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Posted in : Featured / Flash / Gear Talk on March 17th, 2012.
speedlights_behind_the_scenes

The question I’m probably asked the most, at least 2 or 3 times a week, is what gear can I recommend to those just starting out with flash?, or to those just wanting to dabble a little with flash photography to see if they like it, and how to do so on a budget.

On the flash workshops I teach, this is also the one question that almost everybody wants the answer to.  People typically come to my flash workshops because they have little or no experience with flash, are confused by the vast amount of information and options out there , and just want it translated into plain English with practical examples that they can try themselves.  So, their question is perfectly reasonable, and they are often quite surprised by how little it can cost to get them up and running with a basic one light system.

The biggest problem I’ve found in all of this is weighing up budget vs. versatility.  Each component in a basic flash setup is going to depend on what each individual photographer needs and wants to learn & shoot.  Everybody also has a different idea of “on a budget”.

So, I will present my preferred option first, for each component in the setup, and below each, some boxes with suitable alternatives. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the alternatives, but as I mentioned above, budget vs. versatility. Sometimes you can sacrifice certain features in order to save a little money, and sometimes you absolutely have to have certain features and it’s worth it to spend a little more.

All of these items should be available from many different sellers on eBay, both in the UK and direct from Hong Kong or China (with free shipping they often work out a little cheaper, but you could be waiting up to 12 weeks for them to actually arrive).  Some are also available from more traditional photographic retailers.

First up, the flash unit itself, and I’ll probably go a bit more in-depth on this one than I will with the rest of the items.

Flash : Yongnuo YN560 (typical price £40-50)

Given the price, this is probably one of the best speedlights on the market at the moment.  It’s as powerful as a Nikon SB-800 or Canon 580EX2, but without all the brand specific features (TTL, wireless remote control, etc).  It’s fully manual, meaning you’ll physically have to walk over to the flash in order to adjust the power output, but that’s only what we’ve had to do for years with studio strobes anyway.  The build quality is excellent, although early versions of this flash seemed a little easy to kill, and it was updated in 2011 to offer a metal foot and other modifications to increase physical strength and durability.  I still wouldn’t like to test if it’ll bounce off concrete though.

Power Output

As mentioned above, this flash has about the same output as a Nikon SB-800, while the body of the flash itself is loosely modelled on the Canon 580EX2.  Added to this revision of the flash is a zoomable head, which goes from 24-105mm.  This allows you to broaden or narrow the beam of light emitted from the flash in order to focus it where you need it.  It also has a built in flip out wide angle adapter in order to spread that beam out as wide as 18mm.

Remember, though, the wider you spread the beam, the lower the effective power becomes as it’s spread across more area.  Inversely, the narrower you spread the beam, the more power and the more light you can focus to a smaller area.  The zoom setting of your flash doesn’t need to be the same as the focal length of your lens if the flash is not sitting on the hotshoe of the camera.

Triggering Methods

The YN560 offers several ways to be able to trigger it.  It has two optical slave modes; One being the typical “see a flash go off and fire” mode we’ve had for years, the other being a pre-flash ignoring mode (handy if you want to mix it in with TTL or optical AWL type setups).

It also features a PC Sync socket, for traditional cabled firing (also very handy when used in certain light modifiers where space can be at a premium & positioning is important, or when using custom triggers for high speed photography).

Finally it can be triggered via a hotshoe – either sat right on the top of your camera, or via radio trigger, such as the RF-602 or RF-603 (which can also connect to the PC Sync socket with the appropriate cable).

Batteries & Recycle Time

As with most hotshoe flashes, the YN560 is powered by 4 AA batteries, but it also features a socket into which you can plug an external battery pack for even faster recycle time and longer usage between battery replacement.  When using alkaline batteries, the YN-560 has a full power recycle time of around 4 seconds.  Using NiMH batteries, that drops down to under 2 seconds (which is extremely impressive for a flash with this kind of power).

That said, if you’re gunning it like a lunatic, it may have a tendency to go into “thermal protection mode” and make you wait for it to cool down a little bit.  With the battery pack, this recycle time likely drops down to around a second or less, but given the potential for it to overheat, I wouldn’t take advantage of that too often.

