Steelevisions Blog Rotating Header Image

Flash Photography with an Off-Camera Shoe Cord: Film Festival

San Diego Burning Man Film Festival

The Hoop Unit performs in the lobby

In a previous post I wrote about shooting an indoor event in a dark warehouse with the Lumiquest 80/20 with on-camera flash.  Today we’re going to look at another option for event photography: using an Off Camera Shoe Cord to get the flash off the camera.

If you want to view the photos before reading about them, see the gallery here.

Last night I attended the San Diego Burning Man Film Festival at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.  You can always count on the Burning Man community to turn out in fanciful costumes that make great photos.

Since I knew I’d be holding the camera in one hand and the flash in the other hand all night, I chose my gear based on weight: the super-light Rebel 350D and the 430EX flash (each considerably lighter than carrying my heavier DSLR and 580EXII flash).  Unfortunately, my workhorse lens for indoor photography, the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS, is a monster, so the camera is still quite a brick to hand-hold all night.  Not to mention front-heavy as hell on the tiny Rebel body.  But these are the trade-offs we make.

Rebel with Canon OC-E3 Off Camera Shoe Cord

Rebel, 430EX, and Canon OC-E3 Off Camera Shoe Cord

I wanted to get the flash off the camera for reasons explained in my previous post.  Direct on-camera flash is flat and harsh, bouncing straight back along the lens axis to create glaring hot spots and boring light.   Last time I used the 80/20 to lift the flash about 15 inches above the lens and soften it, but it’s still on the vertical lens axis.  This time I attached the Canon OC-E3 shoe cord so that I could hold the flash outstretched in my left hand, taking it a few feet off the lens axis both horizontally and vertically. The light is now typically hitting my subject from an angle that varies between 20 and 45 degrees, depending on how far away I am.

This is a big improvement over on-axis light, but it still suffers from one terrible defect: It’s basically a point source, so it’s hard as hell and casts hard shadows.  The only solution is to put some kind of big diffuser on the flash. I considered putting the 80/20 on the flash head,  but I didn’t feel like carrying something that bulky around in a crowd in my left hand, like some high-tech fiddler crab with one monstrous claw.

The other solution to the hard shadows is to use two flashes: Put the 580EXII on the camera’s hot shoe, dialed down to a low power to fill in the shadows, and use it to wirelessly trigger a 430EX held in my left hand as the main light.  I’ve done that in the past, and this is a great setup when you have an assistant to hold the off-camera flash (this is how I shot this fashion show), but pretty damn exhausting when you’re holding everything yourself.  It’s bad enough one-handing the camera all night, but clamp a 580EX on top and a photo shoot becomes a grueling athletic event.

Regular flash

Normal flash sync in P mode

Slow-sync flash

Slow-sync in Aperture Priority mode

The other consideration (the eternal question for indoor flash photography) is what camera settings will get the best results.  I generally like to shoot in Aperture priority, and when you do that with a flash attached, the Canon cameras automatically go into slow-sync mode and drag the shutter to expose the background until it matches the flash-lit foreground subject.  This usually makes for nice light, and it produces nifty motion blur on dancers and performers in low light.  It also warms up the whole scene when you’re shooting in a room where the ambient light is tungsten, as it was in the museum last night.  For a comparison look at the two photos of the violinist here.  The one on the top was shot in Program mode which does NOT slow-sync.  The bottom one was shot Aperture priority, which drags the shutter using slow-sync.  Notice how much warmer the light is in the second shot, resulting from the longer shutter picking up ambient room light.

slow-sync flash

Slow-sync works best with lots of background light, to keep the exposure short

I do almost all my flash photography in slow-sync mode because the light is so much prettier than the stark, blasted look of basic flash with its hot foreground subject and black void background.  The downside (there is always a trade-off, right?) is that you get a lot of unusable photos because of motion blur during the shutter drag after the flash fires.   I came home with 250 photos, of which I kept 36.  That tells you something about the perils of slow-sync.   If I were hired to document an event by a lifestyle magazine that expects clear photos of every single face in attendance that night, I’d have to resort to boring flash, because I couldn’t afford to toss out the motion-blurred shots.  But since I’m doing this for my own amusement, and not answering to anyone, I feel free to create the light I want, even if it means a lot of the photos don’t come out usable.

