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All You Need To Know About Flashes

Posted in Advice, Blog | 2 comments

Flashes, Flash heads, Strobes, Poppers, no I just made that last one up, but there are quite a few names for them and there are a couple of options depending on your budget. Let’s be clear about one thing first, I’m talking about flashes that you can mount to the top of your camera, not studio flash heads. Maybe one day I’ll do a post on the subject but as of yet I have no experience using them. Let’s talk about features first. The flash I’m most familiar with is the Nikon SB-600, so I’ll mostly be talking about that particular flash. Cool beans if you’ve got one or want one but sucks to be you if it’s not on your menu.

GN – Guide Number – This is basically the power of the flash that it puts out. On the SB600 the GN is rated at 30/98. The rating system is kind of confusing but let me see if I can break it down for you. The GN is usually measured in meters/feet at 100iso. So at full power the SB600 can light up 30 meters or 98 feet when using an iso of 100. THIS is the tricky part. Not all cameras can work at 100iso. Some of the flagship and full frame cameras can only go down to 200iso, so some sneaky companies rate their guide numbers at 200iso, which makes their flashes look twice as powerful. Clever, no?

Sync Speed – This is the maximum shutter speed that you can use with your flash, but it’s determined by your camera. The usual is between 1/125 and 1/250. When used with my D60 the SB600 has a sync speed of 1/200, but If i had a D40 I could use a shutter speed of 1/500 or even 1/4000, the D40x can not do this. The d70 and D70s can go as fast as 1/8000! That’s because they have mechanical/electronic hybrid shutter systems. Older camera – not always worse. When the flash is mounted to the camera it won’t let me set the shutter speed any faster than 1/200. Some flashes have a high speed sync mode which sometimes allow you to use shutter speeds as fast as 1/8,000. The SB600 does in fact have this option, but my camera is not compatible with the Nikon “Creative Lighting System” or “CLS” as they like to call it because at the time the D60 was one of the most entry levels DSLR’s that Nikon offered, which means there is a whole heap of nifty things that my flash can do but my camera can’t.

Recycle Time – The time it takes for the flash to reach full power right after it’s taken a shot at full power. On the 600 it’s about 3.5 seconds which seems like a lot but it’s really not for a couple of reasons.

Reason numero uno – full power is super powerful. I’ve seen some flashes melt bags, pop balloons or even warp the coating on the glass at zoos and with the sb600 if you think you’d be able to put it against your lips and fire off a shot at full power without burning myself you’d be really wrong.

The point I was trying to make before the flash back of stupidity hit me is that I hardly ever shoot at full power. I barely even shoot at half power. Usually I leave it at ¼ power for most of my shooting and it’s plenty, plus it saves battery life and at ¼ power it recycles almost instantly.

Point 2 – It can still fire while it’s recycling. If you are trying to catch some really quick action in pitch black conditions that requires you to use your flash at full power, such as a nocturnal animal race, and you take a shot and want to take another two seconds later then the flash will still go off, just not at full power. Just brighten it up later in Photoshop.This is not true for all flashes I might add. It’s true for pretty much all of the newer ones, but I just bought an old second hand Sunpak Auto 260 for $35 and it will only shoot at full power and will not trigger if you don’t wait.

Point tres – 3.5 seconds isn’t that long you impatient jerk. If you can’t wait that long then buy a better flash.

Tilting/Rotation – Some strobes don’t rotate. Some only tilt up and down. Think about what you need yours to do. One thing is for sure, if you are going to be taking pictures of people at events or fashion shoots or using your lights creatively then you are really going to want your flash head to swivel and tilt. Bouncing your flash off a ceiling or wall will give you much more even lighting than shooting it right at your subject. On the SB600 there is a button that you push which allows you turn the head 90 degrees to the right or 180 degrees to the left. So it does go all the way around, just not all in one direction. I’m assuming this is so you don’t twist up the wires inside, but I’d like to hear any creative suggestions you might have why they would do this.

