In my last blog, i gave you a list of what I recommend to begin using OCF (off camera flash). The first thing on my list was a speedlight that you could use off camera. This simple item can be the source of great confusion and headache if you are just starting out and you aren’t familiar with everything including the terminology etc. I will try to cover the basics and I will make my recommendations based on MY experience and the feedback from my students and customers.
What exactly is a speedlight? A speedlight is a flash that can be mounted on top of your camera if needed. They are relatively small and produce a surprising amount of light for what they are. In my work, I use speedlights for the majority of what I do. They are what i first used when learning off camera flash and they are what a vast majority of photographers use for off camera flash. Below is a photo of an average speedlight. This is the Godox TT685 for Canon cameras.
This is one of my favorite flashes (I shoot Canon). It has a multitude of functions and features allowing it to be very versatile and useable in a great number of situations. But, lets not get ahead of ourselves here. We need to discuss these things so that you can understand them and know what features and functions YOU should look for when getting your first flash (or second or third or fifteenth).
This is a list of features that I pay attention to. These are the things that are going to have the greatest effect on my workflow. I will talk about the ones that I look for. Why i look for them. What they mean to me and what they can offer you.
The first feature I want to know about when choosing a speedlight is, does it have TTL capabilities or is it manual control only? For many of you, i just threw you a curveball and you are wondering what the heck I am talking about. Don’t worry, I am about to explain.
TTL is an acronym for ‘through the lens’. This is an automatic mode that can be fine tuned to give you nicely exposed shots in just about any situation. (using ttl will come in a later blog post)
I told you I was going to give you the good, the bad and the ugly. So, here goes… from MY point of view.
TTL can give you good, consistent exposure in a variety of situations and is a great tool to have when you are on the go or when you can’t take a test shot or two. That is a good thing, especially at weddings and events. Well, you are likely sitting there saying to yourself, TTL is definitely a thing I want in my flashes. For many of you, it very well may be. However, here comes the bad.
TTL can be very inconsistent… OK STOP! You just said it can give you good, consistent exposure and now you are saying it can be inconsistent.. what the heck?
That is right. TTL can give you good and consistent exposure and at the same time, it can be very inconsistent. Without going too deep into using TTL, which will come in another blog post, I will explain a little.
TTL capable speedlights work together with your camera in order to try to give you and exposure of middle gray. That means, if something is white, it tries to expose it a little less and if something is black, it tries to expose it a little more so that both black and white look the same. HUH? I figured that is the reaction you would have. Another way of saying it is, TTL works to bring everything to a common place on the histogram..Oh Boy..Yeah, confusing, I know.. Don’t stress on it. I will cover TTL in depth when the time is right. Right now isn’t the time so we will move forward a bit.
When using TTL, your light uses a LOT more battery power which can lead to overheating of your flash and rapid decreases in battery power (meaning you get fewer shots).
TTL capable lights are typically more expensive than manual only lights.
UGLY: There can be so many buttons, features etc on a TTL speedlight that it can be very confusing at times. (until you become familiar with them that is).
The second thing I look for is the power output rating. This is also known as the guide number.
In general, the higher the guide number, the better. To me at least.
Guide numbers are typically listed in feet or meters so that is something that you are going to want to pay attention to.
What is a guide number and how is it determined? Well, that is a great question and I am glad you asked.
Before we talk about guide numbers and learn understand guide numbers, we first need to understand the inverse square law, well… kind of.
OH BOY! Yep… you thought this was going to be easy didn’t you? Like I said, it is easy but can get real confusing, real fast… I will keep it as simple as I can. In short, the inverse square law means that light intensity falls off over distance. We have all seen how bright a flashlight is when we are looking at something right in front of us, but when we look farther ahead, the light doesn’t illuminate the objects in the distance nearly as well. Speedlights are the same way. The closer something is, the better it can be lit using less power. The further away something is, we will need more power to light it. Now, try to wrap your head around this statement: The intensity of light is inversely proportional to the squared distance of the subject from the light source. That means that if you had your subject 2.8 feet from your light source and another subject 5.6 feet away from your light source, the subject that was 5.6 feet from the light source would get 1/4 of the amount of light on it when compared to the subject at 2.8 feet. Yes, it can be confusing but I hope that helps you understand a little bit more on the subject. On down the line, we will do a few exercises to help you grasp the inverse square law a little better.