If you want to really learn about the details of flash photography, including slow-sync, rear-curtain, and other fancy techniques, I cover all this in great detail in my course The Secrets of Successful Event Photography.

Links to equipment discussed in this post, at Amazon:
Canon OC-E3 Off Camera Shoe Cord
Or, the half-priced Chinese knock-off version that I use:
Opteka E-TTL / E-TTL II Off-Camera Flash Sync Cord
Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash for Canon Digital SLR Cameras

Be Sociable, Share!


  1. Rob says:

    I also like to use a Hakuba ball head bracket ( This lets you use two hands on the cam. I also use a Lumiquest mini-softbox diffuser ( This combo works great for what I use it for, namely insect macro, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t be great for portraits either 😀

  2. wouldn’t using flash to second curtain improve the kept rate?
    sync the flash image would be on top of the blur image from ambient lighting.

  3. Phil Steele says:

    Yes, in this situation second curtain sync is often a good strategy. It does help with the blur, but it also has the drawback of making it harder to time the right moment when getting action shots. For that reason I find it kind of a mixed blessing, sometimes helping sometimes hurting.

  4. Nice post. However, why don’t you shoot in full Manual? That way you can control the motion blur. Adjust the shutter to around 1/80-1/100 and you’re good to go.

  5. Phil Steele says:

    Hi Teshorn,
    Good question. If the light were steady and predictable all over the room, you’re right, full manual would give better control. However, when I’m moving fast in a room where the light changes a lot from shot to shot I find it easier to let the camera take care of judging the exposure. Especially when I have a camera in one hand and a flash in the other making it hard to change my camera settings on the fly.

  6. Dave says:

    I also have a 350D, and just today was taking birthday photos in AV mode. I bounced the flash and was using a small diffuser. I was not happy with the lighting, and swithed to manual to bring up the light level. Your article made me reread my manual, and I discovered I had AV flash set at 1/200. Changed it to auto, and can’t wait to see the difference! Thanks!

  7. Hi Phil,
    Your post is very help full for who capture shot with ambiance light. i also use off camera flash with infra red receiver. thanks for sharing this topic.

  8. Craig says:

    Hi Phil,

    I took up photography as a hobby two years ago and as such still have a lot to learn. I’ve been using AV mode on my Canon 50D with a speedlite flash and couldn’t figure out why 80% of my indoor shots were blurry. I didn’t realize that the camera was going into slow-sync mode. I just wish I’d read this a week ago before my nephew’s birthday party! Thanks for writing this article.

  9. admin says:

    Gald you got value from this. I had to learn this lesson the hard way also. Modern flashes are the hardest thing to learn in photography, way more complicated than the camera!

  10. Tim says:

    Is there any benefit to the shoe cord as opposed to a wireless flash trigger?

  11. Phil Steele says:

    Two big benefits of the shoe cord over a wireless trigger (1) it’s normally rock-solid and reliable, and (2) the shoe cord preserves all the TTL functionality, while most wireless triggers do not (they require manual power settings, not TTL metering). There are some newer TTL wireless triggers, but they are expensive I have yet to find one that is reliable with my Canon gear.

  12. Ric says:

    Phil, great photos as usual. I really like the spontaneity that you always seem to capture. OK, 36 out of 250, slight better than 10%. But you have such a vibrant 26! Great challenge for the rest of us (or at least I take as such). Thanks.

  13. RRCaniglia says:

    If one mounts a speed light on the camera, what kind/brand of diffuser would you recommend to mitigate the harshness of the naked flash? The Canon 580 EX II has a pull-out white card, but I am assuming it’s not sufficient.

  14. Phil Steele says:

    @RRC – My favoriate on-camera diffuser is the Lumiquest 80/20. I wrote about it in a previous post here:


  15. Amani opulukwa says:

    Hey steele,
    When you take this photo’s what’s your white balance set???? did you use Dial-up k? or you use shade/cloud/tungstun etc??
    I’ll appreciate for ur answer.

  16. Phil Steele says:

    Amani – White balance was probably on Auto, which is where I leave it most of the time (partly because I forget to change it, and partly because I can adjust it later in post). Phil

  17. Henry says:

    Hey Phil
    Very informative and helpful article as always.
    How about using the Gary Fong diffuser on camera and adjusting the the flash power with ttl to get some separation between subject and background. This has worked well for me indoors.


