What are your options for flash photography and more especially what power source are you going to opt for? 

Much of my social photography business involves informal group portraiture and this shot one of some four hundred taken in the course of a milestone birthday shoot- reliable consistent flash equipment is vital in my work.

Great photography is concerned with working with and the skilful management of light and whilst I love to work in natural available light, the majority of the commissioned professional work I do in effect requires me to bring my own! What are your options for flash photography and more especially what power source are you going to opt for?

Often for me ,such jobs , almost always indoors, such as presentations, wedding receptions, black tie and other social events  involve a number of hours shooting with flash. Where people are paying their hard earned  you have to be able to guarantee consistent high quality and ensure that all your images are first rate and well lit. That means having reliable consistent light source with you at all times that isn’t going to fail.  The commonest problem is not your flash gun but not having an adequate power source to sustain taking large numbers of images with flash over several hours and common sized ordinary batteries or rechargeable variants have a tendency to drain far quicker than you might expect.

Built in flash ?

Pop up flash in built flash – such a relatively small light source

Many digital SLR cameras have some sort of pop up inbuilt flash. Such devices are of very  limited professional use and not recommended if you are shooting a lot indoors or in limited light as they quickly drain your main camera batteries, have very limited coverage and have a tendency to bleach out the subject with harsh light. Handy perhaps for a little fill in flash to light up faces when you are shooting a portrait of a person or group which is back lit.  Also beware that, if you are using a standard or wide angle lens, with or without a lens hood, built in flash often leaves a curved shadow at the bottom of images because the flash can’t jump the lens barrel or lens hood so an area of the resulting shot will be in unwelcome shadow. Invariably these inbuilt flashes can’t throw their light far or adequately illuminate the subject, say groups of people. The other disadvantage is that you will experience a delay when you take one shot before the inbuilt flash is capable of firing off again.

External flash guns

My flash gun, slipped onto the “hot shoe” plate on top of the camera bodyand ready to go

The standard tool of the trade is the external flash gun and a common sight when you see a media scrum of press photographers.  They come in at between three and four hundred pounds on average– I use a Nikon SB 800 “Speedlight” usually mounted on the “hot shoe” contact  above the camera view finder or, on  occasions, on  a detachable flash bracket.  (Nikon’s “Speedlight” range -similar in name to the Canon flash gun  “Speedlite”  is what it is, i.e., able to provide several flash firings without a nagging recovery time delay.) That has a tilting head and pull out diffuser meaning  I can, for example,  bounce the light from the ceiling  and thus get a softer more subtle and flattering light than were I to fire it directly at the person.

Rear of flash gun showing hot shoe mount and the black twist locking button to ensure tight contact

What is the best way to power your flash gun?

Conventional batteries?

My Nikon flash gun comes with a compartment which takes  four AA batteries (although the kit comes with a detachable slider which enables you to add a fifth battery.)  You need to be aware how much power flash takes and how quickly conventional batteries are going to become exhausted which may not be an issue if you only intend to use flash for occasional shots.

compartment in flash gun body for four conventional AA batteries

Initially I bought a number of specialist “high performance “ rechargeable AA batteries from a chain camera shop but found them to drain very quickly with multiple firings  and, worse, lose their ability to recharge over time without warning. (Where you are using several rechargeable batteries in a single compartment of course it is hard to know which of them has “grown tired” and /or isn’t holding or taking a charge and so best avoided.) To make absolutely sure, I used to  invest in multi-packs of Duracell Plus AA batteries  but became uneasy about going through so many on a big shoot and throwing them away when they died and it was hard to judge how many you would need over a long session.  Rechargeables or non rechargeable batteries  are fine maybe for occasional amateur use but not ideal for professional jobs, especially long jobs, where failure isn’t an option!

Separate Battery Packs

It wasn’t long before I was to upgrade to a separate rechargeable battery power pack that clipped onto my belt so I didn’t have to keep changing batteries. My first battery pack was a Quantum Compact, cost around £300 and gave me good service for several years and provided me with consistent flash for four or five hours on the trot and between 4 and 8 hundred shots. (The lead for that came with a plastic insert in the shape of four AA batteries that clipped into the battery compartment on the side of the flash gun body.)

Alas, as with all heavily used pro equipment the shelf life is not indefinite and that battery pack started to let me down  up at the beginning of this year and failed to take a full re-charge if any. I sent it in for repair but sadly  found out not only was it discontinued but the US based company had no spare parts so that had to be binned. The last thing any pro can afford to carry is any equipment that is likely to fail. ( I  do always by the way  still keep a batch of AA Duracell Plus batteries in my camera bag as back ups to slip into the flash gun in the unlikely event of my main power source draining. )

So another purchase more recently this time a more powerful faster, longer life battery pack, the Quantum Turbo, just short of £300 , quite bulky , the size of a small paving brick and weighing a kilo but with a belt clip and the business.  That actually came, somewhat annoyingly,  with a Cannon “Speedlite” lead , only slightly different in the shape of the end that connects to the flash gun which I failed to notice. However, I just took delivery of a Nikon Speedlight compatible lead that plugs directly into the front of the flash gun and I’m back in business. (Not amused by the way that such a relatively simple lead alone cost a tidy £60 – scandalous!)

Battery pack attached to the flash gun mounted on one of my camera bodies and ready to rock

Buying your flash kit .

If you Google for flash guns and battery packs you are going to see a range of devices and prices either from purely on line retailers or photography chains who also have a website. (Google inevitably seems to default to Ebay and Amazon based traders so you may want to scroll down to increase your options.) As a general rule you get what you pay for. Second hand gear may be OK but you can’t guarantee how much use they have had and modern electronics are inclined to fail with sustained use so wherever possible buy new. If you are serious about photography you will understand that any compromise comes with attendant risks and cutting corners on cost has a tendency to come back and bite you at the most inconvenient time.

There are a range of flash guns, chain store own brands for example, which are a quarter of the price of established brands and inevitably that means  wide variations in actual build and feature qualities. I’d always advise going for the best you can afford. If you don’t know a competent photographer I’d always advise a visit to a camera store, tell them your budget, tell them what sort of uses you intend to make of the devices and then note down their recommendations. I have yet to find any chain or other store that actually is able to compete with net prices and thus suggest that, armed with the details of the model advised by the shop, go home and  then search on line for the best value.  Be aware that some suppliers charge VAT and sometimes you don’t find that out until you are about to place the order.

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