Strobe on a Rope

I used to think that there was special light that only came out when other, better shooters needed to make a picture.

I knew, of course, that they added light when working on controllable situations. But these guys even had great looking photos in "run-and-gun" settings, where you could not hope to have a light stand set up because it would get knocked over. Or your subject was not remaining in one location.

Way back when I got my first off-camera TTL cord, I realized that these little things could give you an incredible amount of control over the direction of your strobe light.

But there was one problem -- all of my photos looked pretty much the same. The light was always coming from the left side of my composition. This was because I needed my right hand to hold and operate the camera.

One day I realized that I could use the 1/4 x 20 socket on the bottom of the flash end of the cord to connect it to my monopod. This changed everything. Here were two items I carried around anyway that could be called into double duty to create (way) off-axis, mobile light on short notice.

I used this technique this week while covering the Baltimore Ravens (a professional American football team, for the international readers) training camp. At the end of the session, which usually yields about five dozen very similar-looking action shots, there is the typical media scrum for quotes and the obligatory autograph signings by the players.

Both of these situations are (a) in crappy mid-day light, and (b) too mobile/crowded to add a light stand to the scene.

Since I really try to avoid direct, on-camera flash whenever possible, I frequently go to the "strobe-on-a-rope" technique in a scrum. Here's how to do it.
First, attach the flash to the off-camera TTL cord as and the monopod as shown. The male end of the cord simply plugs into the hot shoe of your camera.

Second, set your camera at the high synch speed to make things easy on your flash if you are working in daylight. Set the aperture to underexpose daylight by about a stop. This will make the flash-lit part of your frame really pop.

This is, of course is done to taste. But it's a good starting point.

Choose a comfy working distance (I like three or four feet) that you will keep constant when shooting your subject. Setting the flash on about 1/8 power gives me a good exposure at that range. I still do not trust TTL with digital, so I always use manual and keep my working distance fairly constant.

The beam angle on the flash is set to 50mm, which is a good compromise between flash efficiency and having to have a good aim when working off camera on the fly.
Now, test it out on something. As our guinea pig today, we have Ace AP Photographer Chris Gardner, who was just as drenched in sweat as I was from covering the sweltering practice.

I very much appreciate Chris modeling for me without being asked. And for that favor, I would never, ever do anything like stick the "I'm-dog-tired-and-sweaty" photo of him up on a blog where 20,000 people from around the world will see it.

Unless, of course, it was absolutely necessary to illustrate the concept.

Some exposure info: If the flash-lit part is overexposed, you either back up the flash-to-subject working distance or power down the flash a little. And vice versa.

Notice that the flash is coming from the camera left side of Chris. That is because the sun happens to be coming from back-camera-right. I always try to let the flash work against the ambient for nice shape and detail. It's your call, though.

Now we are ready to work. In the photo up top, I have the flash coming from camera right (against the sun.) This is something that I could not easily do without the monopod to act as an extension of my hand. Too much of my arm span would be used up by the considerable width of my torso. (Thus the Diet Mountain Dews, these days...)
For illustrative purposes, here's a frame where I included the flash in the frame to show the position of the light source.

It's just a matter of continually adjusting and setting the light source where I want it as I work. It gives me the ability to create very three-dimensional light in a fluid situation. That's something you absolutely cannot do with on-camera fill flash.

There's no reason you cannot use this in more controlled situations, too. Portraits can really benefit by the fact that you can quickly and easily change the direction of the light source in mid-shoot. You can get 15 different looks in two minutes.

Light from either side, back/side light (you have some reach when working up close) top light, bottom light - whatever. Just remember to work the good lighting angles long enough to make sure you get a good range of expressions before you switch the light to somewhere else.

The technique lends itself to trying things you otherwise would not have. Which is a good thing.
I also liked this shot of fans waiting for quarterback Steve McNair, complete with a bobblehead doll for him to sign. That's an ugly, mid-day sky in mid-day light made a lot better by overpowering the ambient with off-axis flash.

