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External Flashes

An external flash is arguably the biggest upgrade you can make to your camera system, especially if you are taking pictures in-doors.

It may be that you are using a zoom lens that does not let in enough light or the lighting in the room isn't great. Either way, a flash lets you add light when you need it.

Many cameras have built-in flashes. While those are great in some cases, they sit close to the lens and only fire directly, often resulting in that point&shoot look -- person in the middle lit up with harsh light and everything else is either too bright or too dark.

An external flash solves those problems by putting the flash head further away from the lens and by letting you tilt it to "bounce" the light from a wall or ceiling. In effect, the light then comes from a much larger light source which results in a more flattering and more evenly lit photo.

As with everything in photography, it won't work all the time. Best case is a a room with white walls and ceiling. Bouncing the flash against a wall with some color may add a color cast to the photos. While trying to bounce against a wall or a ceiling while standing in the middle of a larger hall or outside might not do much of anything. But, in a typical apartment, it can work wonders.


Which one to get?

Camera companies usually fit flashes into one of three tiers -- pro, mid, and a compact. For most people, mid or compact is the way to go.

The benefit of the compacts is that they are lighter (2 vs 4 AAs) and smaller. The smaller it is, the more likely you are to take it with you. They are also cheaper. The drawbacks are less power and usually only the ability to tilt up rather than turn the head to the side.

Mid-tier models usually have most of the features but less power than pro models. They are great if a compact is not working for you.

Flashes are usually system-specific (Canon flashes won't work automatically with Nikon camera, for instance). But there are third party flashes (sigma/metz/etc) available for all brands. Like third party lenses, they can be hit or miss. Some can be very good (Metz), others not as much. Brand name offerings are usually more reliable. 



The choice is between the compact 270EX or the mid-tier 430EX.

The 270EX (~$145) takes two AAs, is quite compact, offers tilt up. The 430EX II (~$265) is larger (four AAs), has more power and options, and offers both tilt and twist.

Both are good in typical party situations. Starting with a 270EX is not a bad idea.

Canon 270EX @ B&H

Canon 480EX II @ B&H



The compact is SB-400 (~$120) and the mid+ is SB-600 (~$230). Nikon is known for the quality of its flash system and it's hard to recommend one over the other, they are too different. The SB-600 is an easy choice, but SB-400 is a very nice compact/travel option.  

Nikon SB-400 @ B&H 

Nikon SB-600 @ B&H


Panasonic and Olympus (Micro43)

Olympus FL-36R (~$190) is an excellent option. It's a mid-level option that takes two AAs and is pretty compact and light as a result. A great buy if you have a micro43 camera.

Olympus FL-36R @ B&H



Whichever flash you go with, one thing to keep in mind is that they will recycle (flash to flash) much quicker with rechargeable batteries. Any rechargeable battery will do. One to look at is the Eneloop,  which don't loose charge like others when they are sitting around and last for many recharge cycles.

Sanyo Eneloop @ B&H