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Lighting 101 - Understanding Your Flash

(Photo by Strobist reader GreggBK)

So let's talk about the basic gear you'll need to learn how to light, beginning with your flash. Generally, most people at this point will have a DSLR, a lens or two and a typical flash. (I.e., the removable kind that mounts to the top of your camera, not the built-in pop-up kind.) If so, you have already bought the expensive stuff. The gear to use that flash off-camera is surprisingly, refreshingly cheap.

But before we get to that, let's take a moment and talk about your flash.

The Bare Essentials

So, here's what your flash absolutely has to have: The ability to work in manual mode, and to do so at different power settings. (I.e., full power, ½ power, ¼ power, etc.)

And that's it.

Most flashes, including the one you probably already have, include that capability. And that's the only thing that is mandatory. If your flash has that, skip buying another flash for right now until you have a chance to play with the gear you already have. You may really be surprised at what you can learn to do with it.

So take a quick look at your flash and see if it can go into manual mode, or "M". If your flash has manual setting that you can vary, you are golden. Most of your major wallet pain has already happened. (Woo hoo!)

IMPORTANT NOTE: If your flash is more than, say, 10-15 years old, do a little research to make sure it is safe to directly hook up to a modern digital camera. Some old flashes can fry the electronics of a digital camera. And once that little bit of magic smoke escapes your camera, it is almost impossible to get it back in…

Since we're going to learn to use that flash off-camera, we'll have to synchronize it with your shutter so your flash will go off when you take the photo.

Normally, this happens with electrical connections on your flash's hot shoe, which is the built-in electrical connection that is completed when you mount your flash to your camera. When your flash is off-camera, that physical connection is no longer there. But you can electrically sync it with a simple wire, called a sync cord.

Sadly, your flash almost certainly does not have the jack for this external sync capability. But no worries, you can add it for about $15 bucks. At the other end of the sync cord connection, your camera also probably does not have a ⅛" jack. But a second, same $15 device (pictured at left) will add the capability to your camera, too. Then you can use a cheap ⅛" audio cord to sync your flash.

This little doohickey also adds an old-style "PC" jack, (it's on the other side and not visible in the photo above) which means it will marry just about any camera to just about any off-camera flash. For that reason, I like to call it a Universal Translator. But no need to worry about that now—we'll get to it later.

Very important: We are not about spending unnecessary money around here. Relax in knowing that most everything in the basic kit from here is going to be inexpensive. So you got that going for you, which is nice.

And that's the basics on your flash. Let's look at the gear you'll need to turn it into your own little portable lighting studio…

NEXT: Your Studio-to-Go: A Basic Kit


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