  18. admin says:

    Henry, yeah, any diffuser is better than none! If it’s on-camera you still have that issue of the light bouncing straight back along the lens axis, which is not ideal. If you’re talking about Fong’s Lightsphere (what some people call the photon torpedo) I avoid it because I’ve found it irritates other people by blasting light in all directions, including into the faces of innocent bystanders. I like the Lumiquest 80/20 better because it’s directional and doesn’t blind the people behind you.

  19. danny says:

    nice and beautiful shoots. very encouraging . i learn a lot from you as beginner. thanks a lot for updating me. :))

    Gbless you’..,


  20. LordRiqui says:

    Very nice pics. What picture style do you normally use when shooting people in events? Will be subscribing soon.

  21. Phil Steele says:

    LordRiqui, I usually shoot in RAW where Picture Style has no effect. And most of my cameras are older and don’t have the Picture Style function, so even when I’m using my 7D (which does) I never change it from the default setting, because I want my workflow to be consistent on all my cameras (and I’m sure I would forget to change it back later, because I’m an idiot that way). So I never touch it.

  22. Dave says:

    Hi Phil can you tell me if the Phottix Strato flash triggers work with the canon 1ds mk 1 camera in ettl mode??

  23. Phil Steele says:

    Dave, the Strato does not transmit TTL info, but it does have a TTL pass-through hot shoe on the transmitter, so you can mount a TTL flash on top of it. In theory you can then use that flash as a TTL master while you are using the Strato to trigger additional manual flashes. In practice, sometimes these kinds of mixed setups work and sometimes they are, um, quirky. If you want a fully TTL trigger the new Phottix Odin is amazing (and pretty expensive).

  24. Alan Milewczyk says:

    Only came across you on the net a few weeks ago and signed up immediately for your newsletter, as it looked interesting.

    I’ve been into photography for about 30 years, so I was weaned in the old manual days. Been digital for about the last 10, going from a Canon EOS300D to a 60D and shortly to a 7D. Now I’ve taken early retirement, I want to spend more time learning to produce better shots.

    I have to say that my flash results (Speedlight 430EX then a 580EXII) have tended to disappoint me, so this blog caught my eye. I couldn’t believe the difference in warmth by switching to Aperture Priority – I wish I’d had the benefit of this information a year ago when I did a photoshoot for a model friend!

    I can see I’m going to be doing a lot of reading, starting with your excellent tutorials. Thanks for such sterling work!

    All the best


  25. Phil Steele says:

    Alan, thanks for the kind words! I’m glad I could be of help to you. Comments like yours inspire me to do more.

  26. Michele Cardamone says:

    Your post is really informative. I understand how to work with natural light and how to work with strobes but working with a speed light still confuses me! I may have to take your 9 hour tutorial!

  27. Agent K. says:

    First off, thank you very much Mr. Steele for all the information you’re putting out here, much appreciated.

    I was just at an event last night (also Burning Man) and trying for the first time to get photos with my 550D, YN565 (the Chinese knockoff of the 580EX) and an E-TTL cord. Unfortunately the flash almost never fired which was super frustrating. My first thought was that auto focus wasn’t able to lock on in the low light, but for some reason I wasn’t getting pre-flashes.

    Hoping here that maybe you could shed some light on what I’m doing wrong.

    Thanks thanks!

  28. Phil Steele says:

    Agent K, you may be right about the low light not allowing a focus lock (I’m assuming that YN565 lacks the infrared focus assist that the 580EX has?) But I suppose it’s also possible that there was just a communication error between the camera and flash. Sometimes reseating the connector on the hot shoe will fix problems like that. I hope it’s not just an inherent weakness of the YN flash. Let me know if you resolve it, I’d like to know whether that flash is a good substitute for the real 580EX.

  29. dbltapp says:

    No mention of high speed sync to let you get faster shutter speeds?

  30. Phil Steele says:

    @dbltapp – Good question, HSS can be useful in certain circumstances and it’s supported by cords like the OC-E3. Problem is, most of the time at indoor night events, as mentioned in the article, I’m shooting in slow-sync mode to get a brighter background exposure. My lens is already as wide open as it can go, and I’m STILL having to drag the shutter to bring up that background light. If went up into shutter speeds that require HSS, my background would be totally black. So it’s usually not what I need in this kind of event photography. But in other situations (where the ambient light is bright) it can be a lifesaver.

