Speedlight Buyer’s Guide

Share

What is a “speed light?”

A speed light is a common term used to describe an accessory electronic camera flash. Depending on the manufacturer, it might be spelled “Speedlite” or “Speedlight” and may also be referred to as a “flashgun,” which is a term that goes back to the days of scrappy newspaper reporters with Speed Graphics and flashbulbs. Some people simply call it a “flash.”

Nomenclature aside, speed lights allow you to take sharp, daylight-balanced pictures in dark environs in both color and black and white. Speed lights are also handy for “opening” shadow areas when photographing outdoors in contrasty or backlit conditions (time to break out the fill flash), as well as having an uncanny knack for freezing fast-moving subjects.

If my camera already has a built-in flash, why would I need a speed light?

Your camera’s built-in flash is sufficient for quick snapshots and the sort, but party pics aside, it has its limitations in terms of power output and creative flexibility.

What can a speed light do that my camera’s built-in flash cannot do?

For starters, speed lights output more light than built-in flash. Even the smallest accessory speed lights output anywhere from a half to a full stop more light, and the larger models can output two to three additional f/stops of light than the average pop-up flash. This additional light output makes it possible to shoot at smaller apertures for greater depth of field. The additional power output also makes it possible to light up larger areas.

Most mid- to full-size speed lights also feature flash heads that tilt or swivel, which enables you to bounce the flash output from adjacent walls or ceilings, resulting in a softer, more flattering light than the harsher, dead-on light you get from direct flash. Because the flashtubes in speed lights are positioned further away from the lens axis, you’re less likely to have red-eye problems, even when shooting with the flash head aimed straight at your subject.

Can you use speed lights with all cameras?

If your camera has a hot shoe, you can probably use a speed light with it. Even if your camera doesn’t have a hot shoe, depending on the make and model of your camera, there are often alternative methods of photo-slaving speed lights for use with cameras that don’t have hot shoes.

Many speed lights have “TTL” in their names or descriptions. What does “TTL” mean?

TTL is an abbreviation for “through the lens,” which means that the flash duration, or the amount of light emitted by the speed light, is determined by the reflective qualities of the subject as well as the distance of the subject from the camera position when viewed through the camera lens. As with ambient light readings, the most accurate method to determine the best flash exposure is by reading the reflective qualities of the scene as viewed through your camera’s lens.

Are all speed lights TTL-enabled?

With few, if any, exceptions, dedicated speed lights made by your camera manufacturer are TTL-enabled, and they will be labeled as such. Third-party speed lights, however, may or may not be TTL enabled and in some cases might perform in TTL mode only with specific make and model cameras. Some of the less expensive speed lights that do not have TTL capabilities more often than not feature auto thyristors that also measure reflectance, but with less precision than  TTL models.

Can speed lights made by one camera manufacturer work with cameras made by other manufacturers?

Technically speaking, any camera with a hot shoe will trigger any shoe-mount speed light regardless of who manufactured either component. The problem is that once you start mixing and matching components from different manufacturers, you more or less lose exposure control, which means even though the flash is firing there’s no way to determine how much (or how little) light is really striking your subject.

If you must use mismatched cameras and speed lights, you always have the option of setting the exposure manually using the exposure controls located on the back of the speed light. After eye-balling the results of a few test exposures on your camera’s LCD, you can establish correct flash exposures with relative ease.

Are third-party speed lights better than speed lights made by my camera’s manufacturer?

Generally speaking, third-party speed lights are equal in performance to their OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) counterparts, and in some cases the third-party options have more features than OEM speed lights.

Most manufacturers offer several speed lights. Aside from their physical size, what’s the difference between them?

The differences invariably have to do with light output, whether or not the flash head swivels or tilts, power options (if any), and the number of accessories to complement the basic flash unit.

What are guide numbers?

Guide numbers represent the illuminating power of your flash unit, with a higher guide number representing a more powerful device. Guide numbers are usually expressed in relation to 100 ISO film speed, and the formula to determine this number is GN = subject distance x by f/stop number. Conversely, you can determine which aperture to use by dividing the guide number of your flash by the distance between your flash and subject matter. If you have a flash unit with a guide number of 80' (24.4m) and are photographing a subject at 10' (3m), you would use f/8 to achieve a proper exposure (80/10 = 8).

In a bid to make their speed lights appear more powerful than they in fact are, some manufacturers calculate the guide number of their products based on the output with the flash head set to the telephoto position. What this means is when comparing guide numbers of competitive speed lights, check the fine print to establish which focal length setting was used to establish the output data.

