Getting your flash off camera

After reading my blog entry Why use flash? you might be wondering how to get your flash off of your camera and what it costs. I have some big studio strobes but I love to use the more portable hot-shoe style flashes. If you already own an on-camera flash you’re half way there. If you don’t have an on-camera flash you can get my new favorite small flash for less than $160. All you need after that is a way to put the flash where you want it and a way to trigger to it. For this blog entry I’ll be concentrating on some of the ways I get my flash positioned to achieve my signature photographic style.

There’s plenty of really great gear designed to get your flash in exactly the right place. You can spend thousands of dollars or you can spend very little. The super expensive solutions are sturdier, can handle more weight and often they solve very specific problems. On the less expensive side of the scale there’s some really good solutions including light stands (starting around $20) clamps (starting under $20) and simple plastic stands (starting under $10 but your flash might have come with one). For this blog entry I’ll show some examples of my favorites that I use when I go out on location and I’ll use one of my Lumopro LP-160’s as an example.

The least expensive solution I know of is the basic flash stand. Here’s a bunch of plastic stands for shoe-mount flashes:

These stands are designed to clip on to the bottom of a flash and they let you set your flash on a table, a shelf, on the floor or on any flat surface. Most flashes come with a stand like these but if yours didn’t include one you can buy them for under $10 from online companies like Flash Zebra. Some even have a threaded mounting location to connect the stand to a light stand or tripod. I have lots of very expensive flash mounting solutions but I still use stands like these from time to time when I need some fill light.

A number of years ago I met a staff photographer for the L.A Times who was photographing a design director at Ford. He was shooting the director in a dark projection room for a story and he used a simple stand like one of these to put his flash on a table in front of his subject and he got a killer shot. When I saw that it was good enough for a pro like that I knew it was good enough for me. The lesson I learned was that you don’t need to spend tons of money to put a flash where it can help your image. Sometimes the simplest solution really is the best solution.

Here’s my next flash mounting solution. This is a clip clamp and it’s a really inexpensive way to put your flash someplace unique.

I bought this clip clamp from Lumopro and it cost me less than $16. I used a male spigot ($4 from Flash Zebra but included with most umbrella brackets) and a cold shoe mount ($10 for a really good one from Lumopro) to create a complete flash clamp for $30. With this clip clamp I can mount a flash to shelves, doors, trees, fences and even light stands when I need multiple flashes on a single stand. I really like this clamp and I have 5 of them that I use for all sorts of things (including a lot of non-flash mounting situations). If you need more flexibility you can purchase a mini-ball head for less than $20 that will let you aim your flash with even more precision.

Here’s a really heavy duty clamp. This is a studio clamp and it is designed to let you mount to almost anything and be solid as a rock.

Studio clamps will mount to round surfaces, flat surfaces and just about anything. I’ve clamped onto doors, guard rails, chairs and all sorts of crazy things. I love using it with my Manfrotto Magic Arm. A basic studio clamp costs about $20 and it comes with a double stud. Here you can see my basic male stud with a cold shoe (combined $14) and the flat surface adapter (that’s the wedge shaped thing on the right). For less than $35 you can put a flash on almost anything and you don’t have to think twice about how solid it’s mounted. Here’s a look at it in action on a boom arm.

This is another clamp style that I own plenty of. It’s a super versatile way for me to mount my flash to almost anything. For $20 it’s been a life saver for me more than once.

Here’s a pretty standard accessory called an umbrella bracket. For about $20 this bracket lets you mount a flash to a light stand. With this bracket you can place your flash almost anywhere and adjust the angle to aim the flash exactly where you need light. Here’s an umbrella bracket on a light stand:

If you’re going to use a stand and an umbrella bracket you can expect to spend between $50 and $100 to give you the ultimate in flash positioning. As the name implies, an umbrella bracket includes mounting capabilities for umbrellas and soft boxes like the Westcott Apollo.  I have about a dozen umbrella brackets and lots of light stands in heights up to 13′.

You can buy a 6′ light stand for about $20 and they’ll get the job done. I prefer to use stands that are 8′ or taller to get the additional height. An 8′ light stand goes for about $30-$35 for a basic one. A great thing about standard duty 6′ to 8′ light stands is that they fold down to a very compact size letting you easily transport them out to a location shoot. For the ultimate in light stands I recommend looking into studio C-Stands (usually about $100-$200).

If you’re going to use a light stand I highly recommend getting some sand bags to keep them from tipping over (especially outside). An empty sand bag costs under $20 and it’s a life saver when you’re out on location. I bring at least 100lbs of sand bags to almost every shoot and I can’t imagine a shoot without them.

To get even more flexibility you can look into adding a boom arm. Boom arms are great for getting light out away from your subject or up high and pointing down (as a hair light, for example). Boom arms are great for lighting up a subject (or a group) when you want to use a wide angle lens (to include a lot of the background, for example).

There’s lots of great boom arm solutions out there but my new favorite is to use reflector holders designed to double as a light duty boom arm. Right now I have 5 Lumopro reflector holders and they go out on almost every shoot with me. They cost less than $45 and I think they’re great for using with small flashes. To keep things steady I use 3lb to 5lb counter-weights. Here’s a look at one of my reflector holder/boom arms on a light stand.

All of these different accessories help you to get your flash where you need it and that lets you create the specific image as envisioned. It’s important to note that I’m showing plenty of different options and some can get costly but you can certainly make due with the simple plastic stand that might have been included with your shoe-mount flash.

In an upcoming blog entry I’ll talk a bit about some of my favorite light modifiers.

3 thoughts on “Getting your flash off camera

  1. Fantastic write up of this very important aspect of flash photography. Getting the flash off the camera really opens up the creative possibilities!

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