Do You Really Need to Spend Big on Flash Guns?

Do You Really Need to Spend Big on Flash Guns?

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).

A size comparison between a Nikon SB-700 and the Canon 600EX-RT. The Canon 430EX III-RT is smaller still.

A size comparison between a Nikon SB-700 and the Canon 600EX-RT. The Canon 430EX III-RT is smaller still.

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.

Wireless Capability

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 (D5D850D500D7500) 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.

When you have a limited amount of time with your subject, an easy way to fire your flashes wirelessly is crucial to maximizing your time to make a portrait.

When you have a limited amount of time with your subject, an easy way to fire your flashes wirelessly is crucial to maximizing your time to make a portrait.

Weather Resistance

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?

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23 Comments

William Howell's picture

I have seven of those Yongnuo lights, they’re cheap and good.
The best thing about them is their tag line on the box; Unlimited wonderful, Easily grasp!

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Please post a picture, this I gotta see. I once bought a Cooler Master Centurion computer case that had this written on the box: "Centurion, an honorable name, represents quality of Discipline, Integrity & Loyalty. With the Centurion besides you, now you can concord the world feeling safe and proud without having to be a Caesar."

This reminds me of another great tag line Ubuntu had when launched: "Ubuntu. Linux for human beings"

Reginald Walton's picture

I do have the Canon 600EX-RT II and the Nikon SB700, but I also have the Yongnuo version for Canon and Nikon and have used Yongnuo for years and no issues. I eve have the Yongnuo version of Canon's ST-ER-3T (YN-E3-RT) and they haven't missed a beat. You are correct in that the build quality is not there, but the functionality certainly is. The Yongnuo YN-E3-RT even has a focus assist beam, whereas the Canon version doesn't.

Everyone says that about Yongnuos, but I've yet to have any of our three + trigger go out on me. And we're not always easy on them...

That's also not even mentioning Godox.

Wayne Denny's picture

Yeah, I don't really see the point of buying the Nikon/Canon versions anymore. And I own 2 SB800s & a SB700. I use a Xplor 600, and I'm wanting to get a pair of the smaller ADs. They're cheaper than the Nikon/Canon, IIRC they're more powerful, and they have an advantage that the more expensive 'name brand' flashes don't have - the output can be controlled from the trigger. Can't beat that.

Btw, perfect crop/framing on that photo above. Obviously she's absolutely stunning, but she also looks tall & statuesque. In the bts, you can see that she's shorter (even with heels) and it makes her look more like a girl than a woman in the original photo.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Yes, Godox all the way!

Daniel Medley's picture

The price difference between branded Nikon or Canon flash guns and Yongnuo is not worth the difference in quality. You can buy nearly 3 Yongnuo TTL flashes for the price of a single Nikon/Canon flash. Get 6 of them for the price of 2 Nikon or Canons and you'll have all the redundancy you'll ever need for most circumstances.

I've got 3 Yonguos and have used them heavily for almost two years and have never had a problem. If they stopped working tomorrow and I had to replace them, I'd still be money ahead.

A lot of money ahead.

Please don't take this personally, but tne thing that has always baffled me regarding photo gear is that people use the excuse of being a "professional business" to spend a lot of money for something that can be done for much less, yet, doing so is the opposite of good business sense.

In my opinion anyway.

Thank you for your post. As a user of the canon 430ex I find much of good common sense here. I do query this statement though--

"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."

I would think that regardless of these 2 provisos whenever we are doing a shoot we should be striving for excellence. A small job may also lead to a big job.I used the 430ex on many weddings before I "retired" and if I didn't think they would be ok I would have used something different.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I used to favor the 430 series over the 580s which were the top at the time because they worked better with Pocket Wizards (580 was known to have too much radio interference). They worked certainly worked great for weddings, just that I find the SB-700s worked a little better in terms of recycling. That said, these days I also in some cases favor the built in radio of the Canon system. I size each situation up as it comes. Glad the 430s worked for you and you found some wisdom in some of my logic at least!

Jonathan Adams's picture

I have the yongnuo equivalents and they work great...to hedge my bet I was thinking of having one Canon then Yongnou for the additional strobes since one will get heavily worked. Minimum Canon repair cost will still be higher than a new Yongnou...

Could also go old school Strobist and get used Nikon sb28 flashes with cheap remote triggers. Build quality is there and they still work well.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I have 5 Godox speedlights and I doughtful I will ever buy a Nikon flash again. The V860II is around half the price of the SB-700. It has built in radio trigger/receiver and works on Li-on batteries.