Handy but not essential features

The YN-560 also offers pretty rapid fire shooting abilities at lower power levels.  Their website claims you can shoot continually at 8fps at 1/8th power or lower, but for how long it can keep this up I don’t know.

Verdict

I started this section off by saying that this is probably one of the best speedlight on the market given what it costs, and I stand by that.  The Nikon SB-900 costs about 8 times as much as the YN560, and while it offers fantastic features and time saving abilities, the YN560 can stand up to most jobs just as well.

Overall, this is the one I would recommend the most, and the one I would be looking to purchase myself, if I did not already own several SB-900s.

Alternatives

Click to ExpandYongnuo YN460-II (typical price £30-40)
The Yongnuo YN460-II is the flash that the YN560 replaced, however they are still available throughout eBay and various other online retailers.  They’re a little less expensive than the YN560, don’t offer the zoomable head, the durability and build quality, nor have quite the power output of the YN560, but they’re still a formidable and useful little flash.

If “as cheap as possible” is your goal, this is the one to go for.  I owned several of them in the past before the YN560 was released in order to compliment my SB-900s.  Personally, I think it’s worth spending the little extra for the 560 in order to get the extra versatility, but as you’ll probably be buying more than one flash anyway as you get deeper into it and your collection grows, this would be a great flash to start you off.

The YN460-II offers both of the optical slave modes featured in the YN560, as well as the ability to be fired via the hotshoe, however it does not have a PC Sync socket, which may be important to some.  It also does not allow you to hook up an external battery pack, which means you won’t be able to bump up the recycle times and will have to switch out your batteries more often (although I never had one go from full to flat in a single shoot on a set of fresh batteries)

Click to ExpandYognnuo YN560-II (typical price £55-65)
The Yongnuo YN560-II is a recently released flash that I have no experience with.  If, however, it’s at least as good as the YN560, it’ll be a killer flash for not that much more cost (it actually seems slightly cheaper than the YN560 was when it was initially released).  Supplies seem fairly limited at the moment, with not many sellers in the UK, although there are plenty out there in Hong Kong and China if you’re willing to potentially wait a few weeks for it to arrive.

Probably the biggest difference between the two is that the YN560-II now sports a nice new shiny LCD on the back offering more information about the current settings of the camera than a handful of LEDs can provide.  It also claims improved optical slave ability that can more easily see master flashes, and a low battery power indicator.

One new feature they added with the YN560-II was repeat flash mode for your stroboscopic flash experiments.  This is something I’ve enjoyed with my Nikon flashes for a long time, but it’s not something I find myself using very often.  A handy feature to have, though, if the mood strikes.

With such relatively limited information available out there on this flash at the moment, it’s tough to give a final verdict, but I think it at least deserves a mention for those willing to try it.

Light Stand : Konig 2m Light Stand (typical price £10-15)

I own 4 of these light stands, and they’re not bad at all.  They’re fairly light (no pun intended), which means they can have a tendency to fall over in a breeze with an umbrella attached if you’re not careful, so make sure you have sandbags with you or somebody to hold on to the stand to make sure it doesn’t blow away.  At this price bracket though, there aren’t really any other alternatives that offer anything extra over the Konig stands.

They support a weight of up to 2.5KG, which is more than enough for a speedlight, bracket and most light modifiers.  These go with me in my lighting bag everywhere, and are what I probably use the most often when out on location.

Alternatives

Click to ExpandManfrotto 5001B Nano Stand (typical price around £45)
Now, these may not seem very budget, especially given the price of the stand above, however these are fantastic if space is at a premium.  Their 5 section design allows them to pack up really small (down to only 48cm), which means you’re able to fit more into your bag, or use a smaller bag than you might with other light stands.

Their foot design differs from many lightstands in the way they fold up, but it means that on flattish surfaces you get much more stability, and they’re a little less prone to falling over than the Konigs (although they’re still not immune) and it also makes them much easier to weigh down for increased stability on location.

I have two of these, and while they are a bit heavier than the Konigs, the fact that they pack down so much smaller makes them easier to carry around on location when packing small.