  31. Guy says:

    I just recived my Strato TTL pass-through hot shoe and 2 recivers $99 on ebay. Waiting for my $45 10m ttl cord to arrive. Can’t wait to do some test shots. I will use it with my vivatar series 1 pro-648-can (on ttl w\cord). Off cam, w\wireless reciver vivatar 283(I have a power control for the 283) and 7D. Got the idea from you on your flash lesson. My vivatar 283 is 30 yrs. old and have all the attachments.

    Thax for your lessons

  32. Alok says:

    Thanks for sharing Phil. Recently started following you and love the tips and technical details. I have yet to buy a flash, and shoot low-light in high aperture settings – which means there is a LOT of throw away.

    Great advice on which scenarios to use a flash … I was wondering about that.

    Thanks again.


  33. Kenneth O'Daniel says:

    I bought the Flash Tigger Yongnuo YN-622 – About $85 through Amazon. It is wireless with TTL and it works great with my Canon 40D, better than using a cord. I am using a Canon 40D with a Canon 550EX Flash. I am not a professional but the flash trigger and the Fong lightsphere work great. The lightsphere is very heavy but it leads to great results.

  34. salsaguy says:

    I highly recommend the Phottix Mitros+ flash with built in transceiver and the Phottix Odin TCU controller. Great wireless flash/trigger for Canon. You can do everything. I love mine.worth it and rock solid.

    Phil why not bounce flash of the walls to get a BIG light source??

    Check out the great articles by Niel Van Niekerk who is still master of on and off camera flash. He has some blog called Tangents with loads of free flash info advice and exampLes and has two online inexpensive classes on on camera and off camera flash over at the site.amazing teacher and info to improve your photos with flash.
    Can’t say more about his teachings….highly recommended.

  35. Phil Steele says:

    Salasaguy, to answer your question about why not bounce — in this room the ceiling was too high and the walls to far away. I agree with you on the Phottix Mitros, you will find reviews elsewhere on this blog. I also agree on Neil van Niekerk, and you will find my reviews of his books On Camera Flash and Off Camera Flash if you search on this blog. Highly recommended.

  36. Mark says:

    Hey Phil,

    I’m just learning how to use a hot shoe flash and find the results really amazing with my D7100 and SB700 flash. I’m interested in the shoe cord simply because of the pivot and rotation locks on the darn flash but I don’t really want to hold the camera in one hand and the flash in the other. Have you had heard of people modifying their flashes to remove those annoying locks or should I go for the shoe cord?

    Great article!!!



  37. Chrystos Minot says:

    I appreciate your style, both photographic, and your writing syntax and relaxed ‘mood’. Thank you!… I do a ton of landscape, nature, macros, some portraiture, (I’m working on a coffetable book of nature photos w inspirational quotes from extraordinary women from history… Do you know any superlative book printers?) … & now feel I am moving osmotically toward including street photography & event shooting – scary & fun!….. Thanks again, Phil! 🙂 Warmly, Chrystos Minot

  38. Phil Olenick says:

    Like you, I’ve used the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS as been my workhorse low light lens for many years, from my Rebel XTi to my current EOS 80D, but my just-purchased EF Tamron 45mm f/1.8 VC (synon “IS”) may displace it, since it’s not only a full stop faster but much lighter, while still image-stabilized.

    I was thinking of getting a Canon “nifty-fifty” but the interactive blur charts at disabused me of that idea. Canon’s f/1.8 and f/1.4 50mm lenses are grotesquely-blurred outside of the center of the frame until stopped down to f/2.8 or so, while the Tamron is as good wide open at f/1.8 as the 17-55 even wide open at f/2.8 – both are sharp corner-to-corner.

    The $1,300 Canon f/1.2L, when stopped down to f/2 is as good as the $300 Tamron at f/2, but the L lens is terribly blurred outside the center of the frame at f/1.4 and f/1.2.

    And *none* of Canon’s 50mm lenses have image stabilization. Tamron uses the Nikon label “VC” since they sell this lens for both lines of camera, but VC and IS mean the same thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Google Profile