responsiveslider_lol_02 The Language of Light DVD - More
MeetJoe_02 Meet Joe McNally - More
inthebag What’s in the Bag? - More

One Small Flash, Very Far Away….

Oct 13

In Lighting at 2:24pm


Shot this the other week in Tampa, of our wonderful model Hope, doing her best Lady GaGa on stage in front of adoring fans. We occasionally end our days teaching lighting for Kelby Seminars this way. One little light, way far away.

Been playing with line of sight forever, and am very involved in the beta versions of the coming Pocket Wizards for Nikon TTL. More on that soon, as the units evolve through testing phase.

But, right now, I am content to mess around, sometimes surprisingly, with how far I can trigger a light. This light is an SB900, zoomed to 200mm, at the back of the auditorium, probably 70′ from the stage. 1/250th at f2.8, ISO 400. The folks in the audience stood up and went gaga (ouch!) for Hope.

Which of course blocked my hot shoe flash commander from seeing the light in the back. D’oh! (I swear, sometimes I am Homer Simpson with a camera.) Drew and an SC29 cord to the rescue! He held the light up off camera and got the light to trigger. You can tell he’s doing that, cuz the cord shadow is right there on the seamless, in the lower left:-)

Okay, indoor trigger, controlled environment–doable. Outdoors, another story. Tried an experiment of late at the New Hampshire version of DLWS. The bridge must have been (being conservative here) 150′ away. Proceeding on the premise that the Lord looks after a fool, we first tried with Kevin Dobler holding an SB900, and me trying to trigger from the bridge with an SU800. Didn’t work, which figures, ’cause there is an IR shield on that unit, which has to sap the optical signal over distance.


Then, Drew Gurian, and Mike Grippi, both from my studio got out there, and I tried triggering with a hot shoe mounted SB900, no dome diffuser, zoomed to 200mm, and still no go.


Here’s where it got interesting. It was pretty dim conditions, lots of rain and mist, and the TTL transmission was not working, line of sight, over that difference. When the light sensor panel on an SB900 is in TTL remote mode, it is looking for a specific frequency of light from the master unit. In other words, there is a specific language being exchanged, if you will, where the master unit pulses with a signal that is bundled with information for the remote. As we have said many times, kind of a morse code for flash.

So, I let things loose, and Drew set up the remote flash as an SU-4, non-TTL, manually slaving flash unit. Over the years, I have always been impressed with how sensitive this mode of triggering actually is. Set up in SU-4, the remote flash is simply reacting to any sudden increase or pulse of light, and not looking for a specific signal to direct it how to behave. I’ve had SU-4 flashes, for instance, triggered in NYC by an emergency vehicle passing by a block away. So, now my master is firing in straight up manual flash mode, full power, M 1/1, still zoomed to max, 200mm.


Voila! Ze flash, it fire! Of course, it’s a dumb as a post manual unit now, and not a “smart” flash, driven by TTL signals originating back at camera. To change the power settings, I have to shout to Drew. That didn’t work, ’cause we were so far away, over a rushing stream, so, by golly, AT&T actually stepped up to the plate, and I was able to call his cell. More power!


Now, the camera’s in manual mode, and the flash is in manual mode, and I am just playing that time honored background/foreground game. Grippi is zapped with the light, and the scene is muted via the combo of shutter speed/f-stop. But, here’s the thing. The flash is neutral–white light. Tends to not actually blend in with the forest scene, yeah? Little bright, little white. Calls attention to the not particularly artful use of the flash.


So, I threw a gel on the flash to warm it. A full CTO does two things simultaneously–warm the flash, and cut the power. Now the ruggged Grippi looks a bit more appropriate to the scene, even though he’s much more comfortable in Bushwick, Brooklyn, than the woods of New Hampshire.

But then, a strange thing happened. Manual SU-4 triggering mode stopped working. Just gave up. I speculate that the light level had picked up at that point, so the light sensor on the remote flash was not longer picking up a differentiation in the levels of light. My commander flash would pulse, and I’d get nothing on the remote. Hmmmm…..

On a whim and a prayer, I went back to TTL. Damned if it didn’t start working again, and very consistently. Full TTL control, from here to there.


Back to aperture priority mode. Minus two at the camera EV. Pretty straight up, power wise, on the flash. Cool! One reason this worked was, typically, a suggestion from Moose. I keep my plastic filter holders on my flashes, just as a matter of convenience. He told me to try the commander, sans the filter holder. Sure enough, I put the filter holder to my eye, and the plastic is not completely clear. Has a bit of a plastic haze to it. So, in the brightening of the day, from 150′ plus, we had TTL, aperture priority exposure control. Go figure.


All images made with the new Nikkor 28-300 zoom, which actually worked very well for this.

On another note,  if you’re on the other side of the world, be sure to check out our 2011 Asian Tour website, hosted by Louis Pang, our good friend, and great shooter based in Malaysia.  We’re running some amazing deals right now that end on Monday, so if you’re thinking about going, now’s the time to sign up…click here for more info.


more tk….

Barry Frankel says:

on October 13, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Great post! I am constantly battling with the line of sight thing in the bright Hawaiian sun and am anxiously waiting for your views on the PW radio toys.

“Been playing with line of sight forever, and am very involved in the beta versions of the coming Pocket Wizards for Nikon TTL. More on that soon, as the units evolve through testing phase.”

Thanks as always,

JerseyStyle Photography says:

on October 13, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Always informative, always inspiring. Going from GaGa to the train tracks. Talk about flexible! :-)

stephen says:

on October 13, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Good story. It’s always fun playing w/ CLS things.

Why the 28-300mm? Seems like there’s plenty of other lenses to go to for this shot.

ziserfan says:

on October 13, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Reading the new book now, definitely a beginners book…hopefully more adventure reading in the future.

