The Layman's Guide to Buying Speedlights

The Layman's Guide to Buying Speedlights

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. 

Verdict

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. 

Posted In: 
Log in or register to post comments

48 Comments

I'm not really a TTL fan myself, never really seen the point.

Eric Lefebvre's picture

It's useful some times but I can often make due with just manual flashes if I have to.

I love it for shooting weddings. I only really use it if either someone grabs me on the dance floor and asks for a quick group shot, I dont have the opportunity to test my flashes (Ive been in a few corporate events where they tell me no flash except for 1 group shot at the end. No tests), or if i see something changing in front of me that i cant control (like if the FOB decides to come into the room early)

Kevin Liu's picture

Gas station sushi. Not even once.

Eric Mazzone's picture

HAHAHAHAHA, the author is being a bit prejudicial here. I started with a set of Nikon flashes years ago. I constantly had to deal with misfires, over heating after a few shots at low power, and other issues. Since I've switched to the NON-knock off Yongnous, the ONLY time I have a misfire or issue is if ***I*** screw something up.

Price + just freaking works = better than OEM. The YNs and the OES are designed by the SAME PEOPLE. Nikon & Canon farmed out their engineering to China, the same people designing the Nikon & Canon gear, turn around and design the YN stuff. It's a no brainer. Until I can afford the the Profoto B2's I'm using these.

Usman Dawood's picture

You severely exaggerate how bad the Yongnuo flashes really are. For the price of one Canon 600EX flash you can buy up to 6 Yongnuo 568 flashes.

Even if your Yongnuo flash needs replacing every 6 months (which is unreasonable) and your canon flash needs replacing every 3 years, you're still better off buying the Yongnuo. Especially when you consider that money today is worth more than money tomorrow, and that if you start buying multiple flashes then this is amplified further, in favour of Yongnuo.

Lastly if you buy one which is faulty within 6 months in the UK then you can simply get a refund/replacement under consumer laws. Also Amazon are great when it comes to their service even up to 12 months after purchasing something.

Is true whah you say and Yongnuo is not so bad, in fact are better than LP180

Sometimes pros have to justify buying more expensive gear. Given the same performance its easier to discredit its durability.

Usman Dawood's picture

I don't agree with the "pros do this or that" argument, because it's a flawed stance especially when discussing ideas with other professionals.

I do understand what you're trying to get at, some people may value build quality enough to not want to go through the hassle of buying several flashes. However economically Yongnuo may be a significantly better option.

the yongnuo and canon 600rt both have built in wireless 2.4ghz transmission with grouping. I have 1 canon 600rts, 2 yongnuo 600rts and the rt yongnuo controller. Total around 900 and it does it all

Dan Solomon's picture

I've owned seven Yongnuo YN560III/IV's and currently own five. The only reason I'm down two is because I've dropped them from 7 feet onto tile. Those things, combined with the YN560TX, are an incredible value if you don't need TTL.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Personally, I have 3 Nikon brand flashes (a SB600, and 2x SB750) and 2 Yungnuo 568s. The reason that I bought the Nikons was because I became really frustrated with having constant problem with the YN flashes. I HATE, HATE, HATE how they randomly turn off to conserve power mid shoot. I also find them much slower to recharge after firing. When I'm shooting with the YN flashes, I'm constantly fighting with the lights to make them work right. When I'm shooting with the Nikon's I set the up and they just work consistently for the entire shoot. For that reason il never be buying YN flashes again.

I wouldn't mind YN if they had to be replaced but worked well but I hate being in situations with a client where the lights are making me look unprofessional because they aren't working correctly.

On a side note though, good batteries change everything with small flash. The difference in performance between any of my flashes with drug store Duracell or Energizers in them and a high quality battery like Eneloop Pro is so radical that it amazes me.

You can turn power saver off, bet pressing "FN" and setting "SEOFF" to "--".

Ryan Cooper's picture

Both of mine still power off during use, regardless of that setting. Perhaps the problem isn't related to Power Saving but il be mid shoot and they will just randomly turn themselves off. (Even with fresh batteries)

robert s's picture

COOL! thats a new flash that SB750? that must have been announced with the D5/D500, right? where can I get one? I didnt see it on their website.

never had a flash not function properly. yongnuo or shanny. but I did have nikon flashes not work properly.

the 568 (it the flash im shooting with in my avatar) doesnt go to sleep with 622n slaves. the slave wakes them up the second you half press the shutter button. I dont have the 568 anymore. they are older gen flashes. I use shanny sn600n flashes as my main on camera flashes.

Ryan Cooper's picture

My bad SB700s typo good catch.

I run mine YNs on 622 slaves exclusively and constantly have problems. I think its probably just a testament to YN's reputation of inconsistency. You either get ones that work great, or you get ones that really dont.

robert s's picture

I sold 4 nikon flashes I had . 1 SB900 1 SB700 2 SB800. the nikons wouldnt fire well on the 622n. Id have to remove it from the shoe and then remount it or wiggle it a bit to get them to work right. I now only use 1 model of yongnuo which is 560MK3. I have 3 of those and I have to use a pc sync cord with them on the 622n because I get misfires with them as well.using a pc syn cord while it sits in the hot shoe is the only way to guarantee they work. I had the 568 and they fired well with the 622n and I had the 565 and they have a lot of misfires with the 622n and this is known around the net.

the only flash that works consistently with the 622n is the shanny SN600N flash. I use 6 of these flashes. better than the 568 and 565 in every way. faster recycle more powerful better build lower price HSS and battery port. 14mm-200mm-in every way, including a lower price.

