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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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2  
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
    
    
I've bought both the Neewer and Yongnuo, and I'd recommend YN over the Neewer –  Daenyth Apr 30 at 20:19

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 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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1  
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
    
The 430EX II does have a metal shoe (it's the 220 that's plastic). –  drfrogsplat Jun 11 at 2:22
    
@drfrogsplat - You are right, I was thinking of the 430EXI. Neither of them have as nice as the weather sealing on the shoe of the 580 though. –  dpollitt Jun 12 at 3:15

OEM vs. 3rd Party

When you're selecting between the OEM (original equipment manufacturer; e.g., Canon or Nikon) and a 3rd-party flash (Metz, Sigma, Nissin, Youngnuo, Neewer), the main thing that's different is that the OEM designed and knows the internals of the flash/camera communication protocol, while 3rd parties may have to license design details or (if they're much cheaper) reverse-engineer it.

That means that typically a 3rd party flash won't have the same forwards and backwards compatibility of an OEM flash. Which is why some of the higher-end 3rd party manufacturers include the capability to upgrade the firmware on their newer units. When Canon decides to add some whiz-bang new features (say, groups D and E, ID codes, Groups mode, and RT communication as they did with the introduction of the 600EX-RT and ST-E3-RT), they'll make sure their own older flashes are still compatible, but they don't really care about 3rd party units not working. A 3rd party flash will probably be compatible with the system as it stands today—they may not be so good with how the system was ten years ago, or will be ten years from now.

Case in point. I have a Yongnuo YN-568EX that I love on my dSLRs. But if I try to put it on my Powershot G9's hotshoe, it won't even sync (fire). My 580EXII works just fine on both types of cameras, and can even have its power adjusted via the menu of the G9.

3rd parties also often have less name recognition. And the super-cheapies (e.g., Yongnuo, Neewer) typically don't have the same consistency as the OEMs in copy build quality, or components. And their warranty and service isn't at the same level. This is why they're cheaper. And this is also why OEM gear is going to have better resale value.

Whether you need that dependability is up to you. If you're a hobbyist weekend shooter, you may not see a thousand flash bursts for months. If you're a working pro who does event or portrait shooting, you may see that in a single day. There are reasons the pros don't go Yongnuo for their flashes (or triggers). But not everyone needs PocketWizards any more than they need Profotos.

Manual-only 3rd Party vs. OEM TTL

The main differences between the two flash models you've chosen are that the 430EXII is a mid-grade eTTL-capable OEM flash, while the Neewer is a lower-end manual-only 3rd party flash. There are reasons to go with either, but for a first or only flash, the 430EXII is probably the better choice for the following reasons:

  • TTL—This is an automated way for the camera to set the flash's power level. The camera tells the flash to send out a preburst flash of a known brightness level, meters it through-the-lens (TTL), and then adjusts the flash's output based upon the reading (and within the power limits of the unit). Think of it as the flash analog to having Av mode on the camera body, as well as M. Nearly all TTL flashes can do M; the reverse is not true. TTL becomes useful when you do run'n'gun event shooting, where you don't have time to chimp adjust and reshoot until you get the flash power right. The Neewer is manual-only. You'll have to dial in the flash power every time.

  • Manufacturer warranty, service, pricing, availabilty and resale value.

  • Canon wireless slave mode built in. If you're shooting a T3i or later dRebel, a 60D or later XXD model, or a 7D or later, the pop-up flash of your camera has a built-in master that can command the 430EXII via its built-in slave sensor. The Neewer doesn't have that sensor.

  • Flash-camera communication. The 430EXII can do it, a manual only flash can't. For Canon cameras, this means 2nd curtain sync, high-speed sync (using your shutter speed over the X-sync speed of your camera body (typically 1/200s or 1/250s), auto zooming based upon the lens focal length, using distnace information from the lens, etc. are all things the 430EXII can do that the Neewer can't.

3rd Party ≠ All-Manual, Unreliable, or Cheap

That's not to say all 3rd party options are manual-only cheapies. 3rd party flashes from Metz are actually preferred over OEM offerings by some shooters. There is a spread in terms of the reputation and features from 3rd party flash manufacturers.

You can purchase a 3rd party Yongnuo flash (YN-568EX) that has a features set similar to an OEM flash: TTL, HSS, wireless slaving, etc. with the additional features Canon might not offer, like PC sync ports and "dumb" optical slave modes (that don't require a master unit, just a flash burst to pop off the remote flash); and YN is rumored to be coming out with a 600EX-RT clone soon. But they're still going to have most of the 3rd party weaknesses outlined up above, and these units are priced around the same as a new 430EXII, so they're not so cheap any more. A Metz Mecablitz 58 has a great reputation for reliability but costs about the same as the Canon offerings. And the best of the all-manual simple flashes for reliability is the Lumopro LP180, which costs around $200.

So what you're juggling is low-cost vs. features vs. reliability. You can have only two things on that list. :) And only you know which two are most important to you.

It may be worth it to you to get a $60 all-manual flash if you just want to try shooting Strobist style to see if you like it. It's probably not worth it if you're a pro with clients breathing down your neck and your flash gear absolutely has to work flawlessly every time so you end up buying four copies just to make sure you've got backups.

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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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