Creating an Ultra Portable Off-Camera Flash Kit

Creating an Ultra Portable Off-Camera Flash Kit

Mention off-camera flash and people often think about C-stands, flash heads, large octaboxes, and V-flats. Hardly what you would call portable. So how do go about assembling one?

Off-camera flash techniques are seen as a bit of a dark art in photography. The Darth Vader to your Luke Skywalker of beautifully soft golden hour natural light. Part of the reason for this is that we can see natural light and the effects of moving both the camera and subject relative to our light source. We simply wander around until we get something that we like. With strobes, by definition, we have a flashing light: short duration, but high intensity. Therein lies the problem as we can't see how our photo will look until after we've taken it. Gaining proficiency in using strobes requires patience and laborious practice.

Two new technologies are changing the way we work, or rather don't work, with strobes. Firstly, the high quantum efficiency (aka high ISO performance) of new sensors allows us to shoot in incredibly low light. Secondly, the development of continuous light, low power, LEDs is becoming transformational. However we're not there yet and, until that time, strobes remain the most powerful, portable, and cost effective method for artificial light.

Portable is perhaps a strange word to use when you think of large studio setups, however at their simplest strobes (or speedlites) are simply flashguns. The ubiquitous strobe is a svelte 20x8x5cm, weighing in at 350g, and coming with variable power, a rotating multi-angle head, diffuser, and bounce card. It's the Swiss-army knife of artificial light and eminently flexible.

How then, do we make a fully functioning, flexible, portable, lighting kit? The starting point is of course the flashgun with options ranging from Canon's 470EX-AI through to low cost alternatives from manufacturers such as Yongnuo (which I'm familiar with). In addition to the features mentioned above, other options include TTL Metering, high speed sync (HSS), and a radio transceiver. All of which are useful to have and, indeed, are available in most brands at most pricing levels. Starting simple, the Yongnuo YN560III will give you a manual flash for $55. Step up to the Canon EX600 for ~$600 and you get those extra features thrown in. There are many other brands out there (Metz, Phottix, Hahnel), so pay your money and take your choice. It's a good example of how low-cost Chinese manufacturers can deliver perfectly functional hardware at low cost. A great starting point, particularly if you get in to multi-strobe setups.

With a flashgun selected, the next step is to move it off-camera which means some way of "remotely" connecting to it. Traditionally, a cable with hot-shoe connectors can be used to move a flash away from the camera. This has largely been superseded by radio triggers, although there is still a place for cable operation (more on that later). The benefit of the Yongnuo YN560III is that it has a built-in radio transceiver, meaning you only need a fit a remote trigger to your camera in the form of the diminutive RF603.

The final jigsaw in our portable studio puzzle is diffusion for our strobe. As a bright point light source, it is harsh and unflattering, so we need some way of diffusing it. This is most easily achieved by using something in the environment already, such as a white ceiling or wall. By pointing the flash head at this you can bounce the light back on to your subject, so diffusing it. In the absence of natural diffusers you will need to provide your own and manufacturers have not been shy in producing a veritable cornucopia of choice when it comes to portability. The two stalwarts of any home studio are the softbox and shoot-through umbrella. Both are available as portable units in a range of sizes.

The softness of light is primarily controlled by the size of the light source relative to the subject. Whilst the sun is big, it is also a very long way away meaning the light is harsh. Conversely, the bigger your diffuser and the closer your strobe, the softer your light. This is a good basis on which to choose a diffuser. For example, dome diffusers will have a limited effect because they are so small.

Contrast this to the Lastolite Ezybox Speedlite and Rogue Flashbender both of which offer small, flat packing, diffusion reflectors. They are much bigger than the domes, but nowhere near as large as a studio softbox, however if you get in tight for a headshot then they can be soft, as Sesame Street's Bart shows below. Where you have a little more space (and it's not going to be windy!), then you will get good light from a packable shoot through umbrella. I currently use a telescoping 33" Phottix shoot through umbrella although other manufacturers offer similar options.

