the Nuts and Bolts of off-camera flash – part 2, manual flash

note: this is the 2nd part in a 4 part series of articles – if you missed part 1, find it here

As we mentioned in part 1, manual flash is essentially a “dumb” flash mode- meaning that no flash metering is done by camera or strobe.  you simply adjust the power to whatever you want, and when the flash pops, it fires at that power, every time regardless.

now aside from the control and creative aspects of using manual flash, (for more on that check the strobist blog) one of the great things about it is that it gives you the greatest range of hardware to work with.  In essence, any strobe that has a manual setting will work with any camera capable of triggering a flash!  NOTE – one *large* caveat to this is that some older strobes use a high trigger voltage, which can fry the delicate electronics in newer digital cameras.  Just be careful if using old/used flashes and double check to make sure the voltage is safe for your camera.  This isn’t an issue with any current/modern strobes AFAIK.

Of course the downside to having such a wide variety of hardware to work with is that there is no real establish “standard” for hooking it all together!

So let’s take a step back for a moment.  Consider if you had a manual flash in your hotshoe, on camera.  How does it fire?  Well, as we discussed in part 1, to make it fire you just have to “close the circuit” in the “foot” to allow the capacitor to discharge, making the flash go pop.  So what happens when you push the shutter is that the camera sends a little pulse to the center pin in the hotshoe, which creates that circuit and allows the flash to fire.  Shutter clicks, flash goes pop, and voila – you got a flash exposure.   So now in order to do the same thing with the flash *off* camera we need some way of getting that same “FIRE” pulse from the camera to to the strobe when you click the shutter release.  That’s really it – all the various cables, pocketwizards, wireless trigger etc… are in essence doing the same, simple thing – providing a way of transferring the FIRE pulse from the camera to the strobe.

So – there are basically 2 ways of getting that trigger pulse from your camera to your off-camera strobe.   You can use a wire that physically carries the signal directly from camera to flash (as if it were sitting in your hotshoe)  or you can use some flavor of wireless transmitter, which “carries” the signal wirelessly.  As the simplest (and likely cheapest) option, let’s talk about wires (or sync cables) first.   Pretty straightforward – it’s just a piece of wire!  One end connects to your camera, one end to the flash.  You click the shutter, the signal goes down the wire, and the flash pops.  Of course it’s the whole “connecting to camera and flash” that becomes confusing, since there are several different physical connectors that can be used!

Although the good news is that since there is no “communication” through the cable (remember all it is doing is physically transferring the “FIRE” pulse from the camera) the connectors are practically, if not physically, interchangeable.  Meaning if you have connector X on camera and Y on flash, you simply need a cable with X on one end and Y on the other (or an adapter that converts X to Y)

The second piece of good news is that for all practical purposes, there are only 4 types of connectors you have to worry about.  They are the “PC” connector, the “Household” or “HH” connector, the 1/4″ monoplug and the 1/8″ miniplug (shown below)


The PC connector is the closest thing there is to a “standard” for sync cables.   Note this has nothing to do with “personal computer” it is simply the type of cable connector.   Some flashes have built-in PC ports for a PC cable to plug into, and some camera bodies do as well.  (pic shows the PC socket on a canon 580ex II) If you are lucky enough to have both a camera and flash with PC sockets – congratulations, simply get a PC cord, plug one end into the camera, one end into the flash and voila!  your (manual) flash is now connected just as if it were in the hotshoe.   Of course not all flashes and camera bodies have built in PC sockets, so what happens when we want to connect PC-socket-less cameras and strobes together?

Well, the camera still has a hotshoe and the flash still has a foot with that center “firing pin” in it, so we get ourselves some adapters.  One sits in the camera’s hotshoe, and one connects to the flash’s foot (a hotshoe adapter)   We can get these adaptors in various “flavors” with different connectors.  The most straightforward ones will simply have a PC socket.  So in essence you are simply adding a PC socket to your camera and flash via the hotshoe/foot.  Connect the 2 adaptors with a PC cable, just as you would with built-in sockets and again you’re good to go.  The fire pulse goes from the camera’s hotshoe, through the adapter, down the PC cable, through the adapter on the flash’s foot connects with the center pin, and pop goes the weasel! The beauty of this is that it will work with any camera/flash combination since it is just making the connection through the hotshoe (on camera side) and foot (on flash side).  The camera doesnt care what flash you are using – it just sends it’s pulse regardless, and you can stick any flash you want in the shoe adapter at the other end, and it will fire since it’s just getting it signal through the foot just as it would on camera.  Here are a couple of examples of hotshoe adapters with male PC and femae 1/4″ phono receivers:


Now personally I *hate* the PC standard.  Hate it, hate it, hate it.  I think the connectors are badly designed, fragile, and have a tendency to get damaged/bent out of shape or come loose at inopportune times.   I dunno, maybe it’s just me. PC is generally the “accepted standard” so, if you are just starting out, it’s probably easiest to go with, since it’s rather ubiquitous.

The Household connector (HH) is an alternative to the PC cable.  It functions exactly the same, except the physical connectors are different.  The HH cables actually use the same 2 prong connector as a standard US electrical cord.  I feel this is a much more robust and reliable connection personally, but I know that is arguable.   The cool thing about the HH standard is that you can use ordinary household extension cords to extend/split your cable if needed.   The downside to them is that there are no cameras or flashes (AFAIK) that have a HH port built in so you always need an adaptor on your flash’s foot and camera’s hotshoe to provide the necessary connector.  I personally have a nice little HH cable that has a built in adaptor that fits into my camera’s hotshoe on one end and a standard HH prong on the other end.  I slide the former onto my camera and plug the latter into an adaptor for my flashes foot and I’m good to go.  (see below)

So when it really comes down to it, all you have to do to fire *any* flash off camera with a sync cable is:

  • stick an adapter in your camera’s hotshoe
  • stick an adapter on your flash’s foot
  • connect the two with a cable.