My camera has a top shutter speed of 1/4000-second, but a top flash sync of 1/160-second. What does this mean?

Your camera’s flash sync speed represents the fastest shutter speed you can set your camera to before you start “clipping” the exposure, or not exposing the entire picture area to the flash portion of the total exposure. When you clip your flash exposure with a faster shutter speed than the camera’s sync speed, it will show up as a darker or non-exposed area along one edge of the frame (depending on the camera’s shutter mechanism), which failed to record the full duration of the flash because the entire sensor or frame of film was not exposed at precisely the same time of the flash burst. With slower shutter speeds, there is more time for the entire shutter to open and the flash to fire, before the shutter closes again. Depending on your camera, the sync speed usually varies from 1/125-second for entry-level DSLRs to 1/250 to 1/320-second for pro DSLRs.

Depending on the make and model of your camera/flash system, flash sync speeds of up to 1/8000-second are often possible when photographing with your speed light in manual or HP mode. See your camera and flash manuals for details.

The more expensive speed lights have zoom heads. Why are zoom heads important?

Zoom heads are useful because they enable you to optimize the angle of the light emitted by your speed light to match the angle of view of the lens you are using. This means when shooting with a wide-angle lens, the zoom head pulls back to allow the light to spread across a wider field. Likewise, when shooting with a longer lens, the head zooms in to concentrate the light to fill a narrower field.

Another advantage of a zoom head is that as the flash head zooms in tighter, it requires less output to light the narrower viewing area, which speeds up recycling times and extends battery life.

Depending on the make and model, some speed lights have auto zoom heads that automatically zoom in or out as you zoom your lens in or out. Less expensive speed lights have to be zoomed in or out manually to achieve the same effects.

Do speed lights need batteries or do they get their power from the camera?

Speed lights require their own power sources, usually in the form of AA batteries or battery packs.

Are external power supplies available for speed lights?

Many speed lights allow you to attach external power packs, which depending on the make and model of the speed light, are either tethered packs containing additional AA batteries, or rechargeable battery packs that enable you to shoot hundreds of exposures with far shorter recycling times than the speed light’s standard power supply.

There are also several third-party power supply manufacturers that make units that will power both your camera and flash.

What additional accessories should I consider when purchasing a speed light?

In addition to external power supplies, accessories worth considering when purchasing a speed light include:

  • An off-camera TTL cord, which allows you to move your flash away from your camera body in any direction, and provides a variety of lighting possibilities compared to the stationary limitations of a camera-mounted flash;
  • A radio or IR trigger for firing your camera or flash system remotely without the restraints of shooting while tethered to an off-camera TTL cord;
  • A mini-softbox or similar portable diffusion device, which can be easily attached to your flash to soften the blow of a direct flash;
  • A small, lightweight light stand for mounting your speed light when using an off-camera TTL cord or a wireless trigger;
  • Flash-head filters for adding a splash of color to portions of the scene, or for color-balancing purposes between mixed light sources.

The Takeaway

  • Speed lights enable you to take sharp, daylight-balanced pictures in low light.
  • Speed lights are more powerful than your camera’s pop-up flash.
  • Unlike your camera’s fixed position built-in flash, shoe-mounted speed lights can be swiveled and tilted, which adds a great measure of control when photographing portraits and other subjects.
  • Speed lights can be mounted on any camera that has a hot shoe, though certain features may only be supported when brand-compatible flashes are used. These dedicated flashes are available from the OEM as well as third-party manufacturers.
  • TTL (through-the-lens) speed lights base the flash exposure on the distance and reflective properties of the subject you are photographing.
  • Guide numbers are a numerical value that describes the comparative light output of speed lights.
  • The camera’s flash sync is the fastest shutter speed you can set your camera to without clipping the flash exposure.
  • Zoom heads allow you to optimize the light coverage of the flash output to match the field of view of the camera lens.
  • Speed lights require battery power (usually AA batteries), which can be supplemented by optional external power supplies that allow you to shoot far longer and with shorter recycling times compared to standard AA power.
  • Recommended speed light accessories include external power packs, off-camera TTL cords, a remote radio or IR triggering device, a mini softbox or other portable diffusion device, small light stands and filter packs for adding creative and aesthetic lighting effects.

Add new comment

Great article. Very informative.  Thanks for clearing up some questions.

This article made clear for me exactly what a speedlight does. Very informative. i walked away knowing exactly what type of flash to purchase.

Enjoyed this a great deal. Many reviews and articles I've ome across lean this way or that, typically saying the mot expensive unit is the best without any real description as to why. Even fewer bother to describe how units function and why they do so. I appreciate the functional description of speedlights and their optional accessories. This was a useful article. Much appreciated.

