Mastering the tools to control light is one of the most effective ways to improve your skills as a photographer. Your camera’s built-in flash is adequate for typical snapshots, but it will only take your images so far. The fixed straight-on direction, further hampered by generally limited control and range, make most built-in flash insufficient for creating truly interesting light.
So if your camera’s flash is starting to hinder you both creatively and technically, invest in some solid lighting gear. Flash units are the most popular place to start with accessory lighting, but there are other options to consider that may be a better fit for your photography. Flash modifiers, basic studio setups and new “hybrid” lights that work well for both still and video are all worth considering when you’re ready to take your exposures to the next level.
Most of the time, a shoe-mount accessory flash is all you’ll likely need. They’re easy to set up, particularly if you use one made by your camera manufacturer, and they’re small, so packing them in your camera bag shouldn’t be a problem. The power, control and flexibility of a shoe-mount flash gives you more range in terms of distance and ability to use smaller apertures for greater depth of field. You’re also able to bounce light off of reflective surfaces and create soft, even lighting without harsh shadows. Even better, you can take these units out of the mount for creative lighting angles.
The rugged Canon Speedlite 580EX II is dust- and water-resistant and recycles at a rate that’s 20% faster than its predecessor. The unit is able to control flash functions and settings from the camera menu on current models, as well as a simple interface that makes accessing basic functions easy. White Balance information is instantly transmitted to compatible DSLR cameras for delivering accurate colors. Full swivel capability of 180º in either direction extends coverage. List Price: $499.
With a built-in wide-angle diffuser, a foldaway reflector card for its horizontally swiveling and vertically tilting reflector and an LCD display, the Metz Mecablitz 58 AF-1 is packed with useful features and compatible with most popular DSLR models. A secondary flash head comes in handy as a fill source when using bounce flash. Depending on the camera model, the 58 AF-1 offers high-speed synchronization and wireless TTL operation. The LCD display automatically lights when any button is pressed. Another innovative feature is a USB port that allows future firmware updates via the Internet. Estimated Street Price: $405.
If you do a lot of long telephoto work, the Nikon Speedlight SB-900 has a large zoom head that can focus its flash beam to a 200mm angle of view. Depending on what you’re shooting, there are three light-distribution patterns to choose from consisting of standard (general use), center-weighted (portraits) and even (group shots). The SB-900 also offers advanced wireless i-TTL capabilities that allow it to act as a trigger unit or as the light source. In Wireless Commander Mode, the flash can control an unlimited number of compatible Speedlights. Estimated Street Price: $460.