*post originally published in 2017, updated with additional remote trigger information and gear recommendations for 2018
If you’ve never bought a flash unit before, looking at the variety out there and the sheer number of acronyms attached, you would be forgiven to be completely bamboozled by the choices. But fear not, we decode what’s out there and help you choose the best option for you.
But do you even need one?
What’s wrong with your pop up flash?
Oh, nothing much, only that it’s weak, only points forward at an unflattering angle, does not give you much of an opportunity to amend its strength and you can’t take it off the camera. Other than that – it’s grrrreat!
I’m exaggerating of course – it can have its uses but it’s also largely responsible for why people tend to think of flash as being the single worst thing that can happen to their photos. Of course if all you use IS the pop up flash and you use it on full auto, that’s not surprising at all.
But flash light can be SO MUCH BETTER – it can fix your existing light, amend it, supplement it, replace it and more! It can be a trusted and controllable friend, but you need to learn how to make it work for you. And yeah, you need a better flash than your little pop up thing.
And we’re here to help you with it.
What do you want from you detachable flash?
Pretty much the opposite of what your pop up gives you:
- you want to be able to point it not just at your subject but also elsewhere
- you want it to be powerful
- you want to be able to control its strength to suit your needs
- but you also want it to do auto
- finally, you want to be able to take it off the camera
So now that we have our shopping list, we can start decoding the options out there:
1. You want to be able to point it in various directions
Honestly, this is probably one of the most key characteristics of a good flash and light control in general. Your flashgun should have a swivel head which should allow you to point it all around. Discount straight away anything that is fixed, or only points up and down. Quite how much the head will tilt will depend on a model – I find it helpful to check youtube or manufacturers videos for specific models but the more it swivels, the better.
2. You want it to be powerful
Not all flashes are created equal. A quick glance at Wex Photographic reveals that for Nikon alone, you can buy a flashgun for £85 and one for £599. There are a few differences between them of course, and you actually don’t need to go for the higher ticket model, but one of the key differences will be the strength that your flash delivers. Because that translates into both the intensity of your light that you’ll have at your disposal, but also at its reach – the stronger your flash, the further the beam will be able to reach. This is measured in what we call “guide numbers”. Without going into the technical whys and wherefores – the higher the number, the stronger your flash. HOWEVER, unless you’re planning to be lighting up cathedrals – for simple portraits and smaller venue set ups, you don’t need to pay all that much attention to it. Most mid-market flashes from trusted manufacturers that also have other features we mention here have more than enough power to serve you well.
3. You want to be able to control its strength
So we just said that we want power from your flash, but you don’t always want it firing at full strength. In fact, most of the time you won’t need it at all. But you do want a way to control it and so you do need it to have manual controls that can help you get an absolute ( we’ll get to relative in a moment) control over your light output. As many other things related to the camera, this tends to be displayed to in fractions. So you can have full strength = 1, and then fractions of that output – 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64 etc Quite how far those fractions go will depend on your make and model. Some will only give you 4 options to choose from, some take it down to tiny fractions. For the sake of full control, I do go for a flash that gives me options that go up to 1/64th but it’s not always crucial.
4. But you also want it to do AUTO
Auto, otherwise known as TTL or iTTL or eTTL depending on what camera brand it is for is not to be sneered at. TTL means literally Through The Lens and relates to the fact that when your flash is connected to your camera it can read the light in front of you through that lens and adapt the strength required to give you a good exposure based on that reading. But it’s Auto, I hear you protest, why would I care about auto settings? Actually, you can still control those – much like exposure compensation on your camera, you can apply exposure compensation to your flash output and reduce or up it relative to what your camera believes to be the correct exposure. It means that if you’re not super confident with the level of flash you need, you can stay in the ball-park and tinker until you get the right result. Trust me , you want it.
5. You want to take it off your camera.
Once you start learning about flash, you realise that part of the fun and beauty of shooting with flash is the ability to take the flash OFF your camera and place it exactly where you want it to shine. It’s really not hard and in some cases you may not need any additional equipment at all.
There are two things you need in order to be able to do it: 1, quite mechanical, is a stand or a mount that you place your flash in. Often your flashgun will come with a little mount, on some occasions you might need to buy one ( simplest stands will set you back a whopping 2£ on amazon)
The second thing is the ability of your flash to still communicate with your camera, even if it’s not physically attached to it. Here again, your choices are multiple.
Sync cable is the simplest – but you need to be still close enough to your camera so the reach and creative options are limited. For that reason’I would’t recommend it.
Second option is already built into many flash guns and that’s an optical-pre flash system. It relies on your camera ( and its pop up flash) being within ‘line of sight’ of your ‘dismounted’ flash – before the camera takes a picture, it emits a few pre-flashes through its pop-up flash ( that don’t contribute to the final photo exposure) which are picked up by your flashgun and act like a trigger. Again, while it does’t require additional equipment, it’s not always practical. Not all cameras support it either.