Axel says:

on October 13, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Sometimes a picture just floors me. The girl on stage just did… stunning.

Eric Muetterties says:

on October 13, 2010 at 9:55 pm

Excellent blog post. You always trigger my brain cells to action again ☺

I will have to mess around with some of those concepts. I already carry a selection of cinema and correction gels thank to you. Don’t always get time at a wedding to think it through and add gels, like late afternoon…
…but I’m getting there.

Thanks again.

Wolfgang Lonien says:

on October 14, 2010 at 1:06 am

Hey Joe,

great on-stage and bridge photos! However, I was asking myself “Why no radio triggers?” when reading this. The better ones should easily reach some 100m (~300ft)…

Oh, and thanks again for our talk at Photokina, and for the photo you took of my brother!


Thomas Jessen says:

on October 14, 2010 at 2:00 am

Hi Joe
Great post (again) :-)

Why not just use PW consequently? Long range and stable connection? Yes – I know TTL won’t work, but in manual mode you get full control.

Best regards from Denmark

Heinz says:

on October 14, 2010 at 2:36 am

Hi Joe,

Great post that highlights a problem we all face in the field… the inability (or unwillingness) of Canon and Nikon to produce radio triggers. IR is made for studio, radio is made for outdoors.

I’m sure you wouldn’t have had the problems you had with the triggering using a PW/Radio popper setup.

Come on Joe, join the dark side (or actually the light side seeing as though the lights actually pop when using radio triggers 😉


Glyn Dewis says:

on October 14, 2010 at 2:57 am

Superb…talk about being tested…lol :)

To be honest I’m still stuck in manual mode for everything; really must give this TTL thing a go; you know …I think you may be on to something Joe :)


p4pictures says:

on October 14, 2010 at 5:34 am

Excellent post Joe, though I chip in from the Canon side to add that the trick of zooming the master/commander all the way and aim it at the remote flash is always the most important trick on the path to sucess. I’ve once had flashes working in daylight this way beyond the range of some cheap ebay radio triggers!

I do wish that when you set master on a Canon speedlite it didn’t always default to the widest zoom setting and hence the least distance for the e-ttl to work.

Tim Skipper says:

on October 14, 2010 at 6:17 am


I am always amazed at not just how you manage to get a flash to work without a wireless transmitter but how you manage to remember all the model numbers of the gear you use.

BTW in the last chapters of your new book. At first I thought the book was going to be strictly for newbies but the deeper I went the more I realized it was growing in its content. As usual its not the photography tips that is the most valuable but those golden phrases that relate to the working craft of photography that stands out.

Jay Mann says:

on October 14, 2010 at 7:09 am

So, if I can’t get my TTL to work, I just need a Drew and two cell phones. Does Adorama sell this as a kit?

Marnix de Lorm says:

on October 14, 2010 at 8:23 am

Hey Jo,

When are you doing the Africa tour? I see that you, Scott, David etc get to Dubai but how about sunny South Africa? We hosted the soccer world cup so I am sure we could rustle up a few models and a bridge or two :-)


zach says:

on October 14, 2010 at 12:11 pm

I was wondering, how do you control the remote flash level in Su-4 mode. I have always wondered that.

Søren Skarby says:

on October 14, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Hi Joe

Oh, the constant fight with the infrared controll. A month ago I found trigger heaven, “Radiopopper”. Use them and you have passed that bridge over troubled water (sorry). Im still trying to find the limit of those little things. So far I haven’t. Even reinforced concrete won’t stop my SB’s from going off anymore.

/Søren Skarby

Knoxville says:

on October 15, 2010 at 12:21 am

Thank you. I’m excited about the 28-300. about time for a decent replacement to the 28-200.

James says:

on October 16, 2010 at 8:45 pm

When I got to the last picture of the bridge I thought to myself….Hey I know that bridge….I’ve taken photos at that bridge…Come on Joe stop copying me!! 😉

Mike Criss says:

on October 17, 2010 at 10:20 am

Joe, love this post. I experiment with my off camera range all the time. In the link below, my wife is holding a Canon 580exII triggered with a STE2 on a Canon 5D mark II. Your book and blog have taught me a lot! Fun read too.
Blog Post: Using off camera flash

Daniel Mole says:

on October 17, 2010 at 6:23 pm


Great blog, first time stumbling across your site but it is really terrific, great images and great insight. Thanks for the posts.

April Francis says:

on October 24, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Your Lady Gaga shot is not believable in the slightest because you completely overlooked hiring a pro (and talented) wardrobe stylist.

Joe McNally says:

on October 24, 2010 at 9:17 pm

Hi April.actually we neglected to hire a wardrobe stylist at all:-)

Deb says:

on October 25, 2010 at 11:43 am

Thank you, thank you for taking us on your adventures! I love the information and technical expertise you share, but I especially enjoy your “Eureka!” moments and the honesty of the stuff that falls flat. You make me laugh and you inspire me to keep trying. I have learned so much reading your blog and your books. The lighting workshop in Houston was a hoot! Yee Haw! Thanks for expending the energy to teach.

Ron says:

on October 25, 2010 at 3:38 pm

I must say once again Mr. McNally has gone to the extreme with the flash.I look forward to reveiwing all his post and trying things out once again.Keep the post comming,they are very helpful.I as a photographer am glad you share your tips&videos with us all……Thanks again

Rishi says:

on November 17, 2010 at 5:24 am

Dear Joe,

When are you coming to India?



Amanda Berg says:

on July 27, 2011 at 12:18 am

Cool share, You have done a great job as your website is recommended by mobile and social media marketing shark Christian Dillstrom.

Leave a Reply