 1/1000th second f/8 ISO 200 Lit with 2 Speedlites on stands triggered by Pocket Wizards. I love the opportunity to use convergence and intersecting lines that form pattern in my pictures.

Canon 5D mk2 1/1000th second f/8 ISO 200 Lit with 2 Speedlites on stands triggered by Pocket Wizards. I love the opportunity to use convergence and intersecting lines that form pattern in my pictures.

Canon 430 EX11 and the Canon 580 EX11 Speedlites. The 430 EX11 is a neat little unit that fits nicely in the palm of your hand. It recycles quickly and quietly and shares a similar switch and function layout as it’s big brother the 580 EX11. The 580 EX11 is about 30% bigger than the 430 EX11 and it has a more fully featured menu system. Switching between regular working and remote working is fiddly on the 580 EX11 and takes a button hold and several button pushes. Unlike Nikon, Canon have taken a step back in the evolution of the 580 EX11 from the mark 1 version by dispensing with the simple ‘local, remote, master’ switch.

When comparing these two offerings from Canon I noticed the zoom function beam pattern on the 430 EX11 at 105mm looked a tad weak when compared to the 580 EX11 when it was set to the same 105mm.  In reality the 430 EX11 is no more than half a stop behind the 580 on light output, it’s just the when the lens is zoomed in the light pattern is less tight and not as bright as a result. Although the 430 EX11 is about £160 cheaper than it’s big brother it does miss out on a few key features that sets the 580 EX11 on the top shelf of the shop. The 580 EX11 has a master mode and a PC sync socket for instance. It also covers more focus aid points from it’s inbuilt AF illuminator. Most of all though the 580 EX11 is a bit brighter when it needs to be and this really matters to me.

Incidentally I love the way the new Canon 5D mk2 can set the custom functions of either the 430EX11 or 580EX11 Speedlites and the remote triggering functions of an attached 580 EX11 Speedlight.

Canon 5D mk2 1/2000th second f/4 ISO 200 Lit with 3 Speedlites on stands triggered by Pocket Wizards. A black and white treatment was best for this shot taken using a 200mm focal length. I used f/4 to throw the background out of focus.

Canon 5D mk2 1/2000th second f/4 ISO 200 Lit with 3 Speedlites on stands triggered by Pocket Wizards. A black and white treatment was best for this shot taken using a 200mm focal length. I used f/4 to throw the background out of focus.

Nissin Di866 Professional Speedlite available for Canon or Nikon. As an equipment tester for a Warehouse Express I regularly get the chance to try out kit that is not on my wish list. The Nissin Di866 is one such bit of kit. Putting the uncool naming aside I decided to give it a thorough work out in Nikon guise. Once I’d figured out how to get the batteries into the fiddly carriage and switched the unit on I was pleasantly surprised by the simple yet effective system for telling me what is going on. Switching the flash between remote and local modes is so easy. The flash gun uses a colour LED display rather than a standard LCD display and this means the graphics relate to the mode you are in. And if that was not enough, as you rotate the flash gun the screen and switch functions change accordingly. This really is a wow factor and I can’t under estimate how much better the Nissin controls are to those on the Nikon SB-900 or Canon 580 EX11. The screen displays colour icons like apps on an iPhone. The unit seems to work well with all the infra red functions doing exactly what they should in my tests. The plastics look inferior to those found on Nikon and Canon Speedlights and the head only rotates 270 degrees. If you are looking for another Speedlight for a Nikon or Canon system then do consider the Nissin as an option.

Canon 5D mk2 1/1000th second f/4 ISO 200 Lit with 2 Speedlites on stands triggered by Pocket Wizards. I used a simple key and kick lighting set up for this shot.

Canon 5D mk2 1/1000th second f/4 ISO 200 Lit with 2 Speedlites on stands triggered by Pocket Wizards. I used a simple key and kick lighting set up for this shot.

Metz 58 AF-1 Another fully featured flashgun that I’ve yet to try that has versions for many of the camera systems including Sony, Samsung, Olympus, Pentax, Panasonic, Nikon and Canon is the Metz 58 AF-1. I’ve had Metz flashguns in the past with my Hasselblad H2 camera and I was impressed with them then so I would definitely be keen to try the new 58 AF-1 model.

Although the majority of pictures in this feature article were shot using Canon equipment my new DVD features both Nikon and Canon cameras and Speedlights.

Please feel free to comment on this article or the pictures below.

33 Comments

  1. mick

    Hi Damien. Great web site. Just reading your tips on speedlights, but all relate to using Nikon or Canon cameras, I wondered if you ever use a speedlight with your Fuji x100 and if so which.

    Best regards Mick

    Reply
  2. Matty B

    Hi,

    Hoping you can help with some info Damien. Looking to buy either the PW’s or the new Radio Poppers but unsure which to go for.