I'd like to add one thing to consider when choosing a flash: How heavy is it? Some flashes are great but the weight changes the balance of the camera; sometimes that's a necessary trade-off but other times a lighter (read lower-power, less feature-rich) flash works just as well. I personally have two and find myself using the lighter one most of the time and the larger one for specific effects or longer distances.

Very useful article on the basics of using a speedlite. Very clear and concise primer that gives me something to build on. Thank you.

Speedlight is for Nikon, Speedlite is for Canon.

With the speed lights how can I tell how far the flash will shoot? I want to take action sports shots in low light and stop the action. Thanks.

Hello,

Having used battery operated flashes for many years, in my experience they become ineffective past 25 feet. When subject matter is this far away from your camera position, one concern is someone or something can come in between you and your subject and affect your exposure.

The guide number on a filter specs gives you a good idea on how far it will go.
But for sports photography a speedlight is really not going to do much as usually sports photography is distance and speedlights are not strong enough or fast enough for those shots.

Please let us know if there is anything else we can assist you with.

If speedlights won't work for sports what kinda flash do you reccomend? Is there something else I should be looking at? Need about 100 ft. maybe a little less. Will be using with a Nikon D5000. Thanks..........

Hello,

You would have to position your lights closer to the action and then trigger them remotely. This is what lead Sports Illustrated Photographers to have the original Pocket Wizard developed so they could suspend their flashes above a boxing ring for example and trigger them as they photographed.

hi!
i am mostly shooting outdoor family portrait and newborn with a nikon d5100...which speedlight should i get knowing i cant afford to spend a fortune on it right now....
thanks

For the type of work you want a flash for, you don’t have to invest a fortune to get good results. Below are three flash models I have selected at various price points under $200 for you to consider. All have good quality and are fully compatible with your camera.

http://bhpho.to/qTE1ua

http://bhpho.to/JyBX0u

http://bhpho.to/JyEJm9

Hello,

Thanks for the wonderful information! I am shooting with a Nikon D7000 and am looking to get started with some lighting for portrait shots etc indoor as well as outdoor possibility. I have been looking at the sb-700 and obviously the 900, but a little steep. Are there any other brands of speedlights comparable? Any other reasonably prices lighting kits you would recommend?

Thanks!

Metz, Nissin, and Vivitar are manufacturers that all make flashes compatible with Nikon DSLRs and offer some very nice flash options. Below are a few links to some recommended flashes to consider as well as a few recommended lighting kits to consider.

http://bhpho.to/JyEJm9

http://bhpho.to/QmKDL4

http://bhpho.to/JAxsSX

http://bhpho.to/JzJyM1

http://bhpho.to/b1J44r

Hi, I'm new to flash photography and want to get a external flash for flower and insect macro photography but I have no idea if I need a powerful flash or a weak one? please help.

So we may properly advise you, can you please indicate the specific camera model and macro lens you would be purchasing a macro flash for?

Hello, I am a novice. I have a Nikon 5000 and a Speedlight sb-700. If I use the speedlight off camera or remote, it appears that the pop-up camera flash will fire as well as the speedlight. I looked in the manual to stop the pop-up flash, to no avail. Would I need to get a cable or a different solution to be able to use the remote feature of the speedlight without having the pop-up flash fire? Thanks.

The Nikon D5000 on its own is not capable of triggering a flash remotely without some sort of trigger device on it. In your inquiry you only mentioned the camera and the SB700 flash. Before I begin to comment on your issue, can you please indicate how you are triggering the SB700 with your D5000 camera?

I hope you don't mind me chiming in, but the camera flash probably pops up because the camera is in an auto setting and the camera is sensing the need for a flash. Try shooting in manual or aperture priority mode and the flash won't pop up on its own. I hope that helps.

Hi I need a speed light for portrait photography and also interested for a speed light capable for better zoom range.

My body is Nikon d7100.

And after reading the reviews ,I am confused among this three-

1)Nikon SB700 - NIKON Brand, Fully CLS compatible but the issue is the power output (lower GN number)

2) METZ 58 af-2 - Is it fully compatible with CLS ?? Is it better than SB 700 from performance point of view . Does the higher GN no as compared to SB700 really makes a difference?

3) Nissin Di866 mark2 - lower price same performance , what about CLS compatibility with Nikon D7100.

Could you please suggest me one out of this three or do you see some other better solution , also does the higher GN no really makes a difference ??

Thank you very much in advance for your time.

