Choosing a Small Flash

Because small lights and big lights each bring a different set of considerations to the party, I am splitting my recommendations into small flashes (AKA speedlights) and big lights (AKA studio lights).

For speedlights, you have to decide if you wanna drive stick or automatic, meaning 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!

How to Choose the Right Batteries

You roll your eyes, but I'm serious. While all AA batteries will work in your flash, some will work way better than others.

First, you shouldn't use alkaline batteries. In addition to being far less environmentally friendly than rechargeable batteries (and in the long run more expensive) they straight up do not work as well.

That's because alkaline batteries, while having a voltage of 1.5 volts each, do not deliver energy to your flash as fast as nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable versions. NiMH batteries only have 1.2 volts, but still deliver current to your flash faster because of the internal chemistry of the battery.

Think of it as having a water hose with a wider diameter. Even with less pressure (i.e. voltage) it can push more water (i.e., current).

Second, some NiMH batteries are better than others. Always look for the words "pre-charged" on the label. And no, we do not care that they arrive pre-charged. But that designation also indicates that the batteries are the slow-drain variety.

That's right, some NiMH batteries will lose their charge by themselves as they sit on your shelf doing nothing. It's like having a glass of water but the glass has a small hole in the bottom.

As long as your batteries are NiMH and slow-drain, the only other variable is their capacity. That is measured in milhiamp-hours, or mAh.

I like to have 8 batteries (two full sets) for each flash. Since I can charge one set faster than I can drain the other set down, it's basically like having infinite power resources.

Here are two good value recommendations (AmazonBasics), with differing mAh capacities:

8 AA NiMH Slow-Drain Batteries, 2400 mAh

8 AA NiMH Slow-Drain Batteries, 2000 mAh

...And Charge Them Right

As for keeping your batteries charged, there are things to know there, too. First, NiMH do not have memory issues like older rechargeable batteries. So feel free to top them up any time.

But charging rates (i.e., how fast your charger can top them up) will affect the lifespan of your battery.

Yes, you can charge your batteries in 15 minutes with some chargers. But that needs a lot of current, and generates a lot of heat. And those unnecessary thermal cycles will shorten your battery's life.

If you ask your battery, it would much prefer to be charged slowly, over a period of four hours or so. But since you often don't have that kind of time, a good compromise is to go for a 1-2 hour charger.

Or better yet, one that you can switch between 1-2 hours, or 3-4 hours at the touch of a button. I use the Powerex charger shown above. It'll let me choose the rate for charging, charge two full 4-battery sets at once, and costs less than $40.

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