    Main problem is this, I have 2 flashes one is a nikon sb600 and the second is a Nissin DI866 and want to use TTL and was moving towards PW’s. But as far as i can find 3rd party flashes are not compatible is this true? Also if it is i would need to sell my Nissin which i love and get either a sb800 or sb900 along with the price of the PW’s or Radio Poppers?

    Also are the radio poppers that much better and are they compatible with 3rd part flash?

    Looking forward to some info on them maybe a vid?

    Thanks for your help

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Matty B,

      I never managed to get the Nissin flash to operate properly with remote TTL when I was trying to write a review of it for Warehouse Express. In fact it performed so badly I sent the unit back. Pocket Wizard TTL units are very fussy about flash units. Radio Poppers on the other hand have no idea what they are connected to as they are a wireless system. There is no Radio Popper bracket for the Nissin unit so that will mean gaffa tape is needed to attach the RP to the Nissin.

      Videos are in the pipeline :)

      Regards, Damien.

      Reply
  3. Chriss

    Thanks Mate, Ok lets get the Orbis on the go then……….

    All the Best, Chris.

    Reply
  4. Chriss

    Hi Damien, could I please ask you for a small peice of advice, when taking on camera flash with a speedlight I get an ugly shadow behind the model. I´m shooting around 1 metre infront of her and her position is basically right on the wall, I have seen on your images that ther is no shadow, do different surfaces help with this problem?
    Basically I´m looking for more of a ringflash effect….
    Any help would be Fantastic….Chriss.

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Chris, The way to create a ring flash look is to use a ring flash adapter like the Orbis. It will fit on your Speedlight and give you the look you are after. There are other techniques I use but you can always tell if I’ve used on camera flash by noticing the shadow under the chin. If it’s not there I’ve probable used an Orbis ;) I hope this helps.

      Damien.

      Reply
  5. Stef

    I need your advice please! I have a canon 450d and speedlite 430EXII. Can I set the speedlite to slave mode using the camera’s inbuilt little flash? Hope you can help. Thanks

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Stef,

      As far as I know your camera does not support remote triggering with it’s pop up flash. It’s worth checking the manual though. Damien.

      Reply
  6. Wing Liu

    Is the Nissin Di866 compatible with Mini TTL-1 and Flex TTL-5 and mix of 580 EX II and 430 EX II ?

    Reply
  7. Nigel Bayliss

    Just an observation on the rechargeable batteries you use for your speedlights. I also use them…and they are an excellent product…good value for money. However, as with other rechargeables, after a year or two of use, they lose their ability to fully recharge. (also, they are 1.2v as apposed to 1.5v for an alkaline battery). What happens when they start to lose their full charge capacity is that if the flash is being used off camera, an infrared trigger from say an ST E2 isn’t recognized, and the flash won’t fire (..normally the infrared on the front of the speedlight ‘pulses’ when in slave mode, and when it is in ‘contact’ with the ST E2). However, if you put the flash back onto the camera hotshoe, and switch off slave/master, the flash will still work, which might get you out of an awkward situation! So, in summary, great product…but keep a set of alkaline batteries in your bag just in case!

    Reply
  8. Simon

    Hi Damien,

    Any idea of release dates for the new DVD ?

    Will it be pre or post xmas……

    Thanks
    Simon

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Simon, The new Video production has been signed off by me and is now in the hands of the replicators. There will be a Blue-Ray high definition version of the 2.5 hour production and a standard definition version on DVD for those who have yet to get a Blu-Ray player. Players are less than £100 now and the difference in quality is staggering. Preorders for both disks will be taken from the end of the month and we will guarantee delivery by courier in time for Christmas. A pre order offer will ensure the early bird really does catch the worm. Regards, Damien

      Reply
  9. damien

    Hi Stuart,

    Sorry for the delay in replying. It’s great to hear from you and I hope you are well. I’d use your pop up flash for the ‘big pictures’ where you can take a few frames if you get blinks and use an SC29 off camera flash cord in conjunction with the Sto-Fen type diffuser that came with the SB-900 for everything else.

    However, the Pocket Wizards are likely to be without a focus aid so it is very likely that you will want to use a SU-800 on top of the Mini TT1 both to allow full control of the flashes and to give you the focus aid beams ;-) I’m fully expecting to be using my SU-800 with the new Nikon Pocket Wizards when they come out.

    So to sum up, you probably won’t regret spending £229 on an SU-800. You can buy one here for that bargain price.

    I hope this helps.

    Reply
  10. Will Pateman Photography

    love the black and white treatment of the girl in leathers,
    great contrast and a great shot

    Reply
  11. Stuart Schofield

    Hi Damien
    I use a D700 + SB900 – weddings only
    Should I buy the SU – 800 or wait for the nikon PWs next year ? Seems to be the same approx price
    Whats your view please

    Reply
  12. damien

    Hi Bob,

    The solution is the excellent SU-800. It is the beez neez of infra red triggers. There is another solution too for near camera triggering: Julie uses the SC29 coiled lead with her SB-900 and D700 at weddings. The SC29 has a built in AF illuminator and is a well made bit of kit.

