A flash is an important accessory that comes built into most cameras nowadays. It provides extra light in dark conditions and allow you to achieve better-balanced exposure in daylight settings.

Nevertheless, until you install an external flash on your camera, it is hard to appreciate the great impact they have on your photos. Inbuilt flashes create simple generic images while external flashes can do amazing wonders for your photos. Here is a guideline to help you choose the best flash for your photography needs.

What is wrong with my inbuilt flash?

The inbuilt flash is not necessarily worthless; it can still do a decent job at lighting up your subjects in various situations. It is just good enough for general photography. However, if you want to enhance your skills as a photographer or you are interested in taking on paid projects like weddings or portraits, you should certainly get an external flash.

The main issue with inbuilt flashes is that it does not have any versatility. Once you activate it, it flashes straightforward in one angle. Thus, inbuilt flashes do not provide enough space for creativity, an element that is vital for capturing professional looking and great photos. In using external flashes, your increase your understanding of the effects of light on your photos and you have better control of your output. You can manually control contrast, exposure, lighting pattern, ISO noise, and motion.

Here are some of the main considerations to look out for when buying a camera flash:

Power

Power is the most important consideration when looking at flash specifications. The power output of a flash is usually expressed by its GN value (Guide Number). Without getting too technical about the GN value, you should go for a flash with a high GN rating. Essentially, a flash with a higher GN value will emit the most light. While it is possible to reduce the output of your flash, you cannot raise the output beyond what your flash can produce.

Here is a simple equation for the GN value:

GN value = Aperture value X distance to subject

As you gain experience as a photographer, you will start realising when departing from the GN formula will lead to a better photo. Nevertheless, when it comes to buying external flashes, this formula is important in enabling the comparison of the power output of various devices.

Recycling rate

Another major feature to consider is the recycling rate, which determines the time between two flash pops.

Manufacturers usually express the recycling rate in seconds, assuming that you are using a new set of internal batteries. However, the specification sheet will often display two different numbers, for example, 0.1 – 6 seconds. The lower number expresses how soon another flash shot can be taken if the flash produced the lowest light output, whereas the higher number indicates the time it will take before taking another flash show once it has generated the maximum light output.

In most cases, the important recycling value to consider is the one at maximum output. Aim to get one that has a shorter maximum light output time. But even with this at the back of your mind, remember that you will need some high-quality batteries specifically made for a high-drain device so as to get the maximum recycling rate claimed by the manufacturer.

Important Flash Features

The important features described here below are usually standard inclusions in most modern camera flashes. Nevertheless, it is still good to understand the main functions of these features.

  • 1. TTL Metering
    All modern flashes use a quick series of instantaneous light bursts that determine the optimal flash exposure before the shot is taken. This happens after you have pressed the capture button on your camera and the shutter is just about to open.

    Thankfully, photographers are not supposed to be worried about the intricate TTL calculation necessary. The camera and flash together analyse the instantaneous light bursts, along with current camera settings (such as focal length, shooting mode, aperture, ISO, etc.) and automatically set the correct power setting in the flash.

  • 2. Auto-Focus Assist Beam
    Many external flashes provide an external autofocus assist beam, which is considerably less intrusive, more effective and brighter than the camera’s internal autofocus. This assist beam helps you focus clearly in nearly zero light settings without the unwanted effect of blinding your subjects with an invasive flashing beam coming from your DSLR’s AF lamp or pop-up flash.
    Beware of certain 3rd party camera flashes with unusable beam patterns.

    Preferably, your flash should use a grid or crisscrossed pattern to cover different autofocus points. Most 3rd party camera flashes only provided a single vertical line or centre dot that are not quite useful.

  • 3. Auto Zoom
    Most flashes today have a handy zooming feature based on your camera’s focal length. Thus, for example, when you zoom from 30mm to 70mm, the flash will automatically fine-tune its beam pattern so as to ensure efficient usage of light and maximum coverage. Most automatic zoom flashes can also be set manually, which enables you to change the light patterns from narrow to wide, depending on which lighting effect you desire.
  • 4. Swivel and tilt
    Your flash should have the ability to tilt upwards and downwards, as well as swivel from right to left. This feature will help ensure you have better light control after mounting the flash on your camera. Most flashes can move upwards and downwards, but you should go for one that can also swivel to enhance your lighting possibilities.

Advanced Flash features

If you want more advanced features, consider looking at the following secondary features:

  • 1. Wireless Flash control
    Many advanced flashes allow for the use of the main master flash to wirelessly and remotely control other flashes while maintaining TTL exposure computation on every flash triggered. Theoretically, you can join up an unlimited number of flash devices wireless and set each flash’s output from your master unit that is attached to your camera.

    The master feature is limited to the high-end devices while the lower end devices are used as the flash devices receiving the signal instructions. Thus, before buying a flash, it is good to decide if you want to use wireless triggering.

