Need Help Understanding Exactly What You Need to Know About Buying a Speedlight?

Once upon a time if you wanted an external flash for your camera then your choice was simple.  You would pay a small fortune for the manufacturer’s own brand built in flash. The end. Nowadays though, the amount of choice on the market is simply mind-boggling.  Prices seem to vary from $30 to over $400!

The number of features can also be bewildering to a beginner. The terminology and acronyms sound so complicated that you wonder if the NSA are needed to help you decipher.

What You Need to Know about Buying a Speedlight

What is a Speedlight?

A speedlight is a camera flash unit that sits on top of your camera’s hot shoe. A speedlight is also commonly referred to as an ‘external flash’ or ‘on camera flash’.  At the most basic level, a speedlight is used to add light to your photographs. Typically when there’s not enough natural light but a speedlight can also be used creatively.

Tip: OCF is commonly used to describe “OFF camera flash” and not to be confused with “ON camera flash”.  Off camera flash (OCF) simply means it is triggered remotely and is not physically connected to your camera. 

Why use an external flash and not the pop-up flash?

Most DSLR’s have a pop-up camera flash.  So why not use that instead of a Speedlight? Why would you want to pay extra for a big heavy external light when the camera already has one?  Well, the pop-up camera flash only emits light forwards to your subjects.  They are designed to be used as a fill camera flash and very weak in terms of power.

The combination of the small light source, weak power, and single direction makes it a very poor choice if you want beautiful portraits.

An external flash will allow you to rotate the flash head to “bounce” light off a suitable object like a wall or ceiling. Rotating the flash head and bouncing light from a wall or ceiling can give you a larger light source meaning the light will be much softer than the onboard can give you.

Tip: The larger the light source, the softer the light.

A Speedlight will also use its own batteries so won’t be draining your camera’s battery.

When you directly fire a camera flash at somebody’s face, the light from the camera flash can reflect off their retina and appear red in the photograph.  Since the speedlight is mounted above your camera and therefore isn’t in a straight line with your subject, the light is not reflected directly back into the camera.

For the above reasons, the use of the camera’s pop up is frowned upon by professional photographers.  In fact, on the top of the range cameras, they don’t even include them.

The two most important features when buying a Speedlight

There seems to be an overwhelming number of three-letter acronyms and figures when looking for a built in flash.  Here are the two most important features to look for:

Through the Lens (TTL)

There are essentially two types of speedlights.  The most popular is called Through-The-Lens (TTL) and the other is manual.

A manual is a very basic flashgun that has to be told by YOU how much power to emit.  You adjust the power in fraction increments. The higher the number, the more power.  So 1/8 is going to emit much more light than 1/128.  Manual flashes are typically cheaper because they are simpler to manufacture.

A TTL can be considered as an ‘automatic’ flashgun.  It communicates with your camera to determine what is the correct amount of light needed to properly expose the scene and tries to emit that amount of light.  I say ‘tries’ because whilst TTL is incredibly effective, it’s not foolproof.

So just in the same way that a camera sometimes will get fooled when using aperture priority and you need to add compensation, the same applies to a TTL.  Sometimes you simply have to dial in some compensation.  In general, though, TTL is surprisingly accurate.

So which should you choose?  Manual flashes are usually cheaper because they are simpler to manufacture.  There are some photographers who believe that choosing manual is a good way to learn since it forces you to learn how much to dial in.  Personally I disagree.  I recommend buying a TTL capable speedlight since they can always be used in manual mode but not the other way around.

Jargon Buster: Sometimes you will see i-TTL and e-TTL which are Nikon and Canon’s version of TTL.  From our point of view TTL is the universal term.

When looking at descriptions, if it doesn’t say TTL then it’s probably a manual.  If you aren’t sure, look at the hot shoe. If there is only one central firing pin then it is a manual.

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High Speed Sync (HSS)

Every DSLR camera will have a native sync speed.  This is the fastest shutter speed that you can use.  The speed depends on the camera itself but it is commonly between 1/160 to 1/250.  Above that, you will either not see the light at all or a black band across the bottom portion of the frame.

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HSS was introduced to overcome this limitation.  For speedlight that supports HSS, once you go over the shutter sync speed for your camera, the flash emits pulses of light instead of a continuous burst.  Your eyes cannot see this but your camera can.  The downside of this technique is the output of your flash power is reduced significantly.

Not all speedlights are HSS capable but given the small price difference I would recommend paying the extra.  You never know when it will come in handy.

Other things to consider

  • Reliability: With the price war from the various off-brand manufacturers, Speedlight prices have tumbled. But how reliable are they? Will they stand the pace of professional use? Or will they fall apart quickly?
  • Price and Savings: The original manufacturer’s flash is usually considered to be the most reliable and should things go wrong, they are more likely to service/repair the unit.  However, they are pretty much always the most expensive. Usually by a country mile. For example, the flagship Canon 600EX-RT is $469 from Amazon but an equivalent clone brand is around $126.  That’s a HUGE saving.
  • Are you a professional or just a hobbyist? Whether or not you want to pay the extra to get the most reliable built in flash money can buy is up to you.  If you are a hobbyist photographer then it is probably hard to justify the price difference.  If you are a professional or moving in that direction then you may decide it is worth paying the extra in the long run.
  • Personal Choice: Personally I do own a Nikon SB-910 but I prefer using off-brand flashes.  Why?  Because I’m clumsy and I’m far more likely to drop one than it breaking itself.  If I drop a $100 Speedlight that’s annoying. $400 would hurt far more!

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Here’s a photo of my old Yongnuo 568 which has seen a lot of use.  It’s even survived a few falls and still fires like a champ.  It’s one of the most popular off brand speedlights available.

Summary

The current price difference between a basic manual and a fully-featured all singing, all dancing TTL/HSS isn’t huge and the latter will make your experience with using flash far more pleasant.

I hope this guide has helped you learn about features to look for when buying your first Speedlight.  You may want to also watch the video below that will give a few more handy tips to help you choose.

If you have any of your own tips or have questions then do let us know in the comments below.