HIWS: Portable Off-Camera Flash

Curly, King Street
Nikon D200, Tokina 11-16mm 2.8 Pro DX II @ 16mm. ISO 200, f/8, 1/250 sec.

For almost a year, I’ve been experimenting with a technique I learned through David Hobby’s Strobist blog. It’s essentially a speedlight attached to the end of a monopod, so that you can achieve mobile off-camera flash. Holding your camera in one hand, you can then position the speedlight with your other hand. In his blog post, Hobby triggered his flash through a modified TTL cord, but I’ve been using either the pop-up speedlight to trigger the optical slave of the SB-26, or a radio trigger. Radio triggers are a little more cumbersome and require bungee-cording the trigger to the monopod to keep it from flying around. The optical slave is a much easier setup, but can be unreliable in certain shooting conditions (more on that later).


Speedlight on a stick

The above photo shows one of my SB-26’s on a DSC_5545monopod. It’s pretty simple to set up: just
mount a cold shoe on top of your monopod (the gold piece you see is a female 3/8″ to male 1/4″-20 adapter). With this bare-bones version, you can trigger the light with nothing other than your on-camera pop-up flash. In the closeup at right, you can see the switch that allows you to set the Nikon SB-26 to optical wireless slave mode (S). The D is a delay mode, which is useful if you want to use this in conjunction with TTL flashes (it won’t screw up the TTL reading by firing too soon). The right “eye” is the optical slave sensor, the left “eye” is actually a red-eye reduction lamp. It’s the right eye that you need to be concerned with when using your pop-up flash (or any other flash) to trigger this light. When holding the light out on a monopod, you need to make sure that the sensor can see the triggering light. In a tight space with lots of bounce surfaces you usually won’t have a problem, even if the sensor is not directly facing the triggering light. It’s outdoors where you will have an issue, and I primarily use this technique when outdoors. The solution is to swivel your flash head so that you can have it aimed where you want, while having the sensor face your camera as best as possible.

Steve the Musician, King Street
Nikon D200, 50mm 1.8 AF, ISO 100, f/4, 1/125 sec.

Using the the pop-up flash in this way actually works fairly well, but it’s not foolproof. The photo above was shot with this method, but I was having a lot of issues getting the speedlight in the position I wanted while also getting it to fire. I ended up compromising the position of my light (more on-axis than I originally wanted) in order to help it to fire. Still, it’s more interesting light than I would have achieved had I shot with only the natural light. The natural light during this shot was non-directional, soft, cloud-diffused daylight. It provided a great base for the lighting that I could build upon.

My preferred method of triggering the light is by using a radio trigger. I use the PocketWizard PlusX triggers: one goes on the camera, and one is attached to the speedlight on the monopod. I use a bungee cord to hold the trigger to the monopod so it doesn’t fly around as I’m positioning the light. That’s how I created the photo at the very top of this post, and having the radio triggers enabled me to place the light in some more versatile positions.

Nikon D200, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 Pro DX II @ 16mm, ISO 200, f/8, 1/250 sec.

Above is a natural light shot, exposed for the sky. As a result, the real subject, the musician, is underexposed. The great thing about using flash in a situation like this one is that you don’t have to compromise any part of your exposure. In the natural light photo, I’d have to overexpose the sky in order to properly expose the musician. In the photo below, I used my light on a monopod not only to properly expose the musician (and keep the sky nicely exposed), but also to create drama.

Curly, King Street
Nikon D200, Tokina 11-16mm 2.8 Pro DX II @ 16mm. ISO 200, f/8, 1/250 sec.

Of course, you can achieve the same look by carrying a lightstand and setting it up, but it’s nowhere near as portable, and also not quite as versatile. In the photo directly above, I actually had the monopod extended directly above my head and aiming down above the subject. I would have needed to travel with a lightstand and a boom in order to achieve this lighting effect. A quick change of the lighting is as easy as moving my arm with the monopod. The photo below shows what happened when I moved the light to my left, as opposed to coming from directly overhead:


Same camera settings as before, just a subtly different look to the light by moving it. One more thing to point out is that you can change the look of the light by adjusting the zoom setting on the flash head. I think I chose a 50mm zoom for these photos, which creates a pool of light around the subject. A wider zoom setting creates a larger pool, and a tighter setting creates a smaller pool. Flash to subject distance affects this as well, but you’ll be pretty close to your subject most of the time you’re using this technique.

Do I get crazy looks from people passing by? Sure, but who cares? You’re making art (or at least attempting to). Several months ago, I was using this technique to photograph a different street performer, and I recall one guy telling his friend, “Man that’s going to be an awesome photo.” I don’t know if he was right, but it sure elevated the shot from where it would have been. Try it out for yourself and see!


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