The Best AA Battery for Flash – The Ultimate Practical Review of AA Batteries for Photography – Part I
There have been many articles, reviews, and opinions thrown around regarding which AA battery is the best battery for photographers. Alkaline versus Lithium versus Rechargeable. Everyone has their opinion, websites have their tests, but when it all comes down to it I didn’t feel like any of these sources did a good job of providing realistic and practical information on the subject. So we did our own testing.
NOTE ON PART II: Keep in mind that in this comparison we wanted to primarily test Eneloop (what we know to be a good rechargeable) against a standard lineup of alkaline batteries. We will be conducting a follow up using only rechargeable batteries in the comparison comparing Eneloop against Panasonic, Powerex, Energizer, etc.
9/4/2012 UPDATE: Since we released this article, we have been in touch with Energizer regarding the performance of the Energizer Ultimate Lithium AAs. We discovered that the Energizer Ultimate Lithium AA batteries were the only batteries in the test group that come built in with “PTC” or simply built in thermal protection. Thus, once the batteries hit around 30 flashes the thermal protection kicked in and limited the battery output to prevent damage. While the thermal protection makes these batteries probably not the best option for consecutive high-output flash recycling, the battery technology allows for consistent power output up to 9x longer than Energizer MAX, a number which was verified by Consumer Reports. We were impressed by their responsiveness to this article, and wanted to update you all with the new information. — Pye
Watch the Video Highlights
Let me be clear by stating up front that we are not battery scientists or experts and this is not intended to be a scientific test. Our testing methodology is simple, and uses only one single electronic device (Vivitar 285HV), so results in other devices may vary. We simply wanted to gauge how well these batteries worked in this device (which we commonly use). We performed this test out of our own interest knowing the outcome and we have no bias or vested interest in any of the batteries tested, nor do we claim that the results are scientifically accurate across all types of electronics. This test is designed to give practical information on how these batteries perform in our Vivitar 285HV flash unit under shooting conditions which are common to us (using 2 flash units at 1/1 power to overpower the sun during mid-day shoots). We do not claim that these results are typical across all types of electronics. Finally, we wish to state that all of the results stated in this article are the opinions of SLR Lounge Editor’s.
Our Testing Procedures
We wanted to keep the test simple, straight forward, and practical based on our common use of off camera flashes. We are often shooting in mid-day sun (simply because we have to) and are using 2 off camera flashes powered to full power (1/1) to over power harsh sunlight on our subject’s faces. In fact, during mid-day formal photography at a wedding, it isn’t uncommon for us to fire 100+ full power flashes as we shoot each formal grouping. During these moments, the full power recycle time is absolutely crucial as often times we have to take 2-3 shots of each group to make sure that there are no bad expressions or people blinking.
So, our plan was simply to test the full power recycle time from one flash to the next across 75 consecutive flashes. However, we ran into a couple problems. We started by using a Canon 580EX II (B&H) as our test flash unit. However, we quickly realized that any relatively new flash is going to have built in thermal protection which adjusts the recycle time so the flash doesn’t over heat. The 580EX IIs thermal protection ended up giving us not so reliable results since we didn’t know whether the battery was actually losing power, or if the flash was just limiting the recycle time.
So, we switched to plan 2 and used an old Nikon SB-24. The SB-24 was recycling quickly and consistently and all was going well, until we fried the unit on the second set of batteries that we were testing.
Finally, we thought to use our Vivitar 285HV Flashes. The Vivitar 285HV (B&H) is an old flash designed and built in the 70s and has been recently resurrected due to the demand for manual flashes. The best part of the Vivitar 285HV is that they are fantastically cheap (around $80 for a new unit). They are also built like tanks and have a rather long recycle times in general compared to new flashes. The long recycle time isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it worked very well for our tests since the longer recycle times will prevent against overheating. So we figured if any flash would be able to dissapate the heat quick enough for our tests, it would be this one. After a few different sets of batteries, we discovered that the Vivitar 285HV indeed worked! While the recycle times are quite a bit longer when compared to newer flashes, it still shows the overall results and speed of each battery’s performance.
