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I have a Canon 500D and am not overly a fan of portrait shots, but thought I might give it a go with a few simple setup scenes. External lighting would be useful, but the good stuff is very expensive, and as I'm only experimenting I don't want that. I've decided to get myself some wireless flash hotshoes which I now have 4 of and a trigger on the camera. I've a couple of basic cheap lighstands for putting any flashes on I get. Now all I need to do is work out what flashes to get.

My criteria are these:

  • I do not plan on using the flashes on the camera hotshoe and will not be requiring any compatible/fancy metering
  • As I do not plan on using the flashes on the camera hotshoe of my camera higher trigger voltage flashes aren't so much a problem
  • The flash should be cheap and secondhand. By cheap I mean below £30-40 if possible, the cheaper the better.
  • The flash needs the ability to set the power output manually. Obviously the more settings/increments the better

I know I can't expect much for the cheap price, but I do not require any fancy settings, just the manual options. Whenever I have searched forums and websites online for cheap flashes with manual controls etc I find plenty of good priced flashes that are equivalent to the speedlites for cheaper, but these are all to be used on camera with metering etc and are therefore still far more expensive than what I am looking for. What I want is a cheap flash with manual controls, that could be decades old as long as it still works, with no need for fancy metering as it is just going to be used as a portable light source as opposed to a 'speedlite' equivalent.

Any help would be appreciated finding good brands and their models to keep an eye out for on ebay etc.

Thanks in advance

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

You mention second hand, and I commend that choice, however I think it's worth noting that there are some at-least-relatively quite inexpensive (though perhaps over £30-40; I don't know the exchange rates off hand).

One is the Vivitar 285HV (or I guess now these are the Cactus KF36) (or an old higher-voltage 285 or 283, and perhaps other models, second hand - though I'm not certain which ones have adjustable manual modes), though be aware that for some reason this flash skips 1/8 power - it just has 1/16, 1/4, 1/2, and full ("M") power.

There's also the Yong Nuo YN460, which is the cheapest full manual flash I know of that you can buy new - for as little as US$50 or so, supposedly. I don't have one of these, and haven't shot with one, but I've had one in my hands and played with the interface - it took me a minute to figure out, but seemed pretty straightforward from there.

Much more info (and links to flickr discussion threads) on both of these (and a third, sounds-a-lot-better-but-a-bit-more-expensive option -- the LumoPro LP120 -- which I have yet to actually have my hands on personally, so I won't say any more about) are on a strobist post about cheap flashes.

As for the used market, I've used an old SunPak flash that worked decently (they also have the PZ42X, which you could look for second hand, if its price tag is too high - note that I haven't used this one either). Or any of numerous options from numerous brands, I'm sure. (The Nikon SB-24 and 26 were made quite popular by the Strobist blog posts about them, which had the downside (from the buyer's perspective) of raising what they tended to sell for).

I've also picked a few old flashes up from thrift stores and garage sales and such, some of which were as low as $1 (or even given to me), had a fixed output mode (which sort of counts as manual, right?), and serve some purposes nicely (I've got one that's tiny (it takes 2 AAA batteries) and has an optical slave which I sometimes like to tuck into a corner somewhere, for example).

There are definitely some options. I hope this helps you find what you're looking for!

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Some good suggestions in there. I'd previously looked at the Yung Nuo but then ended up looking at the 465 and deciding it was more than i needed. Having re-looked at the 460 and seeing there's a slightly upgraded II they do with finer output controls this may well be perfect for my needs. Will have a look at the others too to see how they match up – Dreamager Jan 30 '11 at 18:16
Thanks. I'm realizing, too, that some of what I've said here may be out-of-date a little, with respect to models and things. Which perhaps is fine, given your second-hand notions. ;) I'd be sure to check the strobist post and/or the threads he links to, as these different flashes have differences in quality in various ways, that may be fine for you, but you'd probably want to at least be aware of before you buy. Good luck! – lindes Jan 30 '11 at 21:20
For posterity's sake, note that the Vivitar 283 needs the accessory VariPower module (it plugs in where the removable sensor module goes) to manually adjust the power output. 283s aren't hard to find, but VariPowers are. – user2719 Jan 31 '11 at 12:57

Check out Nikon speedlights from the 1990s: SB-24 and SB-26. The lower the number, the cheaper. The higher the number, the more features. The SB-26 has a broader manual range, and the SB-28 has a built-in optical trigger.

They have manual control, hotshoe and PC sync sockets, and are broadly compatible with Canon and Nikon DSRLs.

Strobist on the Nikon SB-24.

The excellent Photography in Malaysia page on the SB-24, SB-26, and SB-28.

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Precisely because of the Strobist article on the SB-24, you can sometimes find the -25, -26, -28 cheaper on eBay. – Evan Krall Jan 30 '11 at 16:53
The SB-26 (and 28?) has a built-in optical slave trigger, which saves you from needing an extra doodad to do this. Quite nice. – Staale S Jan 31 '11 at 1:17

If all you care for is the ability to control flash power (i.e, no zoom or fancy digital games like stroboscope), then there is another alternative to manual flash: use the cheapest flash you can find with ND gels! You can buy these gels in sheets and cut to the size of your flash head, and if the reduction is not enough, then stack a few of them.

This Strobist set has a couple of ND gels, and generally ROSCO makes these to order.

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Yongnuo YN460

You have to look out for build issues with these, but they should be available second hand for your budget.

There is a newer version, the YN560, which is a slight upgrade, and slightly more expensive (GBP 55+ new).

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The YN560 (and its follow-ups II and III is what I am planning on buying myself. Weirdly, I found these awesome (really!) shot-to-shot statistics for the original yn-560 on NiMh, but it seems the newer ones got slower? Or different testing regiment, or worse batteries.… – sandos Jan 28 '14 at 10:25

Vivitar 285

I use these, and they are not perfect but they are great for the money and I love them.

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I would not recommend the Yongnuo flashes; they have great features for the money, but are prone to failure (my 560 III got stuck on full power; that seems to be a common ailment). I like the Nikon SB-28 mentioned here already, although incorrectly mentioned as having an optical trigger, which is only on the SB-26. I also like the Minolta 320x; it isn't mentioned very much, but is a sturdy flash that has good manual power control (down to 1/16), and has 3 auto modes. They are very inexpensive on that auction site.

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