Choosing a Small Flash

UPDATE, 1/1/2019: Manual-only is still recommended as being most reliable, with fast/intuitive user interface. But radio-enabled 3rd-party flashes are adding new features and models all the time. Whatever you do, think twice before needlessly shelling out big bucks for your camera manufacturer's pricey, branded speedlights.
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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, your first choice is deciding whether you wanna drive stick or automatic, meaning manual or TTL. I live in manual mode, which means I sacrifice some convenience for both better value and rock-solid reliability. Also, I am not held captive to "TTL tax" every time I buy a new piece of lighting gear.

Because if you want to maintain those TTL capabilities as you expend, you have to go with gear that works on that more complex, branded platform. In other words, once you're in, they pretty much have you where they want you.


Top Pick for Manual Speedlights



For manual speedlights, I 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.

A NOTE ABOUT MANUAL-ONLY FLASHES

A well-designed, manual-only flash has a zen quality to the user interface that no feature-ladened "Swiss army knife" flash could ever have. Because the latter has to include TTL controls and a built-in (brand-captive!) remote, and the various additional group and channel controls that implies.

So you can expect that TTL/remote-embedded flash to have menu trees, which is the natural enemy of fluid interfaces.

You know what's nice? Having a flash that I can reach up and dial in another 1.3 stops, while also tightening the zoom from 35mm to 50mm, without even looking at it. Because it is just up-down/left-right buttons, and that is super easy to do by feel without skipping a word in the rapport you are trying to build and keep with your subject.

If I could sum up the state of the art in small flashes in the past few years in two words, it would be "feature creep." You may think this is a good thing. But I really don't need a flash with Bluetooth® to tell me when my coffee is done. And while we are not there yet, at the current pace we probably will be soon.

The upshot of all this "progress" is that almost certainly, purpose-built manual flashes with lovely, intuitive user interfaces will be going away soon. The LumoPro LP180 is the last, best one out there. And even it won't be around forever.



Choosing a TTL Speedlight

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. But you might be different. If you chase your kids around the living room with a camera and flash or shoot parties and receptions, for instance, TTL can be a nice convenience to have for those occasions.

Just know that what you'll be giving up is a simpler, more intuitive set of controls. Even in manual mode, you're going to be navigating more menus and pushing more buttons while shooting.

If you are going the TTL route, at least do this: avoid your camera manufacturer's branded flash. They tend to be very good flashes, but they are insanely overpriced. For example: a single Nikon SU-5000 speedlight, with the Nikon radio needed to fire it remotely, will set you back over $700.

Welp, I guess that's just how much good flashes cost, right? NOPE. For that much money you could have gotten:


• (2) Godox TT685 manual/TTL/radio-enabled flashes, branded to your camera platform ($110 ea.)
• a Godox XPro series remote transmitter, branded to your camera platform ($70)
• (2) LumoPro LP605s strapped compact light stands ($45 ea.)
• (2) LumoPro LP679 umbrella swivel adapters ($16 ea.)
• (2) LumoPro LP735 3-in-1 compact umbrellas ($30 ea.)
• LumoPro 32" padded lighting case ($30)

This is a fantastic little portable two-light studio, with both manual and wireless TTL capabilities. The included LumoPro studio gear is warrantied for 5 years. And you have still have nearly $200 left over, compared to the price of one Nikon speedlight with a wireless transmitter.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Look, in 2019, we have been conditioned to pop off a little web research and head straight to Amazon. And Nikon would certainly love for you to go that route. But this is an instance where it really makes sense to pick up the phone and talk to someone knowledgeable to walk you through your options. (And no, that someone is not me.) Because the options are very camera brand-specific, and flash models are getting updated all the time.

In the U.S., try Midwest Camera Exchange in Columbus, Ohio: (866) 940-3686. Ask to speak to someone about small flash gear. Tell them, "I have [X] kind of camera, and I am interested in doing [X] kind of lighting work and I have [X] budget. What do you recommend and why?"

Just as in the example above, you'll likely end up with more appropriate gear, for less money.


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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