For many forms of photography, an off camera flash should pop-up (pun intended) at some point in your career. Whether you’re a portrait photographer, a product photographer, or a sports photographer, some sort of flash other than what is built into your camera will be necessary. Whether you’re keeping it on or off camera, picking a speedlight can be a daunting task. Here is a guide to picking the right speedlight.
There are three categories that I’m going to put everything in: brand name, third party, and Knock-Offs. The biggest differences, truthfully, are found in the build quality. Naturally, there are other differentiating factors, but most brands are pretty similar in terms of feature set and capability. Let’s get started.
Name Brand (Nikon SB-910/Canon 600 EX-RT)
Nikon and Canon (and almost every camera manufacturer) have been making their own speedlights for decades now. The advantage to this initially came around when TTL was created. Manufacturers could pair a light with their camera, and they can communicate together to allow for a faster, more efficient workflow. Nikon and Canon have always been known for the build quality that comes with their prestigious name. This shows in their speedlights. There are very few, if any, ‘off-brand’ flashes that compare to the build quality of the SB/EX line of flashes. This is the reason that many professional shooters will gravitate towards brand name flashes over third party options. The brand name flashes have it all; high-speed-sync, fast recycle, second curtain sync, full TTL with exposure compensation, and more. This, alongside the excellent build quality, makes them a worthy contender. The downfall of brand name speedlights is their cost. The SB-910 and Canon 600EX-RT both clock in at around $500 USD. That being said, it’s always a good idea to have one in your bag should things go south, and you need a flash that you know will hold up no matter what.
A side note on brand name flashes: BUY USED! Buying used is a great way to get high end equipment at a good discount. I have a Nikon SB-800 that I picked up used and it has performed flawlessly. Many people are hesitant to buy used, but I outlined a few reasons to buy used and some things to look for when going in that direction with your purchases in my other article.
Third Party (Phottix Mitros+, Lumopro LP180/R)
In the past decade, digital photography has allowed many manufacturers, aside from the main camera companies, to produce accessories like lights, lenses, and software to accompany a photographer's camera. Lens manufacturers, like Tamron and Sigma, have taken the world of optics by storm recently. At the same time, third party flash manufacturers, like Phottix and Lumopro, have certainly given Canon and Nikon a run for their money. Let me start with the Phottix Mitros+.
This unit is built with TTL, so you’ll need to pick it up for Nikon, Canon, or Sony (both ISO and Minolta shoe). You have TTL on the Phottix just like on the brand name flashes, so event, press, sports, and wedding photographers won’t miss out there. Mitros+ units also bring high-speed-sync and second-curtain sync to the table. There’s even a feature on the Phottix that no other unit has: a built in wireless controller. Phottix has gotten some real attention for their excellent Odin wireless TTL trigger system. The Mitros+ has an Odin transmitter built in, so you can control other Mitros+ flashes, or any other TTL flash with an Odin receiver attached to it, through the flash on top of your camera. While the Nikon and Canon flashes have something similar, the Phottix uses a true wireless system, not an infrared/optical trigger. This insures consistent firing in situations like weddings or sporting events, where you’re likely to be more than 10’-20’ away from your off camera flashes. With the built in Odin transmitter, you can control both the on camera flash and the off camera flashes in full manual OR TTL mode with any combination of the flashes in different modes. This is a level of versatility that is truly unseen in any other system.
Next up, one of my personal favorites, the Lumopro LP180/R. There are two different models, the LP180 and LP180R. The two units only have one differentiating feature aside from the price and that is the built in Phottix Odin receiver. I’ll focus this portion on the LP180R.
The LP180R is a $229 unit. It has an excellent power output that matches well with the other flashes already listed, has a built-in wireless system that provides flexibility, and a build quality rarely seen in flashes at this price point. There is really only one flaw with the LP180R (and the standard LP180), and that is the lack of a TTL hotshoe. While the built-in Odin receiver allows for TTL control off camera, the hot-shoe itself only has the single firing pin. Technically this could be an advantage as the flash can be put on virtually any camera and it will fire. That being said, if you work with a lot of on camera flash, the LP180R may prove frustrating.
Should you be looking for an off camera flash, the LP180R certainly delivers with power, reliability, and affordability. Truth be told, this may be the best flash on the market.
Knock-Offs (Yongnuo, Shanny, etc)
Any photography forum on the web will show you two sides to this argument. Those are as follows:
1. They’re cheap and they can be replaced.
2. They’re cheap and will need to be replaced.
It really depends on the kind of person you are and how much of a risk taker you are. These flashes are incredibly inexpensive (anywhere from $70-$150 depending on whether you want TTL or not). You could by five Yongnuo flashes for less than the price of a brand new Nikon. However, you may have to replace the Yongnuo/Shanny units pretty frequently and this often scares folks away.
On paper, these units are great. You can get TTL on the hotshoe, or built in wireless, power output equaling the high end brand name flashes, and even high-speed-sync. The flaw here is the build quality. The outside of the flash feels identical to the brand name units (some even look identical), but the internals are where you’ll start to find differences. Granted you won’t likely be taking the flashes apart, but having seen some teardowns on cheap knock-offs, versus the Lumopro/Phottix, versus the brand name flashes, I can tell you that the knock-offs really lose out here. A lot of electrical connections aren’t reinforced, and there are a lot of pieces that aren’t even there. These are the sorts of things that cause flashes to just suddenly stop firing (probably in the middle of a wedding). For $250 USD you can get a wireless trigger (YN560-TX) and three flashes (YN-560IV). That’s a little ridiculous. Be careful though; buying these flashes is like buying gas station sushi, you’re really rolling the dice.
Buy a brand name flash, and a few LP180Rs. Say you buy an SB-910, this gives you one really killer flash that you know will last you quite a while. You get your TTL, high-speed-sync, and just about any other feature that you could want. Use this for some one light set-ups and rock and roll.
Having a few LP180Rs in your kit can helpful for a few reasons.
Backup: Drunk wedding guests and anything with batteries don’t mix. Don’t let their good time give you a hard time, bring a backup.
Power: Are you outside and using high speed sync and finding that one flash doesn’t quite cut it? Throw another flash into the mix and it may just save the day.
Setups with more than one light? Your one SB-910 won’t cut it. A few LP180Rs let you work with more complex set ups without dropping $2,000 on speed lights alone.
The Odin system. You can get the new, incredible Odin II transmitter, a receiver for your SB-910 and automatically have a receiver built into your Lumopro flahses. The SB-910 gives you the on camera TTL, the Odin lets you bring it all together for easy off camera functionality.
Let’s see a price break down.
1x SB-910 $546.95
2x LP180R $229.99 (each)
1x Odin II Transmitter $209.95
1x Odin II Receiver $159.95
This totals to just shy of $1,400.
This kit is plenty for almost anything you may find yourself shooting at a pretty great price. Choosing a speedlight can be awfully daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. The key is doing the research and finding what brands offer the features that you want with a build quality that you’re comfortable with.