Additionally, I like the way that the off-axis light helps to control the exposure on the edges and call attention to the subject. The edges sort of burn themselves. And the closer the various objects are to me, the more of a hard angle the light will be coming from. Look at the two guys arms as an example. This also adds dimensionality to the photo.

Drawbacks? Sure, there are a couple.

First, you have to practice a little to be able to aim your off-camera, off-axis flash. As you get better, you can work with tighter light beam spreads. This can allow you to power down your flash for quick recycling or have a greater working distance. Or both.

Also, you need to be aware of your working distance and keep it relatively constant. (Or adjust your flash to compensate.) With film, you could usually get away with going TTL. But I have not been satisfied with digital TTL to the point where this works well yet. Bear in mind that I am usually trying to overpower daylight for a photo with a "look." The TTL systems sometimes think I am screwing up, and try to "help" me. (Even with the compensation settings.)

Hey, I am simple, manual guy. What can I say.

But the beauty of this technique is that it employs gear that the typical shooter already has.

If you do not have a monopod and/or an off-camera cord, they are not very expensive and are money well spent.

Nikon and Canon both make off-camera flash cords for their systems. But I am not a big fan of Canon's because it is not really long enough to be as useful for this technique as it could be.

Remember, since you are not using the TTL function, you do not need it built into the cord. You can use a normal PC cord. Or the little infra red thing you Canon guys all seem to have. Pocket Wizards also work well. (as long as your monopod is not longer than 800 feet - heh, heh, heh.) Just ball bungee the receiver to the flash.

But then you need to figure out how to connect the flash to the monopod. The cold shoe adapters from your standard umbrella stand bracket will connect just fine. For me, the Nikon cord does both functions in a nice, neat small package.

And speaking of monopods, get one that will be strong enough to use to support your camera and a long lens if you see yourself using it that way one day. That is their main purpose, after all.

If you see yourself turning pro one day. I am a big fan of Gitzo. They are not cheap. But you buy one, and you are pretty much finished buying monopods. They are built very well.

But for light duty (or for just doing this technique as opposed to holding up a 400/2.8) you can spend as little as you want. But don't expect it to work well holding up a big, fast tele later.

So, there you go. The next time you think that a fluid situation is inhibiting your ability to light something well, try some Strobe on a Rope.

Next: Tupperware and Trash Bags, Pt. 1 of 3


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Blogger Daniel Williams said...

Thanks for the tip. Started playing with it in my apartment for now because it's 10 pm, but will definitely be trying it out in the daylight tomorrow. Thanks for the indepth articles on here. Most photo blogs just say, do this, this, and this and you're good. You give examples as well as explaining clearly.

July 30, 2006 11:16 PM  
Blogger jairy said...

I think I've got the idea, but it looks like you're using a wide angle (w-a zoom) and if so, how do you manage that lens/camera combo with just your right hand?

I use a canon 5D which is heavy enough--but when adding a 24-70 w-a zoom doubles the weight not to mention the technical (zoom) factor.


July 30, 2006 11:29 PM  
Blogger David said...

It's very doable. You just have to get used to it. It's not like you are working in the same position for half an hour.

July 30, 2006 11:50 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Man, this tip rocks! I just got done reading the Lighting 101 stuff, and tortured my wife this weekend with modeling so I could test out the techniques. I logged back in tonight and saw this tip, and realized that I had all the pieces to try it out. It's awesome! I was so stuck on the idea of "flash on camera" it never occurred to me to try this. Your tips in general are really stretching me to rethink how I can approach my shots. I can't wait for my next assignment where this will be appropriate. BTW, I'm glad I regularly workout on my bowflex. Holding the flash out on the end of the monopod really works the forearms.

July 31, 2006 12:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll add this to my list of okay uses for monopods.

Okay uses:
Long glass ( > 100mm) in low light with slow action
Long glass ( > 300mm) in broad daylight
Camera on a stick for overhead shots
Fending off mean dogs, reporters, crazy public

Not okay uses:
Using with a lens smaller than 300 f2.8 in broad daylight. (Unless of course you are a huge wimp.)

