6 Top-Notch Camera Flashes

MARCH 07, 2013

By Theano Nikitas

Built-in flashes are standard on consumer cameras, but most pro DSLRs and many mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras rely on external flash guns (or Speedlights/Speedlites) for anything other than available-light shooting. Even then, a separate flash gun is often a better option since it provides far more control and flexibility than even the most sophisticated built-in flash. Pros and many enthusiasts already have at least one flash in their gear bag and, with so many wireless options available, it’s not uncommon to shoot with multiple flash units. Here’s a look at six of our favorite flash guns that cover a range of functions and budgets.

Nikon SB-910 AF Speedlight camera flashNikon SB-910 AF Speedlight

Nikon’s SB-910 has been around for a while but that doesn’t make it any less relevant, especially since it’s Nikon’s flagship Speedlight. Tweaked to address the thermal cut-out issues of its predecessor and redesigned to incorporate some of the SB-700’s ease of use, the SB-910 offers both power and efficiency.

Initially, the SB-910 recycles faster than the SB-900 but slows a bit to help avoid overheating. In testing, we didn’t find this to be an issue even when shooting in high-demand situations. The redesign incorporates a menu button instead of a zoom, a brighter LCD, glow-in-the-dark function buttons and a locking battery compartment.

Designed for use with both FX- and DX-format cameras, the SB-910—as expected—can be mounted on the hot shoe, controlled remotely and operated as a wireless commander. With four channel options, the SB-910 can control up to three remote groups with an unlimited number of flash units (SB-910, SB-900, SB-700 or SB-R200).

Slightly thinner and lighter than its predecessor but still larger than its more diminutive SB-700 sibling, the SB-910 measures 3.1 x 5.7 x 4.4 inches and weighs about 14.8 ounces without batteries. It comes with a stand, diffusion dome, and hard-plastic fluorescent and incandescent filters, all packaged nicely in a square case that fits neatly into camera cases.

Price: $550

Metz mecablitz 52 AF-1 camera flashMetz mecablitz 52 AF-1

At last year’s photokina, Metz presented the first touchscreen shoe mount flash: the 52 AF-1. The successor to the 50 AF-1, the 52 AF-1 offers an illuminated touchscreen that automatically rotates 90 degrees when the flash is repositioned, so it’s easy to read and use whether you’re shooting vertically or horizontally. Like most touchscreen digital devices, the 52 AF-1 is equipped with few hard controls; most options are set via the display.

Although it illuminates for only three seconds at a time, the flash features a modeling light, which comes in handy when shooting in low light. A USB port is available for firmware updates and the 52 AF-1 head is equipped with a fully automatic motorized zoom for focal lengths from 24-105mm.

Like all mecablitz flashes, the Metz 52 AF-1 can be purchased for any number of cameras including those from Canon, Nikon, Olympus/Panasonic, Pentax/Samsung and Sony. The new model offers a metal base for all but Sony-compatible models, provides wireless TTL (three groups and four channels) and supports major functions for all models. It’s a pretty good deal if you’re looking for a relatively compact (2.9 x 5.3 x 3.5 inches) and lightweight (12.2 ounces without batteries) flash.


Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT camera flashCanon Speedlite 600EX-RT

The successor to the 580EX II, Canon’s newest and most powerful Speedlite, the 600EX-RT, is the company’s first flash to feature integrated wireless radio control. With the new wireless system, you can trigger a total of 15 flashes in up to five groups at a maximum range of almost 100 feet. Standard infrared wireless triggering remains available, too.

Other features of note include high-speed sync with shutter speeds up to one four-thousandths of a second, zoom coverage of 20-200mm and an AF Assist Beam that takes advantage of Canon’s 61-point High Density Reticular AF (autofocus) system found in the EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III. The 600EX-RT also comes with two color gels (light orange and dark orange) and a filter holder. The holder is compatible with gelatin filters from Canon and third-party manufacturers, so you can easily replace or supplement the bundled filters.

