The flash is an extremely important part of any photographer’s kit, but it can also be a very intimidating for those who are looking to outfit themselves for the first time. Choosing a flash requires some decent technical knowledge of your camera, as well as a clear idea of your needs as a photographer. To help, we've put together this comprehensive buyer's guide, giving you the ins and outs of picking a flash, followed by our seven favourites. Read on and know exactly what you’re looking for when you go shopping.
In this image, a flash has been positioned on the left-hand side of the frame at a 45-degree angle to the subject. This allows the subject to be brighter than the background, which makes them “pop”
Defining a Flash
Basically, a camera flash is something that produces a flash or burst of artificial light that can help to illuminate dark or low-light scenes during a photography session. Flashes can come in many different forms. You’re probably familiar with built-in flashes that many entry-level and enthusiast cameras come with. These are built into the camera and typically pop up when used. They can be handy in a pinch, but because they are typically low powered and because they are positioned so close to the camera’s lens they will often cause red-eye and other unappealing effects. What we’ll be focusing on this article however are external flashes. These are separate units you can connect to you camera via the hotshot mount, although most will also be able to be placed in a separate location and triggered remotely by your camera (possibly via their own remote triggering mechanisms or possibly through the use of a separate remote triggering accessory). These types of flash units are also commonly called speedlights.
Standard Flash Considerations
One of the quickest things you'll learn about shopping for flashes is that there is a huge variety of features to be aware of. The important ones to keep in mind include:
- TTL Metering
TTL is a term you’ll hear when dealing with flash, and it stands for Through The Lens. Essentially TTL is equivalent to automatic mode on your flash. If a flash has TTL that means it can use your camera’s built-in metering system to determine how much light it should put out. TTL flashes often output a burst of light a split second before the actual flash in order to determine how much flash to use for the photo. The opposite to this would be shooting manual flash, where you control the power settings on your flash directly. Most modern speed lights have both TTL and manual shooting modes.
- Bounce Angling
The main reason photographers use flash is because they require more light. However, pointing a big light source directly at the subject often doesn’t have a flattering result. Many flash units have the ability to tilt and swivel the flash head, allowing you to aim the flash in a number of different directions. A common tactic is to aim the flash not directly at the subject, but instead at a nearby wall or ceiling, causing the light to bounce off that surface before hitting the subject. Light that has been bounced this way is softer and doesn’t create harsh shadows. Being able to pick your bounce angles can help you create interesting contrast levels and artistic photographs. You'll find that most flashes can tilt, but fewer can swivel.
Flash can be used both indoors and outdoors to great effect. Image courtesy of Profoto
- Guide Numbers
Your guide numbers are a numerical and standardised way to determine the flash's power. The higher the number, the more powerful the flash will be. To get the guide numbers, you multiply the f/stop of an exposure with the distance at ISO 100. (Guide Number = Aperture x Subject to Flash Distance). This can be in feet or metres depending on the flash's manufacturer.
- Sync Speed
When you take a photo, inside your camera the shutter opens briefly to expose the image sensor to light. How long the shutter is open for is known as the shutter speed. At certain fast shutter speeds, the shutter will interfere with your flash and cause dark bands to appear - this is because the shutter isn’t open long enough to be exposed to the flash fully. The sync speed is the maximum shutter speed at which your camera’s shutter and your flash can sync. Typically this is around 1/200th or 1/250th of a second, and at shutter speeds above this your images with flash won't come out properly. However, some flashes have High Speed Sync modes. These involve your flash sending out an extremely fast burst of flashes in order to deal with this issue and allow you to shoot at higher shutter speeds. Often these HSS modes only work with first-party flashes (i.e. when using a Canon flash on a Canon camera).
- Power Settings
Almost all flashes have the ability to control the power of their output. You'll find the power comes in half increments including full power, half power, one-quarter power and so on. It's essential that you understand your flash's power settings because this will dictate the total amount of light your flash can produce at the highest setting. In turn, you'll get an idea for which types of lighting conditions work best for your flash. Pretty much all flashes have power settings, so this isn’t something that you’ll use to pick a flash unit to buy, but it’s just something to be aware of.
- Radio Transmission
If your flash unit has radio transmission you can trigger your camera's flash remotely. This allows you to position the flash separately from the camera, allowing for more advanced and creative lighting situations. Flash units with radio transmission built in makes it easier to achieve these results, and may even allow you to control multiple flashes at once. Even if your flash doesn't have this feature built-in, there are many accessories that allow you to trigger your flash remotely.
The ability to set your flash(es) up in different positions opens up the possibility for more creative lighting scenarios
Advanced Flash Considerations
Now that we've talked about several standard flash considerations that you want to keep in mind, we'll talk about a few more advanced features. These can help with precision control and they can add a layer of convenience to your shots. They include:
- Manual control is popular for professional photographers who want to have total control over their photos and flash. Manual controls will allow you to set your flash to work exactly to your specifications, and can even allow you to set different intensities on multiple flashes flashes. Pretty much all flash units have manual control, but the amount of control you have and the ease of executing that control (i.e. LCD screens make it easier to view and change your settings) may differ between models.