July 31, 2006 12:49 AM  
Anonymous brian said...

haha this is great, i don't own any ttl flash gear, but it's a good idea. I used to just use the reach with the one hand, but a pole, now that's smart.

A friend of mine just passed me your blog, so I've been taking a read through it, it's got some great info on it, keep it up!

July 31, 2006 2:03 AM  
Blogger Ringo said...

Great article as always, although I could totally see myself taking somebody out with my strobe-on-a-stick. And I don't think I'd want to take that chance with Ray Lewis.

I wanted to post a link to another photoblog because they do some really awesome lighting on portraits and sometimes, other stuff. If you haven't seen it before, it's totally worth a look.

July 31, 2006 2:21 AM  
Blogger Daniel Berman said...

Atleast you treat your subjects with some dignity ;)

Chris Gardner


July 31, 2006 4:18 AM  
Blogger Bob Hughes said...

if only Canon made a longer dedicated flash cord!

Sometimes to get the light right I find myself holding the flash with my left hand but over my head to the right of the camera, which if nothing else helps create an amused look on the face of the subject.

Thanks for another great idea.

July 31, 2006 5:43 AM  
Blogger MagikTrik said...

And I quote "For illustrative purposes, here's a frame where I included the flash in the frame to show the position of the light source."

I LOVE IT!!! I can't wait to become a "professional" so I can say I did it on purpose too!

Just kiddin with ya, thanks again for the in-depth post., I know I've said it before but it really helps alot to hear the "thinking out loud" part of a pro doing a days work! Thank you. I can sure get used to these kind of posts!

July 31, 2006 6:49 AM  
Anonymous Joe McCary said...

This a great tip! One thing that has bothered me for a long time is when the photographer shoots from the (and lights) from the lit side of the subject. Adding more light to the sun, most times makes for ugly image (I know I have my share), but this will allow me to shoot into the shadow side with some degree fo ease, or to create my own shadow side without worrying about the sun's wrong position.

One question: this assumes you can sync at higher shutter speeds (daylight exposure with sun). Many current DSLRs don't sync above 1/250th. Any suggestions?

July 31, 2006 9:10 AM  
Blogger Dave New said...

For those that wonder how to one-hand a camera with a somewhat hefty lens, check out a handstrap. Canon has one that attaches to their pro bodies or the amateur ones if you add the battery grip. I wouldn't leave home without one. It allows me to one-hand the camera securely, not worrying about dropping the combination. And it's always ready for a 'quick-draw' for street photography. It's always the first accessory I install on any body I own.

Also, for those that wonder how to shoot effectively against sun with a sync speed that tops out at 1/250 (or less), don't forget that you can always dial down the ISO on digital bodies (or just stop down the aperture, if you can stand the increased depth of field). You don't always have to shoot at 400, just because the current crop of Canon bodies can do so without a trace of noise.

And if that doesn't work well enough, you can always fall back on neutral density filters. Even with digital bodies, you still should have a basic kit of filters -- neutral densities, split neutral densities, and circular polarizers.

July 31, 2006 11:18 AM  
Anonymous Captoe said...

Very nice tip David! I'm packing camera gear for travel and the monopod just got switched from the maybe list to the pack first list.

Sounds like some practice is in order?

July 31, 2006 7:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The beam angle on the flash is set to 50 degrees, which is a good compromise between flash efficiency and having to have a good aim when working off camera on the fly.

Did you mean 50 degrees, or 50mm here?

August 01, 2006 4:37 PM  
Anonymous Bill Rogers said...

David, a great idea. Here are a few additional thoughts that may be helpful to the group.