    Regards, Damien.

    Reply
  13. CoventryBob

    Welcome back Damien
    Glad to see you are keeping up the high quality blogs – particularly since I use both the SB800 & SB900 for my weddings. If you don’t recommend triggering the remote flashes with the pop up flash (albeit only acting as remote) – no new PW’s available for Nikon yet so what is the solution?
    Have a great time in Tuscany
    Regards to the top team at Lovegrove.

    Reply
  14. Andrew Gosling

    Hi Damien,
    thanks for the reply. I’d forgotten about the AF assist beam. £8 is not bad for Canon, even if it is only a bit of red plastic.

    BTW, if anyone finds one at Nunney Castle – it’s mine!

    Reply
  15. damien

    Thanks for the info Clive.

    Reply
  16. damien

    Hi Andrew,

    The red lens is the focus illuminator lens that makes a cross hair beam pattern for use in dark situations. You’ll not be liked at a wedding party without one ;-) They cost £8 and can be purchased through any camera repair centre or via Canon customer support.

    Regards, Damien.

    Reply
  17. damien

    Hi Ian,

    I use the internal AAs. I have 32 of these for my Speedlites they cost me just £40.

    Cheers, Damien.

    Reply
  18. damien

    Hi Lee, The Classic 5D (mk1) will do exactly the same re the 1/4000th flash sync. I think it has even more flash power gains too through better sync timing. Damien.

    Reply
  19. Clive Litchfield

    Lovely, tasty images as usual Damien. You’ll probably find that the 58 AF-1 is far less forgiving when triggered by IR than the Canon flashguns, in that they don’t seem to have as much spread in the beam. Pocket Wizard don’t support ttl (mini and flex) for the 58 AF-1 at the moment either.

    Reply
  20. Andrew Gosling

    Another useful, comprehensive post. Thanks.

    Good tip about the ST-E2 lens. If only you’d posted it last week before I lost mine. ;-)
    2 questions: where can I get a replacement, and do I need one? It seems to fire without it – what is the purpose of the red lens?

    Thanks,
    Andrew

    Reply
  21. Ian Pollen

    Hi Damien,

    When using your speedlights on stands do you use external power packs or just the internal 4 x AA?

    Regards, Ian

    P.S. looking forward to the Wedding Workshop on the 17th

    Reply
  22. Lee Rushby

    Hi Damien,

    Great feature as always.

    I have a question about using the Pocket wizards, you say that they can get 1-2 stops of extra power out of the flash units at high shutter speeds. I have noticed in your articles you have been using your 5DMk2 at shutter speeds of 1/4000th, would I be able to do the same on the old 5DMk1?

    Thanks, Lee

    Reply
  23. damien

    Hi Virgil,

    I use the same as you but with Standard TX channel 2. According to a fellow photographer It seems to work better with the Plus2 PW’s than channel 1. I’ve no idea why but it certainly works well. I also use my Mini to control my Bowens Gemini Pro flash heads in the studio. They have PW radio cards built in. I use my pair of Plus 2’s to control my older Bowens flash heads and I use a Speedlight in the studio too on TTL (inside my acrylic cube prop) how cool is that all triggered by one Mini TT1.

    Cheers, Damien.

    Reply
  24. Virgil  Lund

    Hi

    Can you tell me what settings you are using for the pocket wizards with the 5D MKII?

    I’m currently using:

    ControlTL TX Channel 1
    Standard TX Channel 1
    Offset of -170
    High Speed Sync begins at 1/320th

    Thanks for all the great advice!

    Reply
  25. damien

    Hi Kjell,

    It’s good to hear from you. Your summaries seem about right from a PW users point of view. Thanks for adding them in the comments section.

    See you again, Damien.

    Reply
  26. damien

    Hi Dave, The new DVD will be in time for Christmas. We are planning on releasing it on BluRay or offering a standard definition download option. It was shot on full HD using Canon 5D mk11 cameras.

    Regards,

    Damien.

    Reply
  27. Kjell Post

    Great summary Damien! We have really enjoyed working with the new Pocket Wizards. Is it correct to summarize the differences between the 580 EX II and 430 EX II as follows:

    580: + An external battery pack can be used to shorten recycle time
    580: + FEC works when dialed in on the camera body
    580: – Suffers from RF noise, thus reducing the range.

    430: + Less expensive.
    430: +The flashgun with least amount of RF noise for Pocket Wizards.
    430: – Can’t add an external battery pack.
    430: – Doesn’t seem to respond to camera body FEC.

    Hope to attend more of your courses in the future! Thanks /Kjell

    Reply
  28. Dave Packer

    Hi Damien, any release dates yet for the new DVD, is it in time for Christmas?

    Reply

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