So, we know what flash is good at, and where it’s weak, but what should you look for if you’re about to go and spend your hard earned money on a flash?
As always with equipment, you tend to get what you pay for. Besides more headline features, more expensive kit tends to be better built, and speaking as someone who works on location a lot, and doesn’t always have the time to babysit my equipment all day long, this can be very valuable.
Perhaps the main thing to consider, once you’ve decided on your budget, is the balance between power and portability. Predictably, the power available in something like a flashgun is very small, and the power in a Profoto B1 battery powered head is much more. However, your requirements will depend on what sort of thing you’re shooting. If, for arguments sake, you’re shooting climbers on a remote rock face, then a smaller unit like a flashgun may be much more preferable to a big unit (providing it gives you enough power of course). On the other side of the coin, if you know you’re going to be indoors the vast majority of the time, then a mains system probably makes more sense. You’ll never need to worry about the batteries running out, and you’ll generally get more power in a similar sized package.
If you’re trying to choose between a battery and a mains system, I would argue that batteries are much more versatile, as of course they can be used well away from mains power, and still be used indoors. I’d suggest starting with a battery system of some sort, and if you find yourself spending most of your time within the reach of mains power, then make the jump. For what it’s worth, I use both types, but of course that’s because my work covers a wide range of subjects.
Units like this Nikon flashgun, which was the top of the range when I bought it 9 years ago, offer a wide range of exposure and power modes, including what’s called TTL. TTL stands for “through the lens”, and it refers to the ability of a flash unit to talk to the camera it’s synced with, and generate a correct exposure based on what the camera thinks works. You’re starting to see TTL even in big units like this B1, although generally speaking, flash heads like this only come in manual power.
Having done my technical course, and knowing your beans about exposure, you’ll appreciate that I’m not the biggest fan of automatic exposure of any sort – it can vary so much from shot to shot that I generally don’t use it. However, it’s presence on a flashgun is certainly not a reason to NOT buy it, but I’d use it with caution! Manual is where you want to be, and the mark of a good, useful flash unit, of any type, will be the range of power output you have in manual, as well as the degree to which you can control the output. This flashgun allows me to go from full power to 1/128th, in 1/3 stop increments, a range of 7 stops, and this B1 head allows me to go from “10” down to “2” in 1/10th stop increments – a range of 8 stops. I’m sure you can appreciate that the bigger the range of power output, the more versatile the unit.
How fast a flash recycles can matter, and again, generally speaking, the more expensive the unit, the quicker it will recycle, although this may be affected by other things like battery types.
A range of different triggering options is a big plus too – we’re just about to talk about how to trigger a flash, but having the ability to set a flash off via an optical slave, via a radio system, via a direct cable, or via some proprietary system is all useful, and the bigger your choice, the less you’re likely to find yourself in a situation where you can’t set your flash off.
Having a flash that fits into a recognised system of modifiers will be something you’ll be very grateful for as you to start to explore lighting. Modifiers in all their different varieties, need to be mounted onto the flash in some way, and this varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. You may find some insanely cheap kit on the internet, and then on opening the package, you discover that none of your softboxes, grids, or reflectors fit! Stick with an established system, like this Profoto kit, and you’ll be able to get pretty much anything you want to fit.
If you’re getting really technical, you’ll also want to look for a flash that has a very short duration. However, I’m not going to go into any real depth about that, as it’s only of concern to those looking to do really, high-speed photography, and it will likely only confuse the rest of us!
To quickly summarise – you’ll generally get what you pay for in terms of build quality, variety of exposure options, range of output, access to modifiers, and recycling time. The choice between battery and mains is up to you, dependent on what your type of photography is, but I’d suggest starting with battery and building from there