Smart Flash Outdoors
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, June 1996

The basic contents of my 14-pound standard camera bag rarely change. In recent years, I've added only one wholly new item. It's an innocuous-looking black box about the size of a cigarette pack called a Lite-Link and described by the manufacturer as a "wireless TTL slave sensor."

Attach this electronic Cinderella to any flash unit with a normal hot shoe from an old manual Vivitar 283 to the latest dedicated "smart flash" and the miracle is ready to happen. Through a simple stroke of genius, your wireless, off-camera unit has been elegantly transformed into a perfect clone of the master unit on your camera.

If you have a sophisticated on-camera smart flash with programmable exposure compensation settings that deliver seamless fill lighting in balance with natural daylight, your wireless remote is ready to dance to the same tune, even from 200 feet away. For example, I can trigger perfect fill on a distant subject from a remote flash with the programmable pop-up flash on my Nikon N70. What makes this so unique is the failure of camera manufacturers to solve the same problem.

Simplifying multiple flash has been a major bugaboo of the "smart flash" systems that began eight years ago with Nikon's SB-24 Speedlight. Like programming your VCR, having more than one flash work in unison used to require a precise procedure of manual settings that were beyond the gumption factor of most photographers. Multiple wireless flash usually involved pretesting with a flash meter after calculations of subject distance, film speed, aperture, and flash guide number.

Nikon attempted to solve this problem by putting a built-in slave unit into its SB-26 Speedlight. Although this feature sometimes comes in handy, it isn't workable in most nature photography situations. Nikon's approach appears to have been: "Let's build a studio slave unit into a flash and add whatever controls and instructions we need to allow the consumer to operate it in the field."

In the past, landscape photographers had good reason not to use flash at all. They not only lacked the time to mess with manual settings as the sun was rapidly setting during magic hour, but also saw that the majority of flash photographs in open landscapes called attention to themselves because of light fall-off that looked obviously unnatural. Only in situations where a foreground subject could be rendered at an even distance did on-camera or near-camera flash look credible. Warm light fill on a tree trunk four feet away could look great, but the same light on a meadow that spread from two feet to infinity looked ghastly.

Multiple remote flash won't solve the big meadow problem, but it can put believable accents of light exactly where you need them to call attention to plants, animals or people in darker parts of your image. Forests regularly deliver nightmare exposure problems, but also offer plenty of high positions out of the frame of an image in which to position a remote flash equipped with a wireless slave unit.

When the Nikon SB-26 first came out, I had great expectations that its integral slave unit would solve many of the hassles I had experienced in the past with remote flash. Although this unit remains my choice of an on-camera smart flash, I initially gave up trying to use its remote wireless function after spending hours in the field with the instruction manual. When I called Nikon for technical help, its answers confirmed my suspicions that the SB-26 as an internally slaved wireless remote for outdoor use became like Cinderella after midnight. The fancy trappings suddenly disappeared.

The unit will deliver proper auto-flash exposures, and then just in non-TTL mode, only when three conditions are met. First, the auto-flash sensor on the front of the unit needs to be aimed directly at the subject. Second, the slave unit mounted on the same side needs to be aimed toward the camera so that the on-camera flash will trigger it. Third, the unit needs to be placed outside the framing of the image in order not to show up in the photograph. The odds of having these three conditions coincide with the pictures I want to take in the natural world are no higher than those of getting three bars to line up on a slot machine.

To further complicate things, delay switches must be set so that the two flashes will not go off at the same time and confound the TTL exposure of the on-camera unit. This causes maximum flash synch speed to drop from 1/250th to 1/125th sec. on my F4 and N90, a very real problem in bright daylight where loss of a stop of shutter speed means having to set a higher aperture that may reduce working distance to arm's length.

I devised a very successful remote-flash photograph in bright natural light for a Nikon N70 ad by aiming a manually adjusted SB-26 in one hand while shooting a shadowed bristlecone pine limb within touching distance with the other. The weaker built-in flash on the N70 indeed triggered the fill light exactly where I wanted it, but if I had used a Lite-Link, I wouldn't have had to figure out all the settings and I could have worked from a greater distance.

Imagine having to photograph a spotted owl in mottled forest light. Its a calm bird habituated to photographers at about 30 feet and would stay put on a limb for the brief closer approach needed to position a remote flash. However, at the moment you near the flight distance of the owl, you might not have the time to manually set the power output for the subject distance.

With Ikelite's Lite-Link, you could quickly set down the flash on a small tripod and back up to shoot from 40 feet with a 500mm lens without flushing the bird. Each frame would have perfect fill without ever contemplating power settings.

Lite-Link synchronizes the output of a remote flash by a brilliantly simple technique. Ikelite created two separate slave channels, one to turn on the remote flash by light from the mother flash, and the other to turn it off when that light stops. Since the mother flash stops when the right amount of light has been metered through the lens, the cumulative amount of light put out by more than one unit is simultaneously metered and controlled. The light on the subject can come entirely from one unit or the other, from both or from any number of units with separate Lite-Links.

Exposures have been great. I've only gotten an incorrect exposure when I've exceeded the power of my remote flash by occasionally placing it too far away or when I've aimed it at a small part of the image area where the metering system won't render it properly. You can easily learn to predict how your particular metering system responds to these situations and to bracket flash exposures accordingly.

Lite-Link can be ordered directly from Ikelite Underwater Systems (317-923-4523) or from Tory Lepp Productions (800-528-0701). Remember that you might not need to purchase a new flash for your remote unit. Many old automatic flash units with hot-shoe mounts will synchonize with your state-of-the-art mother flash.

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