Guys an update to the query also I have found
YONGNUO TTL Speedlite YN-565EX GN 58 is very cheap as compared to the other products.
Is it fully TTL compatible, remort triggering ability ?? and what about its CLS with the Nikon .

The Guide number of the METZ 58 AF-2 is 58’, while the Guide number for the Nikon SB-700 is 92’, so the Nikon does have a higher guide number than the Metz 58. The Nissin Di866 would have more power than either of those two flashes (132’ at the 35mm position). A higher guide number can make a difference, definitely, as it will give you more effective range. The Di866 would be comparable to the Nikon SB-910, and can be used as a master on the D7100 to trigger another wireless compatible flash for Nikon. It can also be triggered off camera wirelessly by the D7100’s pop-up flash. The Nissin 58 af-2 is also compatible with Nikon’s wireless system, though it cannot be used as a commander. Between all three, I would lean towards the Nissin Di866. Nissin makes some of the better third party flashes on the market, and I find the interface, build, and performance of the Di866 to be truly excellent.

hey im looking for a speedlight for my canon t5i mainly to use for dark settings, im not a professional but I do enjoy a crisp clean photo.. also looking for something not too bulky that can draw too much attention.. any recommendations?

Below are links to a few recommended flash units for you to regard on our website for your Canon Rebel T5i camera:

http://bhpho.to/1kxamid

http://bhpho.to/18kYgZq

http://bhpho.to/18B0fqz

Hi,

I am new to photography. I recently purchased a Canon T3i. I am happy with most of my images except in low-light situations. Can you recommend a speedlight that will not break the bank. Thanks!!

Below are links to three recommended flash units for your Canon Rebel T3i camera which should be easy on your pocket book for you to consider:

http://bhpho.to/19IPgMA

http://bhpho.to/JZCpw5

http://bhpho.to/1c1M91X

       I was going to write anyway, but it's convenient to have this email window at the bottom of your article on flashes. Nice touch, B&H!

       I know photography and cameras well, and I'm familiar with the basics of flashes, but I want to make sure I buy the right model to do what I intend. I'm strictly a landscape/wildlife photographer and I mainly want an external flash for fill light - off camera for wildflowers and on camera for small mammals and birds.

       Always ready for a wildlife opportunity, I carry my camera on tripod like a rifle, carried in the crook of my arm or at arm's length. So I'm concerned by the strength of the 'neck' - the shoe mount structure of the unit. I've read reviews on your site and some of the horror stories involved the 'broken necks' of flashes. Also, I'm concerned that the weight of some flashes, with batteries, is close to a pound. (Yet I need that power) Since the photos I see indicate that all flashes are of a similar physical design, I tend to assume that this concern applies to all brands and models, but if that's not the case, I'd appreciate a recommendation on models that are better built to withstand a little stress. (in my price range)

       I'm interested in a powerfull flash since I shoot telephoto almost all of the time. So it seems that a zoom flash would be the way to go. For me, though, I see no advantage in "auto-zoom" since my telephoto lens (75-300mm full frame) is largely beyond the 85mm zoom setting and for wider coverage, I'll have time to manually set the flash.

       I'm open to advice on all flash brands, but viewing the models listed on your website, two that perked my interest are Vivitars: the DF-286 and the DF-383. These seem to be a lot of flash power for the price, especially the 286. Reading the reviews, though, there are some who said that Vivitar units failed with little use and the Vivitar customer service was poor. Opinion? I have no preference for brands, so any recommendations are welcomed. I'd like keep the price below $120.

       In reading your descriptions of flashes, there are some terms that I'm not familiar with. Maybe you can give me a brief description what what these mean: 

What is "auto-focus" in a flash? 

"Automatic shutter speed setting?"  (Is this what "flash sync" is about?)

"Built in vari-power?"  (Referring to manual power settings?) (Or that the power syncs to the E-TTL?)

When they say 'alkaline' batteries, does that also include Ni-MH?

Am I right in thinking that if you have TTL, then having an illuminated display on the flash would not be that important - or am I missing something?

When the specs refer to a flash zooming to 85mm, does that refer to 'full frame equivalent'? I have an APS-C camera but my tele zoom is a full frame lens. So am I correct in thinking that the full range of my 75-300mm zoom will be fully covered by such a flash?

       Note that I need a flash that will work with a non-Canon wireless trigger. (unless Canon has an inexpensive trigger/receiver system)

       And I need a wireless trigger that will work with a non-Canon flash. (Advice on such triggers would be great also!)

