One of the first purchases a lot of people make after buying a DSLR or Micro Four Thirds camera is a flash. It’s a smart thing to buy, because you’re inevitably going to be taking a lot of pictures indoors, and a proper flash is a huge improvement on the flashes that come built-in, and will make pictures look great.
But here’s the thing: when I say a proper flash, I don’t mean an expensive flash. I just mean a flash that lets you bounce the light off the ceiling. 99% of cameras with built-in flashes just point the flash directly at your subject, which usually makes those pictures look harsh and bad.
So do you need an expensive flash? Definitely not. If you buy one of the Canon or Nikon branded ones, you’re going to pay a lot, but there are some very nice cheap alternatives which are basically just as good. The camera companies are used to creating extremely high-tech cameras that have to do a lot of things very precisely, and those companies put high prices on those things.
A flash, however, is a very, very low-tech device: All it really needs to do is create a huge flash of light for a moment. It contains no glass that has to be exactly perfectly made, it doesn’t have to open a series of little metal blades for 1/2000 of a second, none of the fancy stuff. It just has to go POP for a moment and flash a bunch of light into a dark area. It doesn’t really make sense for it to cost 50% or more of what a DSLR costs, that’s just crazy.
I’ve owned a Canon 430EX for a few years, and even though I got it on sale at a decent price, I still feel completely ripped off, because of this Yongnuo flash, which is essentially a clone of Canon’s 580EX or 600EX flash (both better than the 430EX), except at maybe 20% of the cost. There are a couple of things it leaves out, like weather-sealing and E-TTL, but nothing that justifies paying 5 times more. (There’s also a more expensive version that does support E-TTL, which I’ll mention later.)
I’ve used the Yongnuo a decent amount and it’s great, it works just as well as a Canon. The reviews on the web are amazing too, everyone loves this thing, and more than a few people have pointed out that you can buy 4 or 5 of these, as well as some accessories, for the cost of the corresponding Canon or Nikon product.
If you’ve looked around Amazon or Ebay for cheaper photo stuff very often, you may have seen a lot of items by a company called Neewer, who produce a lot of third-party stuff. Cheap batteries, lens caps, whatever, Neewer makes a ton of things, and they also have a few cheap flashes available. This one, the Neewer TT560, seems to be their most popular, and I would imagine it’s because it’s only about $35 (as of this writing, early 2015), and you can almost not go wrong for that.
I have to admit, I don’t have any experience with the Neewer flashes, but the reviews are absolutely fantastic. For $35, it’s hard to imagine being too disappointed with this thing. One thing I read actually said that originally, this flash was prices at the same level as the Yongnuo mentioned above, but that in 2011, they dropped the price on this one, which is sort of interesting.
As I mentioned, I’ve used someone else’s Yongnuo a lot and thought it was great, but I’m currently in the market for a cheap flash of my own, to do some 2-flash setups, and I’m leaning towards the Yongnuo. I couldn’t really find any good head-to-head comparisons of the two, but it does seem clear that the Yongnuo is a slightly better or more versatile flash. Does that justify it costing twice what the Neweer does? Probably not, but since both cost peanuts compared to the big-name flashes, I’m happy enough grabbing the Yongnuo that I know works fantastically for me (and thousands of others, as the reviews show). I may be a chump, but I don’t always feel the need to cheap out every single dime I can.
So things to note about either of these flashes is that they don’t support TTL metering, which is the automatic system that judges how much flash you need in a given picture. To me, this isn’t a huge problem, I have found the Yongnuo works fine just set as it is for most pics, or with minor adjustments in some cases.
Your mileage may vary, but if you really want TTL metering, you can grab the Yongnuo YN568, which does fully support all the nice TTL stuff, but costs an extra $50 or so (as of this writing).
That’s about it I guess, and I’d like to add some info on my experience with flashes: I am not the world’s biggest expert on them! I got my first external flash in college, many years ago, and used it on my 35mm SLR. It was a cheap thing, I probably paid $40 or so for it in the 90s, and it was a dumb beast, it just took a bunch of AA batteries (as these do), sat on the SLR’s hot shoe, and shot off a crazy bright blast when I took a picture. As primitive as it was, it increased the quality of my indoor photos about a trillion percent.
I really prefer not using flash if at all possible – I am a much bigger fan of fast lenses and available light – but sometimes you have to. So over the years, I’ve used a number of external flashes (and the built-in ones in a pinch), but I’ve never actually become a big expert on them, probably because the 430EX I currently have just sits there and makes every picture look nice and well-lit, so I haven’t had to. Recently though, I’ve been wanting to do some more creative things with multiple flashes, and I started looking into this stuff, trying out the Yongnuo, etc.