  • 2. Manual control
    There are some photographers who prefer having full control over their flashes, and ultimately their photos. In this case, you should go for a flash that has a manual control feature. An example of manual control in action is setting different intensities from two unique flashes. You could set one unit to fire at a higher rate and lower intensity for the other one. Having this control on your photography output is only possible when using manual control flashes.
  • 3. Weatherproof Flash
    Photographers usually have to work in challenging environments and weather conditions. Therefore, you should aim for a flash device that is weatherproofed for added resilience. Most Nikon and Canon flashes fit the bill of being well weatherproofed. However, if you want to buy from other manufacturers, like cheap 3rd party devices, do some research first to ensure that the flash is resilient. It is also advisable to purchase a sleeve along with your flash for extra protection.
  • 4. Silent Flash
    While a silent flash is not a requirement, having one that is not noisy is a great bonus. A high-quality flash device will be smooth and silent without causing any distraction to your concentration during your shoot. Besides that, considering flash devices are largely used with portrait, having a silent one will certainly make a difference.

    And to be honest, gone are the days the incessant clicking of Speedlight flashes spelt glamour and spontaneity.

  • 5. External power feature
    Some flash models allow bigger capacity external batteries to be used. There are several benefits of using external batteries. For one, they can dramatically enhance the recycling time and help maximise your flash usage. Also, external batteries can increase the period the flash will be used on a single charge.
  • 6. Special effects
    Some of the special effects to look out for are strobe mode and rear curtain synchronisation. When strobe mode is activated, the flash fires severally as the shutter is still open. Strobe is used to superimpose several impressions of moving subjects on the same photo.

    In rear curtain synchronisation mode, the flash only fires when the camera’s shutter is closing. This effect is great for creating a trail that traces the movement of subjects in motion.

Additional Considerations

Choosing the right flash will largely be influenced by the need to get a powerful unity that has the most beneficial feature allowed by your budget. Nevertheless, there are several other points worth noting, and they are discussed below:

  • 1. Price
    Setting a budget as you plan to purchase a flash is very helpful. Remember that there simply will not by many flashes that have high-tech features for less than $100. Be reasonable and logical with how you plan your budget. Usually, the more feature-rich, reliable and powerful the device, the more expensive it is going to be.
  • 2. Bounce light
    An important reason for using a flash device is primarily the need to have more light. When you bounce light at a diffuser or of a wall, it softens the intensity, which gives you photos a more professional look. This professional look of a soft and well-lit image is achieved by directing the flash head onto another surface like the diffuser or wall. Using this effect can help you create artistic images with interesting contrast levels.
  • 3. Longevity
    Remember that a flash is just like any other light bulb. It will not flash forever and will eventually breakdown. That is why you should do some research to find out how long certain models are going to last before you need to do a replacement.
  • 4. Temperature control
    Most flashes usually get hot, especially when under heavy use. On certain flashes, this means operating at a lower power or shutting down completely. Thus, you must know how your flash handles temperature before putting it through a rigorous shooting session.
  • 5. Features and functions
    Different flashes have different functionalities and features. Some have the basic lighting features while some have the advanced features like multi-flash and auto zoom. It is recommended to assess your photography needs and styles to avoid overpaying for functions or features you are never going to use.
  • 6. Original or aftermarket
    Buying external flashes made by leading camera manufacturers has the benefit of ensured compatibility and reputable build quality. Nevertheless, with this guarantee in quality comes a significantly steeper price tag.

    Most aftermarket flashes are essentially copies of branded devices. In fact, you can find that the best aftermarket flashes are on the same level with regards to build quality when compared to their more expensive branded counterparts. Also, aftermarket models generally offer additional functionality or higher specifications, thus making them a better option. Thus when comparing flash devices, it is worth considering flashes from all the manufacturers.

  • 7. New or used
    A camera flash is a complex device that can get broken easily and is quite difficult to repair. While a new one will certainly last longer, proper maintenance will ensure your used device also works for a long time. If considering getting a used flash, make sure that all its features are functioning correctly. Thus, ensure you thoroughly check the unit before making your final decision.

Final Note

Buying the right flash and using it properly will certainly open up more photographic opportunities and increase your knowledge of controlling and manipulating light. Essentially, adding an external flash is a somewhat cheap and easy route to getting professional results. Ultimately, the most critical feature will likely be Power.

You can even seek out local assistance from a photography shop and have a hands-on illustration of different models. There’s really no denying that with the modern day online shopping system, it can be a little overwhelming to look at all the features and flashes. However, by getting a little personal help from the gurus, you can understand the different features easier and also increase your confidence and knowledge – especially for beginners.

Photography experts recommend writing down a list of useful features, like the ones mentioned above, and then prioritising on these features. You can then use the same list to compare different specifications of the flashes on offer. That will allow you to determine the best flash for your DSLR quickly.