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In doing research prior to purchasing my first flash for my DSLR system I have come across a wealth of information, including this post that outlined many great points in selecting the best rechargeable batteries for use with the flash unit.

Since I will use the flash unit in far between outings I was planing to use regular batteries at first. I am still trying to decide if rechargeable batteries are justified for my limited use situation.

Since I have loads of batteries laying around to run my 2 year old's toys, I always have them on hand. I know they are not cheap and to make a sound decision, I need to know how fast or how many flash cycles I can expect to get on a set of batteries.

To add some context, on a single night I can take anywhere from 500 to 1,000 photos. If half were to use flash would i last the night on a single set?

The flash I will probably purchase is either the Nikon speed light 600 or the new 700.

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If there is a power socket near where you shoot you can also build yourself a power adapter with a switching power supply. Great recycle times and no batteries needed anymore :-) – Joey Jan 10 '11 at 1:11
With 1000 photos a night I'd be concerned first about heat buildup and then the capacity of the batteries. – ysap Jan 10 '11 at 12:55
@ysap i read reviews making note about the overheating. I will save this for a separate topic. – kacalapy Jan 10 '11 at 15:12
@kacalapy - if you plan on burst mode, make sure your flash can sustain the rate of exposure you need. I assume that with flash, the continuous rate is much slower (need to wait for recycle), or the flash power is really low after the 1st shot. – ysap Jan 11 '11 at 20:07

4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Short answer: while a flash will work okay with alkaline batteries, other types are better.

Nikon produces excellent manuals for their flashes, with a lot of great technical information (rivaled in this area only by Metz). The following is from the SB-600 User Manual, page 19:

Alkaline-manganese | 3.5 sec. | 200  / 6-30 sec.
Lithium            | 4.0 sec. | 400  / 7.5-30 sec.
Nickel             | 2.5 sec. | 180  / 6-30 sec.
NiCd (1000 mAh)    | 2.9 sec. |  90  / 4-30 sec.
Ni-MH (2000 mA)    | 2.5 sec. | 220  / 4-30 sec.

The first column is the type, followed by approximate time between full-power flashes (best case), followed by the number of flashes you can expect to get, followed by the typical recharge time.

Additionally, on a further chart, Nikon recommends recharging your NiCds or NiMHs when the recycling time drops to 10 seconds, whereas it's suggested to keep your alkalines until they're taking a full half a minute between flashes. (It's worth noting that they give the 10-seconds-then-trash recommendation for Lithium primary cells too.)

So, you can see that while Lithiums last longer, it's not so much more than NiMH that it's really going to be worth it except in extraordinary circumstances (like, no access to power for weeks).

The most important differentiator here, though, is the recycle time. It takes 50% more time to be ready to go again when using alkaline batteries. That alone is a reason to go with NiMH.

Also, if you're not going through batteries constantly, I highly recommend low-self-discharge NiMH batteries like Sanyo's Eneloops — normally, NiMH batteries drain significantly just sitting overnight, and these don't, so you can charge them up and have them ready to go.

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Having an SB-600, the information is pretty on par with my personal usage (attempting to take into account the fact that I rarely do a full pop). – rfusca Jan 10 '11 at 5:36

I'm guessing that by "regular batteries", you mean run-of-the-mill alkaline cells, the typical Energizer, Duracell, etc. that you can buy in any grocery store. This chemistry does poorly in high-current situations; I'd think that recharging a flash would be that kind of load, so performance would not be too great. My guess would be that you would need quite a few sets of alkaline cells to power a night of 250-500 flashes.

If you don't want to go rechargeable to start, you could try non-rechargeable lithium AA cells (e.g.), which are pretty widely available and support the high-current needs of a flash. In addition to better life, you'll also gain shorter recycle times and they are a bit lighter. They run about $10 for a set of four here in Boston.

