|Left: Strobies XS Bracket, pan reflector. Right: Photoflex umbrella holder + hot shoe mount|
Anybody who has a little experience with flash photography knows that on-camera flash – even with a modifier – rarely gives the best possible results.
This is why all Nikon DSLR's since the D2/D200 include a unique iTTL flash system called CLS, which allows you to remotely control off-camera flash units, be that a SB-600, SB-700, SB-800, SB-900/910 or any combination of CLS compatible flashes.
With the exception of the flagships (D1-D4 series) – which do not have a built-in flash – and the so-called Baby Nikons (including the D3000- and D5000 series), all models from the D200 onward also include the option to use the built-in flash to remotely trigger up to two groups of external flashes.
This so-called “Commander Mode” can be set in the flash menu > built-in flash > commander mode.
The commander mode menu has a sub-menu, allowing you to set different flash modes and control flash exposure compensation (FEC) for the built-in flash as well as the external flashes (TLL, manual, off and +/- 3 EV flash compensation).
There is also a “channel” option, which allows you to choose up to 4 communication channels with the external flash(es). To function properly, the camera and all external flashes must be set to the same channel.
Most people will not need this option, but it can be useful working alongside another photographer. By choosing different channels, you avoid that the flash signal from your camera fires the flashes of the other person.
Note that these options may differ from camera to camera; make sure you consult your manual for the correct settings.
The latest Nikon Speedlights – SB-700, 800 & 900/910 – with the exception of the SB-600, can be used as on-camera commanders too, while Nikon also offers the dedicated SU-800 unit to remotely trigger up to 3 groups of CLS compatible flashes.
Again with the exception of the SB-600, these flashes and most of the older ones (like my SB-80DX, for example) also work as “dumb slaves” in so-called SU-4 manual mode, which means that they fire a fixed amount of light whenever they detect another flash firing.
The older, pre-CLS flash units also react to commander mode, however, here we face a problem.
Because CLS uses a pre-flash to trigger compatible flashes, as opposed to D-TTL, which uses plain vanilla SU-4 mode and does not pre-flash, it often fires them early.
Interestingly, while my SB-80DX will not trigger properly at full power – M(anual) 1/1 –, it does generally synchronize right on the money from M 1/4 or M 1/8 downward (see header image).
In any case, a flash that does not work (properly) with CLS or as a dumb slave can still be used, providing you get yourself a radio trigger, which has the additional advantage that the flash unit does not need to be in the line of sight of the camera or other flashes, and can be remotely triggered from distances as far as 30 meters or more (depending on model).
Once you have successfully moved your flash off-camera, you are ready for the next step: so called “light modifiers”.
The cheapest way to start modifying or softening your light is with a light stand (from ± US$ 20 for a 240 cm model) an umbrella and an umbrella holder + hot shoe mount adapter. I have several of those, one from Photoflex (± US$ 30 on Amazon) and a few generics, which are even cheaper.
Umbrellas are equally cheap – starting at about US$ 25 for a white/black 30" bounce/shoot-through model – and come in many different shapes, sizes and colors. I like them reversible and/or shoot-through: white/black, silver/gold, blue/silver, silver/black, etc..
Sizes are typically 30, 45 and 60 inches (75, 112,5 and 150 cm. respectively).
|The el cheapo studio: gold umbrella+SB-700 @ iTTL to the left, white shoot-through+SB-80DX rim light @ M 1/8 to the right. Model: priceless.|
Now for the Cool Stuff: the Strobies XS bracket.
Even though cheap and transportable, the umbrella shoe mount clamp has its limitations. As the name aptly suggests, it only takes umbrellas.
But once you have worked with umbrellas for a while, you will inevitably start wondering what it would be like to have a nice, little soft-box, especially because the octagonal shape of an umbrella – although nice when reflected in eyes – can be quite disturbing on reflective still objects.
|The Strobies XS Bracket with SB-600 and 20x30" soft-box.|
For those unfamiliar with the term, a soft-box is a square or rectangular flash enclosure, used in the studio to soften the “hotspot” of the flash tube.
