Adding Light

Today's post comes from the book Flash Techniques for Macro and Close-Up: A Guide for Digital Photographers by Rod & Robin Deutschmann. It is available from and other fine retailers.

A flash simply adds light. It need not be special. It should not cost too much—and since it will be used off-camera, any flash (and we mean any flash) will do.

There are three things that are paramount in the mind of any off-camera flash shooter (whether he shoots close-up or not): communication, support, and modification. You will have to be able to trigger the flash in some manner, hold it steadily in position, and modify the light it is producing.

Here, you see the three key pieces of off-camera flash photography (communication, support, and modification) at play. On top of the camera, you will notice an electronic device; this is a radio transmitter. On top of the flash, you can see the receiver. When the shutter is depressed, the transmitter sends out a radio signal to the receiver, which then fires the flash. You will also notice that the flash is being supported by a light stand (though you can hold it if you like). In front of the flash is a light modifier, in this case a studio shoot-through umbrella. This modifier enlarges and diffuses the light coming from the flash.

Creating amazing close-up images doesn’t take expensive gear or luck—it just takes a flash, plus a way to trigger, support, and modify it. The rest is just you moving your body and lens back and forth to get your subjects in focus.

There is an inexpensive optical path toward off-camera expressionism—though it’s not one we recommend.
You could purchase an optical slave unit (seen on the bottom of the flash in the above image). With this system, firing the off-camera flash will require an optical triggering signal (your camera’s pop-up flash will work just fine). This system requires a line-of-sight communication pathway between the trigger and the receiver. In the top photo, a piece of cardboard was taped in front of the pop-up flash to direct the light away from the twig and onto the receiver.

Each of these have a very real price—an actual dollar sign attached. Luckily, though, it doesn’t have to be high. A brand new flash can be purchased for less than $90 (Vivitar 285HV), a radio transmitter and receiver is less than $40 (Cactus V4), and a simple homemade light modifier can be constructed from a potato-chip canister ($2)—plus you get to keep the chips (BBQ-flavored images are our favorites). If you’ve got a free hand, you can always hold the flash (this is our preferred method of deployment by the way), but a light stand can usually be purchased for less than $25.

In the previous chapter we showed you some very inexpensive ways of getting close with your existing lenses (techniques that don’t require the purchase of a new macro lens). In this chapter, we’ll explore other inexpensive options as we get in touch with the flash. Don’t ever let expense
get in the way of your creativity.

Off-camera flash photography puts a unique spin on the message-building process. Since the flash is off-camera and coming from a direction a bit more natural-looking than when the flash is sitting atop a camera, any light produced will be quite striking—as long as it is controlled. Brand names, unit designators, and such really don’t matter. Whatever flash you have is the best flash! Even if it’s old, used, or archaic, if it pumps light, you can use it. For us, the flash of choice is often whichever flash unit has the freshest batteries. You’ll always catch us using Canon flashes with Nikon cameras and vice versa.

The only caveat is this: if you’re an auto shooter you’re going to need the expensive stuff. (This is one of the big reasons you might want to abandon your auto settings; manual shooters have all the options but at a much lower cost. It doesn’t get any better than that!) Automatic shooters need to go with the manufacturer’s recommended gear. We also suggest getting the best possible flash you can afford. This will give you the greatest amount of auto options and truly does offer the most “pop” for your buck. There is nothing worse than striving for perfection and then being held back by an inferior piece of machinery.

Does it really matter what flash produced the light in this image? Of course not. The greatest thing about flash photography, especially in the macro and close-up arena, is that it does not take a lot of money to get thoroughly involved. As a matter of fact, this image was shot using the camera’s built-in pop-up flash (although highly modified).

There are, admittedly, a few very cool advantages to having the latest and greatest flash—more power, specialized sync-speed solutions, built-in optical triggering systems, state-of-the-art electronics, and more—but there are also just as many reasons to not use them (expense, brand-name specificity, limited connection options, and more). If you have the resources, there is nothing wrong with purchasing a high-end flash unit—but don’t think for an instant that you must. Dedication, spirit, and ingenuity can make up for any lack of advanced features. When you do away with the hype and concentrate on what you really need, you may already own everything you need.

