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which is the best flashgun / speedlight / speedlite ?

One of the most frequent questions I get asked, is what flashgun or speedlight would I recommend – especially to someone wanting to go beyond just using the camera’s built-in flash.

Moving away from the camera’s built-in flash to a larger flashgun opens up an entire world with new possibilities in lighting.  Especially so if you are moving up to one one of the camera’ manufacturer’s dedicated speedlights. The add-ons and gadgets that you find on the market that are supposed to improve the quality of lighting from the camera’s built-in flash, are just ways to grab some of your cash without really offering you an improvement.

To improve your flash photography, you absolutely need to get a larger on-camera speedlight. The question then is, which one?

Each manufacturer offers a variety of options at different price points.  I suspect the initial reaction for anyone stepping into the world of flash photography, is to be hesitant about buying a large and expensive speedlight .. and then they err on the side of caution, getting a speedlight that is cheaper, but also limited in specifications and ability.

But let’s step away from the equipment for a few minutes, and consider what we want to achieve with flash.  So let’s look at this candid portrait of a baby held in her mother’s arms:

To get that specific lighting quality – soft and directional light – you need to bounce your flash.  Bouncing your flash gives you a larger light source, and hence softer light.

But it isn’t enough to just simply bounce off the ceiling directly over you.  That would give flat light that gives no shape and form and dimension to your subject. If you look at that portrait of the baby girl, you will see that one side of her face has more light than the other.

It is this interplay between light and shade that gives a quality of light that is both interesting, and flattering to our subject.  To get there, I had to consider the direction my light needed to come in from, and I wanted to have the light from my flashgun bounce back from the interior of the room to my left-hand side.

In order to do all of this - soft, directional light from my speedlight – it is essential that my flashgun has a head that can both rotate and swivel.

So if you are looking at various speedlights, I would strongly recommend that you dismiss any that don’t allow the flash head to rotate and swivel.  Anything less would just limit you, and ultimately be a waste of your money.  You’d be better off investing a bit more money in a more flexible speedlight.

Also, in bouncing flash like this, we waste a fair amount of light.  It really isn’t an efficient way to use the light.  But .. we aren’t after efficiency here.  We desire light that is flattering – and then we inevitably come back to those two words – soft and directional.  So in bouncing flash, we waste a lot of energy from our flash, and to be able to get enough light onto our subject, we need a strong flashgun.

Therefore my next recommendation would be to get a powerful flashgun – as powerful as you can afford.

I rely heavily on TTL flash technology as you can see on the previous pages and on various other posts on this website.  So I would strongly recommend a flashgun that is TTL capable and integrates properly with your camera.

So I would recommend to anyone, even if this is your first foray into buying a speedlight, to get the top-of-the-range that the specific manufacturer offers.  Even if it seems overkill and a lot of money in comparison to your camera or a lens, the combination of flexibility and power and integration with your camera system make the larger flashgun the better choice.   A smaller, less capable flashgun could very well just end up frustrating you in the limited potential it offers.  A full-featured flashgun loaded with mouth-watering specifications could very well make your life easier and your photography more interesting and pleasurable.

 

speedlights / flashes that come highly recommended

 

If you have a Canon camera, then your best choice would be the Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite (B&H).  This flashgun also rotates 180′ to either side, but what really elevates this is the built-in radio transmitter to give you easy radio-controlled TTL and manual flash from your camera, without added paraphernalia.



If you have a Nikon camera, then the obvious choice is the Nikon SB-910 Speedlight (B&H).  A full-featured powerful flashgun that has a flash-head that rotates 180′ to either side, which makes it very flexible in where you can bounce your light.

Similarly then, if we look at what is the msot powerful and flexible flashguns available for other manufactuers, I would recommend the Pentax AF-540 FGZ P-TTL (B&H), for Pentax owners; the Sony HVL-F58AM (B&H) flashgun for owners of Sony D-SLRs; and the Olympus FL-50R (B&H), shoe-mount flash for Olympus users.