1) It works extremely well without the coil cord, using the Nikon wireless system. I removed the 5th battery from my SB-800 so that the photocell was "in the clear" at all times. I used the D200's built-in controller to set the SB-800 to Manual at 1/8 power, per your recommendation. If you're using the strobe on your right, turn the flash head 180 degrees so that the photocell is aimed at the camera. This suggestion will help Strobists who do not have the off-camera cord. It also will work with the D70 and with a SB-600. I held the flash onto the monopod using a Stroboframe 300405 Flash Shoe, which tightens securely using a thumbscrew.

2) It also works with the camera in the Program mode, and with the exposure compensation dialed down to minus one or two stops. This will help if the ambient light is changing quickly due to clouds, for instance.

3)Should be obvious, but it also works overhead. This is good when shooting indoors in a tight space because it throws the shadow way down. Hold it over the photographer's head, not the subject's head.

4) As I mentioned in another post, the potential exists for someone to bump the photographer, sending the strobe into someone's face or eyes. "And in this note, Terrell Suggs will miss the next two Ravens' games due to an eye injury caused by a photographer using a flash gun on a long stick." Be careful out there, folks, and don't put your eye out, Ralphie.

Bill Rogers

August 01, 2006 6:11 PM  
Blogger David said...

50mm. Thanks, I'll fix it.

August 01, 2006 6:41 PM  
Blogger Gary Gardiner said...

Damn! You've given away my secret! This is a great technique I've used for some time with great success and a few failures.

Let me suggest the Gitzo G1560 Monotrek pod. It's lightweight, extends to more than 5 feet and comes with a ball head. Not useful as a monmopod but perfect for this.

Example from yesterday in full sun.

August 02, 2006 9:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

don't know where to post this, but since it's about a picture of a fan crowd around a star, here it is!

i stumbled on grecco's profile on apple's pro pages, check the picture on top ( it's all staged of course but it's a nice way to get your strobes on a bunch of extra's cameras and give a celebrity/paparazzi feeling to it

August 03, 2006 6:45 AM  
Anonymous Jake said...

Are the TTL/off camera cords standard across all hot shoes or are there differences between different camera bodies? I've been having a hard time finding a pentax off camera hot shoe extension cord, but I see a ton of the Nikon SC-17 cords for sale, do you know if that would work with my pentax gear (e.g. *ist ds)?

Any help would be appreciated because I'd really like to be able to try out the kind of easily portable, professional lighting you've detailed in this post.

P.S. Great blog!

August 03, 2006 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Bill Rogers said...

To answer Jake's question, no, a Nikon off-camera cord will not work on a Pentax. In fact, not all Nikon cords work with all Nikon cameras. The cords are definitely proprietary to each manufacturer.

Bill Rogers

August 03, 2006 8:29 PM  
Anonymous Erik Markov said...

Paramount flash cords do make off-camera cords, specially ordered from their website. I got one after breaking the Canon cord provided by work, I had gone two years without a cord and getting a little itchy to use a cord again. I ordered the paramount cord and found it was not made as well as I hoped. Just for the hell of it, I tried my Nikon cord(my personal equipment is Nikon) and it works. You don't get ttl of course(I always use manual flash anyway), but the Nikon cord is made better than Canon's, its longer and because it is a different brand, the camera shutter doesn't keep the shutter speed down to 1/250th or whatever the sync is. I get up to 1/800 or 1/1000th a sec sync. It does take more power on the flash to lite some things at the higher shutter, but on those times I need it, it works well. I use a Canon 1d, all this may be different with other models.

August 03, 2006 10:04 PM  
Anonymous bill rogers said...

Just to throw another twist into this great idea. Tonight I took a few shots at a retirement party for one of my wife's co-workers. I used the flash AND the umbrella on the monopod - it worked quite well. I attached the umbrella holder to the monopod using one of those barrel thingies with female threads. I triggered the flash with the Nikon wireless system. Finally, I tucked the monopod's foot inside my beltline, so with the monopod partly extended, the bottom of the brolly was just brushing the top of my head. As a bonus, nobody laughed at me. At least not while I was there ...
Bill Rogers

August 11, 2006 2:10 AM  
Blogger Gary W. said...