When it comes to triggering your flash off-camera you have two options: wired and wireless. You can either use a cord (connected to the camera’s hot shoe/PC port and running to the flash’s foot/PC port) or you can employ an optical/radio transmitter on your camera with the appropriate receiver on your flash. Both work gloriously when shooting close-up.

Before you start purchasing communication gear, make sure you know what you already have. Many digital camera systems today offer their own version of wireless communication. Typically, these use the camera’s pop-up flash (or an extra flash/infrared unit) as a triggering device. Certain flashes, those made by the same manufacturer, then see this triggering flash and fire.

If you already have this feature you can begin off-camera flash work right away—but don’t worry if you don’t. These systems can be quite limiting and can get expensive. First, you have to have the right camera and the right flash for this to work; it’s a very brand-specific way of shooting. Second, these “advanced” or “creative” lighting systems, as they are called, are limited because they require line-of-sight to work. This means that the off-camera flash needs to see the triggering flash (or signal) to be activated. Often, when shooting macro or close-up photography, the flash will be far from the camera (or triggering unit)—or hidden behind an umbrella, plant, tree, flower, etc. It may be placed far to the right or left of the triggering unit or can sometimes be positioned behind the camera itself and, hence, behind the triggering signal. When shooting a close-up image, you can’t be limited as to where you are putting your flashes. We recommend staying away from this in-camera option, as well as any other optical transmission system.

A better and much more reliable form of communication is achieved through the use of flash cord or PC wire. A flash cord runs straight from the camera’s hot shoe and attaches directly to the bottom of the flash. This offers 100 percent reliability no matter where the flash is positioned. A PC wire (a cheaper alternative) can be used when both the camera and the flash have PC ports—though its effectiveness can be strained if the wires are frayed or the connection is loose. Either, though, provides a brilliant option.

Our favorite form of communication for close-up/macro photography is through the use of simple radio transmitters/receivers. Cheaper than a cord and not limited by a cord’s length, radio transmitters and receivers offer alternatives no other type of communication does. We use the Cactus V4; a set (both transmitter and receiver) costs less than $40. If you want to use more flashes, each additional receiver is only about $20. Pure creativity, no limitations—and cheap. Simply spectacular!

Our favorite brand of radio transmitter/receiver is the Cactus V4 made by Harvest One. For less than $40, you can get a transmitter and receiver and be shooting in no time. As this series of images shows, they are not the most complicated of devices to add to your camera of flash. The transmitter sits atop the camera on the hot shoe, while the receiver can either sit on the bottom of the flash (center image) or be attached with the included PC wire. (We use a rubber band to attach it to the flash when using this method, as the right-hand photo shows.)

Keep in mind, though, that you do have to be a manual shooter for all of this “keepin’ it cheap” stuff to work. If you’re not, your close-up/macro dreams are going to cost you dearly. To maintain automatic connectivity between a camera and flash means staying in the family of manufacturer-recommended options—expensive flash systems, expensive wireless transmitters and receivers, and more. It’s not a pretty road. The upside though, when spending all that money, is that you won’t have to worry about those pesky little options like mood, depth of field, true intent, meaning, or expression.

The addition of light from a flash is important in close-up photography—even when shooting under the blazing afternoon sun. To achieve the desired depth of field in this photo, a very small aperture (f/29) was needed. A shutter speed of 1/60 second was then chosen, along with an ISO of 400. These helped the photographer achieve the perfect lighting for his background and maintain a shutter speed that froze the flower. Then it was simply a matter of modifying the light source (making it bigger and softer) and choosing a power setting on the flash that would illuminate the flower perfectly. The contrast, saturation, sharpening, and hue options were also chosen in-camera before the image was shot. This eliminated the need for any post-processing corrections in the computer.

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