Soft-boxes are typically silver lined to optimize reflectiveness, come with an interior “baffle” or “scrim” which works as a diffuser and have a milky transparent front face to further spread and soften the light.
They create straight-lined reflections on things like bottles, glasses or other mirror-like objects, work very nicely to create soft gradients on semi- and non-reflective surfaces, and create expressive square- or rectangular reflections in eyes.
If you want to adapt your shoe mount flash for soft-boxes and other studio type uses, the Strobies XS bracket is an excellent choice.
It is a not particularly sexy, but solidly built hot-shoe flash adapter which goes for a mere US$ 47 at Amazon. I had to lay out another 90 bucks for DHL and taxes, but even for that amount I believe it to be worth every cent.
Its strong point is that you can mount soft-boxes up to a meter squared on it's standard Bowens three-pin S-bayonet.
It also takes umbrellas and many other studio accessories, such as barn doors, snoots, beauty dishes, pan reflectors, spherical diffusers and any other S-bayonet accessory that may fit your needs.
|FLTR: barn doors, snoot, beauty dish, pan reflector, spherical diffuser.
That said, do not get over-ambitious. Even the least powerful among studio flashes are at least twice as potent as most camera flashes – which typically render between 20-40 Ws. (Watt seconds) depending on model – which means that expecting a hot-shoe flash to fill out a 40x40" (100x100 cm.) soft-box might just be a little bit too much to ask.
I would suggest to go a bit smaller than that, because, according to a friend's experience, 30x30" (75x75 cm.) appears to be already a tad too large for the SB-900, Nikon’s second most powerful flash unit currently available.
Guide Numbers (m/ft @ 35 mm and ISO 100): SB-900/910: 34/111.5; SB-80DX/SB-800: 38/125; SB-700: 28/92; SB-600: 30/98.
For something less powerful you might definitely want to go smaller. I just got a 20x30" (50x75 cm.) model which works fine in combination with either the SB-700, SB-600 or the SB-80DX.
Amazon currently offers a Strobies XS-set including a 16x16" (40x40 cm.) soft-box, accommodating mid-range flash units that most people might consider quite “good enough”.
In my experience, flashes with a zoom head must be set to 24 mm or less to fill out the soft-box, even if they produce their maximum output in GN at larger focal ranges, due to a more concentrated beam.
The XS bracket includes a standard 7" (18 cm.) “spill-kill” pan reflector with S-bayonet, which can be used stand-alone, to direct light into an umbrella or to mount further accessories, such as barn doors, color filters, honey combs, etc.
One of the boons of the XS Bracket is the ability to rotate the hot-shoe mount in such a way that your flash's iTTL port is always in the line of sight of your triggering flash or infrared remote, like the Nikon SU-800 commander, for example.
In addition to the rotating hot-shoe, the bracket's second hot-shoe can take a radio receiver or a second flash unit, in case you would want to up the power when using an umbrella.
Using two flashes will not only effectively double output, but can also reduce recycling times while preserving batteries.
Both shoe-mounts come with a tightening screw and Arca-Swiss-type triangular clamps, which allows mounting virtually all camera flash shoes, including the thick(er) Nikon SB-900 shoe, which does not fit most other accessory shoe adapters.
The bracket includes an umbrella-holder with a dedicated tightening screw located on its tilt-swivel head, while the latter can be easily controlled by tightening or loosening its handle.
With a mounted pan reflector, tilt is about 35º down and 45º up, but with a fairly large soft-box you may find tilt-down quite limited, in which case a boom stand would be recommendable.
At US$ 45 a pop, I believe the Strobies XS to be a better investment than a standard umbrella shoe mount clamp, both because of it's solid build quality and extreme flexibility to take on virtually any standard Bowens S-bayonet light modifier, as well as umbrellas.
Verdict: I should have ordered two.
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