Bil, Thats why I bought a MAnafrotto 682B. Not so I don't get laughed at but because it has three little lega that you can use to make your monopod into an impromtu lightstand. The only porblem I've run into are strong gusts of wind...

September 04, 2006 8:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't help but see some awfully similar lighting concepts that you claim as originating many years ago with Jon Falk and his book "Adventures in location lighting". I bought his book probably 15 or more years ago and it seems like just about everything you put in your blog came out of his book(now out of print). The "strobe on a rope" is the most blatant example of your taking credit for someone else's work. Any comment???

November 14, 2006 12:02 PM  
Blogger David said...

To "Anonymous"


I cut my teeth on Jon's books twenty years ago. Ditto Ansel Adams books, David Kennerly books, Al Satterwhite books, and those of many others.

I wish I knew what happened to Falk's book, as I have not seen one for more than ten years. He and I talk about lighting from much the same perspective - that of long-time working photojournalists.

The concepts of traveling light and working with small strobes are not new. I did not invent them and neither did Jon.

In fact, Jon's book only dealt with small strobes for about a third of teh copy, if I remember correctly. He was big into Dynalites and generators, too.

That said, he did much to spread his concepts and techniques to his generation of photographers. I am grateful for the information I gleaned from him, and from many other sources. So I am trying to pass the information along to my generation and those coming after me.

The term "strobe on a rope" came from his book. But it was in reference to small, bare-bulb strobes. They were modified 283's. TTL cords were not even around then.

As for basic lighting techniques, I don't know how to put this any differently, other than to say that lighting is physics. A hard light is going to do today what it did twenty years ago.

So when I write about what it does today, it is going to remind you of what Jon wrote about 20 - actually more - years ago.

Twenty years from now, when someone else writes about it, the concepts are going to be the same - with differing personal styles.

I chose to post and answer this comment, but if you are going to continue this discussion I will have to ask that you (1) give your name and contact info in the comments, and (2) try to refrain from personal attacks.

Your other post - also anonymous, but posted at the same time - was far more bitter than this one and included name calling and personal attacks - both anonymous and unsubstantiated.

I have long been - and still am - grateful for Jon's passing on of his knowledge. But to say that every thing in the more than 300 articles in this website came from his book is kind of silly.

I would be happy to continue this discussion in the open, but not if you are going to use anonymous signatures and personal attacks.

Now, that said, I am going to e-mail Jon right now and ask him to let me know what he thinks.

November 14, 2006 1:53 PM  
Blogger David said...

To "Anonymous," again-

Spurred by your reaction to my post, I wrote to Jon, via his "Underdog" battery site.

He was generous enough to write back a wonderful letter which brought back many memories.

Suffice to say, he is not only fine with Strobist, but was very encouraging.

If you do not believe me, ask him yourself, at .

In the future, if you have a criticism, please sign your name. I do not mind criticism at all. But I would ask that it not be mean-spirited. Or anonymous.

November 14, 2006 4:01 PM  
Blogger Brock said...

I thought that was an excellent answer to a rather adversarial comment, David, good for you.

And just to throw my two cents in here, I've been devouring the site for a couple of weeks, working my through Lighting 101 and the assignments section and through all that reading I don't recall you claiming you invented anything.

You're passing on your techniques and for that I'm extremely grateful, as are a lot of folks; if those techniques were learned from a book, so what? What you're passing on is real world examples of those techniques in action and that, as the Mastercard ads say, is priceless.

February 23, 2007 3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been using that idea for years now. Around here we call it the Trick-on-a-Stick.

March 28, 2007 11:04 AM  
Anonymous unplug said...

Now I'll have o drag around my almost-forgotten monopod too... :)

Great idea, gotta try it!

June 04, 2007 1:24 AM  
Blogger fieldmouse said...


I've got to say that this made my day:

"I very much appreciate Chris modeling for me without being asked. And for that favor, I would never, ever do anything like stick the "I'm-dog-tired-and-sweaty" photo of him up on a blog where 20,000 people from around the world will see it."

