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Tips for beginners: How to use Nikon's wireless flash system

Learn how to get started with off-camera flash using nothing more than your Nikon dSLR and an external speedlight.

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Nikon's wireless flash system is easy to use once you know where to look.

Known as Nikon's creative lighting system, the CLS lets you trigger flashes wirelessly using the camera's pop-up flash. It's ideal for photographers who want to experiment with off-camera flash without investing in radio triggers.

Don't worry if you're a Canon user, as there is a tutorial covering the same process for you right over here.

What you need

  • Nikon dSLR with wireless flash control built-in to the pop-up flash, also known as Commander mode. Models include D70/80/90, D7000/7100, D300/s, D600/610, D700 and D800/810
  • A compatible speedlight that can be set to remote mode. Models include SB-R200, SB-500, SB-600, SB-700, SB-800, SB-900, SB-910
  • A second speedlight (not essential if you only want to use one light)

Step one: Turn on your dSLR and choose one of the manual exposure modes (PASM). Press the Menu button. Find the Custom Setting Menu and within this, choose the Bracketing/Flash option.

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Now, scroll down until you see the Flash cntrl for built-in flash option. On the newer Nikon models this is usually option e3, but a full list of where to find this option within the menus of your Nikon dSLR can be found on this page.

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Select this and it will give you the following menu.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Choose Commander mode which will present you with many different options on the screen. Because the pop-up flash is being used to trigger the speedlight that is off-camera, it needs to be raised in order for the wireless system to work. You do get the option of including the output of the pop-up flash in your exposure which you can set on this screen. In this example we want to have the flash fire, but not be included in the final exposure, so in the Built-in flash option on the menu, change the option to the two dashes, or off.

Next, we have the option of using groups for different flashes. In this example we are only using the one speedlight, so leave everything as it is: that is, Group A and B on TTL.

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TTL stands for 'Through The Lens', which is Nikon's way to measure the flash exposure during the actual exposure of the image. Keep it on this setting so the camera does all the work for you, until you are comfortable with controlling more options on the flash itself.

Make note of the channel that the camera is firing on. By default, this is set to channel 1. Make sure to press OK to save selections rather than going back through the menus.

Step two: Pop up the flash on your dSLR -- don't forget this step otherwise your wireless system won't work!

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Step three: Turn on the external flash unit and look for a remote option at the back. On models like the SB-910 (in the image below), you can find a switch that will say Remote. Select this option and make sure that the flash is set to TTL mode to match the camera, if applicable.

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On models like the SB-800, press and hold the Select button to bring up menu options. Scroll through the boxes until you find the master and remote options. Select Remote from the list and press the Select button again to confirm. Again, make sure it is set to the same channel as your dSLR, which in this example is channel 1.

Step four: Position the flash wherever you like, as long as the sensor at the front of the flash unit is within line of sight of the camera. Take photos and experiment with the configuration. You can even handhold the flash unit.

Step five: To add another flash to the system, simply set it to remote on the same channel in the same way we did in step three.

That's a basic introduction to using wireless flash with Nikon dSLRs. There are plenty more options to play with, including setting firing groups and ratios, which will be covered in a future tutorial.