A good flashgun is an indispensable accessory for any photographer. If you don’t have one, you should definitely get one. This is one of the accessory which I highly recommend would improve your photography. However, getting one is not a walk in the park as the market is flooded with hundreds of manufacturers offering tons of flashgun. Separating chalk from cheese is the order of the day. Further, there is no single flashgun which suits all. It all depends on what you would be using & how much budget you can allocate.
Flashguns are available in two types – 1) Dedicated(TTL) & 2) Generic
1) Dedicated Flashguns
These are flashguns from the camera manufacturer. i.e. a Canon Speedlite for a Canon DSLR, a Sony Speedlite for Sony DSLR & so on. These flashguns are sophisticated & come up with a lot of bells & whistles. They provide you with automatic flash control(TTL), High Speed Sync, ability to control(trigger) other flashes wirelessly or act as a remote wireless secondary flash, weather sealing, auto zoom head, thermal control etc. Off-course these are not the only feature these dedicated flashguns provides but there are further more. If you are shooting in an environment where you encounter drastic light changes frequently, then buying a dedicated flashgun from your camera manufacturer is the best bet. After all, you can’t be fiddling in the heat of the moment & miss your shot. These dedicated flashguns ensure that your focus remains only over the shooting. Further, as your knowledge of flash photography surges, you can get a ‘n’ number of these dedicated flashguns & use then wirelessly as per your creative vision. This is one of the biggest benefit offered by these types of flashguns.
On the flip side, these dedicated flashguns are pretty expensive when compared to their generic counterparts. Also not all dedicated flash units are built equally. For e.g. the cheapest dedicated Canon speedlite, comes with a non-swivel head which limits its ability. Also to get most of the bells & whistles, you need to spend a considerable amount to get the top of the line dedicated flashguns from the manufacturer. However, this amount is definitely worth in the long run & for a professional it should get repaid soon enough.
2) Generic Flashguns
As the name suggests, these are generic in nature. A generic flashgun will work across all camera’s(different manufacturers) which provide a hot-shoe. This makes them fairly versatile. However, since they are generic in nature, they cannot implement advanced features like their dedicated counterparts. Generic flashguns provide manual control over the flash output. Some even come with an automatic mode, which include a light sensor on the front of the flashgun which senses the ambient light & controls the flash power accordingly. These flashguns do not offer much control except the flash power control. Some even come with a manual zoom head which you can adjust manually as per your requirements.
For someone starting out in flash photography & wanting to learn the intricacies of the same, these manual flashguns are the best bet. Not only they cost much much cheaper compared to their dedicated counterparts but their manual nature means the photographer always has to make decisions on the flash power which induces a learning curve. This serves well in the long run.
Features to look for in a Flashgun:
Once you have zeroed the flashgun type from the two above, its time you consider the following features.
1) Guide Number :
A guide number is the indication of the power of the flash. If a flash guide number is 33, then it means – the flash would be able to light perfectly till the range of 33 feets when the ISO is 100 & shot using f/1.0 lens. However, in practice one rarely shoots always at ISO 100 & again not everyone would have an f/1.0 lens. So considering, you’re shooting with your kit lens at the telephoto end, your aperture will be f/5.6.Club this with ISO 100 & your flashgun won’t even be able to lit the subject sufficiently. To counter this, you can raise the ISO to 200 which will effectively double the guide number to 66. So as you may have noticed, the guide number does not plays a huge role considering today’s cameras which all produce cleaner images even at higher ISO’s. However, it is better to get a flashgun with a higher guide number so that you need not raise the ISO futilely.
2) Tilt & Swivel Head
As we have learnt, to produce soft light it is requisite to bounce flash off the surfaces. To bounce off surfaces, having a tilt & swivel flash head is requisite. Some flash only offer tilt & some offer both but the angles are restricted. So make sure, the flashgun you’re going to buy supports tilt & swivel at various angles. If you invest in a good flashgun it would mostly support both. Only when you’re buying cheap manual flashguns, then you need to keep it in consideration.
3) Thermal Control
Flashguns can get quite hot when they are fired off frequently at high power. If your work determines using flash frequently then you should check if your flashgun unit has ‘thermal control’ feature. The thermal control helps to prevent your flashgun from getting fried up. In case, the unit detects a rise in temperature of the flashgun, it automatically shutdowns/delays the firing of flash. This protects your flashgun & allows you to shoot freely. Most of the cheap manual flashguns won’t have this feature & there is a chance they may get fried up if used frequently in succession at higher powers.
4) Recycle Time
Recycle time is the time taken by flashgun to recharge itself before it is ready to be fired once again. The recycle time depends on number of factors viz. the charge capacity of the batteries, the power to recharge the flash at, the internal flash circuitry etc. The manual of the flash mentions the recycle time. It is always good to have a flash which recycles itself quick enough. A fast recycle time ensures you need miss shots as you wait for your flash to recycle. Before buying a flash, you can fire it at its highest power settings & check how much times it needs to recycle before it can be fired again. Here again, do note as the flashgun ages, the recycle times will get longer. Also as your batteries get low in power, the recycle times will significantly increase.
5) High Speed Sync
If you’re buying a TTL enabled flashgun, make sure it supports high speed sync. High speed sync allows you to shoot at higher shutter-speeds. This is really useful in various scenarios which I’ll discuss in a later article.
The above five are major features you should consider while getting a flashgun. Off-course, there are many other features I haven’t talked about here but those are secondary & in some cases even gimmicks. Happy purchase!