These flashguns are spendy, but they also won’t limit your potential as a photographer.

 

next section:  using a flash bracket

 

video tutorials to help you with flash photography

If you like learning by seeing best, then these video tutorials will help you with understanding flash photography techniques and concepts. While not quite hands-on, this is as close as we can get to personal instruction. Check them these and other video tutorials and online photography workshops.


 

photography books by Neil vN

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Soran August 14, 2009 at 1:08 pm

Bigger is Better, is true, but also there are smarter flashguns as well ex. SB-600, for amateur or advanced amateurs…
if you are a full time photographer then bigger is Better if not then buy 2 x SB-600 (if your camera built on flash can support wireless ccommunication like D70 upward)…

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2 Neil August 14, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Soran, true, but for me it would be more important to have a feature such as the flashgun being able to rotate 180′ either way. I can’t over-emphasize how important that is in getting the specific direction of light that you need to effectively bounce flash.

When I first started to use Canon’s system and hence the Canon 580EX flash instead of the Nikon SB-800, it was an epiphany. It changed how I used flash. That extra 90′ angle is far more important to me than any cost saving over a smaller flashgun. And that is something I tried to explain with this post and the image of the baby girl.

Neil vN

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3 AubreyG September 15, 2009 at 5:58 am

I’ll second Neil’s comment on the SB-600; while it is certainly an excellent flash, I very quickly became frustrated in not being able to get the head pointing to the critical spot where I wanted to bounce. Also, there is the added bonus that it has a PC sync connector meaning I can use my pocket wizards without a shoe adapter which I had to use with the SB-600. All worth keeping in mind if you think you’d be looking at upgrading your speedlight in the future.

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4 paurullan January 12, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Interesting: here in Europe (Spain in concrete) Metz is well known and appreciated. The Metz 58AF works quite well.

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5 Steve Combs January 13, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Neil, I recently discovered your site and have been enjoying the learning you provide here quite a bit! Thank you for your efforts! (BTW, beautiful photography!)

I’ve been learning photography for ALMOST 50 years now. I started with a simple camera (today, we’d call it a point-n-shoot!), 620 film, single shutter speed, flash without battery (it punched a hole in the bulb and the atmosphere caused it to burn!). Then I became one of my high school’s newspaper photographers. I used a Graflex Speed Graphic (2.25×3.25 inch plate film). I had a Honeywell Strobonar 600. It had a guide number of 80 (feet). Not a lot UNTIL you realized it was at ASA/ISO 25! You could light half of a football field with this light (IF you got above ground level. At ground level you’d just overexpose everything close!). This was my first experience with strobe flash units. To vary the output I put neutral density gels over the head. Move forward to 1980 and I purchased a Canon A-1 and shortly after got the 199A flash. At that time it was the most powerful hot-shoe mounted flash they made (they made a 533 and then a 577, but they were “potato masher” types similar to the Strobonar). Now, today, I have a Canon EOS 40D and a 580EX II (going to get 1-2 more 580′s in the near future for additional capabilities). I ALWAYS get the most powerful and versatile flash I can afford!

I’m just an amateur photographer (I tell people I’m a PHOTO-GRAPHER, not a PHOTOGrapher. I can do a great job of recording what I see, but NOT a great job of making it a GOOD photograph. I’m working on that! :)). Eventually I’ll probably get some studio lights just to provide greater capabilities!

Again, thank you for the site and the insight.

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6 Vicki Stoner April 24, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Hi Neil,
I was directed to your blog from people on the FM Forum. Thank you for your help. I have always loved photography and have taken some college classes but these last several years put it on hold to care for my grandchildren.I married young and my grandkids say their friends grandmother looks nothing like me-LOL.
Anyway what I have read here has been helpful and I am looking forward to checking out some of your classes and other articles.
I have a canon 30d camera and getting ready to buy a speedlite. I also have a Nikon Coolpix.I am looking at the 580EX ll but yes I am scared. It can not be controlled by the camera but I am guessing it can thru the flash settings itself? Any advice you can give me on getting back on track here I would greatly appriciate it.

