One Thing: A fear of flash flirted with failure

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Around the DPReview offices, we geek out over the latest and greatest bits and bobs. In the last month, we’ve seen the launch of new cameras from virtually every manufacturer. In all the hoopla, it’s easy to celebrate the new and come away thinking that the only way to up your visuals is to invest in big new gear. Not always true.

Of course, anything, big or small, from tools and equipment to a book we’ve read or advice we’ve gotten, can have a huge impact on our skills. Often, however, it’s the small lessons and littlest gear investments that pay the highest dividends.

One Thing: Advice, tips and tricks from the DPReview editors

About this series:
Our team cuts through the noise to share the things that made the biggest impact on our work and what lessons you can bring into your own work.

Read the entire series here.

I made a huge leap in my visual progression when I learned to stop hating flash and discovered how to get the flash off-camera with a TTL shoe cord.

Learning to harness and control light is a game-changer in photography and video, but it took me a while to realize that. As a young intern at The Albuquerque Journal, my editor forced me to shoot everything with direct flash, and I came to loathe artificial light and flashes in non-studio settings.

During my internship, I’d practice using fill flash on bright sunny days. Here I was out hiking in the high noon sun and wanted to practice the Rembrandt triangle.

Photo by Shaminder Dulai

Flash was an aesthetic that threw away the natural world; there were ethical implications to altering the environment; was what I was doing observation or participation? I found every reason to hate everything about a hot-shoe-mounted flash. But then I discovered the off-camera flash cord.

Affordable, easy to use and compact enough to fit in any pack, the off-camera sync cord completely changed how I approached photography. Having directional control of light, powering the light down to give it just a kiss on the eyes and cheekbones, and positioning it where I needed far away from the hot shoe, opened up new creative freedoms and provided new decisions to make in how to approach every assignment.

Light is a powerful storytelling tool. The difference between a good image and a great image often comes down to how light is used to create a mood, atmosphere, framing, direction, contrast, tension, juxtaposition and pretty much everything that goes into the craft.

Canon’s OC-E3. New cords are hard to come by, but used cords can be found for under $20 on the second-hand market. (Canon)

I leaned into the subtle changes, for instance, how using directional light allowed me to see my peers, other people of color, more accurately in images, with skin tones properly exposed and hints of catchlight to light up eyes.

Affordable, easy to use and compact enough to fit in any pack, the off-camera sync cord completely changed how I approached photography.

Today, there are many affordable wireless options, but if you’re just learning, have a limited budget and want to experiment with light to better learn how it works and how to control it, the wired option is a perfect low-cost addition to your kit.

Just take your cord in hand and start practicing. The best way to learn is to find a project to practice with.

For me back then, high-key lighting was just starting to come back into style, and I was looking for a way to spice up my weekly assignment to visit the animal shelter to photograph a pet to adopt. I cranked my flash up to just a third of a stop above the sunlight, brought in my bounce cards and turned the shelter assignment into a weekly opportunity to practice. I gave those critters a glow, and I’m proud to say that every cat and dog I photographed was adopted in under 12 hours. Sometimes a paper would land on doorsteps at 6:00 am, and by 10:00 am, someone would have adopted the dog or cat I photographed that week.

A set of PocketWizards and reflectors replaced the off-shoe cord by 2014 when I used some directional light to photograph Jane Goodall.

Shaminder Dulai for Newsweek

I eventually started photographing people with more expensive and fancier lights, but I never forgot my trusty corded option. Thanks to a 2-foot cord (the Canon OC-E3), I had gone from someone who hated flash to someone who learned how a touch of fill and a catchlight changes everything.

I was especially wrong to think that artificial light was ‘impure.’ The TTL cord helped me learn that if I challenged my assumptions, there was much more room to grow and more fun to be had in photography and video.

Thanks to a 2-foot cord (the Canon OC-E3) I had gone from someone who hated flash to someone who learned how a touch of fill and a catchlight changes everything.

Today I use a variety of PocketWizards, which have never let me down; I’ve been through a few generations and am currently using the PocketWizard Plus III, a model that has now been discontinued and replaced by the PocketWizard Plus IIIe. The new version promises longer range and more open channels, which should aid with greater reliability and avoid interference, but I haven’t tried it myself to confirm.

If they have a drawback, it’s the plastic shoe mount and lack of weather-sealing that gives me pause on assignments. I also don’t recommend them for someone just starting out or learning.

With some practice on the fundamentals and the rules of lighting, it becomes easier to experiment with and control light. For this project, I added motion to lighting and long shadows to recreate the mood of a dingy game of beer pong. (Shaminder Dulai)

A TTL shoe cord is much more affordable, and it has the added benefit of allowing you to check how position, distance and power change light in near real-time. The short cord means you can’t place it too far away and will most likely end up holding it out, away from your camera, but that’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Its limitations encourage play and experimenting, all in service to practicing and learning.

You may find that you love the simplicity and spontaneity of a corded option, or you may want to invest in more sophisticated lighting and continue to grow – or you may learn that you hate artificial lighting.

Now enough gear talk. Go make something cool!

Have you had an illuminating experience with flash in your photography? What did you learn? What do you love and hate about it? Let us know in the comments.