It's an excellent flash, built extremely well and perform as well as the pro SB-910.

And it's not a "knockoff". It's a brand.

Jesse Patterson's picture

I agree with this article on why you should consider purchasing cheaper (by cost) flashes over flagship 1st party flashes. Even though I'm sure the 430EX-III is a fantastic flash, I'm surprised Godox / Flashpoint gear wasn't mentioned in this article.

For having a smaller speedlite due to weight, I've found the Godox TT350 for $89 to be a great low-cost alternative to the 430EX-III while having a very similar feature set and the ability to remote control the powerful AD600 as well as all of the latest Godox flash products. That's also one negative against Yongnuo since you need several different non-compatible triggers to control several versions of their flashes. Canon however, can at least can control the Flashpoint Orlit system.

When it comes to power and cost, I used to own several YN560s and Canon 600s and they worked flawless however, when Godox released the powerful AD600M (Close to 10x more powerful) for the same price as a brand new Canon 600EX-RT (when it was first released) I knew I had to switch. On top of that, Godox released the AD200 for $300 which is close to the same size of the Canon 600 however, it's almost 3x more powerful while close to $200 cheaper. I also forgot to mention that Godox has great Li-ion battery options for their speedlites while Canon doesn't at the moment.

I will admit, I don't know if Godox has weather-sealed gear like Canon. I also miss how easy it was to remote control the zoom of the YN560 IV flashes with the YN560-TX. With Godox, from my understanding and experience, you can only remote control the zoom of TTL speedlites, not manual only speedlites. There's also a feature I miss from the Canon 600EX-RT, the ability to remote trigger your camera from the flash and not from an additional remote trigger however, those are minor issues given the freedom I now have with the Godox system.

Robert Hall does a great job of explaining the Godox system here if anyone is interested:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgvAOKM5WC8

I’ve been using Yongnuo YN-685 with built in radio and 622-TX transmitter as main and fill lights and never looked back. Also use 622 triggers for remote shutter on D850. Already paid dues to Nikon with 2 SB600 and 2 SB700 which are handy to light high key background.

Chris Rogers's picture

I had Yonguos but they are indeed cheaply built and eat batteries. I've been sticking with flashpoint lighting gear. Their speed lights are extremely affordable and built pretty well. they are not weather resistant at all but they get the job done. one thing i don't like about the flashpoint system is the trigger feel very cheap. i bout that new pro trigger for my nikon and it was messed up out of the box. the back light would not stay on. i just don't see why any one should spend upwards of $500 on a speed light. it's just rediculous to me. I'm sure people have their reasons but I will never buy first party lighting.

frank nazario's picture

I own 4 Youngnuo speedlights 3 560-III and 1 468-2 TTL I WILL NEVER BUY Brand speedlights they are a complete ripoff... there is simply NOTHING that beats Youngnuo manual flashes.

The included photo was done with 3 Youngnuo 560-III at 1/2 power GELLED and the TTL 468 as the optical trigger ... even though I have the 560 transmitters I decided to trigger this shot using the TTL 622 transmitter instead.
The second one... 3 speedlights in a voice booth all 560-IIIs triggered by their transmitter NO TTL. all manual flashes.
again, why would I need an expensive speedlight?

These 4 speedlights have been dropped left in the rain kicked on the floor fallen from light stands and they still go at it...
Sorry for the rant ... I AM A RAAABBID Youngnuo Speedlight user and believer... Godox and Lumopro might have "TANKS" and all this other stuff... but for the daily grind and on location NOTHING beats the ROI that a Youngnuo presents. My 2cents.

Oh and BTW the gels you see used in these photos are nothing more than plastic colored notebook dividers cut to fit the front of the speedlight held by simple rubber bands.

I left the location of the speedlights in the photo of the building for reference.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

I, too, don’t know how Godox wasn’t mentioned in an article like this. The battery in the Godox flash outperforms my 600rt2 with a battery pack and it’s way easier to charge one battery than 12 AAs. With the state of flash technology in 2018, I really don’t know what argument can be made for paying the brand premium. To each his own, but there are enough people making a living with third party flashes that they’ve more than proven themselves.

1 SB-700 since 7 years / 1 YN560 since 6 years / 1 YN685 since 1 year / 2 YN622C and YN622TX since 2 years.
All working fine.
The nikon flash cost me more than all the yongnuo stuff.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

But I guess the question is, how much mileage are you putting on them and what kind of miles? I guess it's a lot of hit or miss.