As they say a picture says a thousands words and holds that moment in time you want to remember. I also love going out taking photos of old houses fields etc. Along with the animals. There is a beauty you can’t put into words.

Then on some I go back and do my magic as my husband calls it in photo shop. I do restoration, I started that when my mother had a photo of my Great,Great Grandfather and there were lots of pieces missing. The look in her and my Uncles eyes when I got done with it was priceless. I had to rebuild allot without a copy to look at! Several years later I found a small photo of him and I must say I did good! I have also taken slides and made prints and did touch up on those for friends. I think black and white along with selpia has a touch all its own that color can’t touch.

Anyway a brief summary about myself.

Again any advice would be welcomed on getting me started again. Now I am starting where I left off with the speedlite. Next year I want to do my Grandson Graduation Photos and several of his friends want me to do theirs just from seeing work I have done. I am told I have the eye and passion my teachers, friends etc. I take constructive criticism well. looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Awesome advice so far:)

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7 Neil vN April 27, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Hi there Vicki!

For your Canon 30D, I would definitely recommend the 580EX II.
I’m not sure what you mean that the flash can’t be controlled from the camera? I know the more recent cameras like the 1D mk III and 5D mk II, allow you to control some flash options through the camera’s menu .. but these aren’t really of huge importance over doing the same thing on the flash unit itself.

And with TTL flash, the flash exposure is controlled by the camera itself. Which is the beauty of TTL flash technology.

I hope this helps. :)

Neil vN

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8 Isa August 16, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Hi, I’m an amateur photographer here trying to learn a little more about my new hobby. I have a D40 and SB400 flash. I want to buy a new flash but SB900 is out of range, is there anything else that you would recommend me to look at that is not as expensive? I want to slowly get into photography and eventually make it more than just a hobby but for now I’m still learning. Thanks for your help.

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9 Mika September 1, 2010 at 3:00 am

Isa I would recomment the Nissin di866 which is a Nikon (and Canon) compatible TTL flash. It’s comparable to the Nikon SB800 which is a tad below the SB900. The Nissin is priced between the SB600 and SB900 (about $300-320).

I have one of these myself on the D40 and it works really well (have some experience with the SB800 too).

It’s not as well constructed as the SB800 and SB900 but it’s close. The size is about the same as a SB800, but the Nissin is more powerful and it’s easier to use. It does however only rotate 90 degrees to the left and I can see the problems with that. But that hasn’t bothered me… yet. In TTL mode it seems to work very well with the D40 and I believe the days are past when you had to buy OEM flashes for your camera.

Google some reviews on the Nissin di866 for more information.

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10 Will Dochertaigh September 3, 2010 at 8:36 pm

I decided on the 430EXII and have not once in eight months wished I had anything else, anything more. If I decide to pick up a second, I’ll get the 580 as I already have the slave unit.
For an “advanced amateur” the 430 was a perfect choice

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11 Kevin smith September 15, 2010 at 5:28 am

Hello Neil,

Is there any particular reason you do not promote the use of Quantum Flash? Quantums most likely are more powerful throwing off more light, don’t you agree?

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12 Neil vN September 15, 2010 at 5:39 am

Kevin, I do use the Q-flashes as my workhorses. I’m a fan of their equipment.

However, for more control and finessing of our flash photography, there isn’t anything better than a top-of-the-line speedlight.

For example, I can get a delicate fill-flash at even high ISO settings like 1600 ISO … something which I haven’t been able to match at all with the Q-flashes.

So for photography which is fast-paced and where I need to be able to adjust my flash for a variety of available light scenarios, a speedlight is clearly the better choice.

But where I need a workhorse flash that I can fire for an extended time without fear of melting, then the Q_flash is an obvious choice.

Also, for the newer photographers just dipping into flash photography, a speedlight makes a lot more sense.

