Strobe Light Basics For Real Estate Photographers

February 6th, 2009

Because Scott Hargis’s post back in 2007 is so popular and it only mentions Cactus strobe triggers I want talk more triggering multiple strobes.

In the context of shooting real estate there are three practical alternatives for triggering multiple strobes. See this video for a good summary of strobe lighting basics:

  1. Camera manufacturer’s triggering systems (CLS or E-TTL). The downside with this technique is these systems don’t work well through walls or around corners, a situation frequently encountered in real estate shooting.
  2. Radio Triggering with Cactus triggers , Radio poppers or Pocket Wizards. Cactus triggers are inexpensive but fragile and somewhat error prone. Pocket Wizards are reliable but expensive. Radio poppers let you change remote strobe power from the camera and are in the same price range as Pocket Wizards.
  3. Optical slave triggering. This technique is effective and inexpensive but only usable with some strobes.

To me, Optical slave triggering is the most attractive because it is so simple, reliable and easy to use. I didn’t  realize how simple and effective it was until I saw Scott Hargis and Thomas Grubba use it in their lighting workshop in Seattle last year. If you use strobes with built-in optical triggers there is no extra triggering gear, no extra batteries to die. Everything you need and nothing you don’t! Everything to do the triggering is in the strobe unit. Here is a list of popular strobes that have built-in optical triggers:

  1. Nikon SB-26 – Available on e-bay, etc. for around $75-$100USD.
  2. Nikon SB-80dx – Available on e-bay, etc. for around $100-$130USD
  3. Nikon SB-800– Available retail for around $300 USD
  4. Vivitar 285HV + Wein “peanut” optical slave– Available retail for about $110. Optical slave is not really built in but adding the optical trigger is so simple it might as well be.

The way the optical triggering setup works is as follows:

  • Strobe power levels are set manually… walking around to each strobe.
  • Light from an on-camera strobe triggers all remote strobes.
  • Strobes can be placed around corners by using a strobe, or two to relaying light around the corner.

For those of you that havn’t  already discovered, check it out for continuing insight on the subject of using of multiple off-camera strobes.

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6 Responses to “Strobe Light Basics For Real Estate Photographers”

  • Before I took the lighting workshop in Santa Clarita, I had already purchased 4 pocket wizards to use with 3 Canon flashes (580exII, 430ex and 540ez). When I saw how sensitive the optical slaves were on the sb-80dx’s, I purchased two of them. The optical slaves on the Nikon units are just amazing. I now use all five flashes in various combinations, and rarely have to worry about whether the SB-80’s will fire….even when they are in another room.

  • Ooops….sorry about the previous post. I didn’t mean to send it anonymously.

  • There is rarely any need to use relay strobes to trigger opticals around corners. In extreme cases, when a light is placed very far away from any other flash (generally in the far corner of a distant room, or at the top of a staircase), or when a light is placed in a spot where it is receiving direct sunlight through a window, then relaying will solve the problem.

    But I emphasize that this is extraordinary — I have to use a relay about once a month or so.

  • Another great little slave flash that I almost never hear much about is the Morris Mini Slave Wide Plus – (no, I have nothing to do with the company). I shoot with a Canon 40D. I have a 580 EX II and a 430 EX that I use off camera in manual mode synced by a Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 (line of site only). Because the little Mini’s have a built in slave, they are great for lighting corners, small rooms that are off the room I am shooting, etc. I was lighting a kitchen in an empty home recently where I put a Mini in the sink to cast light onto the ceiling and creating a mood for the space.

    I wish my Canon flashes had built in slaves like the Nikon, still I get great results with the system I use. The Mini’s are less than $35, take two double AA Batteries (I use rechargeables) and they fit in your pocket as you go about shooting. They do not have any settings except on and off. They do, however, have a crystal (plastic) dome that screws off and you can put ND, color or other gels inside the dome to control the light. I find they are invaluable in my shooting style. It took me a little while to learn how and where to use them, yet the results are great. I often find that I can light a room with a main light off to the right or left and use a Mini in my hand to fill in the opposite side.

    If you do a search on Lighting with Morris Mini slaves, you can find a few post elsewhere that have some relevance to RE Photography.


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  • You may want to update this with the advent of the new ETTL Pocket Wizards.

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