External Flash Overview and Recommendations

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External Flash Overview and Recommendations

An external hot shoe flash is a great accessory to get for your DSLR.  It is one of the first things I recommend to anyone who asks me what they should get to go with their new camera.  Photography is essentially about capturing light.  Having an external flash gives you an upper hand to controlling the light in the scene.  Sometimes the ambient lighting isn’t ideal so adding a light from an external flash can make all the difference.

One of the advantages to having an external flash is the ability to have more control over how the scene is lit.  Most external flashes allow you to control the angle by which the light hits the scene be it direct, angling the head to bouncing off the ceiling or off a nearby wall, tweaking the zoom settings of the flash, and adjusting the power to a greater degree.  No longer are you limited to the fixed location, spread of the built in flash, and relatively weak power.

Below is a quick comparison of four different types of flash exposures: built in pop up, external flash on camera direct, external flash on camera bounce off wall, and on camera external bounce off ceiling.

Built in

pop up flash

As you can see the flash isn’t that appealing. The light is very harsh and directional along with intense shadows behind the subject.

On camera direct

on camera flash

This is a little better than the built in flash because the source is slightly larger so its not so intense and it’s a little further from the camera so the shadows are a little lower but similar to the pop up.

On camera wall bounce

wall bounce flash

This has a nice look to it, much better than the on camera or pop up.  There is some obvious gradation of light from the left (where the flash hits the wall) and is bright to the right which is darker. With a little effort this style lighting can resemble the look of window light.

On camera ceiling bounce

ceiling bounce flash

Very similar to the wall bounce but instead of left to right brightness its top to bottom.  This type of lighting is a lot more natural coming from the top down.  If you walk outside during the day you are more then likely to be lit by the sun which is usually above causing top down lighting.

Take the Flash Off the Camera

Another big benefit of having an external flash is that you can now separate the flash from the camera.  This is easier than you think.  For a number of years now most camera manufactures have included the capability to wirelessly control external flashes with the pop-up flash built into the cameras (I know Canon has offered this on their consumer line since 2011 with the T3i).  For the most part this is done over infrared which is line-of-site.  It usually works well inside, to 50 feet or so. Outside the range will be affected by the intensity of the sun which affects infrared transmission.

The advantages of getting the flash off the camera are numerous.  The first one you are probably going to notice is the location of the shadows.  No longer are the shadows going to appear directly behind the subject unless you want them to.  You can move the flash around and adjust it so the shadows will be where ever you want them.

Another big advantage and the ultimate goal of getting the flash off the camera is light modifiers and accessories.  At this point it starts to get a little more advanced so I won’t go into it much now, I’ll do that at a later date.  Modifiers and accessories allow you to shape the light and affect its qualities such as color, intensity, direction, and how hard or soft it is.  For an example, a shoot through umbrella is a very common accessory.  What the umbrella does is to change the shape of the light coming out of the flash from a small area of about an inch wide by three inches long to a large 40 or so inch diameter circle which is a huge increase in surface area.  This affects the light dramatically and makes it a very soft light.

Off camera

off camera flash

The flash is off to camera right at an angle of 45 degrees, you can tell by the shadow.  The light is very directional but not overly intense.

Off camera with umbrella

umbrella flash

The light in this shot is in the same place as the off camera shot with the exception this on has an umbrella between the flash and the monkey.  What this does is soften the light.  Look at the shadows, they aren’t clearly defined and most of the frame is evenly lit.

Not only do you gain more control of the light by positioning it off the camera you also gain the ability to use light modifiers and shaping tool light the umbrella shown above.  As you can see the results of the umbrella are very nice. It provides a nice soft light.  There is a major drawback to consider when getting your flash off camera, it can become very addicting.


If you don’t have an external flash yet here are some recommendations on what to get.

For Canon there are two flashes I recommend.  The 430 EX II is a great flash.  It packs a good amount of power in a pretty compact package.  It has support for wireless slave function over infrared.  The 600EX-RT is a step up. It is bigger, faster, more powerful, weather sealed, and it can communicate via radio not just infrared so it doesn’t have to be line of sight.

If at all possible I would go for the 600EX-RT. Not only is it more powerful, a better build construction, and weather sealed but it has a killer new feature; wireless radio communication.  No longer are you limited to line of sight or handicapped if you use your flash outside.  This means you can pretty much set your flash anywhere within 100 feet no matter how crazy of a place.

At some point Canon will probably replace the 430 EX II with a newer model that supports radio but at this time the only way to get into that game is with the 600EX-RT.  Radio is the future so why not future proof the best you can and get the 600EX-RT.

To take full advantage of the 600EX-RT radio feature you will need a Canon camera that was introduced in 2012 or later otherwise there might be a slight drop in sync speeds.  Also the radio function currently requires a 600EX-RT or controller ST-E3-RT on camera to communicate with the remote(s) 600EX-RT, up to 15 units.

430 EX II – link

600EX-RT – link

ST-E3-RT – link

Here are similar products offered by Nikon the only difference being that Nikon does not currently offer any flashes with wireless control via radio only control by line-of-sight infrared.

SB-700 AF – link

SB-910 AF – link


If you are interested there are a number of resources available online to learn all about using external flash in photography.  The best place to start if you are interest is a website by David Hobby called strobist.com as in, flash strobe. On the site there is a section called Lighting 101 which goes over the ins and outs on flash photography and it is pretty friendly to novices. Just take a note, Mr. Hobby takes the approach of doing everything in manual because he like the ability to fine tune and lock in settings. Even if manual isn’t for you he is very insightful and knowledgeable and worth checking out.

For inspiration here are a couple photographers that make use of the Canon and Nikon lighting system and openly share a lot of info on how they make the magic happen.

Syl Arena, http://pixsylated.com/blog/, is a Canon Explorer of Light with a number of published books about photography and flashes.

Joe McNally, http://joemcnally.com/blog, is a phenomenal National Geographic photographer who makes extensive use of Nikon’s Creative Lighting System.


monkey flash

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