Umbrella Bracket : Interfit Strobies Umbrella Holder (typical price around £15)

There are a number of different options out there for umbrella brackets, and there are certainly cheaper alternatives to this (two are mentioned below), but this is as close as I can find to the ones I use.  The ones I have, I acquired in an auction and have not seen them online for sale anywhere since, but these come closest (I believe Manfrotto/Bogen make a similar one too, although it’s slightly more expensive).

Like the light stands, there’s not much to umbrella brackets, they all do pretty much the same job, but the long handle on the design of this one makes adjustments quick and easy.  It has a hole in the bottom to attach it to your light stand, a shoe on the top into which you can place your flash and a hole through which you put the shaft of your umbrella, with a little thumbscrew to hold it in place (don’t tighten those too much or they will crush the shaft of your umbrella).

Whichever one you go for, make sure it has an adjustable stroboframe style shoe, that you can screw open and closed.  Trust me, it’ll make life a lot easier when you’re setting up and packing down, or if you need to make quick changes in your lighting setup.

Alternatives

Click to ExpandiShoot Multi-function Flash Holder (typical price £5-10)
I’ve only seen these on eBay so far, and only ever listed a handful of times, but these are very similar to the Interfit ones mentioned above, although much more difficult to come by.

Currently, the only sellers I can find are based in China, but you can see the auction here.

Click to ExpandGeneric Large Shoe Umbrella Bracket (typical price £5-10)
These are the other type of bracket that I like, and what I primarily used before I got the ones I have now.  They’re a generic brand that I initially ordered from an eBay seller in Hong Kong.  They took about 4 weeks to arrive, but fortunately there are now several sellers on eBay in the UK that have this item.

Here is a listing one of the eBay sellers in China so you can see what it looks like.

The large base of the shoe means you can get a good grip on the foot of a flash, but be very careful if using flashes or radio triggers with plastic feet – I did get a little heavy handed once and snap the plastic foot off an RF-602 receiver.

Click to ExpandStrobies Interfit XS Bracket (typical price £40-45)
This is basically the king of umbrella brackets as far as I’m concerned, perhaps overkill for small umbrellas, not really budget, but a great alternative if you think you’ll eventually be using larger modifiers.

For a start it gets the flash head itself much closer to the center of the umbrella because of how the flash is mounted within the bracket, but it also has a Bowens S-Fit on the front of it for hooking it up to S-Fit modifiers such as beauty dishes and softboxes.  But, it also allows you to use a standard shoot through or bounce umbrella.

I bought one of these a couple of years ago with plans to get a nice beauty dish for it.  Well, those plans ended up amounting to not much at all.  I have, however, recently been using it with a Bessel 4ft Octabox and a Nikon SB-900 speedlight (although the YN-560 would work just as well), and it gives just a gorgeous look to the light hitting my subjects.

Sure, speedlights can’t pump out the kind of power that studio strobes can, but at full power, I still managed to get f/9 @ ISO200 at a distance of 6ft with both layers of diffusion on the Octabox, and the dome diffuser over the head of the SB-900.

Radio Triggers : RF-602 (around £25-30 for a Tx/Rx set)
There are many different options out there for radio triggers these days.  Some are ridiculously cheap, in price, build quality and reliability, and some are ridiculously expensive (PocketWizards).  The good news, for us, is that you can get inexpensive triggers that are rock solid, have great build quality and are completely reliable. Here enters the RF-602 trigger set.

The basic RF-602 kit is a transmitter (Tx) and receiver (Rx).  The Tx goes onto the camera’s hotshoe, and the flash sits in the shoe on the Rx. But, you don’t have to use it as a flash trigger. The RF-602 kit also has cables available that allow you to plug it in to many Nikon and Canon DSLRs and use it as a remote camera trigger too, or for using them with studio strobes. In the image above, you can see two of these cables. One is the 3.5mm flash sync cable (with a 3.5mm to 6mm adapter for studio strobes), and the Nikon 10-pin cable for bodies like the D300s, D3, D4, etc. There are also cables available with a traditional PC Sync plug on the end.

