Because big lights and small lights each bring a different set of considerations to the party, I am splitting my recommendations into speedlights and "studio lights." (Although I hate that term.)
For speedlights, you have to decide if you wanna drive stick or automatic—AKA manual or TTL. I live in manual mode, which means I sacrifice some convenience for reliability and repeatability. It also means I can pay about a third as much for each of my flashes.
Going with TTL flash (and the required TTL transmitters and receivers) is a convenience, but is also more expensive. The choice depends on your pocketbook and your lighting needs.
Top Pick for Manual Speedlights
For manual speedlights, I wholeheartedly recommend the LumoPro LP180, about which I go into far more detail here. It's built like a tank, syncs four different ways, has a fluid and intuitive user interface, a built-in gel holder and has a two-year manufacturer's warranty.
My favorite feature on the LP180 is, at the time of this writing, unique to LumoPro speedlights: it has a tripod female mount on the side of the flash. This may not sound like a big deal, but that thoughtful gesture allows us to put the flash very close to the shaft of a lighting umbrella — which will improve the quality of the light as compared to any other speedlight.
Alone, each of the above features are a nice extra touch. Together, they combine to make a value-priced manual speedlight that is head-and-shoulders above the competition.
That it costs about a third as much as you would pay for an OEM branded flagship TTL flash is icing on the cake. If you can commit to shooting manually, this is your flash.
Top Pick for TTL Speedlights
TTL (as opposed to manual) stands for "through the lens" automatic control of the power output of the flash. It is a nice capability, but it is certainly not a necessity. In fact, I use manual about 100% of the time.
Further, if you are dependent on TTL you will pay a premium to maintain this capability every time you buy an additional flash or trigger/receiver combo.
If you do need TTL flash control, you can pay full-price for your camera manufacturer's flagship flash. But a better choice might be to consider a premium 3rd-party TTL flash like the Phottix Mitros+ (pictured above).
Why? Well, in addition to the obvious and considerable price savings, the Mitros+ also includes a built-in TTL radio transmitter and receiver. Further, integrates seamlessly (and in TTL mode) with Phottix's very capable Indra studio flash, which can give you the ability to grow your TTL capabilities into higher-power lighting.
And lest you worry about build quality vs. the more expensive OEM flagship flashes, the Mitros+ has a warranty that is three times as long. Just sayin'.
For most people, I suggest starting out with a manual flash. In addition to being less expensive, it will help you to learn in a way that puts you in complete and consistent control of your lighting. You can always expand into TTL later. But make sure it is important enough to you to warrant the extra initial (and ongoing) expense before you do so.
Whatever You Do, Don't Do This:
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are a ton of flashes constantly hitting the market from the far east, from a variety of pop-up brands. Some of the brands are even zombies risen from the dead of bankrupt brands that you used to know and trust. They have spotty track records for quality. Factory warranties are short to nonexistent.
Many who read this will be tempted to go that route because of prices that are almost too good to be true. If that's you, by all means knock yourself out. Some people need to be stung in the wallet to remember a lesson or bit of advice. I know I did when I was young. Good luck with that!
As far as big (AKA "studio") lights go, there is a completely different set of variables to consider. Big lights are system-oriented, and you would do well to choose wisely in what will likely be a long-term relationship.
I am happy where I am now. But boy did I waste a lot of time and money to get here.
You can spend a ton of money on Big Lights. The high-end brands (Profoto, Broncolor) are very nice. But they are also silly expensive, and really only make sense if you are regularly shooting big-ticket jobs. Or renting them on someone else's dime.
You don't need to mortgage your house to have good, powerful lights. For my money, the sweet spot is in three brands:
Paul C. Buff
A good value choice for US folks, but not in other countries as PCB is mostly a domestic US brand. Skip the cheaper AlienBees models and go for an Einstein 640. It's a lot of flash for the money — much more so than the similarly shaped AB's.
Paul Buff also has good battery options which make the E640s great for outside, and a wide range of reasonably priced modifiers.
PCB brings a lot of advantages, but global availability (and cross-platform compatibility) is not a strong suit.
A solid choice anywhere in the world, Elinchrom has made great strides lately in many areas. They offer powerful pack-and-head
kits that can be as much as six times as powerful as the Einsteins mentioned above.
They also offer a range of other models, including monoblocs and an especially cool ELB 400 (seen above) that is a diminutive, go-anywhere 400 watt-second flash that runs on equally small batteries.
These are full-system flashes serving a global platform. So you are not restricted by geography, as you are with PCB lights. And Elinchrom offers a huge range of light modifiers that will allow you to shape your lighting in any way you want.
A bonus: Elinchrom's new Skyport Plus HS trigger gives deep integration with their lights for Nikon, Canon and Sony cameras.
Not a Big Light company per se, Phottix' portable entry to the studio strobe arena is the Indra. If you are looking for a lithium battery-powered portable light that will allow you to work against full sun, this is a strong consideration.
Good value, strong build quality (important in a traveling light) and increasing cross-platform compatibility all add value to this fast-growing global brand.
If Phottix doesn't skew as far into the "big lights" arena as do the other two, it makes up for it at the other end of the spectrum. Phottix Indras have built-in "Odin" receivers. Which means they can be seamlessly used alongside other Odin-system flashes, with sophisticated remote control (not just triggering) capabilities.
The Odin remote platform is not just about big lights, either. They also integrate with multiple brands of speedlights. Which is why the Phottix system is attractive to photographers who work with a mix of small lights and big.
Specifically, the Odin will control the Phottix Mitros+ and LumoPro LP180"R" speedlights in both manual and TTL modes, giving options across the size range that no other smart remote can match.
Whatever You Do, Don't Do This:
Again, I would implore you to resist the siren song of the super-cheap mystery brands from the far east. Among the littany of reasons: No long-term reputation, bad (if existent) warranty, bad service—and some downright electrical dangers.
But if you young and broke and need some hard-won personal experience of your own to dissuade you in the future, by all means go right ahead. (I'm being sarcastic here. Resist the urge.)
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