An understanding of, and ability to control, light is one of the key foundations of photography. Once you’ve gained the knowledge to modify light, you will then need to purchase some gear (that’s right, more gear!). By adding Speed Lights, Medium Strobes, and/or Full Strobes to your arsenal, you will be in control of any lighting situation.
But which flash should you get? Do you need to freeze action? Take your lights on location? Overpower the sun? Lighting can be one of THE most expensive investments you make, especially if you factor in modifiers and grip equipment. If you’re thinking about purchasing your first flash, this list will give you some key considerations which you must factor in before clicking that “buy” button.
Annoyingly, the power of Speed Lights and strobes are not measured in the same way. The power of a Speed Light is given in terms of a Guide Number (GN); whereas strobes will be given in Watt Seconds (W/S). On top of that, the ways which guide numbers are measured is not consistent. As a simple rule, you can say that a Speed Light will be roughly 50 Watt Seconds, give or take.
With that exceptionally boring fact out of the way, your first consideration should be power. What power do I need? For example, if you’re doing product photography and want to shoot at ISO 100, 1/160th and f22 then a little Speed Light simply won’t do, a Full Strobe of 500 W/S or more should be just fine. If you want to shoot portraits with a much wider aperture, f4 for example, then a Speed Light might be just what you need.
It’s worth noting that you can double, triple, quadruple (and so on) the number of Speed Lights you use in any one modifier using various mounts. Effectively, all those Speed Lights become one, more powerful, light. But think about how many you would need to equal one 500 W/S strobe?
To throw one other piece of confusion onto the pile, we then have Medium Strobes. The easiest way to think about these is as in-between Speed Lights and Strobes. Not as powerful as a Full Strobe but not as portable as a Speed Light.
Do I Need To Take Them On Location?
With tip number 1 in mind, you then need to think about where these lights will be. Will you be taking them out on location? If so, do you need them to be battery powered or would a somewhat less portable battery pack suffice?
With each type of light (Speed Light, Medium Strobe and Full Strobe), there are plusses and minuses. Until a 2000 W/S Speedlight with lightning fast flash duration, great recycle times and amazing reliability is invented, it will always be a balancing act.
A Speed Light is the ultimate in portability but for that you sacrifice power. A Full Strobe will have boatloads of power but might be a pain to take on the tube (they are, trust me). A Medium Strobe is the happy medium between the two but might not be powerful enough or portable enough.
I strongly encourage you to think about your current requirements here but also what you may need in the future. Budget will always be a constraint, but if you can future proof your investment, that will be better for you and your business.
Do I Photograph Balloons Exploding?
Flash duration refers to the amount of time it takes for the light to go from off to full power and then back to off. Unfortunately for us, manufacturers love to give us this time in what’s called the t.5 time. The t.5 time measures the flash duration once 50% of the light has dissipated. But 50% is still quite a lot and still has a pretty big impact on freezing action.
If you’re shooting any fast moving subjects, you need a flash with a fast flash duration. My advice if that’s you, ignore the t.5 time and instead hunt around a little for the t.1 time (it’s not usually listed). That will give you a much better idea of what that flash is capable of.
This is a big subject and worthy of an article of its own. This little video review of the Profoto B1’s, by Alex Koloskov of Photigy.com, will give you a good idea of the flash duration needed for something like freezing water.
What’s My Budget?
This is, of course, an obvious one but nonetheless important and there are some interesting points to consider. For instance, if you require lots of power and are considering using multiple Speed Lights to create a more powerful light and save money, then you may be in for a shock. If we assume that a Speed Light is 50 W/S, then you’ll need roughly 10 to equal one 500 W/S Strobe. That would be pretty expensive!
[REWIND: LEARN OFF CAMERA FLASH WITH LIGHTING 201]
As with the purchase of any equipment, you must first drill down into exactly what you need. Answer the following questions and you’ll have a pretty good idea.
1) How much power do I need?
2) Will I be taking the lights out on location?
3) Do I need the lights to freeze action?
4) How many lights do I need?
Once you know all of that, the type of flash required will become pretty apparent. If your budget doesn’t accommodate what’s needed, then my only tip is to keep saving or look into buying used.
What Speed Lights And Strobes Do You Recommend?
Finally, when you’ve decided what type of light you need, you then have the fun of deciding which model to get! As always there is a myriad of choices here, some better than others. If you’ve been observant while reading this, you may have noticed the photos show some of our favourite choices.
Here’re some links to a few of our favourite Speed Lights, Medium Strobes and Full Strobes:
Summary – My Head Is Spinning
Choosing the right flash can seem pretty daunting, and understandably so. Not only is there a lot to learn but there’s a huge amount to choose from. Once you’ve figured out 1) what you need it for and 2) what features you need, use that info to make an informed choice.
The trouble is, without the right knowledge you won’t be able to make those decisions. I always advocate education over gear but in this instance, the two go hand in hand. It’s not possible for me to write every consideration in this article and if you’re still struggling with what to get then I would suggest watching one of our amazing lighting tutorials. You’ll gain some knowledge on how to use flashes and in the process you’ll probably figure out what you need.
The amazing Lighting 101 and 201 tutorials can be found in the SLR Lounge Store, click here. Lighting 101 is all about working with a single on-camera Speed Light and showing you how far you can push that one light. In lighting 201, the lights come off the camera, and we delve deeper. In my opinion, both are essential purchases for anyone wanting to advance their knowledge of lighting.