The ONE accessory I would consider purchasing from the start is a wireless flash trigger. Investing in a wireless trigger / receiver is a better long term option and while the branded ones can cost £££, there are some really capable budget options from third party manufacturers such as Nissin or Yongnuo. We listed some recommendations below with our Flash recommendations.
Things to consider :
- manual or TTL – there are some very very cheap flash triggers (from £10 for a pair) which work well but require you to set your flash fully manually – they don’t communicate with your camera beyond the single impulse to set the flash off. Your flashgun in this set up is effectively blind to your camera and has to be set up manually. More expensive TTL triggers ensure full communication between your camera and your flash with your flash benefiting from the exposure information in your camera and capable of auto or semi-auto setings. We recommend those.
- trigger, receiver or both? – unless you have a flash already equipped with wireless radio capability ( and many of the newer flashes, including some budget brands are) – you will most likely need a trigger and receiver pair. One will go on your camera, the other on your flash. Think of them as walkie-talkies for your gear. If you have a flash with the radio built in, you will only need a trigger – for instance Nissin i700 will only need nissin trigger ( they even sell them as a combo). Similar with Yongnuo 600XE – you will only need one compatible Yongnuo trigger.
Other things you need to pay attention to:
You don’t need to buy a Canon flash for a Canon camera, but you do need to buy one compatible. Good third party makes include Nissin, Metz, Hahnel and on the more budget – but still pretty decent end – Yonguno. You’ll find many flashguns compatible with Nikon referred to as “Speedlights” and Canon – “Speedlites”. It’s just how they like to ‘differ’ from one another…
High Speed Sync:
All flashes limit the shutter speed you can set on your camera when you shoot with flash to about 1/200s. But some flashes have a setting – called High Speed Sync – which allows you to go faster than that. This can be very useful when using Flash outdoors so check if your flash is able to do it.
Recycle time is the time it takes your flash to ‘recharge’ itself to fire again after a few flash shots. Faster recycle times are better, but while they’re crucial to a wedding photographer who might not have second chances at certain shots, for mostly domestic use, don’t go too crazy about them
Snoots, domes, diffusers, gels, umbrellas – do you need them all? The answer is no. Some will certainly come in handy but not all at once. Learn how to use your flash first, then start using them to shape the light further. A lot can be DIYed as well.
So go, check out the options out there – there are great bargains to be found also on the second hand market. And if you need further advice – get in touch either here or via our Facebook
Suggested Flash models and brands (Oct 2018 update) :
- top of the line : SB 5000 ( approx £500 – unless you’re a pro, you most certainly don’t need it)
- great option : the now discontinued SB 910 or SB 900 ( discontinued means they’ve moved on to selling the newer model, not that there is something wrong with its predecessor! For the record I have sb-900 and love it! ) – buy them used from £115 on mpb.com)
- mid-range: SB 700 – ( approx £250)
- top of the line : Canon Speedlite 600EX II – approx £500 – (unless you’re a pro, you almost certainly don’t need it)
- Great choice : mid-range : Canon Speedlite 430EX III ( approx £200 ) or earlier model 430EX II (from £80 used via mpb.com)
Third Party – available in versions for both Canon, Nikon, Sony etc
- Nissin : Nissin i700 flashgun – also offered in a bundle with a remote commander via Wex ( bundle price approx £199)
- Yongnuo : Yongnuo Speedlite YN-600 EX II (approx £100 on amazon ) or Yongnuo YN568 EX II ( approx £70 on amazon ) – these are close clones of Canon’s 430EX II and III – great budget buys! Make sure you find a version for your camera brand – they have options for both canon, nikon and others.
Micro Four Thirds ( smaller, mirrorless cameras like Sony, Fuji or Olympus )
- Nissin di60, di40 or Nissin di700 – again, make sure you get one made for YOUR brand.
remote triggers / transceivers (TTL capable):
If you’re a pro and money is no object, go for own brand options:
- Nikon’s own: The Nikon SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander – approx £350
- Canon’s own: Canon ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter – approx £190
- PocketWizard TTL – from £250 per unit – you usually need a pair
If you’re not a pro, and you’re not envisaging shooting with off camera flash daily, go for third party options:
Third party ( compatible with multiple brands:
- Nissin Commander Air 1 and the Receiver Air R ( approx £100 for the set) – compatible with multiple brands of cameras and flashes – Nikon, Canon, Sony etc. If you buy a Nissin i700 flashgun, you only need the commander, reducing the overall cost – great value kit
- YONGNUO YN622C + YN622TX – a transmitter / receiver pair, compatible with multile brands. Cost of the set – approx £70 on amazon – great budget option – if you have a wireless enabled Yongnuo flashgun, you only need one trigger – halving the cost
Buying Second Hand:
Flashguns and accessories can often be found on second hand camera seller sites such as mpb.com or www.wexphotovideo.com/used/ and often in near mint condition as people buy them, realise they don’t know how to use them well and finally sell them after barely breaking them out of the packaging a few times. You can get really good quality gear for much smaller prices and as the sites still offer good warranty terms, you do so without risk.