Magic Light Anytime

Make use of portable flash for shots that stand out

Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, Australia. Using a PocketWizard to trigger his flash remotely, Bill Hatcher hit this cyclist with some light to punch up the colors.

I think one of the most underutilized pieces of camera gear available to outdoor photographers is the portable flash. Those familiar with my photography are sometimes surprised to learn I use portable flash units extensively. It’s often subtle. I’ll add a catchlight in a person’s eye or create some fill light to lighten a shadow, but I’m not afraid to use the same flash as a broad stroke to illuminate the entire person. I love using flash because even a small one can do so much to improve the light and make colors pop on my subjects. Most people shy away from using a flash because, if not used carefully, the results can look horrendous. The problem starts when the unsuspecting photographer locks a flash to his or her camera and fires it at full power straight at the innocent subject. Used this way, the flash is about as subtle as a light bomb. It creates a photo style that’s popular with the paparazzi, but who wants their adventure buddies to look like Mel Gibson on a 2 a.m. bender?

A quick fix to ugly flash photography is to move the flash off the camera and set it to the TTL setting. (Canon calls it E-TTL and Nikon i-TTL; TTL stands for “through the lens.”) I use TTL flash because it allows me to shoot quickly, concentrate on my photo and not become mired in complex flash calculations. With TTL, if my flash is too bright, I just turn it down with the push of a button. (Read the instructions on your particular flash to find how you do this.)

Moving the flash off the camera and holding it to the side or above you toward the subject instantly creates natural-looking shadows that will greatly improve definition on your subject. This means no more ugly flat light and that harsh deer-caught-in-the-headlights look. This method of overhead lighting or sidelighting is the go-to pro technique for single-light flash photography used by fashion, portrait, skateboard and mountain bike photographers the world over, so it will work like a dream for your adventure photos.

The simplest way to use off-camera TTL flash is via the TTL flash cord, a coiled cord that connects the flash to the camera hot-shoe. It’s magic and fits easily into any camera bag. The flash cord allows you to hold the flash in one hand, from the side or above the subject, while shooting. These cords have a reach of about a meter, and you can also link a few together to attach the flash to a light stand.

To move the flash even farther from your camera using a long flash cord is old school. Step up to either a TTL optical infrared or a TTL flash radio trigger. These units are vastly more expensive than the simple cord, but they give you complete freedom for remote TTL flash. My portable flash, the Nikon SB-900, has the i-TTL optical trigger system built in and is called the Commander Mode. In Commander Mode, the flash on my camera can control my off-camera flash. Indoors the optical triggers work great, but outdoors they have their faults—they can be unreliable in bright sunshine, they require a line of sight to work, and their range is limited to about 70 feet. The latest TTL wireless radio units made by RadioPopper and PocketWizard solve these issues. These precious units translate the complex TTL optical signal of the Nikon or Canon flashes into a radio signal. They have a maximum range of around 300 feet and don’t require a line of sight to work. Non-TTL radio triggers are much cheaper, but require a handheld flash meter to calculate the correct flash settings.

A PocketWizard radio trigger is what I used to fire my off-camera flash in the mountain biking photo here. The location for this shoot is on a cliff edge above the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park north of Sydney, Australia. This is Sydney’s first mountain bike park. I used the flash because it was a gray, overcast day and I wanted the extra light to punch up the colors and help separate the rider from the background. I placed the flash almost in front of the rider so it created a sweeping sidelight across the subject. The flash was set on the ground and tilted upward a bit so the light wouldn’t illuminate the rock in front of the subject. My position when I made this photo was about seven feet away and above the rider using a 70-200mm zoom lens.

A cool bonus is that radio triggers also can be used to fire your camera’s shutter remotely. This opens all kinds of creative possibilities for remote camera use that I’ll dive into in a future column.

Bill Hatcher travels the world in search of adventure and good stories. A regular contributor to National Geographic and Outside, his images have appeared on the cover of 40 magazines. Visit his website at

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.