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What to Look For When Buying an External Flash

written by: Balachandar Radhakrishnan•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 1/26/2009

External flashes: one of the most important DSLR camera accessories that gets overlooked! Using your camera's inbuilt flash can give you generic photographs; using an external flash will help create photos that are out of this world! Here are tips on what to look for when buying an external flash.

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    Isn't my built-in flash enough?

    flash1 You might think twice about purchasing an external flash for your camera and find yourself thinking, “Isn’t the built-in flash on my pricey DSLR camera enough?" The answer to that question is “yes", for a vanilla snap. Unfortunately, the answer is “no" when it comes to creative photography. Your DSLR camera is just the first step to taking great photographs, understanding light is yet another important step. And that’s where off-camera flash or external flash units come into play. Trust me, once you start playing with these, you'll wonder how you ever managed with the camera’s built-in flash! To start, external flashes offer more lively images; say goodbye to those blown out, red eyed photographs!

    Image Courtesy: Mshades

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    What to look for when buying an external flash

    So you've decided to buy an external flash, what are the features that you should be looking for?

    Tilt & swivel capabilities:

    Most external flash units today allow the flash head some degree of freedom to be tilted and twisted in any direction. This is a very basic feature that people forget. Focusing your flash can significantly enhance your photographs. A flash head can be directed to focus on another surface and have the light diffuse on your subjects creating a well lit picture. Directing your flash on the subject creates what is called “harsh light".

    Off-camera connecting socket:

    One advantage that an external flash unit offers is the ability to direct your light from any angle and direction you want. So most of the time the flash unit is not directly on top of the camera, but rather off the camera and placed at a different locations and angles. In order to trigger the flash in such situations, a cable can be connected to the flash unit and when the shutter is released the flash goes off. This triggering mechanism requires a connection socket to be present both in the camera and the flash unit. There are alternatives to this (like the use of a remote controlled flash trigger), but it’s good to have the port of the flash for a quick direct connection.

    External Flash Units 

    Image Courtesy: Denniskatinas

    Manual control:

    For anybody who wants manage the overall results of their photos, manual control is an important feature. Let’s say you want to backlight your subject to get a white background, but also have the subject well lit; then the option would be have your flash unit fire at a higher intensity than the one in the front. This kind of fine control is made easy by presence of the manual controls on the flash unit.

    Weatherproofing of the flash:

    Granted that we take care of our photographic gear, we still try some creative shots in less than optimum weather! So as the camera, the flash unit needs to be weatherproof. Mostly all of Canon and Nikon flashes are well built and, with a little care, can be used in non-optimal weather. When looking at third party flashes one has to be careful of their weather proofness. There are sleeves that you can buy to safeguard your flash unit.

    Silent operation capability:

    This is mostly a personal preference, but I don't like external flash units that buzz and humm! A good flash unit is silent and smooth to operate and doesn't disturb the subject or draw their attention.

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    Use your Flash judiciously

    flash photo Flash photography can open the doors to a region of creativity that you've never before experienced. In fact, there is so much to flash photography that there are several websites designed to help you progress and enjoy your external flash units. One such site, called the strobist, has tons of tutorials and information regarding flash photography and the use of off-camera lighting. Have fun shooting photographs that are out of this world!

    Image Courtesy: alextremps