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It seems a typical flash takes 4x AA. How many sets of 4 do you have on you when out at an event at night? – kacalapy Jan 10 '11 at 0:10
According to the SB600 manual (Page 19), lithium batteries have the worst recycle times of any battery chemistry, though the highest number of full-power flashes. – Evan Krall Jan 10 '11 at 3:26
(Which seems counterintuitive to me, since I thought lithium was supposed to have low internal resistance.) – Evan Krall Jan 10 '11 at 3:31
@Evan Krall -- Oh hey. I hadn't seen your comment here before posting my answer referencing the manual. You should have made a full answer, I think. Anyway, on Lithium: maybe that's with lithium rechargeable batteries, not primary cells? – mattdm Jan 10 '11 at 5:30
@kacalapy, I don't shoot much with flash, not events, so I can't say. Sorry. – Reid Jan 10 '11 at 14:05

Non-rechargeable Lithium batteries will definitely last longer than standard alkaline batteries... anywhere from 3x to 5x longer, depending on who you ask, and how it is measured. You will also get faster recycle times with non-rechargeable Lithium batteries as well.

There are two important things to know about non-rechargeable Lithium batteries before you dive in, though:

  1. Alkaline batteries taper off in power over time so you can kinda 'see the end coming,' but when lithium batteries die, they die quick. One shot you're at full-power, two shots later you're done. This isn't necessarily a reason not to use them, it's just something to be aware of because you won't 'just be able to squeeze a few more shots out of the batteries before you change them.' Most of the time you won't even see the end coming until the batteries are already dead. The old photographers adage of 'pack one more set of batteries than you think you'll need... and then pack 2 more sets' certainly applies here.
  2. Lithium batteries get hot from use if they're used constantly without a break. I mean like 'hey why is the plastic in my flash getting melty all of a sudden' hot. (Really. You haven't lived until you've experienced your on-camera flash literally start to droop because the batteries have melted the plastic and fried the electronics) This is the primary reason you see warnings in the back of many electronics manuals that explicitly state that lithium batteries 'should not be used with this device.' It's generally the small print that none of us bother to read, naturally. :-/ This doesn't tend to ever be an issue with 'moderate use' shooters, but it might be for you if you're shooting '500 to 1,000 shots' and happen to be using higher power without giving the batteries enough chance to dissipate heat. It's important to note that Lithium Ion batteries (rechargeable) do not have these same heat problems and are perfectly safe to use in flashes.

Your mileage may vary, but what works for me knowing the above is this... I use lithium batteries when I'm doing small/short shoots (2 hours or less) where I expect to be shooting less than 200 shots, or for slightly longer shoots when I know I'm going to spend most of my time using lower power flash pops. If I'm doing an all-day shoot, and/or I know there's a possibility that I'll be popping the flash a lot with the possibility of long stretches at high-power (at a wedding, for example), I use alkalines and carry a lot of spares.

I don't use rechargeables because I find the recharging process to be fiddly, and I've never found a good system for sorting out charged vs. need-charging, etc. Mostly I'm just lazy. :-)

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I'm using rechargable batteries and I have three sets. I have not needed to change the first one in an event with like 300–400 photos at 1/2–1/4 power. The recharge time is very fast.

One thing you need to pay attention to: the four-battery set that was included with my recharger was only 1600 mAh And those four did not work with any flash (I'm using those for toys). The rest of the batteries are 2500 mAh, and they are working fine. (Both sets are 1.2V, not the standard 1.5V).

It is more ecological as they probably last for 1000 recharges. I am not shooting that many events but I am happy and shooting tons of practice shoots.

I have a plastic container for the extra set of batteries. If they are charged, I put them with the positive pole up. If they are used ones, the positive pole is facing down.

Always recharge the same group of batteries together. You can mark them as set 1, set, 2.

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Presumably you're talking about Eneloops (NiMH)? "Rechargeable" is too general to be helpful to this question. – feetwet Nov 1 at 17:37

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