What to Look for When Buying an External Flash :: Digital Photo Secrets

What to Look for When Buying an External Flash

by David Peterson 5 comments

Until you use an external flash, it’s difficult to appreciate just how much of a difference they make. Since cameras come with a built-in flash, it’s easy to want to only that. I’m here to tell you, don’t settle for your built-in! Take a leap and pick up an external flash... you will thank me later. Built-in flashes create generic photographs; whereas external flashes do wonder for your images, especially people’s skin tone, but more on that in a bit. First, below are some tips on what to consider when buying an external flash.

What’s Wrong with My Built-In?

I see built-in flashes as being there for “in a pinch” situations. They are "good enough". but if you are taking your photography to the next level, especially in situations where you’ll be paid to shoot portraits or weddings, you must consider purchasing an external flash.

Your DSLR’s built-in flash has little to no versatility. It flashes straight forward and at one angle. There is no room for creativity, which is what you need to capture great and professional looking photographs. In using an external flash, you expand your understanding of light and how it works because you have the control to do so. Certainly you will make errors in how you position the flash, etc., but it is from this versatility that you learn and grow as a photographer. Built-in flashes simply don’t give you that.

It's worth researching the different types of flashes, because there is more to a flash than what meets the eye (and I don’t mean red eye). Here are some things you’ll want to consider:

The flash is to the left of the camera here, adding more definition to the baby's face.

Off-Camera Connecting Socket

If you’re buying an external flash, you’re probably wondering, where do I put it?

The point of an external flash unit(s) is to not have it sitting directly on top of your camera. It’s positioned off to the side where you can get different lighting results from different angles. Just like shutter releases, there are two options for external flashes: cable connectivity or remote connectivity. A cable can be connected to the flash unit and when the shutter is released, whether by you depressing it or using a cable or remote release, the flash sets off at the same time. In order to do this, there is a triggering mechanism that requires a “connection socket” in both the camera and the flash unit. Even if you are leaning toward a remote controlled flash trigger, it’s a good idea to have a quick direct connection as a backup.

Manual Control

If you want complete control and management over the flash, and therefore your photos, manual control is a feature you’ll want. For example, if you want different intensities from two different flashes, you’ll want the option to have one flash unit fire at a higher and the other at a lower intensity. Having this kind of control is possible with manual control.

Tilting and Swiveling

The biggest advantage you will get from an external flash unit is the ability to direct your light from any angle you want. To add even more flexibility, when you’re shopping for external flashes, look for one that allows for some degree of tilting and twisting. It may sound basic, but directing your flash a few degrees in one direction or another can make a significant difference in your photographs.


As photographers, we’re not always out shooting on nice days or dry locations. I’ve written posts on protecting your gear for these days, but for the purpose of this post, I’ll point out that you want to get a flash unit that is weatherproof. The majority of Canon and Nikon flashes fit the idea of being weatherproofed, but if you’re going with other manufacturers, do your research. It wouldn’t hurt to buy a sleeve for it, too.


While it’s not a necessity, a quiet flash that doesn’t make noises, like a buzzing bee sound, is a bonus. Just like a lens when it’s focusing, a quality flash unit will be silent and smooth without causing a distraction to your shoot. Considering flash units are used a lot with portraits, a quiet one will make a big difference.

Bounce Light

One of the main reasons you want a flash is to create more light. Bouncing light off a wall or at a diffuser will soften the intensity and help make your photos look that much more professional. So, in order to do this, a flash head should be directed on another surface, such as the wall or diffuser, which will create both a well-lit and a soft featured image. Alternatively, if you direct the flash right on your subject, the result will be harsh light and higher contrast. Use the bounce, but play with it because it isn’t likely to come naturally at first.

Take the Leap

Some beginners shy away from buying external flashes because they’re just not sure how to use them. If this describes you, I encourage you to seek out assistance locally, such as in a photography store, and have them show you hands-on how to use them. With all the ordering that can be done online, it’s overwhelming to see all the flashes and features, so by getting in-person help, you’ll greatly increase your knowledge and confidence.

One last note... you can mount external flashes on tripods, so pick up a few inexpensive tripods. This will give you much more flexibility with where you can place, angle and direct the flash unit.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Nathaniyelu says:

    Awesome article..
    Thank you very much for the information...

  2. Larry pace says:

    Expel lent article!

  3. Rodney says:

    Thanks David.
    Every one of your tips are interesting and to the point and easy to comprehend for beginners and old farts catching up on this digital stuff.Keep up the good work and don't overexpose yourself when flashing !

  4. Thomas says:

    Thank you, David, for yet another "keeper"!

  5. Dan says:

    Good article. I also think a brief mention of high-speed sync and why one might want this feature in an external flash would help the buying decision. (Wish my external flash supported this feature for my birding photos).

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.