Lighting 101: Synching Your Flash

When your flash is connected to your camera, it syncs automatically. When it is off camera, you have to take care of this yourself. And there are several ways to do it.

In the photo above, I synched everyone else's flash to my camera to to get "one of those lucky moments." Except it wasn't luck. I made it happen over and over again for this shot. More on that in a minute.

The Wire

If you are a beginner (and presumably on a budget) you'll want to sync your camera with a simple wire, also known as a sync cord. You'll sometimes hear it called a "PC cord," from the old PC jacks. But you'll want to go with the cheaper audio patch cord version.

As we said before, using a universal translator on both your camera and your flash will allow you to sync it with a simple audio cord. The translator will add the ⅛-inch jack to both your camera and your flash.

(If you are using an LP160 flash, you already have the jack on your flash and will not need the second translator.)

This is about as cheap and simple as it gets. No batteries, no sometimes-fickle wireless radio issues. But you are limited in range to 20 feet or so, depending on the length of your cord. Still, go this way first while you are learning.

For the record, I always have a sync cord with me at a shoot as a backup, even when I am using wireless remotes, as we'll talk about below. Cheap, and very reliable.

Sync With a Slave

If you have more than one flash, you can sync the extra flashes to your original off-camera flash with optical slaves. (If you'll remember, an optical slave fires your flash at the exact instant it sees the light from another flash.)

Which is why, from this day forward, you should not buy a flash that does not have a built-in optical slave. It's that simple -- just don't do it. You are shooting yourself in the foot if you do.

In the photo at top, I used a wireless remote (more on that in just a minute) but slaved all of the other peoples' flashes to my flash. Thus, every time I fired my camera all of their flashes fired, too.

Was it a coincidence they just happened to all be in position to create glamorous light for my two subjects? No it was not. I positioned them exactly how I wanted. It was for a live "shootout" in front of a crowd in Dubai in the UAE. You can see a full post -- with video -- on that here. (Opens in a new window to preserve your L101 post thread.)

Suffice to say, having flashes with built-in slaves makes all kinds of cool things possible. I would never buy another flash that did not have a built-in slave.

Wireless Sync Via Radio

Another popular method of syncing is via radio remotes. This is not cheap, but if you get into lighting to any real degree this is where you'll end up.

For instance, a sync cord would have made it pretty difficult for me to get this shot:

(You can read all about how that photo was made, here.)

Here's the thing. You can get cheap remotes, or you can get good remotes. Cheap remotes, which run about $100 for a set, are not (IMO) nearly as reliable as the inexpensive sync cord kit you probably already have on the way to you now.

The Gold Standard for standard remotes are the PocketWizard Plus series. The entry level model, which I depend on every day, is pictured below. If I am not mistaken, it's the 7th generation of remote trigger for PocketWizard. I have been using Pocket Wizards for over 20 years, as do the majority of working pros I know. The latest models are far better (and cheaper) than the ones I started with in the early 1990s.

And here's the kicker: these things are still compatible with the PocketWizard remotes from way back when I started out. I love that. (Conversely, I loathe "forced upgrade via planned obsolescence.")

You'll need a PocketWizard on your camera and one on your flash. And they are $99.99 each. Given that, I'd still suggest you start with a sync cord (and slaved flashes if going multi-flash.) As you grow into it, wireless remotes will likely make sense for you. And if they do, do yourself a favor and invest in a good one.

There is little more frustrating than a fickle remote trigger, which is why the pros usually end up at PocketWizard. You can spend more (including more advance models of PocketWizard) but a PW Plus X is IMO the very best value in the world. It balances price, quality, reliability and non-obsolescence.

Think of it this way: You'll swap out your camera probably ten times in the lifetime of service you'll get from a good quality remote. Choose wisely, and with the long run in mind.

Okay, we are almost done with the basic gear. Sorry to hit you with all toys and no technique, but it is good to be getting an understanding of the stuff you have coming so when it arrives you can be ready to roll.

So let's talk next for a minute about your very first light modifier…

Next: Lighting 101: Umbrellas


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