Lighting often makes or breaks a photograph, but thanks to the power and portability of the speedlight, it’s easier than ever to capture well-lit shots indoors, in heavy shade, or even at night.
Unfortunately, for photography beginners – and even for folks who have been shooting for years or decades – choosing the correct external flash can be a huge challenge. There are countless brands on the market today offering a wide variety of flashes, which makes flash shopping confusing and sometimes even frustrating.
But all hope is not lost! As an experienced flash photographer, I’m familiar with the benefits and drawbacks of different flash models; below, I share the five essential items that you absolutely must consider before investing in a flash. That way, you don’t waste your money on a low-quality model that won’t meet your needs.
Ready to pick out the perfect flash? Let’s dive right in.
1. The brand
Back in the day, buying a flash was really simple. If you wanted to purchase a speedlight, then you had to pick one offered by your camera manufacturer (usually Nikon or Canon).
Today, however, the situation is completely different, and the market is flooded with other companies that sell speedlights, including Yongnuo, Godox, and Nissin. You still have the option to buy a flash from your own camera manufacturer, but you can also choose third-party models.
Look up the flashes sold by Nikon and Canon, and you’ll notice that they’re extremely expensive compared to third-party options from Yongnuo and Godox. Despite this sticking point, many photographers believe that these Nikon and Canon models are still a better buy, claiming that they boast a longer life, enhanced durability, and better compatibility.
On the other hand, some third-party speedlights genuinely are very well designed, and they can certainly compete with the big brands on performance, durability, and more. Another plus is that third-party flashes are generally a lot cheaper, which is a key point for those looking to buy their first flash.
If you’re not sure whether you’re comfortable purchasing a third-party flash, it’s a good idea to read a few reviews. While some of these models are outstanding, others can be cheap and breakable, so it pays to be informed before you hit the “Buy” button.
2. Flash longevity
Just like any other lightbulb, speedlights have a limited life; after a certain amount of use, they’ll “burn out” and stop working.
So before purchasing any speedlight – no matter the company or model – do some research. Look for your selected speedlight’s lifespan listed on the company website, and if you can’t find official specifications, you can always look at Amazon reviews, which users sometimes update to indicate when an item has stopped working.
Bear in mind that you’ll occasionally run into a bad flash unit, so if you find a user reporting that their flash stopped working after three shots or was dead on arrival, don’t immediately dismiss that model. However, if a slew of reviewers claim that a flash died soon after purchase, then it’s best to avoid that product (and perhaps even that brand).
One more thing: It’s important that you purchase a flash that doesn’t just work for a long time, but that works well; in other words, the flash should fire properly and at full power. If the flash doesn’t fire properly – even if it produces some light – it’ll generally give you an unusable result.
Pop-up flashes – that is, the flashes that come mounted to some cameras – are disliked by most artificial-light photographers for one major reason: They’re completely fixed and offer zero flexibility. They only point in one direction, and they cannot be rotated, pointed upward or downward, or taken off the camera. Thus, the light cannot be controlled or bounced to create a more flattering effect.
Therefore, it’s extremely important to check the flexibility of a flash unit before purchasing. If the head of the flash you buy cannot be moved, tilted, or angled, then you’ll struggle to achieve high-quality results.
I’d also recommend researching whether the flash can be triggered remotely. Many studio portrait and still-life photographers prefer to mount their flashes on stands rather than the camera itself, but if the flash doesn’t offer a remote-trigger option, you may grow frustrated. (You’ll also need to check remote trigger compatibility, which can vary depending on the model.)
4. Automatic (TTL) or manual control
There are two basic types of flashes: automatic (TTL) models and manual models.
An automatic flash interacts and communicates with the camera to determine the optimal amount of light required to illuminate a particular scene. In other words, a TTL flash will change its output in response to the ambient light levels in the scene.
A manual flash, on the other hand, has to be directed by the photographer at all times. If you want to expose for a dark scene, for instance, you’ll need to manually increase the flash power, and if you want to expose for a brighter scene, you’ll need to manually decrease the flash power.
So which type of flash is better? On the one hand, automatic models are extremely convenient. You can mount the flash on a stand or your camera’s hot shoe, press the shutter button, and expect to get relatively solid exposure results.
On the other hand, manual flashes tend to be far cheaper, which makes them a great option for beginners. And because they force you to really understand the ins and outs of flash exposure, they can be a good teaching tool.
At the end of the day, the choice is up to you!
5. Flash recycle time
If you’re planning to capture studio portraits or still life shots, this shouldn’t be an issue – but if you’re a serious action photographer who may need to capture multiple bursts of images over a short period of time, then the flash recycle rate is essential.
You see, the recycle rate (also known as the recycle time) is simply the length of time after the flash fires before it’s ready to fire again. Manufacturers almost always list the recycle rate in terms of seconds, and as you can probably imagine, the lower the recycle rate, the better. A flash that can recycle quickly will allow you to capture a burst of sports images – but a flash that recycles slowly may prevent you from creating the photos that you’re after.
Note that speedlight specs generally mention two different times (e.g., 0.3-5 seconds). The lower number denotes how soon another shot can be taken if the flash is set to its lowest light output, while the higher number indicates how soon another shot can be taken when the flash is set to its highest light output.
The recycle rate at the flash’s maximum output is more important, and if you want to shoot action, you should always aim to get a flash that has a shorter maximum light output time. Remember, however, that you also need to buy a proper battery for your flash if you want to achieve the recycle rate mentioned by the manufacturer.
How to choose a flash: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be ready to purchase a speedlight of your own.
But remember that there is no single best flash that’ll appeal to everyone. It really all comes down to your budget and needs; beginners will generally be well served by a manual flash, though more experienced shooters – especially those who work in fast-paced environments – may want to consider an automatic model.
Now over to you:
What flash do you plan to buy? How did you choose? Share your thoughts in the comments below!