X-Sync Files

There are a lot of people (including me) who are into off camera flash these days and everyone has an opinion about what works best. Of course none of this is really new because strobes and off-camera flash have been around for a long time. Most of us were not paying much attention to strobes or were caught up in buying the latest gear like camera bodies or fancy glass. It seems like lighting tends to take a back seat until we reach the point where we just can’t get by without it anymore or we have run out of other expensive toys to buy.

Learning to light with strobes is fun and can get you back on the path to photographic creativity and experimentation. Light is what photography is all about anyway and it’s great when you learn to control it to create interesting photographs. In the good old days many of us were wary of flash because the results were often not all that flattering. It’s hard to get past that “deer in the headlights” look combined with the hard shadows of a mugshot  outlining the subjects head on the wall behind them. I’m guessing a hand grenade could do just about as good of a job illuminating a persons face as hard light shining straight ahead.

The first flash I ever bought was a fairly simple one that sat on the camera hotshoe and pointed straight ahead, much like a telescopic sight on a rifle and just as deadly as far as getting a decent portrait of someone other than a corpse. The only way to make it any worse is to have a mirror or a plate glass window in the background so you can blind subject and photographer at the same time.

By the time I bought my second flash I thought I knew that I had things all figured out and bought a flash with a bounce (swivel) head that could be aimed at the ceiling above the subjects head at a fourty five degree angle so that the light was spread out and the shadow fell somewhere around the knees instead of directly behind the subject’s head. Sure enough, the light was one hundred percent better than the straight-ahead, right between the eyes approach. That was great but for some reason that flash still never got used very much except when there was no other way to get a proper exposure. I certainly never used it very often outside where it could have been used to fill the dark shadows under people’s eyes. For some reason, I and a whole lot of other people had convinced ourselves that we were photographic purists and preferred to shoot everything with “natural” light. Does anyone remember the term, “cop-out?” Oh yeah, we were purist all right – purists without a clue.

Way back then my favorite way to take a portrait of someone was to put them next to a north facing window and to take photographs of them lighted from the side. I even knew enough at that time to use a reflector to fill the shadows on the opposite (shadow) side. A lot of those photos turned out really well but that technique got boring after a time (it was a small house). I could have gotten really sick of making portraits that way if only I had been able to affort a sufficient quantity of film. Like I said, it was the good old days (of film cameras). I’m sort of embarassed when I think about how long it was before I even thought about using flash in a serious way. Sure I upgraded my camera when the old one finally died at the ripe old age of fifteen years after being dunked in the Pacific Ocean but I still didn’t give much thought to flash photography.

My new camera had a built in flash that promised something called “balanced fill flash.” That sounded like an improvement so my big old bounce flash got put away and was only brought out for kids concerts and church talent shows where I needed more power to go the distance from my seat to the stage. The camera with the built-in fill flash was finally retired because the back cover would not stay closed anymore without taping it shut which was fine by me but my next camera (used) which was a gift, had a better viewfinder and an interval timer on the back – and the back stayed closed all the time. No built in flash though, so that meant a little more occasional (random) use for the hotshoe (bounce) flash.

Fast forward to the Nikon D70 which was the first digital camera that I thought I could afford and that I also felt could produce images as good as the scans I was getting from my old 35 mm negatives and slides, not to mention that scanning film gets old real fast and I was already tired of that. The D70 has an onboard flash which was good because my old film camera (bounce) flash refused to work at all when I mounted it on the D70. Hmmpf…

The D70 has no PC sync terminal which means that a PC cable is not going to work without some sort of adaptor and I’m not fond of tripping over cords anyway. I finally got around to ordering one of those optical slave triggers from ebay to make the flash go off when I fired the tiny on-camera flash.  Finally after so many years I was using the flash off the camera and now I could move the flash all over the place.  Right or left, high or low, near or far…

Like I said in the beginning, the information was out there all along, it just took me four cameras and two decades to wake up to the possiblity of using a flash the way I had instinctively used window light so many years before. Time to go back and read up on how to use artificial lighting. Enter the internet…

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