Lets face it, as photographers we all need light whether it’s daylight, artificial light, or even candlelight to take a picture. With the nights drawing in fast and daylight hours getting shorter, it’s the time when photographers often decide they need to buy some sort of supplementary lighting. Buying the right type of light can be a bit baffling. Technology keeps adding new lighting options to choose from and in this article I’ll do my best to unravel the choices available and try to make sense of the ever increasing ranges on the market.
The key thing to say about any lighting is power. The golden rule that applies to buying any type of lighting system is getting the right amount of power. Buying something too powerful is a waste of money and buying something not powerful enough is always going to disappoint. So think carefully about the type of work you want to shoot now and in the near future. Convert those thoughts into two things, distance and spread. The distance and spread from the camera to the subject can then be used as a guide to select the right power for you, and that tip applies no matter what type of system you decide to buy.
Trying to compare one lighting group with another is not an easy task and it’s also a little unfair, but I’ll do my best. Whilst there is an overlap in what they all do, each group has its own characteristics and will therefore shoot applications in a slightly different way. So instead, I’ll look at the benefits, and the downside, the pro’s and cons of each of the four lighting groups on offer.
My aim is to give you an overview of each lighting group to help you decide which is the right one for you and pick out the best features to look for. Once you have decided, you can then spend time looking at the brands and ranges available and hopefully finding the exact model you want. If you need any more help, don’t panic, either speak to my very knowledgeable colleagues at Wex, or drop me an email via the web site.
As you will see, the photographer has an amazing choice to pick from, but which is the right one for you? To start, I’ll divide this lighting guide into four parts to represent the four main lighting options available. They are:
Part 1: On Camera Flash
Part 2: LED Panels
Part 3: Continuous Lighting
Part 4: Studio Flash
Part 1: On Camera Flash
The beauty of the flashgun is its sheer simplicity, the way that it slides and locks on to the camera’s hot shoe connection. The way that it communicates to the camera via a series of tiny pins on its hot shoe fitting, there are no wires, cables or sync leads, it’s all so simple. Flashguns have tiny flash tubes that deliver very high flash durations, allow very fast sync speeds and ensure that recycling times are usually under a second. They run off their own batteries and even remember to switch themselves off to sleep when you don’t. In short, flashguns are little miracles of design.
Of course, the three main benefits of on-camera flash have to be portability, ease of use and cost. Flashguns have got smaller and lighter making them easy to carry in your bag. They are dead easy to use because they all have TTL (Through The Lens Metering) so they link up with the camera’s metering system and the cost is another good reason to consider on camera flash, with prices starting at under £65.00 for a really good quality entry-level gun - for example the Metz 36 AF-5.
It used to be a simple choice for the photographer, years ago there were only a couple of manufacturers on the market so the options were straightforward, you either bought Braun or Metz if you were a pro, or something like a Sunpak if you weren't. Here we are many years later and the choice is bigger than it’s ever been. Flashguns have improved so much over the years in terms of output and spec, but for a first time buyer, the choice can be bewildering.
Let’s start at the beginning - power. When you look at the spec of any flashgun, the maximum power is always quoted in Guide Numbers. This is a simple equation that tells us the flashgun's power and therefore distance the light will travel at a certain f-stop. Guide numbers are universal and all manufacturers use the same standard parameters to measure them. Guide numbers are calculated at 100 ISO at 10ft distance.
The equation to find the maximum f-stop will be the guide number ÷ by the distance. Stick with it, it’s really easy to work out. To give an example, take the Sigma EF610 DG Super flashgun that has a guide number of 61. To find the maximum f-stop, simply divide the guide number 61, by the distance of 10ft and the answer will be f/6.1. Obviously the larger the guide number the more powerful the flashgun. Knowing how to work out guide numbers will allow you to choose the right power for you.
I’m not going to list every last mode on every flashgun here, but the basic features of a decent gun will feature TTL mode and of course manual mode. This is similar to manual mode on your camera where you, as photographer decide on the settings. Most guns have a series of settings from full power to 1/16th power, very useful as a fill-in light. To control the basic output many flashguns have a drop down wide-angle diffuser that covers the tube. This allows greater wide angle coverage, up to 17mm in some cases and is a useful feature to shoot wider groups. A zoom feature is also important as it that adjusts to each lens from 24mm to around 105mm. This can be either manually set or in some cases is automatically set as you zoom the lens. Check the spec of each gun to find the best for you.
These are the very basic features that most flashguns have these days and are all that some photographers really need or use. However, as I said technology has moved at a pace and now many guns feature many different TTL modes, advanced functions and a host of other features, so check them out to see if you really need them. This is where my skilled colleagues at Wex come into their own. Just give them a ring and they will always be happy to answer any questions you have about any model of flashgun.
Who should buy a flashgun?
If you, as a photographer, want to shoot on darker days and evenings, take pictures of friends and families inside but don’t want to carry tons of equipment and don’t want anything too technical, then on camera flash is for you. Because they simply ‘plug and play’, using a flashgun on the hot shoe in TTL mode could not be simpler.
- How about the more adventurous photographer who wants to shoot more creative stuff, but wants to use the minimum amount of equipment?
Well, flashguns are much more sophisticated these days and are more able to shoot a wide range of applications. To begin with, there is now a nice selection of accessories available from the likes of Honl, Lastolite, Gary Fong and Interfit that simply attach to most flashguns. They include brollies, snoots, soft boxes, etc. These basic accessories turn the average gun into something much more creative and versatile, but are still small enough and light enough to carry about with you.
- What about the advanced photographer who wants to shoot wedding and larger family groups etc?
Flashguns are well up to the job for the semi-pro and pro-photographer who want to shoot much bigger stuff. This can be achieved by linking up a number of higher-powered flashguns via a wireless trigger system, e.g. PocketWizard that will then enable the photographer to shoot with studio-type set-ups, but it does come at a price. In fact the cost can be as much as an average two head studio flash kit!
I've discussed the good things about flashguns, are there any downsides? As I see it there are very few downsides, cost is an issue if you want to shoot that higher powered, multi-gun set up. A pair of Nikon SB910 guns will set you back around £680 and that’s before you buy a transmitter, stands and other accessories. I would buy studio flash instead, at least you get modelling lamps and you buy into a much larger range of professional accessories. Aside from that, buying a flashgun makes complete sense. I've had a mid range Nikon SB gun for a few years and only ever use on TTL. It’s great to whip out at family gatherings when my dear wife wants a shot of someone cutting a cake, its perfect!
Browse the full range of Flashguns that we stock at Wex Photographic or shop by brand by clicking one of the links below:
Click through for Part Two in our 4-Part Guide to Lighting Options!