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Speedlight Guide

This page offers information for photographers interested in working with small, portable flash units.

Speedlights, small flashes, flash guns, compact strobes, or whatever you want to call them, are small flashes that allow you versatility in lighting, especially when used "off-camera".

We offer several workshops for learning to use speedlights, and this page is intended to be a useful guide to low-cost, but high-quality, small flashes and light modifiers.

When are speedlights useful?

The number of answers to this question are infinite! The ease-of-use and portability of speedlights means they are useful in any situation where lighting is difficult. As photographers, we know that our biggest daily challenge is getting enough light to properly expose our photo given what we need from each corner of our exposure triangle. Macro photography, for example, offers some big challenges; because we're working so close to our subject, and we want the greatest detail possible, along with a big depth of field, we need to use exposure triangle values that THIRST for light! A low ISO, like ISO 100 is a requirement because we want the sharpest detail we can get. Working so close to our subjects, we commonly need a large f/number, like f/16, just to get a fraction of an inch of depth-of-field. Quite often, we're working outside, in breezy situations, or working with things that move quickly, like insects, so a fairly speedy shutter is neccessary. All three of these requirements mean we're getting very little light on our sensor. Using a speedlight with a light modifier, like a diffuse panel, gives us all the light we need to work with these settings!

Portraits are another scenario where speedlights are very useful. Learning how to "model light" with speedlights is a great way to add depth to your photos, and create a more polished, professional look.

Speedlights and supporting equipment doesn't have to be expensive! For around $150 you can get started with a single light, a remote triggering system, and a light modifier to give you control over the look of your light. After you initial expense, it's easy to add more inexpensive components to expand your lighting arsenal!

The two main categories of speedlight

Speedlights fall into two general categories:

  • TTL Speedlight - "TTL" means "through the lens", and there are few different flavors, but basically, they are auto mode for your speedlight. The speedlight sends out an imperceptible series of flashes before the shutter fires, and reads the brightness of those pulses on the sensor, through the lens. The camera then makes an educated guess at how much power the flash should use to expose your shot. Sometimes this system gets it right, and other times it doesn't, just like your light meter! It's guessing, and you often have to make exposure compensation adjustments.
  • Manual Speedlight - The photographer directly controls the power of the flash. It's easy to learn, because the basics work just like the exposure triangle! You control the power of the speedlight using stops of light, just like when you modify your exposure settings.

Many TTL lights also have manual functionality, but typically cost a lot more than their manual-only counterparts. In my experience, TTL is useful, but in rare situations, like when photographing an event, where you're moving around, shooting different people in different areas of a room or setting. I recommend one of the inexpensive lights listed below to get you started, because learning to control the small flash manually will help to improve your understanding of light and exposure!

In the photo comparison, below, you can see how useful the speedlight can be in getting you more light, and nicer looking light, quickly and easily. The two photos were taken in direct sunlight (coming from behind the grasshoppers, to the right of the frame), just a few seconds apart. The kind of dramatic lighting the speedlight gives, combined with a longer depth-of-field, creates a really crisp photo!

Recommended Gear

I like the Yongnuo brand of portable flash equipment, for a couple of reasons: First, they are inexpensive, which means if one breaks then I am not out $400 or more! Second, they work really well. I have 8 Yongnuo lights and use them hard, and I have even dropped a couple, and they continue to work perfectly.

If you have any questions about compatibility with your camera, read this page and use the contact form to ask questions. Make sure to mention your camera's make and model number!

Speedlight

Most camera manufacturers make their own brand of portable flash, and the ones I've seen and used are great, but I don't need many of the bells and whistles they include, and I can buy 4 to 8 Yongnuo flashes for the price of one of Canon's or Nikon's!

For this workshop you will need a speedlight that has manual control, and with a head that swivels and tilts, so that you can point your light in a direction other than straight ahead. The YN560-IV is such a light. The YN560-IV has a built-in receiver so that it can be used with a Yongnuo YN560-TX flash controller, off of your camera. The flash controller mounts to your camera's hot shoe, and sends a signal to the flash to fire.

The YN560-IV will work on just about any camera that has a standard hot shoe mount. Canon and Nikon DLSRs usually have standard hot shoes, but some other manufacturers may have their own hot shoe specification. Some Sony cameras, for example, use an incompatible mount, and would require a special adapter. Use the contact form if you have a question about your particular camera's compatibility.

Manual Flash Controller

The YN560-TX is the controller I recommend, because it allows you to change the power of a YN560-III directly from its interface, which is useful if your flash is out of reach. For example, if you get more interested in using speedlights on light stands, away from your camera, it gets tedious each time you want to make an adjustment to the speedlight, because you have to go to the light to make the change. With the YN560-TX, you can control the power of your lights from the controller, which mounts on your camera's hot shoe!

The YN560-TX is a simple transmitter, as far as your camera is concerned; it doesn't have to deal with the complexities of "TTL" or your camera's automatic flash exposure capabilities, because you control the power, manually. Because of this, the YN560-TX should work with just about any camera that has a standard hot shoe mount. I have used it on Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and others. In only one case have I put it on a camera with a standard hot shoe mount and it would not fire the flash, andevven then, I didn't fiddle with the photographer's camera to see if I could get it to work.

While I do recommend the YN560-TX controller, it may not be for everyone. If you'd rather have a more compact option, that is also a little less expensive, then you can use any of Yongnuo's RF-603 or RF-602 wireless transmitters.

Flash Modfiers

The last thing you'll need is something to modify the quality of your flash's light output. Un-modified light is hard and ill-suited to macro photography.

For macro, I love using the ExpoImaging Rogue FlashBender 2 Reflector; it's light and mounts to any speedlight, and it's a good size for controlling the light near small objects.

The panel is flexible, and can be shaped however you like, to control where the flash's light goes. ExpoImaging also makes a softbox attachment for the reflector, which makes the light even more diffuse.

Both kits linked below have the diffuse panel, and I recommend the largest one you can afford, for more flexibility.

Links

All of the links open in a new window!

The prices displayed below are from February, 2017, and may have changed.


There are a number of options with the Yongnuo system, and Amazon has kits available with two lights and a remote commander, for example. Use the links below as general information, but look around and see if there is a kit that is more useful, like this one for Canon, or this one for Nikon!

YN560-IV speedlight - ~$69.00 (one or more of these; two or more lights gives you more options)

YN560-TX for Canon* - ~$40.00 OR YN560-TX for Nikon* - ~$40.00 (one of these)
* I don't think it matters which you get, either will work on just about any camera with a standard hot shoe mount


Optional Modifiers
FlashBender 2 Extra Large Pro - ~$99.00
OR
FlashBender 2 Large Reflector and Diffuse panel - ~$65.00

Larger softboxes can be great for portraits, inside and out, and for macro and still-life!
Neewer® Photo Studio Multifunctional 32x32"/80x80cm Softbox with S-type Speedlite Flash Bracket Mount - ~$49
If you opt to purchase this kit, please be sure to get both the YN560-IV (one flash per softbox) and the YN560-TX, since you will be using your light off-camera!


Light Stands
Here is a set of reasonably-priced, and durable light stands. They are spring-loaded, and have good locking devices. I have been using a few of these for years, and they are great!
PBL Light Stands 10 Foot, Pro Heavy Duty Spring Cushioned, All Metal Locking Collars, Set of 2 with Carry Bags Black Finish by PBL


As you can see, you can put together a pretty convenient and reliable macro speedlight system for a little more than $150!

I chose all of these pieces because they are good quality at a good price, and they are pretty easy to carry and use. If you have any questions use the contact form.

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