When I was taking an interest in photography back in the 80s the "big" shooters were gods, not so much by their own doing as by the fact that they were simply names and photos. There weren't a lot of ways to see the person behind the professional. This type of tweaking of a peer is exactly the reason I love the web and blogs such as yours. Thanks for the great work.

June 04, 2007 9:08 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

I made a very ghetto strobe-on-a-rope out of a squeegee pole and two ball bungees, which I described on Flickr.

August 28, 2007 8:09 PM  
Blogger Kevin L. Kitchens said...

How do you hook the flash to the monopod? Is there some sort of adapter?

October 09, 2007 12:24 PM  
Blogger whiterabbit said...

since you admit to learning this technique in another writer's book, why do you take credit for discovering it on your own?

>One day I realized that I could use the 1/4 x 20 socket on the bottom of the flash end of the cord to connect it to my monopod.

April 04, 2008 11:54 AM  
Blogger David said...


Ease up, bro. It's not, "Ready. Fire. Aim."

I read Falk's book like twenty times, and have talked with him on several occasions. What the "attack commenter" John uses the term "strobe on a rope" as a term for a completely different thing.

He's talking about using a cord and a little to separate the flash tube from the main electronics of the unit. Which is very different.

In my context, the term means using your SB on a monopod with a TTL cord.


April 04, 2008 1:55 PM  
Blogger whiterabbit said...

Kevin wrote:
>How do you hook the flash to the monopod? Is there some sort of adapter?

How are you going to trigger the flash? Google "hot shoe adapter". You want an adapter you can connect the flash to which has a screw hole in the bottom for the tripod (or in this case monopod). Also some off-camera shoe cords (like my Canon OC-E3) have one. Any pro camera shop will be able to help you.


April 06, 2008 8:22 PM  
Anonymous peterg22 said...

Another monopod tip.. if I want to anchor it to something secure to take a long exposure I usually carry a bunch of cyclists' quick-release straps. The more straps, the bigger the object (like a tree). You can secure the 'pod tightly but also release it quickly when the security guys see you on CCTV and you have to run..

May 10, 2008 3:41 PM  
Anonymous Skunk said...

How did I miss this the first time?? Great post.

May 13, 2008 7:46 PM  
Blogger Will and Debbie said...

Great stuff...I guess that defeats the purpose of bringing assistance to hold flashes around...simply hold that camera with one hand while working hard with the other holding some serious light power...great tip.

August 06, 2008 12:13 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

To continue on what Bill Rogers wrote earlier. In the drawbacks there should be the fact that essentially you're waving around a long stick that you don't always have your eye on.

Especially in the situation of the scrum, where photographers could be shoulder to shoulder.

August 06, 2008 1:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is great! Jonathan Adams told me about this about a year ago, but I didn't remember how to do it. Thanks for passing the knowledge on to others. This will come in handy at a wedding on Saturday...

November 13, 2008 11:28 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Hi David,

I was wondering which hand strap you use when you shoot. I wanted something comfortable that wouldn't get in the way of my shoulder strap.



December 22, 2008 8:42 AM  
Blogger Angad said...

Nice one Strobist!

btw how do you zoom with the strobe in your left hand? :|

i would love to call this "Strobe on a Steeek" (you'll know what I mean if you have seen Je-fuh-fuh dunHAM)


August 20, 2009 1:16 PM  
Blogger info said...

Four years later...

For those wanting a strobe-stick, check out if you have a removable centre column on your tripod (manfrotto's do, for example). Not at long or versatile as a real monopod, but it will probably do the trick just fine.


August 28, 2010 2:24 AM  
Blogger info said...

Four years later...

For those wanting a strobe-stick, check out if you have a removable centre column on your tripod (manfrotto's do, for example). Not at long or versatile as a real monopod, but it will probably do the trick just fine.


August 28, 2010 2:25 AM  

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