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Flash – The Comprehensive Camera Flash Buying Guide

Key Features

The key features listed in this section are often standard inclusions to most modern flash guns, however, it’s still good to discuss and understand what these features do.

TTL Metering

Modern flashes no longer use a light sensor on the flash unit itself to determine flash exposure but uses a series of instantaneous flash bursts that fires a split-second before the camera takes a shot.

A lot of techno mumbo-jumbo goes on during that split-second we fully depress the shutter button to actual image capture that we’re not aware of and that’s when the flash and camera’s TTL calculation takes place, taking account all the camera settings (ISO, aperture, shooting mode, focal length, etc.), the flash adjusts its power to provide the proper exposure.

There are different prefixes used by different manufacturers but they generally do the same thing. Canon calls it eTTL, Nikon calls it i-TTL, Pentax calls it P-TTL, etc. The execution is the same for all of these flashes.

These complex algorithms are very reliable and consistent for most shooting conditions, particularly when the flash-to-subject distance and in-camera settings change constantly like event shooting, weddings, casual shooting, etc.

Auto-Focus (AF) Assist Beam

Most external flashes offer an external AF-assist beam that is significantly brighter, less intrusive, and more effective than what’s equipped on the camera itself.

The AF-assist beam on external flashes often use bright red beam patterns that the camera’s AF sensor is sensitive to. These assist beams can help you lock focus in practically zero light conditions without blinding your subject with a bright flashing beam from your camera’s pop-up flash or AF assist lamp.

Be wary of some 3rd party flash’s barely-usable beam pattern. Ideally, it should be a criss-cross pattern or a gridded pattern to cover the different AF points of your camera. Many 3rd party flashes only offer a center dot or vertical lines, which will not be very useful at all.

Auto Zoom

As mentioned previously in the GN section, most flashes can zoom in an out automatically according to your lens’ focal length. As you zoom your lens from 24mm to 70mm, for example, the flash automatically adjusts its beam pattern to ensure maximum coverage and efficient light usage. Newer flashes has the capability to detect whether the flash is mounted on a full-frame 35mm sensor camera or a crop-sensor camera to adjust its beam pattern accordingly.

Most, if not all, auto zoom heads can be manually set as well, allowing you to change your light pattern from wide to narrow, depending on the lighting effect you want on your subject.

Tilt AND Swivel

The flash head must be able to SWIVEL left-to-right as well as tilt up-and-down. The
Secondary Featuresability to bounce off nearby walls, and not just ceilings is paramount to light control when the flash is mounted on the camera. I firmly believe that all external flashes should be able to swivel, otherwise, your lighting options are severely limited.  Sony’s amazing HVL-F58AM flash takes it even further by adding vertical swivel of the entire head as well – I wish all flashes do this.

The other features are definitely nice-to-have items that may or may not fit your needs. It’s always better to have extra features available than not have them when you finally find a need for it.

Wireless TTL Flash Control

Most top-of-the-line flashes allow you to use the main flash (the one attached to the camera) to control other flash units remotely and wirelessly while maintaining the intelligent TTL exposure computation on each flash unit triggered. In theory, you can link up unlimited amount of flash units wirelessly and control each flash’s output from the “commanding/master” unit attached to your camera.

Mid and lower-end flashes often do not have this ability to control other flashes but are ready to act as the flash units RECEIVING the TTL signal instructions from the main unit while high-end units can act as both the TRANSMITTER and RECEIVER of TTL signals.

The creative possibilities of wirelessly triggering TTL flashes off-camera is only limited by your imagination (and how many flashes you can afford).  It is an exciting, useful, and highly-flexible feature that can unleash a great deal of lighting opportunities for all photographers.

Manually Adjustable Power

Many photographers prefer using full-manual control over TTL for repeatable and consistent shot-to-shot exposure, particularly if the flash is used off-camera. The camera no longer communicates with the flash apart from telling the flash when to fire.

Look for flash units that allow you to change power settings in at least half stop increments and allow for adjustments as low as 1/64 to 1/128th of a stop.

Side note: If you only plan to use a camera off-camera in manual power mode, buy a much cheaper manual-only flash instead.

Battery and External Power Options, and Others.

Some flashes lets you use additional external battery sources ranging from AA battery packs to lead-acid battery packs that extends not only how long you can shoot with flash, but also improves recycling speed.

Having a battery pack is highly recommended for fast-paced events that requires your flash to fire at its optimum power output in rapid succession.

High-Speed Sync, Rear Curtain Sync, and Stroboscopic Mode

High-speed sync (HSS) allows you use flash beyond your camera’s shutter synchronization limit (to know more about flash sync, google “Flash Syncronization”).

Rear-curtain sync, also known as second-curtain sync allows you to fire the flash as the shutter closes instead of at the start of the shutter cycle. This mode is often used to capture movement trails and slow shutter speeds.

Stroboscopic mode pops the flash repeatedly at user-defined frequency intervals to record multiple images on a single frame.

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