The best external camera flashes for 2019

Take control of your photographic lighting with the best camera flashes for 2019

best camera flashes profoto a1x lifestyle

The best external flash on the market is the Profoto A1X. Its super fast 1-second recycle time and AirTTL/HSS features make it a popular choice for photographers. This latest offering from Profoto comes with a patent pending design and offers its custom light shaping tools, allowing the user more creative control over the highlights and shadows. The flash is currently available for a limited number of camera brands — and it also happens to be rather expensive — so some of you may need to find an alternative. Fear not!

There are plenty of top quality flash systems available to you, regardless of your camera brand of choice. So whether you’re looking to add depth and character to your portraits or give your still-life photography more punch, we’ve got you covered. Based on our decades of experience in the photographic field, combined with hours of extensive research, we’ve found the best flashes for your camera. For a list of more budget-oriented options, we’ve also covered the best cheap camera flashes.

At a glance:

The best camera flash overall: Profoto A1X

best camera flashes profoto a1x flash

Why you should buy this: Quick, high-powered flash for all photography practices.

Who’s it for: Hobbyists looking to improve and professionals who need speed and power.

Why we picked the Profoto A1X:

When we’re looking for the perfect flash there are certain qualities we desire: premium design, consistent performance, and reliability. The Profoto A1X flash ticks all three boxes. Not only does the flash boast a powerful 76 watt-second output, it also features a clean user interface that is simple to use. If you’re new to flash photography, you won’t find yourself overwhelmed by inscrutable on-screen information.

Beyond pure power, the A1X is also perfect for photographers that are shooting fast-paced events, where being able to reuse a flash quickly is vital. It features a 1-second recycle time at a full power, ensuring you never miss a shot. It also has a broad, 9-stop output range, and at minimum power recycles as quickly as 0.05 seconds.

Improved battery in the A1X now offers 450 full-powered flashes per charge. The flash comes with AirTTL compatible with Nikon, Sony, and Canon through-the-lens metering systems for automatic and accurate exposures for both on and off-camera setups. What’s also impressive about this flash is its white balance accuracy and consistency. Almost all shots created in a variety of lighting situations came back with a true-to-life image temperature. Photographers with more advanced lighting experience can make the most of the Profoto A1X’s built-in 2.4GHz receiver with 20 channels, allowing you to design a scene through the use of a multiple wireless flashes.

The best flash for Canon: Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

best camera flashes canon 600ex ii rt flash

Why you should buy this: Consistent flash power with a built-in 2.4GHz radio trigger system.

Who’s it for: Canon photographers, especially those interested in off-camera flash.

Why we picked the Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT:

The Speedlite 600EX II-RT is Canon’s flagship flash. It has been designed for professional use and allows the photographer to create stunning images. Naturally, it is compatible with Canon’s TTL metering for automatic exposure control, as well as high speed sync, letting you shoot at any shutter speed. But the most impressive feature may be the 2.4GHz radio transceiver, which enables you to communicate with up to 15 off-camera external flashes, giving you a plethora of creative options when lighting your subject.

The build quality is exceptional. Used in different weather conditions and dropped multiple times, it has proved to be extremely durable and remains almost as good as new. Compared to its predecessor, the 600EX II-RT is twice as fast when it comes to flash recycle times. The flash head is flexible, allowing you to position anywhere from -7 degrees to a 90-degree angle. This allows for softer, even light when bouncing off of a ceiling or wall — and because of its strong power you’re still going to get good exposures when bouncing the flash or shooting it through an umbrella. We also like its long zoom range of 20-200mm, which can expand to 14mm when using the drop-down diffuser panel.

The best flash for Nikon: Nikon SB-5000 AF Speedlight

best camera flashes nikon sb 5000 flash

Why you should buy this: Advanced wired and wireless lighting and a well-developed cooling system.

Who’s it for: Nikon photographers

Why we picked the Nikon SB-5000 AF Speedlight:

Many photographers would agree that the ideal flash is light and compact, whilst still offering plenty of power. Enter the Nikon SB-5000. A first of its kind for shoe-mounted flashes, the SB-5000 comes with an in-built cooling system. This allows you to fire a burst of up to 100 consecutive full-powered flashes without any overheating concerns.

