How to Choose an Off-Camera Flash System

How to Choose an Off-Camera Flash System

I think that every photographer needs an off-camera flash system. Knowing how to use flash gives you an advantage when you need to control and shape the light. Before you buy that first flash, keep in mind that you're likely going to want to build up to using multiple flash and strobes.

That's why you want to get a flash system that works together, from your smallest flash up to your most powerful strobe. I'll tell you some of the problems I experience growing my own flash system, and hope that you can avoid some of the problems and expenses I incurred along the way.

Why You Need an Off-Camera Flash System

There are two kinds of photographers. Those who know how to use flash and those who don't. The latter call themselves “natural light photographers.”

That's cute.

I say that because all light is natural. There isn't any difference in light from the sun or the flash. Photons are photons.

The benefit you get from the sun is that it's ubiquitous. At least until it isn't. We start and end the day with glorious side-light. The sun peaks above us midday, providing what many people like to call “shitty light.” That means your window of beautiful light is in charge of your photo session, not you.

On top of that, weather plays a factor in using sun light. So does your roof. Relying upon sunlight isn't a bad thing, but it should constantly remind you who is in charge of the day – it's not you.

With flash, you can mimic the sun or any other style of light that you wish. You can do it inside or out, day or night. Light up your room, or just add a pop of light to your subject outside.

I'm not against sunlight for photographs, but I am against the lack of control that comes with relying solely upon sunlight. Whether you just need a kiss of light to enhance your subject or you have to light every single thing in your frame, understanding flash will help you solve problems and create better photographs.

What Do I Mean by “Flash System?”

In the simplest terms, a flash system is a group of lights that work using the same trigger. You should be able to control all of your flashes from your camera. They should use the same trigger – preferably a radio trigger – to create the light when and where you deem it necessary.

One of the problems I found was that my Nikon Flashes and my Elinchrom Strobes didn't work together. Each had it's own language, and worked independently of the other.

Yet there were times when I needed to combine the two types of lighting systems. The only method available to me was using slave mode – configuring the flash to fire at a pre-determined setting when it detected another flash.

The obvious problem with slave mode is that it requires a line of sight to detect a flash of light. Sometimes that meant the flash was in my photo, since I couldn't hide it out of sight.

Starting with Nikon Flash

The Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) system has the same problem. It uses line of sight to send signals from the controller to your off-camera flashes. CLS is a clever system and it works well over a greater distance than you would expect, as long as the flash could see the controller's pre-flash signal.

I had two problems with Nikon flashes:

  • They require line of sight
  • They're expensive – as are most camera-brand flashes

The last Nikon flash I bought was a SB-910. Nikon replaced that years ago with a radio enabled flash. Even out of date, this flash costs $574 on Amazon at the moment I write. It was over $600 when I bought it.

That's for one flash.

That price doesn't include the SD-9 high performance battery pack that I bought for $199, which helps the flash recycle faster. Add on the cost of a dozen rechargeable batteries to that and you have the full price of one flash system. No controller yet. You could either buy another flash or the Nikon SU-800 flash controller for another $250.

You're looking at spending a thousand dollars just to have one Nikon off-camera flash that you can't hide out of sight.

Moving Up to Elinchrom Strobe

What's the difference between a flash and strobe?

Not much. Both create a burst of white light. A flash is a weaker lighting source, usually battery operated, smaller and portable. A strobe is a more powerful light source. It's often limited to using electricity outlets for power, though some now use batteries. They're heavier and require lighting stands or C-stands for support.

I started with Elinchrom BRXi 500 watt lights and have three of them. Instead of using CLS, they use an Elinchrom Skyport radio trigger. That's a joy to use, since I can put the lights behind some V-flats to light a background without having line of sight. It prevents those background lights from leaking onto my subject.

Yet, there were still limitations.

My Elinchrom strobes required power, so they weren't useful on location outdoors. Also, they didn't communicate with my Nikon flashes. At best, I could only use Slave mode in a line of sight configuration.

For about $1600, I bought a kit with two BRXi strobes, a Skyport trigger, a couple of light stands, two really crappy soft boxes and a pretty rugged carrying case. Late, I bought a third BRXi used on eBay and invested in a number of Elinchrom softboxes – which I really love!

Powering my Strobes

I was convinced that I needed more power on location, which meant that I needed to find a way to power my Elinchrom strobes away from electrical outlets. The solution to that problem was a portable (which means luggable) battery from Innovatronix called the Tronix Explorer. They charged extra for the carrying bag, at roughly $400.

When not in use, this truck-sized battery had to receive constant power so it wouldn't go bad.

I had power and mobility, of a sort. Lugging all of this gear to locations could break your back. Yet I still couldn't work with my flashes and strobes together.

Getting Wireless Radio Control for My Nikon Flashes

PocketWizard is a company that makes radio triggers and receivers for cameras and flash. There was a time when it seemed every professional photographer used a PocketWizard radio trigger.

They were very reliable, but they didn't allow you to control your flash settings from the camera – at least not until the Mini/Flex units came out.

The PocketWizard FlexTT is a transceiver that sits on your camera. The MiniTT receivers attach to your flashes. There are brand specific versions, so the Nikon configured units won't work with Canon, etc.

The idea of buying these radio triggers was to send your Nikon CLS signals from camera to flash over radio. Now you can hide your flashes out of sight and trust that they will fire.

Also, it eliminated a problem with Nikon CLS. Sometimes they would fire if another flash went off. That caused problems for your power drain and recycle time. Try dealing with that issue at a wedding when many guests are also firing a flash and you're expected to get photos of key moments.

A MiniTT1/FlexTT5 kit with two two receivers and one transceiver goes for about $500 today.

