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Photography and magic and Nikon CLS

A friend of mine calls me up every week or so with a photography question. Usually, he’s looking for the magic incantation or editing technique that will make his photos turn out in a particular way. Sometimes there is such a thing (e.g. wait for the the flash to charge, use manual focus, etc.). But usually there isn’t. Usually, getting a particular effect in a photograph, either at the camera or in post-production, requires experience, artistry, experimentation, and work. And a lot of the stuff you learn on one photo can’t just be applied blindly to the next one. School portraits aside (ha!), every photo is different.


Today the question was: “Nikon CLS isn’t working well outdoors. What am I doing wrong?” The answer: “Nothing. It just doesn’t work as well outdoors as in. That’s why there are sync cords and the Pocket Wizard company is rolling in loot.”

Here’s why:

CLS allows your camera to talk wirelessly to external flashes through a series of light pulses generated by the main flash just before the exposure. It’s not radio. This means that, in general, the camera needs to have a clear line of sight to the flash. A direct line of sight isn’t that important indoors, however, because walls and furniture allow the pulses to bounce around the room and trigger the flash regardless of its orientation.

Outdoors (or in large indoor spaces) it’s a different story. With nothing to bounce off of, CLS absolutely requires an unobstructed direct line of sight. Without it, the remote flashes simply won’t fire.

On the SB600 and SB800 there is a small “eye” on one side of the flash. To work around this problem, rotate the flashes so that the eye is always pointing back towards the master. Of course, that only works if the camera isn’t moving around a lot.

In addition, it feels to me like CLS has a shorter effective range outdoors as well. Basically, I’m very careful when I use CLS outdoors (if I use it at all).

John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you’re interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.

  • Sandeep Thukral

    “…in general, the camera needs to have a clear line of sight to the camera.”

    IS that a typo?

  • Yep! That should read “clean line of sight to the flash.” Thanks, I’ve corrected it.

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