I'm a big fan of speed lights, and I pretty much use them for almost all of my personal and professional shooting. That said, I'm not always using the biggest and the baddest the major brands have to offer, even professionally.
At the top of the range, Canon offers the Speedlite 600EX II-RT and Nikon offers the SB-5000 AF Speedlight. They're great, but they're also not for everyone. I'm going to make a case for why the mid-tier flashes from both companies (The Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight and the Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT) might be better buys instead.
Price and Weight
In both cases, price and weight are lower by going with the smaller package. Weight isn’t huge on the Nikon side, with about 3 ounces separating the two flashes, but on the Canon side it’s almost 5. The more important differentiator is size. While it’s unimportant to worry about size when you’re mounting things off the camera, it’s a different story when the flash is sitting in the hotshoe and you’re looking to bounce. I’ve often found the weight balance of most cameras is better using the smaller flash. After a long wedding day, those extra ounces add up, whether in the bag or on the camera.
The main image in this post was created using a Canon 430 EX II plugged into a Lastolite Ezybox, a pretty light and small setup for location portraiture, and the smaller flash worked just as well as a larger one would have in this situation.
Price can also be a major factor. The smaller flashes are almost half as much as their top-shelf counterparts (About $600 for the top Nikon flash and $480 for the Canon).
Recycle Time and Power
This is where things get a bit tricky. If you need the best range or power for your flash, then you need to spend the big bucks. But if you factor in being able to buy two flashes for the price of one, that math changes a bit. Two smaller flashes combined can equal or best a larger flash in this department and you have the option to light from two different directions.
One thing that can’t change, however, is recycle time. This is where there’s a bit of differentiation between the mid-tier players. On paper, it’s hard to judge which flash is fast enough for your uses. Things such as power level could change how fast your flash is ready to fire, but in practical usage, I’ve found the SB-700 from Nikon to work as fast as I’ve ever needed to, while the 430EX III-RT took just a little bit longer than I was comfortable with in some situations. Depending on the subject – a more cooperative model or a smaller-scale wedding – it would probably work fine.
What the 430EX III-RT is lacking in raw speed compared to the SB-700, it makes up for in the next category.
This is where the Canon 430 EXIII-RT really shines. While like its ancestor, the 430EX II, it doesn't have the ability to trigger flashes optically, this newer version gains a radio transmitter (hence the RT designation, and why we’re talking about this flash there is the alternative of the 470EX-AI, with its AI-powered bounce head but no radio capabilities). Who needs the optical trigger when you’ve got radio?
With the built-in radio transmitter you’re basically getting Canon’s ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter AND a flash for less than the price of just the transmitter. Unless ultimate portability is a concern, it’s a no-brainer to get the 430EX III-RT. You can mix-and match any RT units with each other in Canon’s system, and it works well (with the small exception of lacking rear-curtain sync, if we’re nit-picking).
The SB-700 comes up just a bit short in this area. It’s a bit older than the 430EXIII-RT, and while it has the capability to plug into Nikon’s excellent Creative Lighting System for wireless capability, there’s no built-in radio capability and so you’re stuck using line-of-sight optical triggering.
There are easy ways to add radio wireless triggering to the SB-700, such as the Yongnuo 622N kits or Pocket Wizards, but you’re adding extra expense and taking up space in your bags for all the additional batteries and transceivers you’ll need. Also, in Nikon’s system, only the newest cameras (D5, D850, D500, D7500) have full support for native radio functionality. With Canon’s system I’ve successfully attached my ST-E3-RT to a Canon Rebel XTi that’s more than 10 years old and gotten the same functionality I do with it attached to a 5D Mark IV.
I haven’t had the occasion to take an SB-5000 out in the rain, but the manual specifically advises against it, and so there isn’t any claimed difference to the SB-700.
On the Canon side, I was caught twice in severe thunderstorms during wedding shoots, and my 600EX-RTs kept firing away without a problem. Canon’s instruction manuals claim the same level of weather resistance as an EOS-1D X series camera, so if you think you’ll be doing a lot of flash work in wet or dusty environments, it might make sense to upgrade here.
Why Not Just Buy a Knockoff?
Undoubtedly, there's a few of you that are reading this far and wondering, why not just buy a Yongnuo or 3 instead of a native-brand flash and save the money?
I've had the chance to dissect Yongnuos, and while they functionally work more or less the same as a Canon or Nikon flash, the build quality just isn't there, nor are things such as sophisticated overheating protection or weather sealing. There’s simply a better chance that something will go wrong on a shoot, and with a once-in-a-lifetime event such as a wedding, it's not a chance I'm willing to take.
It’s also a comfort to know that I can walk into a repair center and get my Canon or Nikon flashes fixed fairly easily. It’s not so easy with a lesser-known brand.
I personally use SB-700 flashes and Yongnuo (and previously Pocket Wizard) radio triggers with my Nikon kit. I’m primarily shooting with a D750 and wouldn't be able to take full advantage of a Nikon radio setup anyway. I also use Canon 600 EX-RT flashes with my Canon cameras, and at the end of the day, both of these setups cover all of my needs.
What's your small flash setup and how does it work for you?