Lighting is one of the most challenging aspects of photography and is often the thing which makes or breaks a photograph. There are several problems when you shoot with the built-in flash on your camera. The images appear washed out (overexposed), have red-eye, and many other issues. Using the built-in flash also creates harsh shadows, and gives you a rather flat-looking image.
External flashes, or speedlights, are photographic equipment which can be used to compensate for the pop-up flash. They allow far superior control over the lighting and exposure of an image, even in low-light shooting conditions.
For newbies in the field of photography, and even for people who have been shooting for quite a bit of time, choosing the correct external flash can be a huge challenge. There are countless brands on the market today offering a huge variety of flashes which makes it all even more confusing.
Below are the five essential things that we felt must be considered, before investing your money on an external light source. Read this if you are about to buy a new flash or speedlight for the first time.
#1 – The Brand
Initially, buying a flash was really simple. If you wanted to buy a speedlight then you had to buy it from your camera manufacturer – usually Nikon or Canon. Today the situation is completely different, and the market is flooded with several other companies that sell speedlights such as; Yongnuo, Godox, Nissin, etc. So you can opt to buy the flashes by your camera manufacturer or purchase one sold by one of the third party companies.
Although the flashes sold by Nikon, Canon, etc., are really expensive compared to the third party options, many photographers believe that they are still a better buy as they have a longer life, are more durable and are more compatible with their DSLRs.
However, even the third party speedlights these days are increasingly giving competition to the big brand names in terms of performance, durability, and more. Another plus is that they are a lot cheaper. A flash by Godox is much easier on the pocket than one by Canon, which is a welcome point for many looking to buy their first flash.
#2 – Flash Life and Longevity
Speedlights are just like any other bulb, as in they too have a limited life before which they “burn out” and stop working. Thus, before purchasing any speedlight, be it of any company or any model, do some research about its longevity, and the amount of time it can be used effectively before it needs to be replaced.
If a flash does not fire properly and at full power, then it would disturb the lighting of an image and give you an unusable photograph as well in many cases.
#3 – Flexibility
Apart from its many drawbacks, another major restriction with the pop-up flashes are that they are completely fixed and not movable at all. They only point in one direction, forward, and cannot be moved along with the camera. Thus, the light being fired cannot be controlled or bounced, as per the photographer’s wish.
This is why it is important to check the flexibility of a flash unit before purchasing it. If the head of the flash you buy cannot be moved, tilted, or angled up-down, left-right, etc., then that defeats the very purpose of using it. A speedlight is used to bounce light around, reflect it off different surfaces, and so on, and if the flash doesn’t have that much control, then using it would virtually be a waste of time.
#4 – Automatic (TTL) or Manual Control
There are two types of flashes or speedlights – TTL and fully manual. TTL simply stands for Through The Lens, which is a type of automatic flash.
A manual flash has to be told and directed by you, as to how much light is to be emitted. Any change in the power of the light emitted by a manually controlled flash has to be done by you according to your requirements. These manual flashes are cheaper because their build is much simpler and more basic than a TTL flash.
A TTL flash, on the other hand, is an automatic speedlight, which interacts and communicates with the camera to determine the optimal amount of light required to illuminate a particular scene properly. An additional advantage of TTL flashes is that they can also be used in full manual mode, if you wish, for greater control.
TTL flashes have proven to be extremely accurate and reliable. Although there is a slight chance that they might not give the expected results. But that is a very minimal risk.
#5 – Flash Recycle Time
This is a point to consider especially by sports and action photographers, who often have to shoot multiple bursts of shots together. The recycle time or recycle rate is simply the time taken between two pops/firings of the flash for it to be ready to fire again. The recycling rates are usually always mentioned by the manufacturers in terms of seconds.
The specs for a speedlight will usually have two different times mentioned (e.g. 0.3-5 seconds). The lower number denotes how soon another flash shot can be taken if the flash produces its lowest light output (lowest power setting) while the higher number indicates the time it will take before taking another flash shot when it has generated its maximum light output (full power).
The important recycling time to consider is the one at maximum output. Always aim to get a flash that has a shorter maximum light output time. However, even along with keeping this point in mind, remember that you also need to buy a proper battery for your flash to get the recycle rate mentioned by the manufacturer.
So, it all comes down to what you are comfortable with when buying a flash, depending on your usage needs and budget. To begin with, you can go with a basic manual flash and once you start understanding the application of a speedlight you can always upgrade. Nowadays, the third party flashes are almost on par with the brands such as Canon and Nikon, so nothing is stopping you from capturing creative frames irrespective of your budget.