Nikon D700 + 105mm f2 @ISO1250, f2.2 & 1/100. Off-camera flash: Nikon SB900 triggered via Quantum FW10w Transceivers

Yesterday I was talking with a marketing director of a flash company about flash needs in the 21st Century. We all know we love balancing and, at times, overpowering sun with flash. But how about lighting with off-camera flash in low-light/high-ISO surroundings?

There’s lots of relatively high-powered flashes made for bright shooting and overpowering dark scenes. What’s lacking is a professional strobe with *really* low-powered output for accenting low-light environments.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore …”

Today’s camera technology is simply amazing. We can shoot at 6400ISO with image-stabilized lenses, allowing us to get shots which were impossible even a few short years ago.

Ironically, this post has come up because I believe, now more than ever, the ability to shape and mold your flash in *all* circumstances will help set you apart from the competition.

There’s a lot of ground to cover when dealing with flash, so let’s narrow the scope for the sake of this discussion. I’m not talking about adding a widget and bouncing your on-camera flash against a wall or ceiling. I’m talking about going a level beyond and wirelessly triggering well-placed off-camera flashes. Accent instead of over-powering ambient light.

For this post, I’m talking about dark venues. Really dark venues. Take, for example, last weekend’s reception venue with an ambient light reading of 3200ISO, 1/80 and f2. When I say “low-powered flash” I mean having to add a 3-stop neutral density gel to a Nikon SB900 or Canon 580EXII manually set to 1/128 power to balance the fore-mentioned low light levels and still having to shoot at 1600ISO and f2.

Ugly light notice: In an effort to show a fair comparison of images with and without flash, the images for this post were sucked out of RAW via PhotoMechanic’s “Extract JPEG” feature. For the uninitiated, this means there was no WB, toning, contrast, exposure or other adjustments made at all to these images. This is as SOOC (Straight Out Of Camera) as it gets! Photoshop was only used to run our logo/resizing droplet. All images have their EXIF info intact and were taken from this past weekend’s wedding so there’s no cherry picking from a billion weddings either. The funky ambient light is brought to you by a mixture of tungsten and sodium vapor overhead lights.

If you’re still here, you must be either (a) a photographer interested in bettering your lighting craft, (b) crazy or (c) both.

Welcome to my world and thanks for joining me in the Crazy Photographer category! 🙂 Now let’s get down to bizness …

Lighting with style: 5 Reasons to use off-camera Flash at Receptions:


with flash:


5. Variety in imagery. Adding flash to your arsenal allows you to create more variety in your coverage. I want to note that more variety doesn’t mean adding light for the sake of it in the same way it wouldn’t mean giving your clients duplicate images to look at for the sake of upping the numbers. No two situations will be alike, so really assessing your surroundings and adding the right amount, color and quality of light to balance the room is key to making great lit imagery. Moment, composition and expression are as important as ever if your image is going to have impact.

4. Add Drama & Focus. Most receptions we shoot are dim and quite flatly lit or, worse, lit with mixed light sources. Yes: I’ve seen and shot some amazingly lit venues, but those are few and far between, and even in these scenes I’ll often choose to add flash to mold and move your eye to where I want it. Think of well-placed off-camera flashes as in-camera dodge and burn: use your flash to dodge and guide your viewer. Another great side effect: slightly underexposing ambient and accenting with flash can help minimize distracting backgrounds, people and clutter.



with flash:


3. Uncle Bob can’t see (or use) your light. We’ve shot weddings where a guest pulled out the latest DSLR with an 85 f1.2 and another with a 300 f2.8. Serious lens-envy material! No matter how good the camera and glass, Uncle Bob can’t vision what you’re doing with your flashes. Being able to surprise your clients with imagery they literally couldn’t see with their own eyes is one of the most gratifying parts of the job. For us, judicious use of off-camera flash has become an essential tool to this end.

2. No post-processing needed (or “Look Ma: No hands!”). There’s nothing quite like the feeling when you nail a great image straight out of camera. It’s like that feeling when you hit your best golf stroke or perform that perfect solo on the keys (not that I’d know what either of these feels like … heh heh). While I’m a believer in finishing images in post with Lightroom and Photoshop, all images in this post had absolutely *no* post-processing applied to show that adding the right flash-light to your shooting workflow can take hours off your post-shoot time in front of your computer.



with flash:


1. Because other’s don’t. There’s lots of reasons *not* to use flash: ” My camera shoots at ISO 2000000!” “My pics are good enough without it.” Or, to be honest, many may say, “It’s too much work” or “I don’t know how.” All these reasons make it easier for those who DO choose to push beyond their comfort zone and use off-camera flash to stand out from the pack. Thankfully with the great choices of tools and teachers we have in our industry there’s little stopping us from experimenting and getting comfy with off-camera flash.



with flash:


Our ultimate goal has always been to give our clients unique and better imagery than anyone else will or can. Of course we take the ambient-light shots, but why stop there? Take the time to learn your flash rig and you may be surprised to see what develops.


So now what? Through lots of hard work, testing, and trial and error, we’ve managed to tame our existing flashes to do our bidding. But I’m hoping that a flash company comes along and fills this niche of a super-low-light pro-flash, making it unnecessary for us to tape umpteen ND and warming gels in the quest to get just-the-right pop of flash. So what’s my ideal low-light flash? I’m glad you asked 🙂 Here’s my wishlist:

+ Runs off 2 or 4 AA batteries (lithium batteries ok if it doesn’t sacrifice recycle time and can keep the size down)

+ Small & light form factor with tilt/swivel zoom head

+ Manual power down to 6400ISO & f2 at 15″

+ Super-fast recycle time

+ Hotshoe/auto mode and 1/8″ miniphone sync-in

+ Bonus: wireless iTTL (Nikon) and/or eTTL (Canon) receiver

Pretty much a mini-SB900 or 580EXII would fit the bill. And, for any flash companies reading, just to sweeten the pot: I’ll even volunteer to test prototypes for FREE! 😀


Crafting light is a passion of mine, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Agree or disagree? What’s keeping you from lighting at weddings? Or, if you’re already lighting your receptions, I’d love to see what you’re doing too.

Cheers and happy flashing 🙂