Figuring out a new flashgun

I was a bit extravagant on Friday. After much umming and aahing, I treated myself to a new flashgun, and have been playing with it ever since. I have a whole list of justifications for this purchase, which I could only just afford, but nevertheless feel a little guilty about it. Things are still a little up in the air part-time-job-wise, but I’m hoping to have that sorted soon.

Obviously I’m going to experiment and learn how to use it well, but after such an expense I think it’s doubly a duty to know it inside out. I’m keen to get an understanding of its Manual mode, but as it can interface with the camera’s exposure system I’d obviously like to figure that out too – fast-moving events and I’m not going to have time to manually set the power and zoom level. I know what the camera and flash can theoretically do together, but needed specifics.

Unfortunately, the instruction manual is dreadful. It tells me what all the buttons do, but has little information on how the flash deals with the various priority modes on the camera. It’s basic message is: “we’ll handle all the exposure stuff, don’t worry about it”. Which is no good. It continually refers to ‘foreground’ and ‘background’ without giving any indication of how the camera decides which is which. ‘Fill-in flash’ is mentioned as a possibility (and one of the features I most want to use), but how do I ensure the camera is in this mode? What happens when the camera is in aperture priority? This made me realise that I never really understood the small built-in flash as well as I should have, which in turn made me even more determined to make proper use of one that can bounce / swivel / zoom etc.. In search of help, I googled for a site I vaguely remembered.

The Photonotes.org three-part Canon EOS Flash guide turned out to be fantastic. It’s a comprehensive explanation of the various exposure systems, and has answered my every question. For example, the ‘foreground’ is the area around the active focus point, and the background everything else. Perfect.

The only remaining thing is to get it off the camera as I want to work through the Strobist lighting course, which requires an off-camera flash. I’d assumed a hotshoe extension cable would be cheap and easy to find, but I should have researched that more. Options are:

  • Jane and MegCable – Canon’s TTL sync cord. Means I can still use the camera’s exposure system. But £45. For a 60cm cable. So: rubbish.
  • Cable – Jessops TTL sync cord. Again I can still get easy exposures. £35, and 1.2m long. Maybe.
  • Cable – make your own PC connection. No exposure data so I’d have to do everything on manual, but that’d be good fun. I’d need two hotshoe adapters at £10 each but could then use any length PC cable I want. 5m would do it. Probably come to about £30. Definite possibility.
  • Wireless – Canon’s wireless-TTL setup. Transfers exposure data. Needs a £90 trigger and, I think, line of sight. Can’t justify that.
  • Wireless – “Pocket Wizards” – beloved of professional photographers, radio rather than optical, apparently 100% reliable, and £300. No exposure data. No chance.
  • Wireless – eBay radio triggers memorably described as ‘modified garage door openers’. Not completely reliable, but the new ‘V2’s are apparently Not Bad. No exposure data. But about £20. Possible.

I think I’ll go with the make-your-own connection. I’d want a good few metres, and there’s no way to do that including exposure data, which I can easily live without. The eBay triggers I may upgrade to at some point, once I’ve got some understanding of how off-camera flash works.

As it happened, some extra work unexpectedly turned up and took the edge off the expense. Still going to work hard, though. On the right is one of the first shots I took, of (my sister) Jane, (not actually being tortured) Meg and (due in 4 weeks but apparently already in position) vaguely-baby Guybrush/Bellatrix.