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February 11, 2015

Q&A: Which Flash Should I Buy?

Similar to the most common “Which camera should I buy?” question, ”Which flash should I buy?”gets asked quite a bit.  As with the camera question there isn’t a direct, easy answer.  It depends on your shooting needs. Below we’ll look at some things you should consider when making your decision, with more to come in a future article.

Tilt

In order to make the most of a flash you will want to get it off-camera or at least “bounce” the light coming from it. If you want to accomplish this and are not yet venturing into the world of off-camera flash then the most important feature you need is tilt.  Being able to tilt the flash head means you can angle it upward at the ceiling and cause the light to bounce back towards your subject. This helps diffuse and soften the light, giving a more pleasing look. Entry level flashes sometimes have a tilt feature, but often little else.

Swivel

Similar to tilt, swivel gives you the ability to bounce the light off a nearby surface.  Unlike tilt, swivel will allow you to bounce off a wall to the left or right (if it swivels both directions).  Additionally if you have the camera in portrait (vertical) orientation you will still be able to bounce off the ceiling by swivelling the flash head left or right (up or down when holding the camera vertically).  Typically, flashes that have swivel also have tilt and are the next level up in the price/feature range.

TTL vs Manual

TTL

You may have heard the term TTL (or ETTL, i-TTL, etc), which his stands for “Through The Lens”. It means that the camera decides how much light the flash should output based on what it sees through the lens.  Your camera and flash will work together to determine the correct amount of flash light needed to properly expose the scene. Think of this as “Auto” flash. TTL is best used when the distance between your subject and the flash is changing frequently because your camera can adapt quickly and adjust the flash output as necessary.
Situation when you might want to use TTL flash include: Weddings (receptions or ceremonies), kids, pets, sports, etc.  These situations (minus sports perhaps) benefit greatly from bounce flash, thus TTL is even more important because the bounce surfaces and distances are constantly changing.

Manual

Manual flashes (or TTL flashes in manual mode) require you to control the flash output yourself.  This means that if the distance from your subject to the flash changes (i.e. they move closer or further away from it) you must adjust the flash output accordingly.  If the subject moves further away you must increase the flash output, if they move closer you’ll likely have to decrease it.
Situations when you might use Manual flash include: Portraits, studio work (products, still life, etc), landscapes, etc.  These situations can benefit from the consistency, simplicity, and creative control of manual flash.
While most modern flashes have TTL capabilities, many inexpensive or older flashes are manual only. If you’re working with mostly stationary subjects you can often save money by buying multiple simple manual flashes for the same price as a single TTL flash.

Remote Triggering

A more advanced flash feature is the ability to be triggered remotely when used off-camera. There are many benefits taking the light off-camera (which we discuss in several of our classes and blog articles). Though you may not be ready for off-camera flash usage yet, it may be something you want to work towards in the future.  In fact it’s the only way to evolve beyond direct / bounce flash and achieve the majority of the commonly used and flattering and creative lighting techniques. Thus, it is important to think about this when buying a flash.
Most major camera manufacturers these days have remote triggering systems built into certain flashes and camera bodies. Using special burst of light, certain camera bodies (and even other flashes) can trigger a flash that is off-camera.

Canon Speedlite 600 EX-RT Flash

Some flashes can act as a “Slave”, meaning it can receive a signal from the camera and be told to fire when the photo is taken. Other flashes can act as a “Master” flash and trigger Slave flashes. These remote triggering features often appear as you move higher in the price / feature range with those flashes at the very top being the Master flashes.

 

Another method of triggering flashes while they are off-camera is a set of 3rd party wireless transmitters.  These transmitters can even turn older, simpler manual flashes into off-camera flashes that work with modern cameras.  We’ll discuss these types of triggering systems in an upcoming article.

So Which Flash Should I Buy?

As mentioned at the beginning there is no easy answer to this question.  What works for one person and their shooting needs may not work for another.  Based on your individual needs and the information above you should be able to get a good sense of which features you need in a flash.
Already have a flash and want to learn more about the ins and outs of flash photography?  Keep an eye on our class schedule for the next round of our Flash Basics class.

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