Speedlights, or speedlites, or speedlight flashes, or hot shoe flashes…. what are they? Why and when should you use them? And how do you use them?
A speedlight, like this now discontinued LumoPro 180 below, is simply a small battery-powered flash that is designed to work both on and off camera. Speedlights have grown in popularity even among studio professionals because of their small size, light weight, quick setup and teardown, and best of all – price.
History of Speedlight Photography
The term speedlight was actually coined by Nikon in the 1960s. It was used to describe Nikon flashes that weren’t built into the camera. Canon quickly adopted a variation by spelling the word speedlite and today most companies refer to their standalone camera mounted portable flashes using one of those two terms.
Just like the film cameras of the 1960s, the original on camera flash units were manual and always putting out the same amount of light. Then companies like Vivitar released units like this 283 (which is also one of my favorite flash units of all time) which was one of the early automatic flashes that worked by using a sensor mounted on the front of the flash.
Then as technology progressed, TTL flashes became commonplace. TTL stands for Through The Lens and means that the camera monitors and controls the flash to give you the proper exposure for your scene. Now companies like Yongnuo have reverse engineered the more expensive Nikon and Canon flashes to make speedlight flashes very affordable, that is, if you are willing to sacrifice some of the build quality.
In 2006 Maryland-based photographer David Hobby began the Strobist blog and since then the term “strobist” has become the label attached to any photographer who uses a speedlite or speedlight flash.
When to Use Speedlight Flashes
Speedlight flashes have traditionally been the starting point in terms of lighting for most new photographers because they are generally less expensive than studio lights and much more portable, which really opens up a lot of creative possibilities. Now, speedlight flashes may be a starting point, but don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to move on to bigger, more expensive studio strobes. That’s not the case at all. I talk about the differences between speedlites and monolights in my video Speedlights vs Studio Strobes? Which flash is better and why? but I assure you, most photographers will have at least one speedlight flash in their kit for their entire career.
Speedlight flashes are also called hot shoe flashes, since most of these units are designed to be able to mount on your camera’s hot shoe and are fired via the metal contacts on the camera and flash.
Or by optical sensors called slaves, like the one below.
Or even cords.
Some of the standard features that you will find on most speedlight flashes today are bounce heads that allow you to angle the flash so that you can bounce the light off of ceilings or walls.
Many speedlight flashes have fill cards and diffusers. The fill cards provide just a little fill which is great for shooting people with a bounce flash,
and the diffuser will soften the beam of light.
While some speedlight flashes like this LumoPro 180 are manual-only with variable power outputs, others offer TTL options for automatic exposure, which can be nice if you are shooting a wedding or an event where the lighting scenarios can change quickly. For portraits and beauty shots and anything that doesn’t have rapidly changing conditions, I prefer manual exposure so that I have more control and so that I am forced to pay attention to everything that is happening with my lights. Auto is often the four letter word for forgettaboutit.
Many speedlight flashes will also do high speed sync, allowing you to synchronize with your camera at shutter speeds up to 1/8000th of a second.
Most speedlight flashes run on double AA batteries, which can be replaced with better performing rechargeables like Eneloops. Better units will allow you to attach external battery packs and even AC cords for faster recycling times and longer use without having to replace or recharge the batteries.
So there you have it! Speedlights or speedlites… whichever you prefer… are portable, lightweight, inexpensive on or off camera strobes that will allow you to enhance or control the light in your scene. They’re a staple item in almost every photographer’s kit.
If you want to learn more about Speedlights vs Monolights, and why you would use on over the other, check out my videos Flash Battle Part 1 (AKA Speedlights vs Studio Strobes? Which flash is better and why?) and Flash Battle Part 2 (Off Camera Flash-Guide Numbers and Watt Seconds)!
I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – “Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman