Your first experience of flash might be the tiny pop up flash you find on the top of a lot of compact cameras and a number of DSLR models. They are useful to light a subject when all else fails but to be honest, if you want your shots to look more than just selfies, then you need to look further afield. We are referring to the dedicated flashguns that can be mounted in your camera’s hot shoe, or for even greater flexibility, used off-camera and fired remotely by a wireless trigger.
They are known by different names such as flash, strobe, speedlight (or speedlite) and monobloc. They are usually battery powered, which makes them very portable. They emit a powerful and brief flash of light that can illuminate your scene. Monoblocs, or studio lights as they are know, are larger, more powerful and less portable lights that are usually powered by mains electricity. Some studio lights can be used outdoors with the help of large lithium batteries.
Pop up flash
Most compact cameras and entry level DSLRs will have a small flash built in. Most are designed to pop up when light levels are deemed too low to get a usable exposure. Pop up flashes by their nature are very small and produce a very harsh direct light that is not flattering for your subjects. Because the little flash tube is front-facing, you don’t have a lot of scope to get creative. You can use it to fill in dark shadows but beyond that you’re probably going to struggle. Some people will put a small piece of white card bent at an angle in front of the flash to direct the light upwards in order to bounce the light off the ceiling but this can be a bit hit and miss. Add to that the fact that they are not particularly powerful, then you can see why you need to step up your game a little to the next level.
An alternative to the various forms of flash lighting we’ve mentioned here is to use continuous lighting instead. Sometimes also referred to as hot lights or photofloods. Rather than emitting a powerful but brief flash of light, continuous lights are always on. They are not as powerful as flashes but you do have the benefit of always seeing how the light is falling on your subject without needing to do a test shot as you would with flash. At their simplest, they are either an incandescent bulb housed inside a large reflector, or powerful daylight balanced fluorescent lights that are more energy efficient. For more powerful options, you are going to be looking at arc lights; these were developed for the film industry and are insanely expensive.
Third party flash
Just like cameras, there is a bewildering choice. Not just from the major brands like Canon and Nikon but from 3rd party manufacturers like Nissin, Yongnuo and Gloxy. With big name brands costing hundreds for top of the range equipment, the temptation may be to trawl the pages on eBay looking for a bargain flash unit. It is fair to point out that the phrase ‘you get what you pay for’ has never been more relevant. You may find yourself some unknown brand for a quarter of the price of one of the major brand names that seems too good to be true, and it probably is. Take the advice of those who found out to their cost, stick with a major brand or well-regarded 3rd party manufacturer. Check out user reviews wherever you can. Make the best informed choice you are able within your budget.
Brand name flashes
All the manufacturers make a variety of flash models for their cameras. They range from simple front facing small flashes, right up to their professional-level flashes with wireless control, powerful flash tubes with variable power control, tilt and swivel flash heads and a host of customisable features and accessories to create your own portable studio setup. These models are not cheap but they are the choice of professionals for a reason. They also have the added bonus of letting you shoot high-speed photography because, when used at lower power settings, the pulse of light from the flash is so brief that you could use it to illuminate a scene for a fraction of a second and catch a bullet in flight, freezing the action dead in its tracks.
Studio lights can actually be broken down into two categories. First is the flash head kit. Flash heads are just the light emitters. A separate power pack supplies the required voltage and the controls are actually on the power unit itself. The other variety of studio light is the monobloc, or monolight. These are either mains powered or lithium battery powered flash units but all the controls are built into each unit. This limits their power but it does make them more portable and more easily used outdoors. Flash heads tend to be more powerful and you have the advantage of being able to control multiple flash head setups directly from the power pack.
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