Built in diffuser/bounce card – with a lot of the Nikon lights there is a built in diffuser which is actually designed to allow you to use the flash when using a wide angle lens (it spreads the beam of light wider) and some flashes (mainly canons) have built in bounce cards which allow for more natural lighting while doing portraits. These might be important factors for you to consider or they might just be the feature that tips the scales between two strobes.

Auto focus assist – If like me, you are amused by flashy lights and the Predator movies then you are gonna love this! The front of the flash puts out a hard to see infrared/red light that kind of looks like the light predator used to aim it’s cool guns. While being fun/annoying (depending on if you are me or violet) it is also useful at assisting your auto focus at night.

Exposure modes – I’m not sure if these are the same for all systems but I’ll run through the ones on the Nikon system.

TTL – Stands for Through The Lens and pretty much means that it meters through the lens and works out how powerful to make your flash. Easy enough but it does this by firing tiny really quick pre-flashes and measures if it needs to be brighter/darker. If you are triggering another flash with an optical slave, the pre-flash may set it off too early.

TTL BL – Through The Lens Balance works as a fill-in flash and balances your subject against back lighting (such as the sun for example)

Manual – You set how powerful you want the flash to be. On the SB600 you can go up or down in thirds, for example If I’m shooting at 1/4 power and want more power then I can go up to 1/4 (+.03), 1/4 (+.07) and then 1/2. Interesting side note, apparently 1/2 (-0.7) is the same power as 1/4 (+0.3). I was terrible at math at school, but that’s what the manual says, so that’s what i’m telling you!

Stoboscopic mode – How cool is that word? I don’t know if it’s a real word, usually it’s just called “Auto FP High-Speed Sync” but I read “Stroboscopic mode” in a magazine once and it stuck. It just means the ability for your flash to fire off multiple times in one exposure. If you have ever flipped though any kind of BMX/skateboarding/skating magazine then you will have seen the results of this. I hear it’s popular with dancing magazines too. If your camera stays in one place but your subject is moving then the flash will freeze the subject in your frame wherever they are as many times as it goes off. Still confused? Say you’re taking a picture of someone walking, if your flash goes of three times while they are moving, they will appear three times in your shot. It can be used to create some really cool effects, but it does put a lot of stress on your flash so make sure you read your manual before you do it. Mine says to let the flash rest for 10 minutes after doing it at full power, however once again my camera is not CLS compatible, so I can’t do it.

Modeling lights – If you are going to be doing fashion or portraiture work then modeling lights will be a huge plus. On mono-block heads or big flashes it’s basically a smaller light that turns on and shows you where the light from your flash Is likely to fall. This takes a lot of the guess work out of setting up your lights. On little flashes like these it’s basically just firing a flash at VERY low power several times a second. It’s actually the reason I bought the SB600 over a third party light, but then once I got it I discovered (you guessed it) my camera isn’t compatible with the Nikon Creative Lighting System. Seriously, I did do a LOT of research before I bought the thing. I always do. NOBODY on the net or in-store mentioned that only MOST of the Nikon cameras are CLS compatible. *sigh* I guess it’s not so bad because I’ve seen the modeling light used and it’s kind of annoying. Instead just take a shot and improve your lighting from there.

Zoom – When you’re using zoom lenses this is useful. It just moves the position of the bulb in your flash forwards or backwards and that will make a narrower/wide beam of light that can be thrown further/nearer. On the Sb600 it can zoom from 85mm, to 70mm, 50mm, 35mm, 28mm, 24mm and  14mm with wide angle diffuser flipped down. If you are using your flash off camera and in manual mode, it’s not really a big deal, but you can use it to make a narrower/wider beam of light.

Video or books on how to use your flash – while third party flashes can save you big bucks when it comes to buying a flash, there is a lot more literature and instructional DVD’s on Nikon and Canon lighting systems. Something to think about.