The flash has a zoom head range of 24-200mm, which, like the Canon 600 EX II-RT above, can be converted to 14mm using the built-in diffusion panel. It is also fully compatible with Nikon’s TTL metering system and offers high speed sync functionality. A first for Nikon’s flashes, the SB-5000 also comes with the ability to be radio controlled. This allows you to communicate with multiple out-of-sight flashes, an advantage over Nikon’s older optical triggering system which relied on line of sight.

The best flash for Sony: Sony HVL-F60RM

best camera flashes sony hvl f60rm flash

Why you should buy this: Great portability and versatility, including wireless TTL control.

Who’s it for: Sony shooters of all skill levels.

Why we picked the Sony HVL-F60:

When we think of lighting systems that keep up with cameras shooting multiple frames per second (fps), we turn our thoughts toward high-end studio lighting. However, the Sony HVL-F60 is a rare breed when it comes to an external flash. When used with the Sony A7 III and A7R III, the speedlight can operate up to 10fps for continuous shooting. The build quality offers a metal shoe which provides a more robust, stable connection with your camera or light stand — perfect for more rocky conditions. It’s also dust and moisture resistant which is ideal when using the flash in harsher environments.

Speed and efficiency can be crucial in certain photographic scenarios. The HVL-F60 offers two memory settings which means you can quickly recall previously used setups. Like our top pick, the Profoto A1X, this flagship Sony flash has incredibly quick recycle times, with a normal recycle time of 1.7 seconds for single-frame shooting. This can be reduced to just 0.6 seconds with the use of Sony’s FA-EBA1 external battery pack. The built-in 2.4GHz transceiver also allows the flash to be controlled wirelessly.

The best flash for Fujifilm: Godox VING V860IIF

best camera flashes godox v860iif flash

Why you should buy this: Superior performance compared to Fujifilm’s in-house speedlights.

Who’s it for: Fujifilm photographers

Why we picked the Godox VING V860IIF:

Whilst Fujifilm makes great cameras, their flashes just aren’t at the same standard. Thankfully, Godox, a third-party manufacturer, saw the demand from Fujifilm photographers for a high-end speedlight. To answer that call, they developed the VING V860IIF. Compared to all the other flashes in this article, the battery power on the V860IIF is vastly superior thanks to a bespoke rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Godox is able to boast that it allows for the flash to fire 650 full-powered flashes in one charge — more than even the Profoto A1X, at least at its full power.

The flash has an autofocus assist light, with a range of 2-32.8 feet, which will be your best friend when shooting in low light situations. To help you get out of manual settings, the flash comes with full TTL capabilities on Fujifilm cameras. It also features a very capable wireless radio control system with a range of 328 feet, offering clear communication between camera and multiple flashes even at great distances or without a clear line of sight.

The best flash for Olympus and Panasonic: Godox TT6850 Thinklite

best camera flashes godox tt6850 thinklite flash

Why you should buy this: Quality, feature-packed flash from a trusted manufacturer.

Who’s it for: Panasonic users ready to enter flash photography.

Why we picked the Godox TT6850 Thinklite:

Similar to Fujifilm, Panasonic and Olympus are limited when it comes to quality camera flashes. That’s why we again turned to our trusted friend, Godox. The TT6850 is compatible with Panasonic’s TTL system and gives you the ability to use functions like high speed sync — important for when fast shutter speeds are required. For off-camera flash, it operates as both a master or slave with other standard speedlights.

To keep things easy to use, the rear LCD panel is neatly mapped out, making it straightforward to manually configure your settings. Manual power control settings range from 1/1 (full power) to 1/128, and can be adjusted in 1/3 EV steps. We found that during different lighting setups, the Godox TT6850 was reliable and consistent when it came to accurately illuminating subjects. Third-party accessories don’t always earn the best reputations, but Godox continues to deliver strong flashes with outstanding value, and the TT6850 is easy to recommend.

How does TTL flash work?

TTL refers to through-the-lens metering. This is how any modern camera measures the amount of light in a scene to create a proper exposure, with or without flash, but the term is most often seen as it applies to flash metering. TTL flash is basically synonymous with automatic; flash output is controlled by the camera — regardless of what exposure mode the camera is in — so that you get a correct exposure without having to manually dial the flash power up or down.