Neil vN

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13 Strider September 18, 2010 at 4:19 pm

As a newbie to DSLR, I bought a Sony Alpha which allowed me to use the lenses of my existing Minolta 35mm SLR for both cameras. I’m now looking to buy a flashgun/speedlight but the choice seems overwhelming. The main choices seem to be Metz, Nissim or Sony and the last seems to be the least value for money. Budget is tight, what would you recommend?

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14 Neil vN September 20, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Strider, my instinct is always to go for the proprietary name brand. They had insight in how they engineered everything to fit together. Third party equipment is reverse engineered to work with the chosen system. As such, you’re never quite sure if they were able to match the electronic and mechanical design of the camera system.

So for me the decision isn’t $$ driven here, but rather by how well the equipment matches in the system, and how well it works together.

Neil vN

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15 vijayakumar December 9, 2010 at 4:55 am

Sir i have a metz 45cl 1 speed light can i use this speed light with a nikon d60
i hope the circuit in the camera will not damage,what attachment should i have to use to operate the flash on the camera please guide me
waiting for your reply

thanking you
vijaya kumar

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16 Neil vN December 24, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Vijaya … I have no experience with the Metz flashguns, but I am sure you could use it at least in manual and auto modes. If you want, you can post your question on the forum, and see if anyone there with experience of the Metz can tell you more.

Neil vN

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17 jerry December 25, 2010 at 11:46 am

Neil, have you ever had your sb900 overheat. What type of batteries do you use and do you have a technique to us for overheating. Do you use other features such as center flash, even flash.

Thanks
Merry Christmas to you and your family.

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18 Neil vN December 25, 2010 at 5:29 pm

I have the thermal protection disabled on my SB-900 speedlights. I have burnt a few of them out with use, but so did I with my SB-800 and 580EX ii speedlights.

I still think the Nikon SB-900 is the best speedlight ever made, just as I mentioned on my original review of the Nikon SB-900.

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19 Levi Hanusch December 30, 2010 at 3:23 pm

We just bought an SB-700 for our D700 before reading this post, hope we don’t regret it! We already had an SB-600 for our D90 and I did alot of bouncing with it, but I don’t feel like I really knew how the getting the proper exposure with the TTL settings worked. It was like hit or miss. Now I feel like I understand it alot better and hope that I can put these flashes to good use!

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20 Maria July 22, 2011 at 1:42 pm

This is a really great article! I’ve been looking into speedlights for a while now but I didn’t know what kinds of questions I should have been asking. Thanks for all the great advice.

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21 naftoli January 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm

i would recomend the sb700 over the 900 and for sure over the 600 to a beginer

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22 Neil vN January 9, 2012 at 6:15 pm

My biggest criticism of the SB-700 is that it doesn’t take an external battery pack. That excludes it from heavy use.

Neil vN

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23 David Causon July 14, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Hi Neil, my 580 ex 2 is smoking every time it fires. Have you ever come across this? The white flash screen is also burnt!

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24 Neil vN July 14, 2012 at 6:41 pm

David .. your flashgun is obviously in need of repair.

Neil vN

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25 mike July 15, 2012 at 7:31 am

Neil,
do you think Nikon will follow Canon and offer a radio transmitter in its flash anytime soon??

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26 Neil vN July 15, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Indubitably.

Neil vN

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27 steve cain February 20, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Hello Neil,

I ma an event photographer and are often asked to shoot guests around the dinner table at a function. The lighting levels can be quite low so I prefer to use flash.

Use a canon 5d mk 11 with a 580 ex flash gun. In ttl mode the camera shots at 1/60 f4 which has shallow depth of field. Would prefer to use AV at f11 but the shutter speed is slow and cannot be hand held. Using a tripod is difficult in a confined space.

Have thought about setting camera and flash to manual and adjusting the power ratio until results acceptable

Appreciate your thoughts and comments

Steve

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28 Neil vN February 21, 2013 at 12:58 am

Steve, you’re making it needlessly complicated.

