Introduction To Off-Camera Flash: Three Main Choices in Strobe Lighting

I'm often asked about the best way to get started with off-camera flash. The problem is, there's no single answer for everyone. There's a lot of different ways to accomplish the same end goal of getting that flash off the camera. In this video I'll break down the three main choices when choosing your method of strobe lighting.

Why off-camera flash? Illuminating our subject with strobes give us far more control over how a scene is going to look versus relying on ambient light. Having a flash attached to the camera limits the direction of that light, normally to the same direction our camera is facing. Sure, you can bounce a flash off the ceiling, off a wall, or off a piece of foam core, but you're still limited to some extent. And what if you're outside with no walls or ceilings? This is where strobe lighting really shines (rim shot).

Option 1: Speedlight

Small, portable, versatile battery powered units with a very short flash duration that can be adapted to work with various modifiers such as softboxes, umbrellas, and gels, or even ganged together to create larger light sources. Many of the modern units have integrated Through-The-Lens (TTL) technology allowing the camera and flash to communicate and automatically adjust the output power based on the camera's metering. The minimal power output and lack of a modeling light are the most limiting factors of these small flashes, although with today's high ISO capabilities of digital cameras, this is quickly becoming less of an issue.

Option 2: Monoblock

The big brother to speedlights, monoblocks are self contained, high power flash units which are slightly less portable due to the fact they require AC power to operate. This AC power requirement is also what makes them capable of 300ws-1200ws output. Easily adapted to large modifiers with the use of a speedring, the units have integrated stand mounts, modeling lights, and often times come with integrated radio slaves. Monoblocks are great for traveling/location photographers and can be placed across large sets, limited only by available AC power outlets.

Option 3: Power Pack/Head

The most powerful, but least portable option, is the power pack/flash head combo.  With power output typically in the 1200ws-4800ws range, these are most commonly used by studio photographers who want complete control over the light on set. Like monoblocks, these are easily outfitted with softboxes, umbrellas, and other modifiers. Generators (power packs) typically have 2-4 ports for connecting heads, which divide the power either symmetrically or asymmetrically, depending on the model. A 2400ws pack could be connected to 4 heads, distributing 600ws to each of the four heads. Packs generally have integrated radio triggers, optical triggers, modeling lights, and micro adjustments for power output. If a head it attached overhead or in hard to reach places, the power can still be controlled from the pack, whereas monoblocks typically have to be within reach to adjust its settings. Like monoblocks, the packs operate on AC power, but the most limiting factor is that each head must be tethered to the pack. This makes it more difficult to distribute lighting across a set from a single pack. 

Option 3.5: Battery Powered

Many manufacturers have recently introduced monobocks and generators which operate on battery power. While offering more portability, these rechargeable units provide the features and operational likeness of their AC powered counterparts, but are usually limited to 500ws-1200ws of power.