The way TTL flash works is actually quite incredible. On modern digital cameras, a brief “preflash” fires just before the shutter opens to bounce light off of the subject and back through the lens to the metering sensor. The camera then calculates the amount of flash needed and fires the main flash in sync with the shutter. This entire process happens right when you press the shutter button, and is so fast that the preflash is indistinguishable from the main flash and there is no perceptible shutter delay.

While using manual flash is still the best way to get the most control over your exposure, it can be very difficult to do this accurately on the fly, particularly in fast-paced situations. Because flash power must be adjusted as the distance between the flash and subject changes, TTL is hugely beneficial when either the photographer or subject is moving.

How does flash affect exposure settings?

Using a flash adds a fourth dimension to the exposure triangle — which makes it an exposure rectangle, we suppose — that also consists of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. A confusing concept for photographers new to flash is that only aperture and ISO affect the amount of light received from the flash; opening the aperture or raising ISO will make it brighter, closing the aperture or reducing ISO will make it darker. But no matter what shutter speed you select, it will not alter the exposure from the flash (it will, of course, alter the overall exposure of the image, assuming there is also some ambient light). That’s because a flash is, well, a flash of light, generally with a duration no longer than 1/1,000 second. So whether your shutter speed is 1/125 or 1/2 second, the light from the flash is the same.

When shooting with flash, you can think of shutter speed as a way to balance the flash with the ambient light. A slower shutter will let in more ambient light and make the flash appear softer by comparison, while a faster shutter will cut down the ambient light and draw more attention to the flash. Aperture and ISO work here as they normally would, altering the entire exposure (flash and ambient) equally.

That’s not to say shutter speed has no affect on the flash, however. If you’re shooting in TTL flash mode, your camera will adjust the brightness of the flash on the fly to provide what it thinks is the best exposure, so changing the shutter speed may result in the camera changing the flash power. Also, cameras with focal plane shutters — which is pretty much any consumer-level interchangeable lens camera — will have a maximum flash sync speed, usually in the range of 1/200 to 1/250 second. Faster than this, and the first and second shutter curtains won’t be open long enough to expose the entire sensor at the same time; the flash will unevenly expose the image, usually creating a bright stripe across the frame. Flash manufacturers have solved this problem with high speed sync technology. Cameras with leaf shutters — like the Hasselblad X1D 50C or Fujfilm X100F — do not have this limitation.

What is high speed sync?

To combat the limitations of the flash sync speed, high speed sync (HSS) can fire a flash in a series of overlapping pulses that persist throughout the duration of the shutter’s travel. This generally allows photographers to select any available shutter speed on their camera and use it with flash. So if you want to shoot with flash at a shutter speed of 1/2,000 second, you can.

HSS is not without some drawbacks, however. First, because the flash is pulsing, it can’t reach the same maximum brightness that it otherwise could. Second, this will increase recycle time and drain the batteries faster than if the flash was firing in normal mode at the same brightness. Still, these are often acceptable trade-offs for being able to use a flash at any shutter speed.

What does flash guide number mean?

Flash guide number is one means of measuring the brightness of a flash, and is generally the preferred method used for describing on-camera speedlights. It offers one advantage over the use of watt-seconds, a unit generally used for off-camera lighting, in that it is a measure of actual light output rather than power draw. However, it is far from perfect as it is not standardized and different brands measure it in different ways.

For example, the Canon 600EX II-RT above has a guide number of 197 feet, while the Nikon SB-5000 seems to have a much more modest rating of just 113 feet. But that’s not the full story. Canon measures its guide number at the very telephoto end of the flash zoom, 200mm, where the beam is its most focused and thus has the longest reach. Nikon takes its measurement at the 35mm zoom position, where the light is spread out over a much wider area — so of course it won’t reach as far. You can see how comparing guide numbers between different manufacturers can be tricky.

But what about comparing different models within the same brand? Well, in the case of Nikon, this is somewhat straightforward. The lower-end SB-700 advertises a guide number of 92 feet, also at 35mm, meaning the SB-5000 is roughly 20% brighter at full power. Canon doesn’t make it so easy, though. Its lower-end flash, the 470EX-AI, can’t even zoom to 200mm, so its guide number of 154 feet is measured instead at 105mm — its maximum zoom setting. It seems that Nikon is using guide number to give you an idea of relative maximum brightness, whereas Canon is using it to illustrate the maximum reach of any given flash — neither method is wrong, but both are confusing and leave information on the table.

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