Eric Lefebvre's picture

I don't shoot with YunGnuo anymore (still have a few old YN-460 in a drawer) and now I shoot with Godox flashes exclusively (the V850 and V860c models ... I own 7 of those).

The YN-622 triggering system for example is pretty awesome.

The YN-460 are great for what they are ... pure manual only flashes. They are great because they trigger reliably and if / when you are shooting in a precarious position, you might not want to risk your 600$ name brand flash ... YN-460 II? 70$ Also, nice to have as an emergency backup flash.

Also, no mention of Sigma? I used to have 2 of their flashes and they were pretty solid.
No mention of Godox / Flashpoint?

The v850 / v860 use proprietary lith ion battires and special triggers receivers.

Barry Chapman's picture

You forgot Metz and Nissin, both of which make flashes which provide functionality that's up there with Phottix and Lumopro.

robert s's picture

and both overpriced. I wouldnt buy metz they filed for insolvency 2 years ago and IMO are out the door soon. photoflex left a year ago and pocket wizard closed their europe division. they are going soon as well. I had various metz flashes in the past. the last one being the 58 AF-2 its a garbage flash. I dont know if you ever used it but the menu is so slow to navigate and recycle is around 5 seconds and more for a full power pop. if you dont touch the flash in 1-2 minutes and you press a button to adjust it, the first press you do, does nothing. it basically tells the flash you want to do something but the menu system is just horrible and inefficient. maybe the new ones with the digital touch screens are better. nissin flashes are selling more than an OEM flashes. who'd be dumb to pay that price for a 3rd party flash instead of flagship oem flash.

Jacques Cornell's picture

As a survey of the market, this article is very incomplete. You overlooked Godox gear, probably the most complete lineup of third-party flashes, ranging from speedlights to battery-powered pack & head kits to AC- and battery-powered monolights. My V850s and AD360 are well-built, sturdy and reliable, and owners, including myself, are very pleased with them. Aside from some since-resolved issues with early batteries, I've not experienced or heard about spontaneous failures in the 3 years I've had mine. The V850 is a solid $100 all-manual speedlight with remote adjustment of output from the on-camera transmitter. The V860 is a $140 TTL version for Canon and Nikon. The AD360 is a $350 300WS barebulb flash that nicely straddles the gap between speedlights and studio lights in a very portable package. It also features manual output adjustment from the TX. And, the AD360II has added CaNikon TTL.

Spy Black's picture

I agree about the Godox units. I bought one of the Adorama re-branded manual speedlights for a buck and was impressed. Li-On speedlights are the way to go. I wound up buying two more, and I'll probably buy 3 more to replace my old Vivitar 285s and Sunpak 30DX units. The charger is awesome in letting you know how much you can expect from a partially charged battery if you need to use them before full charge. Don't shoot fast-moving models at full output tho, chances are good they'll go up in smoke (and probably flames)! Awesome deal all around.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Where are you getting evidence for the claim "they'll go up in smoke"? Can you cite reports, or is this just idle speculation? I give my V850s a good workout, and they barely get warm.

Spy Black's picture

Well, that was merely my speculation after I shot a fashion shoot with my Adorama/Godex speedlights at full power and I smelled something burning, which turned out to be the Li-On battery in one of my speedlights, which was so hot I couldn't hold it in my hand, and which to this day day STILL smells like burnt electronics. Amazingly however, it still works. I simply don't do high-speed shooting at full power anymore. ;-)

Jacques Cornell's picture

You'd be better off with an AD360 + Y-cable at 1/4 power. Same power, instant recycle, all-day shooting without overheat or battery change.
FWIW, I'd toss that old battery.

robert s's picture

the godox are great flashes. ttl is crap and not accurate at all. I had to return my V860 after a month, because of the recall of the batteries they had. faulty batteries werent giving the amount of pops they were rated at. not even half. but theyve since sorted it out. and I know many who only can say great things about them. my friend uses the 360 and hes impressed with outdoor shooting of his couples.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Canon or Nikon? My partner gets good TTL from V860N and D750.

robert s's picture

d3s d4s cameras. horrible accuracy. thats the D3s in my avatar and we now also have D4s and getting D5 as soon as we can.

Michael Rapp's picture

I don't know what the Yongnuo dealer deem fit to sell on the US market, but here in Germany I have yet to have a single issue with a store bought Yongnuo flash.
And they have seen their fair use and some abuse...
Maybe it has something to do with the dealership warranty of over two years, which is required by law over here.
I don't know.
What I do know that I still have to have a YN flash fail on me.

Karsten Helmholz's picture

Same her. Maybe its a German thing...
Never had a single misfire in 4 years, both in TTL and standard flash environments. Not that I ever had that with my Nikon flashes, but the article in its current state seems misleading if not biased. I can´t speak for most of the other brands, but the differences between Nikon and Yongnuo are not at all like they are described here (except for the price difference that is). It seems someone needs to get over his "oh it´s from China, that can´t be good" attitude.