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General question:

What will I get from an expensive flash unit, that I can't get from a cheap one?

Specific example:

The $250 Canon Speedlite 430EX II vs. the $50 Neewer TT560. To my naive eye, the flashes look pretty similar. What is better about the first one that justifies a 5x higher price?

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In this specific case, the Neewer flashes are reputed to provide about two stops less than the stated power. Any reputable flash should be no more than one GN off of the claim (let alone a full stop). So, honesty is something you get as well. –  mattdm Jan 24 '13 at 21:55
    
The answers on this question are similar, but I don't know if the question is really a duplicate. You may find this useful anyways: Low budget entry level Speedlite? Mattdm - Maybe the Yongnuo YN-560 II would be a better cheap unit. –  dpollitt Jan 24 '13 at 22:00
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

With a more expensive speedlight/flash you typically gain:

  • TTL Metering Ability(e-TTL/i-TTL/P-TTL)
  • Capability to Zoom
  • Heavier duty, especially around the shoe
  • Additional power/guide number
  • Ability to swivel, or in additional directions
  • Weather sealing
  • Wireless abilities, often above just being an optical slave
  • Reliability
  • Ability to control from the camera menu
  • LCD readouts, more buttons, easier configuration
  • Faster recycle times

None of this is to say that an inexpensive manual flash isn't a great option. They really are, especially if you are trying to learn and really understand light. If you want a fully automatic experience or have significant needs around professional reliability and features - then the OEM/name brand units are better. If you are just starting out and are interested in learning how to light, then the off brand cheap guys are wonderful and I highly recommend even the one you linked to.

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Note that the linked to 430EXII does not include all features listed above(ie a metal shoe, weather sealing) but I instead tried to generalize the answer to suit why you might want to pay more for any flash unit. –  dpollitt Jan 24 '13 at 22:02
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Usually for each Canon/Nikon brand flash you can find 3rd party alternative which is 2x-5x cheaper and provides a similar functionality. The difference is mostly in build quality, and servicing options. For example: cheaper plastic, plastic vs metal hot shoe, light indicators vs lcd screen, battery door design, etc. If it brakes you might have to ship it to China.

One real difference is wireless eTTL/iTTL in the top Canon/Nikon flashes. That's where 3rd party really lags behind. But we are talking about $500-$600 flashes here.

For the seasoned pro, there are (possibly) faster recycling times, more stable flash duration and longer battery life. If you have to worry about them, you don't need a flash advice :-)

Don't go for the cheapest options, do your research. There are lots of complaints about flash being DOA or dying in a month. Check flickr discussions for example. Go for a reliable 3rd party brand that many people use. For the same price you'll get 2-3 flashes (i.e. 2x-3x more light and flexibility).

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