Earlier on I said I would return to the hot-shoe connector cable. These can be important when shooting at high shutter speeds (during daylight) as the latency of the radio triggers can lead to synchronization problems. Interchangeable lens cameras almost entirely use focal plane shutters which limit your sync speed to somewhere in the region of 1/200s. This isn't fast and the common solution is to use high speed sync. However if you switch to a camera with a leaf shutter then it is able to sync at much higher shutter speeds. This nicely ties back in to portable systems as fixed lens cameras (like the Sony RX100M2, Fuji X100F and Ricoh GRII) all use integrated leaf shutters. As long as they have a hot shoe then you can remotely trigger your flash.

All of this means that a travel portrait kit with external flash can be compact. Very compact. The leaf-shutter sporting Sony RX100MII has a hot shoe, which means I can get the a flash off-camera using a suitable cable (in this instance a Yongnuo OC-E3). At the ultra-small end of the speedlite spectrum is the Meike MK320 with an optimistic guide number of 32 and TTL metering.

Minamalist off-camera lighting. A Sony RX100MII, Meike MK320 and cable.

To read more about off-camera lighting David Hobby, aka The Strobist, hosts the excellent Lighting 101, 102 and 103 courses which make for brilliant, well informed, reading going from first principles using the simplest of kit. Do you have any recommendations for ultra portable lighting kit?

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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"Therein lies the problem as we can't see how our photo will look until after we've taken it. Gaining proficiency in using strobes requires patience and laborious practice."

I think this is a bit of an overstatement. With the use of a flash meter you can pretty much know what it's going to look like before taking the photo. With not much experience, you can get to where you can get pretty close without a meter.

As far as the "laborious practice" part, I think that is mostly a myth that, perhaps, dissuades many from jumping into the OCF arena; it scares them off. It's amazing what a couple hours on the Strobist website and experimenting with a flash can accomplish. Really, a single speedlight, stand, umbrella, the Strobist site, and a little free range experimentation will get you a long ways and it's not very laborious.

Plus something that I don't see mentioned very often is that by getting your head around controlling your OCF, you'll have a better understanding of using natural light; photography in general.

Experimenting with OCF can be quite rewarding AND enlightening (pun intended). I started several years ago with one low-cost Chinese flash and a pair of hotshoe triggers, mind you they had no special features, just ON/OFF. And now I have multiple TTL Speedlites, receivers, diffusers, modifiers, and light stands to fuel my passion for OCF setups.

For "ultra portability" I tend to side with one or two lights that fit inside my camera bag. I can place one light on a small Gorillapod and another on my camera tripod (if I'm shooting handheld). The ultra portable modifiers and diffusers that I use don't exceed 10" and can be mounted onto the flash head itself, so no need for a special griphead or mount. Throw in some gels that weight practically nothing and you have yourself even more modifying flexibility.

Nice article! You state you're currently using the Phottix shoot through umbrella. I'm curious how you're using it with the flash and keeping everything portable. Are you using a light stand bracket, mounting the flash and umbrella on that and holding it or are you also using a small light stand?

And out of curiosity, I have to ask, was the portrait at the top of this article shot with the setup you described? A Sony RX100M2, Photixx umbrella, and speedlight?

For the headline shot I didnt have the RX100 at the time and took this with my Nikon D700 and Yongnuo YN560III with RF603 trigger. Not as small but still eminently packable. The Phottix shoot through was on a Calumet MF6025 stand which packs to 40cm long!

Well it doesn't get much cheaper than my OCF setup. Using the inbuilt flash trigger on my 7D with my home handy-man contructed softbox and a 470EX. Carried the entire caboodle on my off-road motoribike (plus tent etc etc)

Hand-holding the flash just off-frame, I reckon gives a pretty damn fine result for a tight portrait.

Everything important about OCF I learned from David Hobby.

Dean Collins lighting video shows he attached some sort of flashlight to his strobe heads and used them as modelling lights. I am planning on getting the Godox AD200 but wish they had a modelling light with the bulb attachment. I guess I will have to look for a small led flashlight that I can attach to the AD200 head to have a rough idea where the light is hitting the subject.

Have a look at this. It is really for the AD360 but you might find away around that.

Interesting article. When shooting "light" (pun intended also), I use a Sundisc (bought through Kickstarter) that I mount on my flash. Works well for waist portraits. Not for whole body shoot though.