Experimenting with off camera flash


A couple of years ago I got a speedlight to mount in the hotshoe of my digital camera. This got a lot of use as fill light for backlit daytime photos and I was pretty happy with the results. It gave me detail in shadow areas that would otherwise be underexposed. Unfortunately, mounting a powerful flash so close to the camera lens also flattens out all textural information you would get from having those shadows. Another side effect was the bright flare from any reflectorized surfaces such as license plates and tail lamps. Simply moving the flash away from the camera lens solves all of those problems at the same time.

It turns out that the camera manufacturers had already figured out a solution to getting the flash off the camera. Nikon and Canon both have proprietary systems that allow their cameras and speed lights to communicate via infrared signals. I have a Nikon D700 and 2 SB-600 flashes that I have been experimenting with. Nikon’s manuals are of only very basic help with figuring out what is possible with the system. The world of off camera flash creativity really opened wide when I discovered the Strobist website put together by photojournalist David Hobby. He explains in detail how to use the limited power of battery powered flashes in conjunction with existing light to make beautiful images out of otherwise bland scenes.

This will be an ongoing chronicle as I learn how to apply Strobist lighting philosophy to jeepin and general outdoor photography.

My very first attempt at using the Nikon “Creative Lighting System” as their wireless flash setup is called was on a trip to a B&B in southern New Mexico. Cabin fever had set in after a couple of months without any trips so I took my wife down to the Casitas de Gila for the 3 day MLK weekend. They have several casitas, each with its own theme. We stayed in the Casita de los Pajaros, or the Little Bird House for you gueros. I wanted a photo of the front porch and the bird on the door, along with the view. I was underwhelmed with the result straight out of the camera. The door and the front yard were black holes while the surroundings were nicely exposed.

Up to this point in time I would fix the under/over exposure problems by shooting in raw format and adjusting the fill light and recovery sliders in Adobe Camera Raw. The results were much closer to what I saw when standing there with camera in hand but editing each photo this way would take at least 15 minutes.

Two SB-600 speedlights were sitting just inside that door, waiting for a good reason to use them. One flash went on the ground, just on the other side of the bench, pointing up at the shadow area of the door and the wood work of the porch. The other is “perched” on a birdhouse to camera left, pointing down at the chimenea and picnic table in the front yard. This looks much more like it did to my eye when I decided that I wanted a photo of the scene:

Best of all, it looks the way I wanted, straight out of the camera.

Now for my blundering first attempts at using Strobist lighting for jeepin photos. I went with a couple of friends to Gordy’s Hill OHV area to check out some trails. Most of them are either moderate or extreme, there is nothing in between. We turned around on this trail at an obstacle called Pucker Falls.

First a photo using the speedlight mounted on the camera.

It demonstrates a couple of the shortcomings when using on camera flash. While it does illuminate the shadow area, it flattens out the texture. Second, falloff is very apparent in this shot. The dirt in the foreground is well lit, but the rocks and ledges get almost none of the extra light from the flash.

Pucker Falls, Take 2. I removed the speedlight from the camera and balanced it on the boulder to the right. Look carefully and you’ll see it sitting there upside down so the infrared sensor faces the camera. I wanted the light to rake across the rocks and undercut ledge to show just how nasty this obstacle is.

I was happy with the results at the time, but when I got home and viewed it on the computer screen I was bothered by the bluish color cast of the rocks illuminated by the flash as compared to the sunlit rocks across the gully. It was obvious evidence of flash illumination. To me, this is just as bad as the underexposed shadows I was trying to fix with the flash in the first place. My goal here was to have my flash enhance the existing lighting without making its use apparent.

Pucker Falls, Take 3. My buddy Adam wanted to go back to Gordy’s Hill the next weekend so I bummed a ride. He loves his Jeep and gets hundreds of photos of it out of the deal. I decided during the intervening week that the flash needed to be filtered to match the existing light. I had a Rosco Cinegel sample pack so I selected a #12 Straw Yellow gel, cut off a couple of pieces and taped one over each speedlight. New Mexico is known for its abundant sunshine, the one thing I didn’t expect on this day was a thin layer of clouds. The color temperature from an overcast sky is towards the blue end of the spectrum, compared with the more yellow light of the direct sunlight shining during Take 2. The ambient light zigged, and I zagged, making the resulting disparity in color temperatures 100 times more obvious than my first take.

At least you can get an idea of exactly how much light 2 SB-600’s will put out. I used them both this day.