- Several advanced flashes let you use a main master flash device to remotely and wirelessly control your other flashes (often called slaves) while you still retain the TTL exposure on every flash you trigger. You could join several flashes and control or set each flash's output with your master flash. This is limited to higher-end cameras, so it's important to double check your camera before you buy because it may not have this as an optional feature.
- Unless you plan on shooting exclusively indoors, weathersealing measures with your gear are important, and this extends to your flash. Many higher-end flashes come with weathersealing built right into the device, but if you buy from a lower-end manufacturer, double check. If they don't come with weathersealing, you may want to buy a sleeve to protect it from the elements.
A flash positioned behind this couple results in a dramatic effect. Weathersealing is particularly helpful when your flash might get wet! Image courtey of Profoto.
- Some flashes come with special modes that allow you to have rear curtain synchronisation or strobe mode. If you shoot with your flash in rear curtain mode, it'll cause the flash to fire only when your camera's shutter is starting to close. This creates a very light trail and gives the effect of movement. If you shoot in strobe mode, the flash will go off several times when your camera's shutter is open. It allows you to superimpose several moving subject impressions in one final photo.
- Many higher end cameras come with a silent flash. This is essential for wildlife photography or even portraits because it can distract your subject. It can also help you concentrate more on the task at hand. This allows you to get cleaner finished photographs then you'd get if you had a distracting clicking noise.
Popular and Reputable Flash Manufacturers
As with anything you buy, you want to go with a reputable manufacturer to ensure that you get a known and dependable flash. Since these flashes range in price, getting a more well-known brand is the easiest way to ensure that you can get the support you need if something goes wrong. Pretty much all major camera manufacturers also produce their own line of flashes intended to work specifically with their own cameras. On top of this, there are a few third party manufacturers that make their flashes in a variety of versions that can be used with the most of the major camera brands. Popular third party manufacturers include Godox and Profoto.
Third-party flashes like Godox (pictured here) can be bought for a variety of different camera brands
What Camera Flash to Buy?
We're going to go over seven different camera flashes by five different camera flash manufacturers. We've highlighted what makes them a good choice for different classes of photographers in each short review, and this can help you compare the various flashes to make an informed decision.
The Canon 600EX is extremely popular with professional and enthusiast photographers alike. It has good power and radio transmission capabilities at 2.4 GHz. This gives the flash added reliability for a range up to 30 metres. It doesn't need a direct line of sight, which allows you to work through obstacles. This is by far the most popular flash option for Canon shooters.
Although it's slightly less powerful than the 600EX, this flash comes with artificial intelligence built in, which allows the flash to angle itself automatically to get the best bounce angle. This makes it useful for photographers who want to use flash but are still wanting to learn more about positioning. It can be used in full-auto or semi-auto modes. This is the only flash on the market at the moment with a feature like this.
This high-end flash is a good quality option for Nikon shooters. It features a digital display combined with radio control up to 100 feet, which offers excellent precision control. It also has the world's first shoe-mounted flash cooling system. This allows you to take up to 100 consecutive flashes at full power without overheating to capture stunning shots in low light environments.
If you don't need a pro-level flash, this is a solid mid-level option from Nikon. It gives you automatic metering with both DX and FX-format cameras, and it comes optimised to work seamlessly with Nikon's Creative Lighting System. This gives you precision control over your lighting setup, and it works to ensure that you can capture that landscape or portrait in the best light for a professional finish.
The "Rolls Royce" of flash, Profoto is a Swedish company that manufactures products at a very high level. Profoto flash units have exceedingly high build quality and light output, making them the choice of professional photographers worldwide. They are also versatile, with models like their A1X Air TTL coming in versions for Canon, Nikon and Sony. While their flashes are typically a bit more expensive than the competition, a Profoto flash will last a lifetime.
This compact and sleek mid-level flash comes with a water-resistant design that is good for shooting landscape or sports photography in all weather conditions. The LCD panel lets you view and change settings while you work. A charge progress indicator shows you exactly where your power levels are.
This powerful flash features a weather-resistant design that is helpful for shooting in inclement weather conditions for sporting events or nature photography. It has a strong LED light combined with a pull out bounce card that provides exceptional light capabilities for low light environments.
Contact digiDirect Today!
If you need flashes for your gear, or if you have questions, you can contact us! We're happy to help you find the best flash for your needs, and we can answer any questions you may have as well. Our staff are experts at helping both professional and amateur photographers find the best accessories to suit their needs, and we have a broad range of flashes available. All you need do is get in touch today to start the process and get your perfect flash!