       Finally, I'm also thinking of buying a "Better Beamer" or some such tele extender for flash. Two questions:  1) Better Beamer vs other brands?  2) Will such devices work with all the flashes you recommend for me?  Also, I just read that BB lists compatibility with Nikon and Canon flashes, but not other brands, so do you know if the Beamer units can be used with other brand flashes? If you don't know, I can ask the Beamer folks.

       One more comment:  if there was ever a topic that would benefit from a chart with all the features, weights, prices, etc. listed as a top line with all the models you sell listed in column form with check marks for each feature, that would cut through a ton of confusion for potential customers. And along with the chart, you should have definitions of all terms used. No matter what source of info I've found online, there seems to be no consistent, efficient way to track down the brands and models that best match what I'm looking for. After narrowing down some basic features, you almost have to click on every model and scan the list of features. With so many flashes to choose from, this is way too much to remember and too much time to research and take notes on. Luckily, you are there to assist, but I've spent a lot of time trying to educate myself - and you can see how many questions I still have.

       I didn't realize I had so many questions. Thanks for your help.

       If you would like to save time with your answers, feel free to call me. If you do, though, it would be to your advantage to set up a time frame to call me via an email exchange. If I'm here, I'm usually on the computer editing photos. Also, if you call, speak slowly enough to give me time to take notes.

                         -- Mike Schuster   

Flash shoes on DSLR and Flash feet these days are being made more durable than in past models, at least this is the case with higher end flash models that are designed to stand up to professional applications.   In your comment about hiking with the tripod with the camera mounted and your concern of the flash mounted on the camera – we would recommend removing the flash.  I would not hike around with my flash mounted on-camera in that same manner.  Remove the flash when hiking, and reapply it when you go to shoot again.

Autofocus in a flash indicates that the flash also has an infrared panel on it, which it uses in the same manner as the camera’s autofocus system in the lens.  It emits its on IR beam and the camera uses that distance measured to help triangulate and calculate the subjects distance.  In low light it helps the camera decide on its focus point quicker.

Automatic Shutter speed setting – off hand is not a term that I hear regularly but it would describe the camera being set to shutter preferred mode and the camera/lens and flash will set the settings to best accommodate that shutter speed.  If that’s not what you’re asking about, if you could provide a specific reference to a camera that has this feature so I may regard it and reply.

Flash sync – indicates the shutter speeds at which the flash and camera fire simultaneously.  It can vary from camera to camera.

Built-in Variable Power – indicates a flash which in manual usage allows one to adjust the power output.

“Alkaline” batteries are one type of battery. Ni-MH indicates batteries which are powered by Nickel-metal hydride power source. Lithium is another type of battery power source.

On your question “Am I right in thinking that if you have TTL, then having an illuminated display on the flash would not be that important - or am I missing something?” – Are you referring to the LCD display that displays various exposure information on the back of the flash?  If so, yes, it is useful to have the information it displays there yes.  Battery power levels are posted there, flash mode settings, other details such as compensation levels etc are posted there.

Flash zooming specs are given in regards to full-frame format yes.  A flash that zooms to 85mm on an APS-C Canon camera will abide by the same 1.6x magnification factor as the lenses do.  85mm x 1.6 = 136mm.  There are not any flashes designed to cover telephoto focals such as those in a 75-300mm zoom.  The Better Beamer devices are great for extending the range of the flash and are commonly used by birding and wildlife photographers.

As far as flash recommendations and triggers etc go, I ask that you contact our sales division directly via telephone, as there are many details and options to go over, and speaking with a sales agent will be able to quickly resolve many of your topics that are too detailed to get into here in this forum.  Unfortunately I am not able to arrange to have a sales agent contact you via this means.  You may opt to call us anytime that is convenient for you during our normal business hours which are Mon-Thurs 9am-7pm eastern, Friday 9am-2pm Eastern, Sundays 10-5pm Eastern.  Please call - 800.606.6969 / 212.444.6615.

As far as your recommendation for information goes, I will pass that suggestion along to our Web Team for them to consider.

Do you have to shoot in Manual Mode for all flash units? I often shoot in sports mode and am not yet comfortable with manual mode. I have a Nikon D3200. I'm looking for recommendations on an inexpensive flash unit, but I don't understand how to find out if you have to shoot in Manual mode with the flash. Is there some designation for flashes that you don't have to shoot in Manual with? Thank you so much!

TTL type flashes communicate with the camera in most every mode to give the best possible exposure automatically.  One does not need to shoot in manual mode to work with a flash on-camera.  Any of your "Sports" or other sorts of exposure modes are all variations of Auto exposure mode since your allowing the camera to make exposure calculations and decisions.  The same goes with the flash, when you add it to this scenario it will work with the camera to give the best overall exposure given the subject and lighting.