Take 4. Whaddaya know, with the gels removed the bare flashes balance nicely with today’s cooler ambient light.


Here’s a good example of why I originally got the flash: shooting directly into the sun.

First, with the flash mounted on the camera. It helps the underexposure of the shadow areas but it flattens out the rocks in the foreground. The license plate and taillights exhibit the flare you always get from having the flash close to the lens, even on the distant Jeep.

From the same spot, the following weekend. No flash here, the foreground rocks have better texture, thanks to the slightly overcast sky but are still underexposed.

With the flash mounted to a lightweight stand to camera right, shooting across the rocks. They do look like three dimensional rocks now, instead of a two dimensional picture of a dirt ramp or something. Now it looks just as rocky in the photo as it did from the driver’s seat.

Looking at this photo now makes me want to redo this shot with a second light on the driver’s side of the Jeep, lighting Adam. I’ll bet I could sell him that one!

Another sunny day of jeepin. This time I had much fun photographing my buddy Lawrence’s Venom R/C Crawler. I also took another stab at gelling the flash to blend with daylight. Roscosun CTO is an orange filter used to convert flash output to match ordinary tungsten filament incandescent light. I chose a ¼ CTO, which is used when a smaller amount of correction is needed, according to the Rosco Filter Facts booklet. I wish those Rosco people would help the Nikon people rewrite their manuals! The ¼ orange gel turned out to look a whole lot more natural than a bare flash head or the Straw Yellow filter on this sunny day.

Once again, this is shooting into the sun. Flash is mounted on a stand to camera left. The rock has good exposure and excellent texture! It is also pretty hard to tell that there is any light added to this photo. The only post processing done was to resize it for the web, nothing else was necessary. This is the goal I am working towards!

Same spot, without flash. The ledge looks two dimensional and boring. It lacks the contrast you get with directional light from a small source.

Here’s my entire setup: an SB-600 flash on a LumoPro light stand, using a Pocket Wizard radio slave as a trigger. The infrared signals of Nikon’s Creative Lighting System did not work reliably in broad daylight so radio triggers became an expensive but necessary addition. The whole thing weighs about the same as my camera. I can walk around shooting with the camera in one hand, holding the lightstand out like a boom with the other if I don’t have time to set it down. I haven’t gotten any photos to be proud of with that method yet, probably because the flash is still too close to the camera.

Most of my life I thought I was taking photographs of beautiful landscapes, or jeeps, or people. Usually it has been some combination of the three. Then one day a photography teacher explained to me that I am really taking pictures of light. The quality of that light, reflecting off that landscape, those jeeps or those peeps and into my camera lens directly effects the end result. Having that simple fact pointed out to me changed the whole way I think about photography. The ability to control light opens up possibilities I had never imagined before. These few days I have experimented with off camera flash have demonstrated to me that I no longer have to settle for “taking photographs”. It is now possible for me to create images.

I have a lot to learn. I am really looking forward to the process.

Recommended books for Overlanding


Dave Druck [KI6LBB]
Very cool. I want to play with mine too. I have the Speedlite 550EX and need a couple other pieces to make it work.


Adam and I work together. Almost every day he says, “When are we going to Moab?” He’s had his Jeep for almost a year and has not yet been there. My reply is always, “Pick a weekend and we’ll go!” Last week on Monday I slapped him with a calendar as I gave him the usual reply. After much consideration he chose to go that very Thursday. Off we went for his first trip to Moab, on the spur of the moment.

We took his Rubicon and my Cherokee. I don’t have much chance to set up photos when I am driving but I did find a couple of opportunities. One situation that came to mind before leaving was to try to better capture the dinosaur footprints at the Poison Spider trailhead. I hoped that by shading them from the direct sun and replacing the light with some coming from a sharper angle I could give them better depth and definition.

Straight daylighting, it appears that someone polished off the desert varnish so they would stand out better:

The best take out of several attempts shows depth, but I am not crazy with the results:

My setup for this shot was 2 of the ever versatile Human Light Stands.

I really needed a larger shade and better access to the site for positioning my HLS’s, as we were all perched awkwardly on a rocky slope above a cliff. Maybe using one large shade and one bounce card to reflect daylight into the footprint at the desired angle would have worked nicer. The harsh texture created by the small light source competes with the claw print. There is definitely room for improvement here.

