What’s the best flash unit available on a budget? New lighting gear is released all the time and written about on this web site, but it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, especially when recent products are not necessarily better than old ones. What’s more, top-of-the-line gadgets may have the latest bells-and-whistles but that doesn’t help if you need three lights for your setup and can only afford one.
This guide covers flashguns that cost US$99.99 or less at normal retail pricing in May 2013. For any flashguns that might be only available in the UK or Europe, consider an upper bound of £79.99 (or 92.99€) equivalent to $99.99 plus 20% VAT. Since everybody’s needs and budgets are different, I’ve refrained from compiling an ordered list, instead highlighting the strengths of each contender.
The Off-Camera Expert: Yongnuo Speedlite YN560-III
My favourite. The YN560-III represents the fifth generation in Chinese manufacturer Yongnuo’s affordable manual flashgun range. It follows the YN460, YN460-II, YN560 and YN560-II, giving Yongnuo ample experience in how to build a refined flash unit.
So why is the YN560-III my number one sub-$100 flash? Because it does everything it is supposed to do, has a bagful of features, plenty of power and is easy to control from its massively-customisable, clear LCD screen. The built-in 2.4GHz radio receiver — the icing on the cake — makes it the ultimate off-camera flash of the moment, effectively rendering it the best external flash of all since off-camera lighting is almost always preferable. Don’t forget to read our full review.
NB: if you glance over to the sidebar then you’ll see that the company advertises on this site, but I can personally assure you that they have never had any editorial influence. It’s just an awkward coincidence that something they make is really good.
The Yongnuo YN560EX is also technically eligible for this list ($96.99 from the manufacturer’s outlet store) but the only thing to gain from buying it is optical wireless TTL, which isn’t worth the things you lose: the 2.4GHz radio receiver, the external power socket and the extra $20 from your bank account.
The Alternative: Godox ThinkLite TT660
Not everybody trusts Yongnuo; they have received their fair share of quality control complaints in the past but have nonetheless seen apparently resounding market success. There are a number of lookalike brands, each producing their own “as YN560” flash units but there is one rival company that is a bit more distinctive. Godox walks alone when it comes to their flash designs, which don’t really look like anything else. We’ve used the Witstro AD180 and were suitably impressed, which bodes well for their more conventional speedlights. Their latest one is the ThinkLite TT660, the replacement for the TT560.
The latest ThinkLite has a simple LED-based control panel and a good set of features including a sync port, external power input, 1/4″ tripod mount (uniquely), electronic zoom head and an optical slave sensor. The brightness, from reviews we have seen, is on par with that of the Yongnuo YN560-series. But to get this over the YN560-II or YN560-III would depend on whether you prefer the interface, really wanted to avoid Yongnuo or have a local Godox distributor you prefer.
The Automaton: Nissin Di466
The Nissin Di466 is a small, simple flash with a foolproof interface. It has manual power adjustment down to 1/32 of full power — with two wireless slave modes — and automatic TTL exposure control for Nikon, Canon, Olympus and Panasonic. (Sorry, Sony and Pentax users!) If you find the TTL output is consistently off or you have a personal flash exposure compensation preference then you can change the pre-set default power level using a feature called “My TTL”.
You don’t get other fancy stuff like high speed sync but then none of the other flashes in this list offer that either. One thing the flash could do with though is the ability to set the zoom position manually, rather than it automatically tracking the focal length of the lens on your camera.
The Di466 should appeal to a number of different people, since in automatic TTL mode you can hand the camera to any inexperienced user or non-photographer and they can concentrate on taking pictures instead of having to figure out how the flash works. It should be good if you just need a flash for social events but there are still enough features for the aspiring photographer to be able to use it creatively. It’s also available in white. Which is nice.
In a rare reversal of scenario for consumer electronics, Brits like me can actually buy this flashgun for less than our friends across the Atlantic. Amazon.co.uk, Wex and other online retailers have the Di466 for £75. In the USA Adorama, Amazon.com and B&H carry it for $139, which is over 40% dearer. Bad luck, Yanks!
The Second-Hand One: Nissin 360TW
This vintage electronic flash unit comes from the 1980s. Nobody seems to know about it, which is why I now have three, obtained for a grand total of £40 on eBay. Coming from the “Now You’re Playing With Power” era, it actually puts out more light than many modern flash units and you can tone that output down to 1/2 or 1/4 as needed. There are a couple of automatic modes and an exposure chart on the back too. As the name suggests, the head rotates 360° and though there is no zoom, you can get a set of condenser and diffuser filters that sort of achieve the same task as a fresnel.
The “twin” flash on the front can be switched on and off and since the main head moves independently, you are actually getting two light sources in one package. Most importantly, everything is made in Japan and bombproof. I used them to learn off-camera lighting and would highly recommend anybody looking to build a basic lighting kit for peanuts to pick up a Nissin 360TW or five.
I was also considering giving the 1981 Sunpak Auto 30DX (US: 422D) a Top 5 slot, since it has more control (1/1 – 1/16) and a still-sold Tele-Filter adapter that adds zoom to the flash head. I have two of these flashes, complete with said attachments. But the build quality of the 30DX is poor — I’m surprised so many have survived on the used market, since they don’t stand up to prolonged use (though you can buy replacement modules if yours breaks). The hotshoe connection is also unreliable for no reason so sometimes the flash won’t go off. The Nissin is more powerful.
The Disposable: Mecablitz 20 C-2 / Yinyan CY-20
The Metz Mecablitz 20 C-2 is the most feature-averse product in this list but it has its own charm. I was rather enthusiastic in my review of the stripped-down OEM version, the CY-20, which at £15 is possibly one of the cheapest flashes in existence that’s of any merit. Why? It tilts upwards, turning it from a glorified pop-up flash into a soft light source (bounced off the ceiling) at social events. And it won’t fry your camera.
The Mecablitz version is twice the price but adds two non-TTL automatic modes, a sync port and the peace of mind that comes from having somebody you can call if it goes wrong (good luck with the generic one).
If you (or a friend) want to take nicer pictures in the evenings but would prefer to spend the absolute minimum on a discreet external flash for your compact/mirrorless camera, get this. Also worth considering as the fifth or sixth flash for a photographer who hardly uses five- or six-light setups.
Some other flashguns aren’t covered here because they’re not widely available or because we want to go hands-on first. Units we will be hoping to test in the future are the MeiKe MK-300, Godox Thinklite TT660, LumoPro LP180 and Hink Spacefish. I’ll update this article as we go.
Thanks to Lighting Rumours reader Ofa Fonua (@otfonua) for suggesting we produce this guide. If you’d like to request something we can improve on this site, don’t hesitate to e-mail us, tweet @LightingRumours, message our Facebook page or join the Google+ community.