We used the exact same Vivitar 285HV flash for all batteries tested. After each battery was tested, we allowed the flash unit at least one hour to completely cool down before testing the next set.
We selected the most common sets of Alkaline batteries for our testing including Duracell Coppertop (standard Duracell), Duracell Ultra Advanced, Energizer Max (standard Energizer), Energizer Lithium and finally Costco Kirkland batteries since they are so wonderfully inexpensive… and because everyone loves Costco. We selected the Eneloops as the rechargeables to use for the test because based on our experience, they have held up better than all other rechargeable batteries that we have used.
For all alkaline batteries, we purchased new batteries in their retail packages and pulled them directly from the retail package and placed them into the Vivitar flash test unit. For the rechargeable Eneloops, we purchased new batteries in retail packages and charged them to full power prior to placing them into the Vivitar flash. All batteries were brand new, and the test results were based on their first time use.
We powered up the flash unit, set the dial to flash at full 1/1 power and started flashing away! We hooked up the flash to a timer that would record the duration from full power flash to the next full power flash. Each battery was tested for a total of 75 full power consecutive flashes.
Additional Notes on Final Temperature
After the 75th flash on each set of batteries, I took the batteries out of the Vivitar to just feel out their temperature. You are probably wondering why the final battery temperature even matters, so let me tell you! Camera flashes, like any electronic device, generates heat and can even over heat causing the flash to shut down, or even worse causing the flash to simply break. Many factors contribute to heat, the weather and surrounding temperature, high flash output settings, consecutively firing the device and yes batteries! If the batteries inside the flash are hot, then they are also contributing to the overall heat of the device.
Now, I didn’t feel it necessary to go as far as measuring the exact temperature of each battery. Rather I simply wrote down the temperature based on touch. Either the battery was warm to the touch, hot to the touch, or would literally burn you to the touch. Obviously, the cooler the battery after 75 flashes, the better that battery is in preventing overheating.
Graphs and Analytics
Notes on Each Battery (Worst to Best)
#7 Energizer Ultimate Lithium – The Energizer Ultimate Lithiums had the slowest 1st recycle time among all of the batteries tested at 8.6 seconds. We originally thought that these little batteries virtually died after around the 30th full powered flash. However, we later learned (as we stated in the update above) that basically around the 30th full powered flash the batteries internal thermal protection, or PTC, kicked in limiting the power output to prevent damage. We also learned that these batteries were designed for consistent flash power output over a longer duration.
The slow initial recycle is due to the fact that the batteries are designed for consistent output over time, vs heavy burst output. This means that for professional photographers firing high-output flash devices consecutively, this is not a good option as they had an average recycle time of a 51.24 seconds across our 75 flashes due to the thermal protection. However, for more standard consumer electronic applications these batteries are rated by Consumer Reports to last up to 9x longer than Energizer Max. We left the results off the graph so that it wouldn’t skew the overall results.
#6 Costco Kirkland – Next up, Kirkland batteries from our favorite place in the world, COSTCO! It was actually quite surprising that the Kirkland batteries fared quite well in our tests. In fact, it scored very close to the Energizer Max, Duracell Ultra Power and Duracell batteries. It had a modestly quick 1st flash time of 8.5 seconds, and finished at 14.8 seconds per recycle on the 75th flash. This gave it an average flash recycle time of 12.65 seconds! Not bad for a battery that only costs $.31 per battery. Only downside was that it was burning to the touch after the 75th flash. But, still if you are looking for a standard alkaline battery, there really is no going wrong with Kirkland brand!
#5 Energizer Max (Standard) – The standard Energizer Max costing only $.39 per battery significantly outperformed the Energizer Ultimate Lithiums. It’s 1st flash recycle time was right along most of the alkalines at 8.3 seconds and ended with a 15.2 second recycle time on the 75th flash. It just barely edged out Kirkland brand batteries with a final average recycle time of 12.57 seconds (.08 seconds quicker overall than Kirkland brand). It was also burning to the touch upon exit from the flash.
