I occasionally do workshops, some of them on lighting. All of the rage these days are workshops, websites, and photographers extolling the virtues and showing people what you can do with small strobes. In otherwords "hot shoe" strobes. I thought that I would share a couple of thoughts on the subject of small strobes.
A couple of disclaimers first. Yes I use small strobes on occasion, I always have. I happen to use Nikon SB800's and SB900's (two each) and I think that the Nikon CLS is superior to other camera makers systems in concept and sometimes in practice under very specific circumstances. The reality is it falls short in most practical situations and therefore is equivalent to other systems for the vast majority of reality. Personally I really don't get the popularity of small strobe sites, workshops, books, etc, etc over the last couple of years. This stuff has been done with "portable" flash units for decades, there is no magical digital newness that makes this easier or different than it ever was. Here are some of my thoughts.
Small flashes are almost useless without external battery packs, the recycle times, battery costs, and battery life times are crap. That brings up another point, small flash units are not cheap. The units themselves are hundreds of dollars, external battery packs are expensive, and you still need stands, modifiers, etc. The wireless systems are crap, they are line of site IR nonsense that I find highly unworkable in real world situations. The last thing that I want to worry about and fool with is whether my lights are going to fire. If you really want to be sure they will fire and you want placement flexibility you are probably going to want radio slaves (aka pocket wizards) also not cheap. As soon as you add these bye bye TTL metering and controlling output/ratios from the camera. Yea I know about the company that is converting the IR to radio and preserving the TTL but why? It is a kludge of a solution, adds a bunch more stuff to fail and debug and TTL really is not that useful for multi-light setups in the first place. It's okay for quick and dirty balanced fill flash when you are on the run, or for snapshot work, or for photojournalists (although really good PJs have always used off camera portable flash and most of them had no use for TTL auto balance anything, check out 90's National Geographic Images). The only thing it is really good for is light background dark foreground quick and dirty exposure "balancing".
Let me break it down for you. Let's say you have the time to set up a couple of lights, two for arguments sake, and to position them, and to push all the little buttons to put the lights in the right "groups" in Nikon CLS speak, and then set all of you camera menus correctly. I really don't care what the situation is. Indoors, outdoors, whatever. Let's even say you want to balance the strobes with ambient. Okay you are all set to go, none of that "happened" spur of the moment, split second. Now what's going to happen next? Are you going to put your subject in there or wait until they show up and then take one shot and that's it hoping every thing will turn out? If you do you may end up with a usable exposure given that the CLS system is pretty good but hey I could probably do the same thing by guessing at flast positions and ouput levels and the exposure setting for the camera without metering anything on manual everything. Maybe you can't but that's just because it maybe the first couple of times that you have done something like that. The reality is if you are setting up lights you are going to test it and make adjustments to positioning, power output, camera exposure, etc. Okay we can either do that via +/- TTL settings for the lights in the camera menus and see what happens because it is not even close to predictable, well I guess it is predictable and quite amazing that it works as well as it does but there are a million variables that will cause it to react differently shot to shot from your settings. OR… you can make the exact same adjustments not using TTL anything and have the lights do exactly what they did shot to shot with NO variation from what you told them to do while making adjustments to your setup. Where is the time savings? What is the upside? I really don't get it. Don't get me wrong I do use TTL flash, just not for anything remotely complicated or where I need to test and want shot to shot repeatability. Make's no sense. I am sure that there are occasions where things are changing so fast that you just need to get the shot but again wouldn't your lighting angles and positioning be changing to?
Returning back to power for a second. As soon as you start to diffuse the light with boxes, light panels, silks whatever you are going to lose a bunch of light coming out of the strobe. With the little puny guys this is no big deal if you are inside and shooting with a camera that you can bump the ISO up a bit but it's a whole different story outdoors. You need more stands, worse more flash units in a large number of circumstances. Like a lot more flash units. Don't misunderstand there is some cool stuff you can do, especially with the super duper strange flash mode on CLS that fires the flash for the entire shutter movement so that it can sync up to 1/8000 now you can under expose daylight by a couple of stops and make stuff that is really cool like the shots you see Joe McNally doing out in the desert in broad daylight. Oooops just one thing the power really goes down the tubes in that auto-fp mode so all you need to do is pickup like 13 SB900 units. Very economical but hey the DIY crowd eats this stuff up while discussing how to make a beauty dish out of a salad bowl for $1.23 (see why I don't get the craze).
So what are these little guys good for? For me, they are good for traveling really light and serving double duty - quick and dirty stuff as well as more carefully controlled stuff while traveling. You still are going to need some stands and modifiers and and and… but at least the stands can be crappier stands (smaller, lighter) and so will your lights but don't kid yourself, you will not save a lot of money and everything get magically easier by going with a couple hot shoe flashes rather than a bigger more powerful system. If you don't travel much for me it's a no brainer. I do mean travel, as in on a plane, not load up the car and go shoot somewhere.
If I were looking to do serious work on a realistic budget I would probably opt for some of the more traditional systems out there, there are a lot of options that balance power, portablity, cost, versatility far better than hot shoe units. I guess my point is don't get sucked in to some fantasy that a bunch of the latest $500 shoe mount flashes that happen to do wireless and TTL are going to be some sort of magic potion that will make great images automatically or even do anything a whole lot faster and more "automatically" than a more traditional/versatile system.
If portability and ability to run without wall outlets are a concern some of the traditional strobe manufacturers have introduced some fantastic solutions over the last few years that integrate very will with their existing systems.
Ps. For anyone interested the shot at the top was done with one SB800 in broad daylight/high noonish. Here it is with the flash in the same exact position everything set to TTL auto auto auto auto auto balance i-CameraMagical CLS. I was just goofing around on Memorial day having a conversation with and e-buddy and took a couple of example shots to explain something to him and this happens to be about 3 steps from my computer. I actually use the same technique with people in the scene when I have to shoot on ugly crappy days at ugly crappy times.