Recently, these kits have actually started shipping with an RF-600 Tx, which are slightly different to the RF-602 Tx. The only difference is that the RF-602 Tx has a PC sync socket on it, and the RF-600 Tx doesn’t. This isn’t a huge deal for most people, but if you’re looking to use external sources (sound & light triggers, for example) to fire your flashes, you’ll need to make sure you get the RF-602 version transmitter.

Do note that while all the RF-602 Rx are identical, the RF-600/RF-602 Tx are brand specific.  They are available for both Nikon and Canon.  Either Tx will work with either brand, but if you don’t use your own brand, the Tx doesn’t see a half-press of the shutter button.  This means that if you have flashes that go into sleep mode or idle status, it won’t tell those flashes to wake up and when you take the shot nothing will happen, so you’ll have to manually press the trigger button yourself to make the flashes wake up & fire, and then you can carry on shooting.  It’s only a minor inconvenience, and not one you have to worry about if you get the right Tx for your brand of camera.

I’ve been using these for a little over 2 years now, and have never had a single misfire in that time that wasn’t my own fault – basically, I didn’t wait long enough for the flashes to recycle. I’ve shot these at 8fps for 30-40 image sequences, with half a dozen flashes, and they didn’t skip a beat. I’ve shot them 100ft away through 12ft of solid concrete and they still fired every time.

Alternatives

Click to ExpandRF-603 Transceivers (typical price £20-25 per pair)

RF-603 is an update to the popular RF-602 trigger sets.  The main difference between the two is that the RF-603s are all transceivers rather than a separate transmitter & receiver set.

I was considering switching over to these, but there were a few things that put me off.

  • As they’re transceivers and can all act as either a transmitter or receiver, they’re all brand specific.  As I shoot with both Nikon and Canon bodies, this can make things awkward.
  • They don’t have a PC Sync socket like the RF-602 Tx.  I experiment with various external triggers and intervalometers that I create myself using the Arduino system, and being able to trigger cameras or flashes wirelessly is vitally important to me for those projects.
  • They’re not compatible with the RF-602 system. As I have 3 RF-602 Tx and 7 RF-602 Rx, I’d have to replace them all in one go, which makes my RF-602 gear redundant.
  • My RF-602 triggers have been rock solid since the day I purchased them, have never failed me yet and show no signs of slowing down.  So, I’ve just no need to replace them.

Now, the RF-603 is just as rock solid as the RF-602 system, and very reliable.  I have used them, I just chose not to purchase, for the reasons above.  If you’re just starting out and the reasons above don’t apply to you, then I would not hesitate to recommend a purchase.

They’re slightly cheaper than the RF-602, have the same specifications for distance, have the same build quality (the housing is almost identical to the RF-602 Rx), but I’m just awkward and have needs that the RF-603 can’t satisfy.

As this post is already getting pretty long, we’ll get into light modifiers (softboxes, umbrellas, beauty dishes, etc) in another article.  There are so many possible options out there, depending on what you want to shoot and the look you’re after that they really deserve a proper in-depth look.

That said, you can get some rather pleasing looks with a bare flash as a hard light source without any modifiers at all.  With that in mind, using the list above as a guide, you can pick up a complete flash setup for as low as about £65-80 (Yongnuo YN460-II, Konig Light Stand, Large Shoe Bracket, and a pair of RF-603 transceivers), and all of these items are easily available from eBay and online retailers.

At the higher end of the items listed above, you’re looking at around £165 (Yongnuo YN560-II, Manfrotto Nano Stand, Interfit Strobies XS bracket, and a pair of RF-603 transceivers), which will give you more versatility, stability, power and potential future upgrade options, as you will be able to use a much wider array of modifiers with the Strobies XS backet, and have a stand capable of taking the extra weight, but that’s still less than half the price of just going out and buying a Nikon SB-900 or Canon 580EX2 flash at current prices (and that’s just for the flash, without the stand, bracket, and radio triggers).

Of course, there are advantages to buying the manufacturer’s own brand top of the line flash units, but unless you already understand what those advantages are and why you need them, they’re probably overkill for those just getting into it.