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Speedlights: What to know and how to use an on-camera flash

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by David Em
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A Speedlight or Speedlite is an on-camera flash that provides flattering and sufficient lighting to nail the exposure in your images.

Speedlight standing on a table.
Photo courtesy of Canva.

Light creates a photograph. The lighting method you use can make or break an image. It’s what separates a great photographer from others.

Related article: The ultimate guide to shooting portraits at night

If you encounter a low-light situation, artificial light will ensure you capture a beautiful image.

However, lugging around a lighting kit can be tiring.

That’s where a Speedlight comes into play. It’s small, portable, and provides enough light to achieve perfect exposure.

The following covers everything you need to know about speedlights, along with how to buy and use one.

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What’s a speedlight?

A speedlight is an on-camera flash, providing additional light for a balanced exposure.

Speedlight is the term used by Nikon for its on-camera flash, while Canon calls it a Speedlite. On-camera flash is also called a hot shoe flash, add-on flash, or flashgun.

It’s a small and portable flash that can be attached to the top of your camera by using the hot shoe or on a light stand and fired remotely.

While it’s called on-camera flash, it works well on or off the camera.

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The external flash provides light when shooting in low light conditions or a studio.

Speedlights are often battery-powered, so you don’t need a power outlet or battery pack.

Additionally, speedlights are available at various prices. Whether you’re a beginner or professional, there’s a quality speed light that meets your needs.

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A speedlight is better than the pop-up flash

On-camera flash unit.
Photo courtesy of Canva.

Many DSLR and mirrorless cameras have a built-in pop-up flash. While it works, it’s not the optimal lighting source.

The pop-up flash is small, weak, and only points forward.

Additionally, most cameras have a pop-up flash near the lens, which causes the red-eye effect in portraits.

An external flash, such as a speedlight, is better than a pop-up flash.

A speedlight offers much more power than the camera’s built-in flash, allowing you to use a lower ISO and smaller aperture.

Another benefit of using an external flash is that you’ll have more control. You can swivel the head, control the intensity, and modify the light.

Overall, a speedlight is worth the investment because it provides flattering and adequate light.

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Things to consider when buying a speedlight

Camera with a flash hanging off a photographer's shoulder.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Before purchasing an on-camera flash, it’s essential to understand the different aspects and features of an excellent one.

There are many brands and options, so the fundamentals will help you make a great decision.

The following is everything you need to know before buying a speedlight.

Two types of speedlights: Through-the-Lens (TTL) and manual

The two main types of speedlights are TTL and manual. TTL automatically adjusts the amount of light needed to expose a subject.

It works similarly to exposure metering in your camera.

When you press the shutter on your camera, TTL flash metering considers the ambient light, exposure, flash power, and subject distance to provide the ideal flash output.

While TTL is efficient and accurate most of the time, it’s not perfect. If the light is changing, a TTL may struggle.

Also, it’s unlikely that you’ll capture the same lighting pattern multiple times in a row.

However, it’s where a manual flash thrives because you’re in control of the flash output.

With a manual flash, you control all of the settings, which allows you to capture the perfect image, as you envisioned. Plus, manual flashes are cheaper than TTL flashes.

A manual flash is ideal if you’ve mastered your camera’s manual mode, whereas a TTL flash works with all camera modes.

The sweet spot is a TTL that doubles as a manual flash. It’ll give you the best of both worlds.

Flash recycle time

Recycle time or rate is how long it takes the on-camera flash to recharge the capacitors to be ready to fire.

Speedlights have flash recycling times that range from one second to six seconds.

Faster flash recycling times mean you can efficiently and quickly snap photos.

It’s a common requirement for sports and action photographers, while portrait photographers may not care about short recycling times.

When you’re looking at the specifications for a speedlight, the flash recycling time generally shows a range.

The smaller number represents the time before the flash can fire again with its lowest power setting, while the higher number is the time before firing with full power.

High-speed sync (HSS)

The fastest shutter speed your camera can use with flash is the sync speed. While the sync speed depends on the camera, it’s typically between 1/125 and 1/250.

High-speed sync allows you to use a flash with faster shutter speeds.

It’s beneficial for freezing movement or balancing the exposure while using a wide aperture.

Instead of a single burst of light, high-speed sync works by sending pulses of light at a fast rate.

Your eyes won’t notice it, but the camera will. It’s so fast that it’s almost like continuous light.

Wireless flash trigger

A speedlight doesn’t need to sit on top of your camera. Instead, you can mount it onto a light stand for directional light.

It gives you control of how the light interacts with your subject.

However, you’ll need a wireless flash trigger, which normally comes with a transmitter for the camera and a receiver for the flash.

It works the way the speedlight would on your camera, but you can put the flash in a different location.

Flash modifiers

Aside from the Speedlight, factor in accessories. Some come with flash modifiers, while others don’t.