In addition to 18 custom functions, the 600EX-RT offers the ability to program seven personal functions via its dot matrix LCD panel. The menu system has been redesigned, though, so you might want to glance quickly at the user’s guide.

Physically enhanced, in both build and weatherproofing, the 600EX-RT is only slightly larger and heavier than its predecessor. Excluding the filter holder, the flash measures 3.1 x 5.6 x 4.9 inches and weighs about 18.5 ounces with AA batteries installed.


Nissin MG8000 Extreme camera flashNissin MG8000 Extreme

Nissin’s MG8000, available for Canon and Nikon cameras only, deserves its “Extreme” name. This powerhouse of a flash gun can deliver more than 1,000 1/1 continuous flashes without overheating thanks to the incorporation of special heat-resistant materials and a quartz tube instead of a standard flash tube.

Powered by four AA NiMH or lithium batteries, the flash recycles from between 0.1 and 5.5 seconds, slowing to the latter recycling time as the number of continuous flashes increase. To make changing AA’s easier and more time efficient, a battery magazine is available. And, if you want to maintain faster recycling times, consider the optional Nissin Power Pack PS-300.

The flash, which measures 3.1 x 5.8 x 5 inches and weighs 14.67 ounces without batteries, offers wireless support for four channels and three groups, high-speed sync and a small sub-flash that can be used as fill when the flash head is bounced. Bounce can be achieved upward and left at 90 degrees as well as right at 180 degrees.  

Although Nissin’s MG8000 and Di866 MARK II offer the same basic features, the latter does not deliver the same extreme performance as its sibling. On the other hand, the Di866 is available for Sony cameras as well as Canon and Nikon.

Price: $629

Sony HVL-F60M camera flashSony HVL-F60M

Sony’s HVL-F60M flash may be a little pricey but it’s loaded with features including high-speed sync from one five-hundredths to one four-thousandths of a second and multiflash for stroboscopic effects. A built-in LED (1,200 lux) adds to the flash’s versatility, especially since the light has 15 levels of brightness adjustment and comes with a built-in diffuser as well as a separate temperature conversion filter.

Operation, from adjusting bounce positions to changing settings, is easy. Thanks to a control wheel, flash settings can be quickly adjusted in combination with the Quick Navi screen. For wireless flash, the unit can be used as the controller for a long list of Sony DSLR/SLT cameras as well as the NEX-7 and NEX-6.

ADI (Advanced Distance Integration) metering is available with compatible lenses and a shoe adapter is included for mounting the flash on cameras that have an auto-lock accessory shoe such as the NEX-6, the NEX-7 and older alpha DSLR models.

At ISO 100, 105mm, the HVL-F60M has a guide number of 60 with a range of more than 90 feet. With that kind of power, it’s no wonder that there’s an overheating indicator that shuts down the flash to avoid damage.

Other notable features include auto white-
balance compensation, automatic focal length adjustments from 24-105mm, and a dust and moisture resistant design. If you’re a Sony shooter, this flash has all the bells and whistles you’ll ever need.

Price: $550

Polaroid PL160 Dual Flash & LED camera flashPolaroid PL160 Dual Flash & LED

Available for Canon, Nikon, Olympus/Panasonic, Pentax and Sony cameras, the Polaroid PL160 offers most standard features but adds a twist with its LED light. With the LED as a continuous light source, it’s a no fuss solution when changing between still and video shooting.

The PL160 supports TTL metering and offers automatic and manual zoom coverage from 24-85mm, which is a little less than most flash guns but still provides decent coverage. The flash head rotates up to 270 degrees and offers built-in diffuser and reflective panels. Power can be set for 1/1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 and 1/16, and shutter speed can be set automatically. As expected, the flash operates on four AA batteries (alkaline, lithium, NiCad or rechargeable NiMH) and, depending on the power settings, recycles between 0.5 and 9 seconds. It measures 5.2 x 4 x 3 inches and weighs 9.5 ounces without batteries.

The PL160’s LED light offers an advantage over other flashes but it’s the affordable price that will put this flash on budget-minded photographers’ shopping lists.

Price: $170

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