On top of that, you also wanted to get the AC3 Zone Controller. This is the part that allows you to create zones of light, each with different configurations or power settings. It's about $67 dollars today.

You can see that going with radio was adding cost, but also adding flexibility, to my Nikon flash system. Yet it still didn't solve the problem of not working with my Elinchrom strobes.

Using Skyport Radio Triggers on Nikon Flashes

It turns out that Elinchrom made radio triggers for Nikon (and other) flashes that used its SkyPort radio system. It was expensive and convoluted with patch cables. Yet it worked reliably.

I bought a couple of these overpriced beauties and could finally fire my Nikon flashes and Elinchrom strobes in concert with each other.

Of course, there was still a downside. While the Skyport triggers could receive a signal an fire the Nikon flash, they could not control its output. I still had to walk over to each flash and set the power manually.

The SkyPort transceiver allowed me to control my Elinchrom strobe power settings from the camera. Overall, this seemed like the best and most flexible system I found at the time. Not perfect, but workable.

Why I Chose to Switch Completely to Flashpoint (Godox) Lighting

By this time, you can tell that I sunk a LOT of money into my off-camera flash and strobe lighting. Thousands of dollars just so I could control the light, and I don't regret it. At the time, those were my options and I had opportunities to create some beautiful light for my subjects.

Times change.

There are new opportunities available for photographers. Now you have vendors who can provide lighting systems that work together with options ranging from a small, on-camera flash up to a studio strobe. They're lighter, battery operated, less expensive, and they all work using the same radio trigger system.

You can find systems like these from Profoto, Photix or Flashpoint (Godox). The prices vary, but the quality is pretty good.

While many pros use Profoto, I went with Flashpoint/Godox lights. Primarily because they're within my budget, but also because it turns out that they are just as good as Profoto – in some cased even better.

While I think Profoto is an excellent lighting provider with a beautifully simplistic user interface, they're also expensive. I'm talking sell off your children expensive. Having already spent thousands of dollars on lights, I wasn't eager to spend that much more on Profoto just to have that name on the side of my lights.

Let me give you an example.

A Profoto A1X kit for Nikon includes a small flash and radio trigger for $1195. If you already have  Profoto studio strobes, then this will work with the same radio trigger system.

Yet it's just a small flash.

A comparable system with a Flashpoint V860ii and radio trigger is $225.

I used to spend over $600 for a Nikon flash that didn't even have batteries or a trigger. Now I can get this small flash, a Li-on battery and a radio trigger for less than HALF that price – the comparable Profoto flash is more than FIVE times the price.

Yet they do the same thing – put out a bright burst of light.

My Flashpoint System

The first Flashpoint flash that I bought was the eVOLV 200 (Godox AD200). It's an interesting device with more power than the typical on-camera flash, but not quite as much as a strobe.

Offering two or three times more power than a typical flash in a unit that's roughly the same size with faster recycle time and hundreds of full-power pops due to its Li-on battery was very attractive. You can't put it on you camera, but that's the worst place to put a flash in most cases.

I bought two of these for about $270 and they threw in a free radio transmitter. That's less than the cost of one Nikon SB-10 – a unit that isn't as powerful, doesn't include batteries or a trigger and still relies upon line of sight to trigger it.

Wow, things have changed.

My next Flashpoint unit was the XPLOR 600 Pro – a color stable, battery operated studio strobe for $899. Today it's down to $729. Compare that with a Profoto B1X at $2295. If you want to add the radio trigger (and you must in order to use it), the cost goes up to $2514.

They're both battery operated 500ws strobes. They're both very good. I'd say the case on the Profoto is a bit studier and the interface is cleaner. If that's worth the difference in price, then you won't go wrong with the Profoto.

Yet tests show that the output and color consistency of the Flashpoint XPLOR 600 Pro are actually comparable to the Profoto. For my money, the value with Flashpoint is very clear.

My Current Flashpoint Kit

Please know that some of the links below are affiliate links. These are items that I use and recommend. There's no extra cost to you, but I may receive a small commission if you buy something based upon my recommendation. Those commissions help us keep the blog running so we can keep sharing more info.

After the XPLOR 600 Pro came out, Flashpoint (and Godox) came out with some slightly less powered strobes – about .6 of a stop less power, but at a $649 price point. This seems like the best bang for the buck in strobe power, so I bought two of them.

That puts my current kit as such:

That current kit would cost me $2703.20 today at Adorama. Compare that to a single Profoto B1X with a radio trigger at $2514. The Flashpoint recycle time is a second faster than the Profoto, the color consistency is the same and I can change the mounting point on the Flashpoint strobes to accept Bowens, Elinchrom or Profoto light modifiers.

It's a great system at a great value for me.

Considering that I have two radio triggers in my kit, you could knock off $69 from that total. The Mark II transmitter just has a different user interface layout, but both do the same job.

It's a Golden Age for Flash Systems

Not everyone needs or wants the same flash system. I chose these pieces because of the flexibility they offer. Most of my flash work uses the Flashpoint eVOLV 200 flashes. They're light, easy to use, and often have sufficient power to do the job. It's easy to combine them to get the same power as a Flashpoint XPLOR 400 Pro, yet have the flexibility to split them apart when needed.

Profoto is a great system. Expensive, but great. If you use studios and need to rent gear rather than lugging your own strobes, you'll likely find Profoto gear available to use. If that's the system you like, the you can rent and use gear already that you already know how to use.

Also, Profoto has more powerful lighting solutions that work the same way. You may have more flexibility going with Profoto. For the average hobby photographer or portrait photography, I think you'll be fine with Flashpoint and you'll save a lot of money.

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