So, consider whether or not you want to use modifiers. The following are common flash modifiers and their purpose:

  • Diffusers to soften the light.
  • A mini softbox to spread even lighting and reduce shadows.
  • Color gels or filters change the color of the light.
  • Bounce cards and reflectors reflect light.
  • Grids make the light output area smaller to control the spread.

Flash modifiers are helpful accessories that allow you to make the most of a speedlight.

On-camera flash brands

When shopping for a speedlight, how do you choose a brand? Initially, the only option was an OEM on-camera flash. Now, you’ll come across a ton of options.

Third-party manufacturers, such as Godox, Nissin, and Yongnuo, make some of the best speedlights available.

Plus, compatibility isn’t a big issue anymore, and third-party manufacturers offer them at cheaper prices.

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Many photographers opt for OEM speedlights because they’re known to last longer and offer better warranties.

However, do your research and look for reliable options with excellent warranties.

With that in mind, you can’t go wrong with the brand if you focus on quality.

How to use a speedlight

Person holding out an on-camera flash unit.
Photo courtesy of Canva.

To use a speedlight, attach it to your camera’s hot shoe, turn it on, adjust the camera and flash settings if you’re using a manual flash, aim it at your subject, and press the shutter.

The process of using an on-camera flash is simple and easy.

If you’re not sure about where to start, set your camera to manual mode, aperture to f/8 for maximum sharpness, shutter speed to 1/200, and ISO at 200. Take a photo with the flash and adjust the settings as needed.

Another way to use a speedlight is to mount it onto a light stand with an umbrella and use a wireless flash trigger.

This method allows you to place the flash anywhere. You’ll control the direction of light and choose any lighting pattern, such as Rembrandt or loop lighting.

The best speedlights

Now that you know what a speedlight is, the important aspects, and how to use one, the following are the best on-camera flashes on the market.

Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

Canon on-camera flash.
Photo courtesy of Canon.

The Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT is Canon’s top-of-the-line flash and it’s incredible.

It has built-in wireless radio transmission, high-speed sync, and a powerful guide number of 197 feet at ISO 100 and 200mm.

Canon’s Speedlite 600EX II-RT is pricey, but it’s worth it because it’ll last many years and works flawlessly.

If budget isn’t a limitation and you have a Canon camera, look no further.

StorePriceLink to buy
Canon$499.99Buy from Canon
B&H$499Buy from B&H
Adorama$499Buy from Adorama
Amazon$499Buy from Amazon
Best Buy$499.99Buy from Best Buy
Walmart$457.42Buy from Walmart

Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight

Nikon SB-700 Speedlight.
Photo courtesy of Nikon.

Nikon’s SB-700 AF Speedlight offers the best value when considering price and performance.

The SB-700 Speedlight features swivel functionality, recycling times of 2.5 to 3.5 seconds, and a guide number of 92 feet at ISO 100 and 35mm.

It’s not the cheapest option, but it offers many of the features found in the top-tier SB-5000 Speedlight for much less.

StorePriceLink to buy
Nikon$329.95Buy from Nikon
B&H$326.95Buy from B&H
Adorama$326.95Buy from Adorama
Amazon$321.30Buy from Amazon

Sony HVL-F45RM

Sony on-camera flash.
Photo courtesy of Sony.

Sony’s HVL-F45RM flash is small, light, and powerful.

It has a built-in 2.4 GHz radio transceiver, a guide number of 148 feet at ISO 100 and 105mm, and a 2.5-second recycle time.

The flash swivels in all directions and produces a beautiful light. Additionally, the wireless capabilities are limited to Sony Alpha cameras.

StorePriceLink to buy
Sony$399.99Buy from Sony
B&H$398Buy from B&H

Bolt VB-22 Bare-Bulb Flash

Bolt Bare-Bulb flash.
Photo courtesy of B&H.

The Bolt VB-22 Bare-Bulb Flash is a unique manual shoe-mount flash with an output of 360 Ws and the capability to rotate 360 degrees.

Bolt claims the VB-22 Bare-Bulb Flash has a guide number of 262 feet at ISO 100 and 28mm with the included reflector.

However, it doesn’t seem to be as powerful as Bolt claims. Plus, it doesn’t have weather-sealing.

Regardless, the flash works well and has a stroboscopic or repeat mode.

StorePriceLink to buy
B&H$299Buy from B&H
Amazon$299Buy from Amazon

Conclusion

Whether you’re shooting indoors or outdoors, a Speedlight is a handy accessory if you encounter the need for more light.

It produces better results than the built-in flash, and it’s small and portable.

Speedlights are simple to use, effective, and versatile, making them a must-have camera accessory.

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Featured image courtesy of Canva.

About David Em

David Em.

David Em is the founder of Portraits Refined. He’s a published portrait photographer dedicated to helping photographers develop skills, capture incredible photos, and build successful businesses.

About Portraits Refined

Portraits Refined (PR) is a media company that publishes the latest expert-backed portrait photography tips, in-depth camera gear reviews, and helpful advice to grow your photography business.

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