The 1/8″ and 1/4″ connectors are generally used with wireless transmitters, so now lets talk a bit about wireless transmitters and manual flash.

The good news is that if you get the whole business with the adapters/cables this will be easy.  Wireless transmitters are accomplishing the exact same thing (getting the “fire” pulse from camera to flash) they just do it a bit differently.  There are a number of transmitters out there, the primary ones being the ubiquitious pocketwizards, along with the elichrom skyports and the so-called “ebay triggers”.  The thing is *they all do the exact same thing*  In essence there is no difference between the $200 pocketwizard and the $25 ebay trigger other than range reliablity (although that is a big difference – once you’ve torn your hair out after having 50% of your shots not fire due to a flakey ebay trigger, $200 will seem like a small price to pay for rock-solid reliablity) (16 channel ebay trigger shown: note the contact on the transmitter that connects to the center pin of the cameras hotshoe)

But I digress… in essence they way all wireless triggers work is that there is a transmitter that attaches to your camera and a recieciever that attaches to your flash.  Just as with a cable, when you click the trigger your camera still sends that “fire” pulse – only this time it goes into the wireless transmitter.  The transmitter says “aha, I see a “fire” pulse” and sends a RF (radiowave) signal to the reciever (attached to the flash).  The reciever gets this signal, and goes “aha, the transmitter told me that the camera just sent a “fire” pulse” and then the reciever generates it’s own pulse, which goes to the flash.  The flash pops, and bob’s your uncle…  (this all happens in milliseconds).

Of course the “gotcha” with the wireless is that just like a cable, they need some way of connecting to your strobe.  Generally the wireless transmitter (whether pocketwizard, skyport or ebay) sits directly in the hotshoe of your camera, and connects directly to the center pin, so there is generally nothing needed on that end.  The receiver, however needs to be connected to the flash somehow.  Fear not, though – it’s basically the same procedure as with a cable.  You simply need a short cable that goes from the wireless to either the PC port directly (if your flash has one) or a hotshoe adaptor with a PC port in it.   Pocketwizards and Skyports have a 1/8″miniplug connector (same as a normal headphone jack on a portable audio device), and actually come with a little 1/8″ to PC cord (meaning a 1/8″ miniplug on one and and a PC connector on the other – See below)  in that case all you need is a hotshoe adaptor for the flash foot that has a PC socket and you’re good to go.  I didn’t have a pocketwizard to illustrate, but the 16ch ebay transmitter happens to have the same socket as a PW, so just pretend it’s a pocketwizard in the picture!

The ebay triggers are slightly different – they come in 2 flavors, the 4 channel and the 16 channel.  The 4 channel have the advantage of actually having a hotshoe built in, so they attach straight to the flash foot, no cables required!  The 16 channel use a 1/4″ phono plug connector, but they also have a PC socket on the back (which tends to be kind of flakey) so you can either connect them to a hotshoe adapter with a pc socket (using a short PC cable) or you can get a hotshoe adaptor that takes a 1/4″ phono plug directly.  Best place I’ve found is www.flashzebra.com.  The guy who runs it, Lon, is a really fantastic guy and has pretty much any adapter you can think of for conecting cameras and strobes, particularly “specialty” ones like the 1/4″ phono hotshoe adapter for use with the 16 channel ebay triggers.  (direct link to product here).  Check it out for all your crazy flash-connecting needs.

16ch ebay receiver and hotshoe adapter with 1/4″ phono from flashzebra:

Anyway, that’s pretty much it – hope that clears up some of the confusion regarding hooking up strobes for manual flash!  Stay tuned for next time when we will talk about wireless TTL!

P.S.  I should also mention that there is a 3rd way to trigger a manual flash, namely “Optical slave mode”  Not all flashes have this capability but for those that do it basically means that the strobe will fire whenver it “sees” another flash with it’s optical sensor.  This can be useful for example if you fire one flash with a camera and have a second one in optical slave mode.  The second flash will “see” the flash from the first one and fire itself. The dowsides to this are 1) it will fire whenever it sees *any* flash so if there are other folks around using cameras with flash, they will be setting it off as well 2) it requires the strobe be able to “see” the burst of light from the first flash, so it becomes unreliable in bright sunlight and finally 3) it will not work in combination with wireless TTL flashes (more on that in part 3)

CONTINUE WITH PART 3 HERE

14 thoughts on “the Nuts and Bolts of off-camera flash – part 2, manual flash”

  1. HOW MANY STROBES CAN BE HARDWIRED?

    Ed,
    Thank you for sharing your expertise.

    Have you an opinion on the maximum number of hardwired (zip cord HH-to-PC connectors, etc.) strobes that can be triggered from a single camera?

    Will I melt my camera if I connect too many?

    I’m thinking about a project requiring 5 to 10 strobes.

    What do you think?

    First time post – great site!

    Sea Yawl

  2. thank you so much for this! I love Strobist…but I was so confused that I couldn’t even get past the lighting travel page. I just didn’t really understand. This helped out a lot. One question though, if the pocket wizard is on your camera, and you connect the pocket wizard to the flash with a short cord…how far can the flash be off the camera? If I’m reading it correctly, the pocket wizard connects to the camera, the receiver connects to the flash via a cable. Is this correct? Thanks!

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