Brands – Oh this is a tough one. There are a lot of flashes on the market and it all depends on what your budget is and what features you are looking for, but I’ll list a few stand outs.

Nikon – The Nikon range of flashes are called Speedlights. SB400 is the bottom of the range, the head doesn’t tilt or swivel as far as I’m aware but it’s cheap and pretty small. SB900 is the top of the range and has a bunch of cool and/or useless features, but it’s pretty expensive so you don’t need it unless you are or are planning on going pro. If you like to take pictures and want to be a little creative at times, go with the SB600, it’s a good flash, even better if you don’t have a D60!

Canon – The Canon range of flashes is also called Speedlites, but they spell it differently. They seem to be cheaper and quite powerful, But that’ about all I know on the subject. On the website they only have three, in order from smallest to biggest they are the 270EX, 430EX II and the 580EX II.

Yongnuo – If you want to go the cheaper option, then these flashes are great and they start at about $45 from china. You can basically start at the bottom (which I think might be the YN462?) and it has the least amount of features, then there are slightly better models with slightly more power for slightly more money. It’s kind of like buying a car and being talked into buying extra features. I’d suggest buying a good flash with lots of features, like the SB600 – 900 and use it as your main light, then buy a couple YN-460II’s and use them as your other/backup lights. That’s what I did anyway and it ‘s been a good set up so far! Note – the YN462 is very different to the YN460II. If you don’t understand why that needs to be pointed out, try reading that sentence out loud.

Others – Well if you don’t have a Nikon or Canon and still want to stay with your brand then I have heard good things about the Sigma EF530 DG ST, Sony HVL F-42, Olympus FL-36R and the Pentax AF360GZ. There are other options though, those third party systems are worth a look!

Metz for example is the leading independent flash choice for professionals. They also have a huge selection from the simple 20C2 to the really powerful (and expensive) Metz 76 MZ-5.

Sunpak also makes a great range of flashes (I have my eye on one of their ring flashes in particular) and the PF30X is a great flash for money, but if you want power for money then I’d go for the Nissin Di622.

Wow, can’t seem to stop updating this page! If you are in Australia (Melbourne in particular) then check out Protog or Image Melbourne. They seem to have a great range of studio equipment at a good range of prices. They have some fairly pricey full studio kits, but they also sell some cheap gear.

Looking for more info? Check out these sites!

What Digital Camera – Oodles of reviews for different flashes. It’s a good resource to check out, especially if you live in England.

Strobist – Anyone who has been interested in strobes knows this site. Visit it, bookmark it, read it first page to last. This guy knows it all.

speedlights.net – The name says it all, you should definitely check out this page before you buy, particularly if you’re trying to decide between the Yongnuo series. They also have lots of nifty charts and graphs.

I have more on the subject but this is getting a little long, so tune in next time to see how to trigger your flash wirelessly!

HA HA HA! You thought this post was over, but it’s not!!!! Remember at the start when I said this was only about strobe flashes that you can mount to the top of your camera? Well, I lied. If you were avid watchers of Lie To Me then you probably would have caught that. There is something I just had to ask because I am super curious. If ANY of you have ever had experience using Blazzeo Flash heads from LinkDelight, pleeeeaaase let me know how they went. They have THIS FLASH for just $35.99 and it really seems like a too-good-to-be-true scenario. I have read incredibly mixed reviews on nearly all of their products and I’m not sure if LinkDelight is just writing their own good reviews. So anyone who has tried a Blazzeo flash or anyone that has 40 bucks to blow, please let me know what you think.

2 Comments

  1. wow, i cannot believe no one else has commented on this review… excellent job, thank you for writing it! i found it via google search on something like “using sb 600 at small events” if thats helpful. but again, great review, very helpful.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I don’t get many, but I reply to all of them. I guess most people are used to photographers guarding their knowledge, but I’m happy to answer any questions that I can and point people in the right direction if I can’t. Speaking of which, if you were looking for advice on shooting events I’d be happy to write a post on the subject.

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