Shoot in manual exposure mode with your camera, setting your camera to what *you* need. Disregard the ambient for now.

Then shoot with your flash in TTL mode. This will take care of the overall exposure.

At some level, when you want to bring your ambient light in enough to give you some sense of where your subject is, then you can drag the shutter.

Start with this. It’s simpler than trying to fight with the camera in Av mode.

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29 penndragonn2001 March 1, 2013 at 5:53 am

I have a Nikon D7000, Since the days of film, I have kept my Nikon SB-24, and Sb-26. These flash guns are amazing for their age, and have never let me down. I have zero issue with them. I see no need to upgrade them. they do all I ask of them, and then some. Don’t have all the bells and whistles, but haven’t any need for them either. They have performed flawlessly and look virtually as new as when they were purchased…don’t get me wrong, these newer flashes, SB-700, Sb-800, and the Sb-900′s are fantastic. Your thoughts on these older workhorses Neil?

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30 Neil vN March 1, 2013 at 6:25 pm

The older speedlights will work very well … in Manual mode or Auto mode.

I do like TTL and use TTL mode so often, that is an essential feature for me. But if one has no need for that, then the older speedlights are great workhorses still.

Neil vN

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31 Marie Alford April 21, 2013 at 7:59 pm

Hello Neil,I love your work. I have a Canon Speedlite-420 which doesn’t have the manual option, I use it TTL. However i like to use Aperture Priority… but the flash won’t always fire in this mode when I would like it to (Particularly when I’m indoors & handheld) Have you any suggestions? Or perhaps I need to update my speedlite? Many thanks Marie

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32 Neil vN June 3, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Marie … it might just be that you have your camera set to a mode where it doesn’t fire the flash if it thinks there is enough light?

It’s going to be tough to figure out at a distance what is going on there. We would need a lot more info, and some sample photos.

Neil vN

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33 Jim Huffman October 14, 2013 at 1:25 pm

I just got a Yongnuo YN568EX and have been extremely pleased, that fact that it is only about a third the price of the SB-910 makes it a great choice. There are a few options it does not have, but thus far I have not noticed them.

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34 Alok Mishra October 22, 2013 at 5:09 am

Hi Neil,
I have a bought a new Nikon D5100 and I am a new entrant in the photography world.
I have no plans to go professional though but use it to click some memories of my freinds and family.
Your article has really inspired me to go for a new flash gun. You think I should go for SB 600, will that be usefull for my personal use???

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35 Chris Koffend October 29, 2013 at 10:43 am

Hi Neil,

Love your site, advice, and all. I am wondering (and I don’t believe it is your specialty) if you have a suggestion for a flash for shooting long lenses? I am talking 400, 500 and 600mm? I use your rear and side bounce flash techniques and really like the end results so much better than direct or ceiling bounce – no comparison. I notice that when using this bounce technique in pretty low light and moderately slow shutter speeds, that a side benefit that I am achieving is a great freezing of motion with nice sharp images that show mostly the natural light but a little support from the bounced flash light.

My question is regarding this support in freezing action. I want to accomplish this same affect with a longer lens and know from experience with a shorter lens (ie. 200mm) on fast moving subjects, that even at 1/16th power, the flash really freezes most of those closer fast moving objects. Is it really possible and pragmatic to accomplish the same with a super telephoto lens of a subject that is 50-100 feet away (obviously no bounce, but having some “fill” affect).

What flash would you suggest for this purpose, using a Canon system? Also, what about flash sync times, with Canon in the 200-250th of a second. Would the flash have any impact if I am shooting a shutter speed of 500-1000th of second?

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36 Trev October 30, 2013 at 3:19 am

Chris,

Is it really possible and pragmatic to accomplish the same with a super telephoto lens of a subject that is 50-100 feet away (obviously no bounce, but having some “fill” affect).

Yep! Here you go mate.

http://www.outbackphoto.com/the_bag/brad_fillflash/essay.html

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/427602-REG/Visual_Echoes_FX3_FX3_Better_Beamer_for.html

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