We continue our discussion on speedlights in the ‘Back to Basics‘ series. We explained what speedlights are and what to keep in mind when buying one in the two previous articles. We continue the speedlight series by looking into the multitude of ways how you can trigger a speedlight.
As you might have already noticed, your camera’s shutter and its curtains can operate very quickly (1/8000 of a second) or very slowly (30 seconds or more). Therefore, it is essential that your speedlight releases its burst of light at the exact moment when a picture is taken.
There are five ways you can trigger a speedlight in synchronisation with your exposure.
On the camera’s hotshoe
The first way, and probably the most obvious, is with a speedlight attached to your camera’s hot-shoe (see ‘What are speedlights and should I get one‘ for an explanation of hotshoes). The hotshoe acts as a direct communication channel with your speedlight providing such information as how much power should the speedlight release.
This way of triggering a speedlight is popular among photojournalists and event photographers. I would not recommend using a speedlight on a hotshoe if you plan on taking portrait or product photography because the light that hits your subject is very harsh, directional and not flattering. There are some ways to slightly correct such lighting technique, for example with a bouncing technique, but we will cover this in one of the future articles.
Therefore, the other four ways of triggering a speedlight are particularly important for those of you who want to take it off the camera for creative lighting effects.
The second way to trigger a speedlight is by using a camera’s built-in pop-up flash in a commander mode. Because your flash is off-camera and not connected to the hot-shoe, your camera needs some way to communicate with your flash. You can set your built-in pop-up flash to function as a communication tool with your speedlight. The pop-up flash will send short bursts of light telling your speedlight when to release flash.
You’ll have 2 options:  to use the pop-up flash to only trigger the speedlight (the light from the pop-up flash won’t be visible in a picture);  or to have the pop-up flash serving 2 functions – as a speedlight trigger and as a fill flash (the light from the pop-up flash will be visible in a picture). Not all cameras support using a pop-up flash in a commander mode, so make sure to check your camera’s manual for that.
The drawback of using a pop-up flash in a commander mode is that there cannot be any obstacles between your camera and the speedlight. Most speedlights have a built-in sensor for ‘seeing’ information transmitted from a pop-up flash. Therefore, the sensor has to see your camera in order to know when to release the flash of light. In addition, using a pop-up flash as a commander is also limited by the distance between your camera and the speedlight as well as by how bright it is when the photograph is taken. When it’s too bright, the speedlight might not be able to recognize the information from a pop-up flash.
Using another speedlight
The third way to trigger a speedlight is quite similar to the previous one but instead of using a pop-up flash to trigger an off-camera speedlight, you can use one speedlight on a hot-shoe (so-called a ‘master’ speedlight) to trigger a second speedlight that is off-camera (so-called a ‘slave’ speedlight).
4. Sync cord
You can also use a sync cord that goes from your camera to the speedlight. There is a variety of sync cords out there, including probably the oldest connection type called PC connection. For most modern speedlights, you can forget about the PC connection and you can get a hot-shoe to hot-shoe sync cord. One end of it attaches to your camera’s hot-shoe and the other to the speedlight’s hot-shoe connection.
As you can imagine, because there is a cord involved in this triggering type, there are 2 drawbacks. Firstly, the distance between your camera and the speedlight is limited by the length of the cord. Secondly, it’s very easy to knock down the speedlight or a camera by pulling a cord or running into it by coincidence (believe me, I’ve been there).
Radio and infrared triggers
Last but not least are radio and infrared triggers. Both of these go on your camera’s hot-shoe but only the latter need to ‘see’ your speedlight. Another difference between radio and infrared triggers is that you won’t need a receiver unit for the speedlight when using the infrared trigger.
Using a radio transmitter and a receiver is probably the most versatile way to trigger a speedlight. As the name says, it uses radio frequences and therefore the signal can travel long distances (often up to or over 100 m/328ft) and it passes through obstacles. Therefore, there is no need for a camera and a speedlight to be in the line of sight. We will talk more in detail about radio triggers in one of next articles.
Since you’re reading this article, I assume you’re only starting your adventure with speedlights or you want to start using a speedlight in a more creative way. Therefore, my recommendation is to take it slowly and experiment with the simplest and most affordable triggering type – use your camera’s built-in pop-up flash in a commander mode. This way you will become familiar with your speedlight and you will discover which other triggering type might be the best for you in the future. Keep in mind that even some point-and-shoot cameras, like Nikon Coolpix P7800, can trigger speedlights with their pop-up flash.
Konrad Dwojak is a professional conceptual and environmental portrait photographer. Originally from Poland, he now resides in Memphis, TN. www.konraddwojak.com