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A Photographer's Guide to Small Flash and Speedlight Features

Welcome back to our Introduction to Flash Photography series. In this lesson, we're learning all about the different options that you have when it comes to choosing a speedlight.

Here's what Scott says about his lights of choice:

"My current go-to speedlight is a Canon 580EXII. I've got three of them and they have been absolute workhorses for me. I've also had this older 580EX for about eight years now, and it has probably flashed nearly half a million times without so much as a hiccup.

In fact, the only problem I've ever had with this flash is that I had to replace the flash tube after I dropped it off of an eight-foot lightstand. These are very durable and very useful flashes, and they have served me so well."

Choosing the Right Speedlight for You

As amazing as these flashes are, there are hundreds of other options when it comes to which speedlight will fit your needs the best. Lately there's been a surge in third-party and Chinese-made flashes that are making the choice even more difficult. With all of these choices, which one would you choose?

I wish I could say that model X, Y, Z is the best and that you should definitely get that one, and that that's all the options that you should have. Unfortunately that's just not possible. So instead, what I'm going to do is show you all of the different features that are most important when it comes to picking out a speedlight. Also, and probably most importantly, we'll learn how these features affect the price of the different flashes. So let's get started.

TTL vs Manual Only Flashes

The first feature we want to talk about is TTL versus Manual Only flashes.

The choice isn't really between TTL and manual, it's more like TTL and manual versus manual only — since almost every TTL flash also has the capability to be used in manual mode.

As I've said in earlier lessons, manual flash really is the way to go when it comes to control and getting the shots that you want with consistency. For me, 95% of the time, I'll be using manual flash, but there is that 5% of the time when I need TTL, usually during wedding receptions. So, I chose flashes that were capable of TTL.

So why would anyone choose a manual-only flash? Well, the main reason is, that all other things being equal, a manual only flash is usually about half the price of a TTL flash. That is a huge difference, especially if you're going to be buying multiple flashes. You can save a lot of money by using manual if that's all you need.

If you do decide that you need a TTL flash, then you need to make sure that you either buy a flash from the same manufacturer that made your camera, or you need to buy a third-party flash that's compatible with your camera, since each manufacturer has a different TTL system.

Flash Power: Guide Numbers

The next feature that we want to look at when we're trying to choose a flash is the guide number. The guide number is just a complicated way to describe the power of a flash. Basically, the higher the guide number, the more powerful the flash is.

So, a Canon 430EXII has a guide number of 43 meters and a Canon 580EXII has a guide number of 58 meters. And so we know that the 580 is quite a bit more powerful than the 430.

Unfortunately, different manufacturers seem to measure guide numbers differently from each other, so it's kind of a useless number when it comes to comparing flashes from different companies. If you want to compare flashes from different companies, you'll have to use a website like www.speedlights.net who have actually tested the power of many different flashes and they have some awesome charts that'll help you decide which flashes are more powerful than other ones.

Flash Head Flexibility

Next up is flash head flexibility. What I mean by that is the ability to tilt, twist and angle the flash head.

In my opinion, any external flash that can't tilt all the way up to 90 degrees and swivel 180 degrees in both directions is pretty much a waste of money and time. In our lesson about bouncing flashes you'll see why this flexibility is such a big deal.

Flash Head Zooming

Next, I want to talk about flash head zooming. Many flash heads have small motors that are built into them that move the flash tubes back and forth within the flash head. This movement, in conjunction with the Fresnel lens on there, gives the ability to focus the light coming out.

In this first shot the flash is zoomed out to 24 millimetres. As you can see, the entire scene is lit evenly.

However, in this second shot, the flash has been zoomed in to 105 millimetres. This has focused the light into the centre of the frame and left the edges dark.

The reason for this is that as we zoom our camera lens in and out, we only need our flash to cover an increasingly smaller angle of view. So we don't have to flash the entire scene, we only need to flash what we're zoomed in on. If the flash doesn't have this capability, you end up wasting power by lighting parts of the world that your camera can't even see.

The zooming happens automatically on most flashes as you zoom your lens in and out, and you can hear the flash zooming in along with it. You also have the ability to manually control a flash zoom, and that gives you some pretty interesting creative effects.

Recycle Time

Recycle time is the next spec that we want to take a look at when we're trying to choose a flash. Recycle time is basically just the time it takes for a flash to recharge its capacitors after a full power flash. This is usually somewhere between one and five seconds.

Obviously you want a faster recycle time if you tend to shoot fast and you don't want to wait between flashes, but you may be able to save a little money with a flash that has a slower recycle time if you don't need it.

High-Speed Sync

Next up is high-speed sync capability. Having a flash that has high-speed sync allows you to use your flash with a shutter speed of more than 1/200th of a second. For many photographers, this is pretty important and they cannot do without it. But if your photography does not require the higher shutter speeds, you can save a pretty good amount of money since high-speed sync is usually only reserved for the higher priced flash models.

Another thing to consider is the built-in off-camera triggering capabilities. Many of today's flashes have the ability to communicate with your camera and other flash units wirelessly, which allows you to take your flash off of the camera for amazing creative control.

In a later lesson, I'm going to be going into great detail about how to get your flash off of your camera and the different ways that you can do that. For now, just know that you want to make sure that you get flashes that work with whatever system you're using.

A big consideration for me was the ability to hook up an external battery pack to my flash. Being a wedding photographer, I really hate to miss important moments because I'm changing dead batteries.

This battery pack, loaded with the amazing and Eneloop batteries, usually gets me through an 8 wedding day without having to change batteries. This pack also cuts my recycle time in half, which allows me to shoot a lot faster and get more of those moments. That makes this small feature a pretty big deal to me.

Auto-Focus Assist

Another often overlooked, but to me, an essential feature, is a built-in auto-focus assist beam. In order for your camera to use its auto-focus, it needs to be able to see the subject that it's going to focus on. If there's not enough light for your camera to see, you will not be able to focus.

The way that an auto-focus assist beam works, is that your flash will emit these red stripes while your camera is focusing.

These stripes give your camera something to see, and thus, they give your cameras something to focus on and they disappear just before the actual shutter opens so that they don't show up in your shot.

During a dark wedding reception, where the dancing is going on, this is an absolute essential. So again, this is something that I have on all my flashes.

Final Considerations

The final things to consider when you're choosing a flash are the reputation, the warranty, and the reliability of the flash. You need to decide how important these things are to your photography.

If you're a wedding photographer who's getting paid really well to capture once in a lifetime moments in your client's life, then I think it would be silly to use any flash that you're not completely confident in. You owe it to your clients and you owe it to your own sanity, not to skimp in this area. If on the other hand, photography is still a hobby for you, and no one is going to cry themselves to sleep if you miss a crucial shot because of a cheap flash, then by all means consider saving some money in this area.

So after considering all of these things, the right choice for me was to buy the top of the line flashes available from Canon. This also turned out to be pretty much the most expensive option, but when you consider the hundreds of thousands of photos I've taken with this flash and the many thousands of dollars that I've made over the years with this flash, I would say that the price I paid was a drop in the bucket compared to the value it has provided me.

In our next lesson we're going to be talking about bouncing flash and what a great way that is to make your photos better.

Keep Learning about Small Flash Photography

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