Seeing Adam and his girlfriend eating lunch with an expansive view of Moab and vicinity gave another opportunity to set up off camera lighting. The background looks nice but the people are mostly in shadow, especially her black hair and his black shirt & hat:

One light to camera left fills in the shadows nicely, giving them a bright and cheery look:

I used a single SB-600 with a ¼ CTO gel at full power on a 7 foot light stand stabilized with a big rock. Also notice the difference in contrast and saturation between this photo and the last one, while noting that the only postprocessing done was cropping for better composition and resizing for the web.

I used a circular polarizer but neglected to turn it 90 degrees to keep it indexed in the maximum polarization position when I turned the camera to the portrait orientation. Adam wanted me to remember the lesson so he punctuated it by shoving me off the cliff.

Luckily I survived to take photos another day. :)


Fun with wireless flash in dark places

I have found that the infrared control signals for the Nikon Creative Lighting System don’t work very well in daylight. They work GREAT in darkness, or near darkness. On a recent trip to Moab I got to use wireless flash to enhances a couple of scenes.

Moonhouse is a unique ruin off the Snow Flat Road on Cedar Mesa. It is a cliff dwelling with an additional outer wall covering room blocks built into the back of an alcove. The room blocks are remarkably well preserved thanks to the extra protection provided by this outer wall. There was a snake-like pictograph outside the alcove, as well as a painted motif on the inner walls which I wanted to capture in a photograph. Unfortunately the exposure difference between the pictograph and the inner chamber was more than my camera could handle.

The exposure is ok for the interior walls, although at 1/40 sec and f/3.2 the depth of field is pretty shallow. You can’t even see the pictograph on the outer wall as it is completely blown out. I was traveling light on this hike, bringing just the camera with one lens… and an SB-600 flash in the pocket of my cargo shorts.

I experimented with several different flash settings and locations, ending up happiest with the results from holding the flash out with my left hand while operating the camera with the other. I used a Rosco Cinegel #02 Bastard Amber gel over the flash to give my added light the warm glow similar to sunlight reflected off sandstone. With the flash in TTL mode and the exposure value set to +1.7, the camera exposed at 1/200th @ f/7.1, allowing for a greater depth of field and a sharper overall photo. Most importantly, the pictograph on the outer wall is now visible!

For the ultimate in low light photography, try taking pictures in a mine tunnel. I didn’t expect this adit in Bull Canyon to go very far so I didn’t bring a flashlight. I had to use the test mode of my SB-600 flash to light the way, which is quite painful to the eyes. Next time I’ll bring a normal light too! Luckily Jared and Kyle followed and had flashlights. I handed the SB-600 to Kyle, who became my Human Light Stand. In the near total darkness of the mine the infrared signal from my camera worked perfectly, no matter where the flash was in relation to the camera. I was really happy with how this photo came out:

Kyle held the strobe in his right hand, the flashlight is silhouetted in his left. It appears that the illumination on the photo is coming from the flashlight. The weak circle of light on the hood of Jared’s sweatshirt is all that flashlight put out, the rest is coming from the strobe hidden behind Kyle. If I hadn’t told you I’ll bet that you would have assumed that all of the light in the photo was coming from the plainly visible flashlight!

I spent a night camped in Comb Wash with the Ward clan. What do these two photos have to do with each other?

Actually, nothing! I didn’t even have my own Jeep on that trip. The second photo took place in my garage:

The red glow of the “campfire” came from a flash on the floor, shooting through a red gel into a translucent umbrella and further diffused by a red tarp. The “stars” in the “night sky”, which I agree were quite hokey, came from a homemade snoot taped to another flash on a light stand. Several pinholes are what created the star field against the white garage wall. The boxes scattered around blocked excess red light from showing up on the wall behind the Jeep. This was a great exercise in creating and controlling light. It is also an extreme example of how light can affect the mood of a photo.


Expedition Leader
Nice work! But I'm here to warn you that this is a dangerous path you are heading down. Next step will either be a stack of Nikon strobes or more likely an Elinchrom Ranger followed by an uncontrollable lust for a Profoto B2. Then at some point you will get frustrated with the low flash sync and start looking into some sort of Hasselblad digital or Mamiya RZ for the leaf shutter lenses.

If you haven't done so yet, buy an off camera shoe cord (I think the part is SC-17) and small softbox that fits over you SB-600. You would be surprised how much you can achieve just holding the flash off camera a foot or couple. Also take a look around dg28.com, it was kind of the original strobist site.