Strobist portrait: setup your pop-up flash to control another flashgun

    | Photography Tips | 15/10/2013 11:37am

    On some DSLRs your pop-up flash can control another flashgun. In this tutorial we show you how to make this simple Strobist portrait setup to selectively light your pictures.

    Strobist portrait: setup your pop-up flash to control another flashgun

    Flash is a great way of selectively lighting your pictures, and it is particularly useful for portraits, indoors or out. But for atmospheric strobist-style people shots you to need avoid using the pop-up flash, or a hotshoe-mounted gun. Instead, get the flash off-camera and achieve a moody, sidelit effect.

    So how do you fire your flash if it is not directly connected to the hotshoe? You could invest in a flash synch cord, or in a radio trigger. But with some cameras, like the Nikon D800 we used for this tutorial, there is a less expensive way to do this – by using your pop-up flash to control and trigger the bigger flashgun.

    With our D800 we can employ a simple Strobist portrait setup and let our pop-up flash control another flashgun by setting the camera to its Commander mode. Our D800′s built-in flash then sends a series of signals to the remote flashgun just before the exposure, to fire it and to control its power.

    Not every Nikon DSLR or flashgun will allow you to use Nikon’s Advanced Wireless Lighting (AWL) System. You need a D70 or above with a built-in pop-up flash (that’s the D90, D600, D800, D7000, D7100 and D300s in Nikon’s current range), which rules out models such as the D3100 or D4.

    You also need a flashgun that offers a CLS remote control mode – SB-600, SB-800, SB-900 or SB-910 (some other flash manufacturers make compatible guns too).

    Finally, while we used a Nikon D800 for the purposes of this tutorial, other camera brands offer equivalent functions. Or you can buy a slave unit.

    Our Strobist portrait setup step-by-step

    Our Strobist portrait setup step-by-step: 01

    01 Switch your flash to Remote
    Set your flashgun to its Remote control mode. On an SB-700, SB-900 or SB-910 you simply turn the main on/off switch to Remote. Two red LEDs pulsating at the front of the gun show you that the flash is set to remote operation. On older guns like the SB600 the set-up is more complex…


    Our Strobist portrait setup step-by-step: 02

    02 Setting up older Speedlights
    On an SB-600, hold the Zoom and Minus buttons down until the menu options appear. Press the Plus button until the Remote option (the one with the squiggly line) is displayed, then press the Mode button to turn it from Off to On. Hold in the Zoom and Minus buttons again to activate.


    Our Strobist portrait setup step-by-step: 03

    03 Pop-up control
    Set the pop-up flash to its remote control Commander mode. In the Custom Setting menu, find the Bracketing/Flash options. Scroll to the one called Flash Control for built-in flash, and hit OK. This is typically set to TTL, so you need to switch it to Commander mode.


    Our Strobist portrait setup step-by-step: 04

    04 Commander options
    In Commander mode options, turn built-in flash from TTL to Off (marked with two dashes). With one flashgun, you only need to use Group A. To control the flash power conveniently from the camera, set its Mode to TTL and set Comp (flash exposure compensation) to +1 or +2. Press OK.


    Our Strobist portrait setup step-by-step: 05

    05 Ambient exposure
    Your camera exposure controls the brightness of the areas of the scene the flash doesn’t reach. Set shutter speed and aperture in Manual mode so that the background exposure is about two stops darker than the built-in meter suggests. Make sure shutter speed is below 1/250sec.


    Our Strobist portrait setup step-by-step: 06

    06 Flash stand
    Use your tripod as a lighting stand. Some flashguns come with a foot that allow them to be mounted on a tripod (if not, try a £9.99/ $12.99 Frio coldshoe).

    Our Strobist portrait setup step-by-step: 06a

    Rotate the flash and its head so the red circular window on the side of the flash points at the DSLR’s pop-up flash.

    Quick tip
    To tweak exposure, adjust the flash brightness using the flash exposure compensation facility on the camera itself. Make the background lighter or darker by adjusting the shutter speed


    Snoot lighting: how to take moody Strobist portraits using your hotshoe flash
    Flash photography tips: external flash techniques anyone can understand
    How camera flash works: free photography cheat sheet
    Flash compensation: how to get perfectly balanced exposures
    Flash portraits: creative off-camera lighting techniques you have to try

    Posted on Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 at 11:37 am under Photography Tips.

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