Back to guide numbers and hopefully more understanding than when you first started reading this post.
So, the ‘standardized’ way to determine a guide number is GN = subject distance from flash x f/stop
Most manufacturers use a standardized iso of 100 and expose a subject at 10 feet from the light. So, if you take a photo at iso 100, your subject at 10 feet and you use f/9 to get proper exposure, you would have a guide number of 90 ft. or 27.43 meters.
But Tim, where did the inverse square law come into play there? It didn’t. Guide numbers were instituted to keep you from having to deal with the inverse square law. But, trust me.. later on, you will be glad I brought it up.
I personally prefer a speedlight that has a built in radio communication system.
Why radio? Well, lets look at that…
Radio communication is far more reliable than optical communication. Remember when you had that TV remote that would only change the channel if pointed directly at the sensor on the TV? Remember how you had to get yourself in all sorts of crazy, contorted positions to get the angle just right when you were laying on the couch? Yeah, that was optical communication. Fast forward to what you get now.. you can point that remote anywhere, at the wall, at the ceiling, at your dog..and it still controls the TV. It works the same with the speedlight. If you have radio communication, your light can be in the other room, inside of a softbox, behind a tree, inside of a car.. wherever.. and it will still get the information and allow you to remotely change the settings and fire it. With optical communication, the sensor has to ‘see’ your camera.
Why Built-In Radio communication? Well, i like to keep things simple. the less equipment i have to have, the better. For ME.
If you have a light that doesn’t have built in radio communication, don’t stress.. you can still get radio triggers that will provide you with the same level of communication reliability.
Most radio communication systems are closed. Meaning, they only work with that particular brand. So, once you go with a system, you are likely going to be limited to only that system going forward.
As time goes by, new systems are developed and often times, they leave behind older technology and systems. meaning, there may be a time when you will need to revamp your entire system if something new and better comes out.
What batteries does it use or does it have a built in battery?
When it comes to speedlights, i actually still prefer to use one that uses AA batteries vs one that has a lithium ion battery. Why? Well, lets talk about the good, bad and ugly when it comes to AA vs Li-ion.
The good the bad and the ugly all together..
AA batteries are cheaper than lithium ion batteries. When i am at an event or a wedding, sometimes i run down the batteries and they need changed. it is more affordable to buy rechargeable AA batteries to carry with me for replacements than it is for me to buy replacement li-ion batteries for the lights. Now, the advantage of li-ion batteries over rechargeables is that they have a faster recycle time and you will get more shots per charge. The number of shots will vary though.
Price. Yes, price.. that is typically one of the last things that I look at. I know that if I choose a light that has all of the features that I have mentioned above, i am going to have to pay for those features. Pricing is what it is and if you buy from a reputable dealer, the price will be in line with everyone else. If you buy from me, i match any authorized dealer pricing on the items I offer.
Warranty. Is the warranty serviced by the company I am buying from or is it serviced by the manufacturer? Is the manufacturer easy to get in touch with? What is the typical turnaround time on warranty repairs etc?
Most dealers that sell speedlights made in china do not warranty the lights past 30 days. There are very few dealers that honor and service the warranty in house. I am going to toot my own horn here and let you know that I am one of the very few. I even double the warranty of the manufacturer on many of the items i sell. Turnaround is typically just a few days vs weeks to months elsewhere as well.
Now that i have covered what I look for and pay attention to, i will make a few suggestions for you.
My favorite speedlight, at the time of writing this is the Godox v860ii. Followed very closely by the Godox tt685. Both are very affordable, both have the trigger system built in. Both come with a 2 year warranty from me. Both will allow you to expand your kit easily and seamlessly when you are ready. Both are TTL capable.
If you are looking for a manual only system, take a look at the Godox v850ii or the Godox tt600. They have all of the same capabilities that I mentioned with the v860ii and tt685 minus the TTL.
These lights are available on this website for Canon, Nikon, Fuji, Sony, Olympus and Panasonic.
If you have any questions about anything i covered or didn’t cover here, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below or send an email to me – firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like information on our next Off Camera Flash Seminar, please CLICK HERE
The next installment of my blog will be coming very soon.. Thanks for reading..