This is part 5 of a series on the basics of flash photography. To start at the beginning, click here.
Congratulations! If you have made it this far in the tutorial, it means you are serious about learning flash photography. You have learned a lot about what makes great light, and now you are ready to learn how to make great light.
To take full control of the lighting in your photos, you need your own light source. There are definitely ways to achieve fantastic lighting with only natural light, which is something I discuss in-depth in my online flash photography course, but you will be limited by only using the sun as a light source.
You have three basic options when choosing lights for portrait photography: (1) Constant lights, (2) Studio strobes, or (3) Speedlights.
Constant Lights – Constant lights are always on. They do not suddenly pop a flash of light, but instead consist of one or more lightbulbs. These are commonly used for videography since a pop of flash obviously won't work for a video; however, still photographers are beginning to gravitate to constant lights.
The benefit of working with constant lights is they allow you to see what the lighting looks like as you move the light, so when you take the picture you know exactly what it will look like.
Having the light on when setting up the lights is a huge advantage, but the drawbacks to using constant lights are so significant that I would not recommend them for most photographers. The drawback to constant lights is they need to be plugged in to the wall, which means no shooting on location without a heavy power pack. Also, even high quality constant lights do not compare with the light output of a flash, so using constant lights outdoors is difficult or impossible depending on the conditions.
The only styles of photography I would recommend constant lights for are baby and product photography. It works well for baby photography because the lights get warm to keep the baby nice and toasty, and the pop of a flash can scare babies. For product photography, they can work well because it allows you to see the lighting as you set up, and you can shoot from a tripod, so you don't need to freeze the action with flash.
Studio Strobes – Studio strobes are not always on like a constant light. They flash a pop of light; however, they do have some similarities to constant lights.
Like constant lights, studio strobes must be plugged in to the wall. To use studio strobes on location, you need a power pack (like a small car battery you carry around). Also, while a studio strobe flashes instead of staying on all the time, they often come with a “modeling light” this is a dim always-on bulb that allows you to approximate what the flash will look like.
In addition to requiring a battery pack to shoot on location, studio strobes are heavy and expensive! They work best when used in a studio and do not travel well.
Speedlights – Most photographers use speedlights for flash photography–only occasionally using studio strobes or constant lights.
A speedlight is a small flash unit that can be simply put on the hotshoe of the camera to be used on-camera, or taken off camera and put on a light stand. They are generally powered with AA batteries and are excellent for portability.
While a speedlight cannot put out as much light as a studio strobes and it takes them longer to recycle between pops of the flash, they are so easy to use and so versatile that most photographers use them exclusively.
So which speedlight should I choose?
If you would like, I can beat around the bush and explain the pros and cons of dozens of different models of speedlights, or I can cut to the chase and tell you that the flash I use only costs $70 and does everything that most photographers need a flash to do.
The flash I use is the YN-560 III. It works with Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and more brands (but not Sony unless you use this adapter). It costs 1/4 the price of what a typical Canon or Nikon flash costs.
I have owned many of these speedlights over the last several years. I have a whole bucket full of them in my equipment room. Despite using these in countless photo shoots, I have never had one die on me (except for the one I dropped in a lake).
I understand why you would wonder about a product that is so inexpensive–especially when it comes from a no-name brand like Yongnuo–but I can vouch for this product.
The only significant differences between this flash and the expensive name brand Canon or Nikon flash is that it is missing two features: high speed sync and TTL. New flash photographers often learn of those features and are tempted to buy the expensive flashes, but I would encourage you to simply trust me on this one buying decision.
High speed sync allows photographers to overcome the flash sync speed (discussed later) of approximately 1/200 shutter speed. In general, you cannot use a flash when your shutter speed is above 1/200. High speed sync overcomes this partially, but the flash output is reduced dramatically. You will learn as you study flash photography, however, that the flash will effectively become your shutter speed because it can freeze action just as well. The only caveat here is if you PRIMARILY shoot action sports portraits. If you do, then you may want to buy the expensive Canon or Nikon speedlight.
TTL allows the speedlight to get exposure information from the camera. The speedlight uses this information to automatically set the power of the flash output for you. This sounds fantastic, but in reality I find it harder to use. The reason is that any slight change in your composition, and the flash changes power! That can be very frustrating. Also, the flash does not have a brain. All it can do is set the flash power to where it thinks it should be. You will still need to adjust it to achieve creative affects, and if you will need to change the flash power anyway, what is the purpose of having the speedlight set itself?
No, I don't have a friend at Yongnuo and no I don't work for the company. The truth is they make a durable and well-made product for a lot less. I like it so much that I'm willing to risk you hating me forever if you don't like it. Seriously, buy a YN-560 and it will change your photography faster than any other piece of gear you have ever purchased.