#4 Duracell Ultra Power – Duracell and Energizer share a common trait in that both of their “advanced” batteries actually performed worse than their standard AA batteries. Very puzzling indeed. Once again, we tested two sets of these batteries just to make sure. Virtually the exact same results with both tests. We get an average 1st flash recycle time of 8.4 seconds, a 75th flash time of 15.5 seconds and an average recycle time of 12.52 seconds which is barely 1/10th of a second quicker than the Kirkland AAs! Once again, very disappointing for a battery that costs nearly 4 times as much at $1.12 per battery! The battery was also burning to the touch upon exit from the flash.
#3 Duracell (Standard) – In 3rd place comes the standard Duracell battery which actually performed quite well across the board. It had a very quick 1st flash recycle time of 7.3 seconds and a 75th flash recycle time of 14.1 seconds giving it a total average flash recycle duration of 11.68 seconds. Nearly 1 second faster than overall than Duracell Ultra Power, Energizer Max and Kirkland Batteries! They are also very affordable at a price of around $.29 cents per battery (when purchased from Amazon). They were only hot to the touch upon exit from the flash, which helps contribute a little less heat to the flash than the other batteries that were burning to the touch. All in all, this was the best Alkaline battery for photography and flash.
#2 Standard Eneloop – In 2nd place comes the standard Eneloop rechargeable battery. We knew Eneloops were good batteries, but we had no idea that they would blow alkaline batteries out of the water since it is generally assumed that Alkaline always performs better than rechargeables. Well, we were wrong, very wrong. The Eneloop posted the fastest starting recycle time of 6.8 seconds and a 75th flash recycle time of only 10.5 seconds! This gave it a blazing fast overall average flash recycle time of 8.94 seconds. Not to mention, the battery was only warm to the touch upon exiting the flash after the 75th flash. To say that we were surprised would be an understatement. Standard Eneloops do cost around $2.46 per battery, but that cost should be quickly recouped within 10 uses. In addition, we know from experience that they have a wonderful shelf life when compared to other rechargeable batteries. As a studio, we are out on over 200 shoots per year and we still have standard Eneloop batteries that are running strong which were originally purchased nearly 2 years ago! Our studio retires all Eneloop batteries at their 2 year mark, at which point we will take them home and use them for personal electronic devices, but no longer in cameras/flashes.
#1 Eneloop XX – Recently released, Sanyo improved on the standard Eneloop with the Eneloop XX. While the Eneloop XX posted the best overall scores, we did expect a little more out of this battery since it is nearly double the cost per battery ($4.34 each) when compared to the standard Eneloop. In addition, its overall score was only slightly better than the standard Eneloop. It actually had a slightly slower 1st flash time of 7.1 seconds, but a slightly quicker 75th flash recycle time of 9.9 seconds giving it an overall flash recycle time of 8.75 seconds. Where we saw the difference was in the power fall off. At around the 25th flash the standard Eneloop began to lose power just a bit more quickly than the Eneloop XX which resulted in a fairly significant difference of .6 seconds on the 75th flash. We assume that if we were to continue on through another 75 flashes, we would see the Eneloop XXs continue this trend of maintaining power longer than the standard Eneloops. However, whether this performance boost is worth double the price per battery is something that you will need to decide for yourself.
Our Overall Recommendation
For professional use or for enthusiasts that can swallow the price, we definitely recommend the Eneloop XX battery as it was the best performing battery among the entire lot. Generally, in each of our gear bags are 32 Eneloop XX AA batteries which will take us through a single full day shoot. The cost of 32 of these batteries would be around $139, but you would recoup that cost overtime anyway since you aren’t burning through standard alkalines.
For professionals or enthusiasts that want a slightly cheaper solution, look to the standard Eneloop AA battery which will cost only $78 for a full set of 32 batteries. They perform very similarly to the Eneloop XX batteries, and most of you probably won’t be in many situations where the slight difference in performance will matter.
If you are in a pinch and you need to buy alkaline batteries, standard Duracell batteries will give you the best performance for the price compared to all of the other alkaline batteries. Keep in mind that Kirkland brand batteries are your next best option since they are cheaper and perform nearly the same or better than the other alkaline batteries.
We hope you enjoyed this article!