The main speedlight features to consider are:
Speedlights (hotshoe flashes; distinct from outlet-powered studio strobes which are also flashes) are powered by AA batteries. As strobes go, they're the low end of the totem pole when it comes to power, so every spare bit of it you can scrape together is useful. The power output of a flash is generally given as its guide number. The guide number, when divided by the f-number of the aperture setting, gives you the distance the light will travel at a given iso and zoom combination. But a lot of companies cheat by setting the flash to its highest zoom rating (more below) to make the number look higher. To compare apples to apples, make sure the zoom setting is the same across the flashes, or look at a review where the power output was actually measured with a light meter (e.g., this one on speedlights.net).
Think of the power output as you would the maximum aperture on a lens. The more you have, the more you can do with it, but the bigger and more expensive it becomes. Good power output on a full-sized speedlight will be around 60m (at iso 100, and 200mm zoom) or 34m (at iso 100, 35mm zoom).
Also consider the power range. The lower end of the range can also be an issue if you're working in close (macro/product) or need to recycle more quickly or have a shorter flash burst. Most modern speedlights go down to 1/128 power in M mode in 1/3 stop increments (1/3 EV). Some cheaper 3rd parties may only use whole stops (the gazillion rebrands of the Godox TT560: the Neewer TT560, Amazon Basics, etc.) And the Vivitar 285HV (aka the Cactus KF36)? It is not only limited to whole stops, its lowest power setting is 1/16, and it's missing the 1/8 setting.
Size / Weight
If you're rocking a larger, heavier deep-gripped camera, the weight and bulk of a full-sized speedlight is well-balanced. If you're shooting a small mirrorless body or an enthusiast compact that same full-sized speedlight might be top-heavy and you're looking for a smaller unit. Or maybe you just prefer a small fill flash.
Smaller units, while they may cost less, tend to have less power output, and fewer features. Look particularly at the tilt/swivel capability if you plan to bounce, and physical UI features if you plan to use it off-camera. Many of the small OEM units are made to be pop-up flash replacements. These accessory flashes can only be controlled via a camera menu if used directly on the hotshoe, as there are no physical buttons to put it into M mode or adjust the power output, as on bigger flash units. They may also require power supply from the camera hotshoe, and may not work on older model cameras.
Tilt and swivel allow you to position the head of the flash in a different orientation to the body. This becomes important for two reasons. When you use a flash on-camera, the go-to method for diffusing the light and making flash look pleasing is bouncing, where you aim the flash head at a reflective surface (usually a ceiling or wall). This softens the light. However, to choose the direction of the light, you have to choose your bounce surface; tilt and swivel determine your freedom to do that. Full 360° swivel gives you full freedom; 270° swivel removes 25% of your choices, and depending on how you rotate into portrait orientation, could remove 50%.
The second reason swivel is important is if you're going to use an optical triggering system for using the flash off-camera. The sensor for this is typically in the body, and it needs to be pointed towards your optical master unit (e.g., the camera's pop-up flash or another light in the setup). If you have full swivel, the head can always point where you want the light to go while the sensor on the body faces the camera.
Zooming on a flash head simply means that the flash tube in the head can move back and forth so that the spread of the light matches the field-of-view of the lens you're using. You can use this feature off-camera to adjust how focused the beam is. The longer the zoom setting, the farther back in the head the light sits, the more focused the beam is, and the farther the light can travel.
TTL, M, and Auto modes
TTL stands for "through-the-lens" metering. It's an automated way to set the flash's power output. A digital camera tells the flash to send out a "pre-burst" flash of a known brightness level; meters it, and then adjusts the flash's power based on the results and the flash's power limits. Just like using any metering-based auto mode on the camera body, it adjusts quickly and easily, but may not be perfect and you might have to dial in compensation. You typically use it for run'n'gun event situations where you move through different lighting situations where you may only have a fleeting opportunity of a shot, and speed is more important than precision or consistency.
But TTL can also be useful for off-camera flash, taking the place of an external incident flash meter if you don’t have one. If you get a triggering system that lets you mix TTL and M groups together, and has a locking feature to let you change a TTL-set power level to an M setting to lock it in, you can have both the convenience of TTL to set your key and fill and the shot-to-shot consistency of M, with M control over your background and rim lights. And using TTL can free up some of your brain to concentrate more on connecting with a subject and the aesthetics of your shoot instead of doing stop-math and continually adjusting your power for every change to iso, aperture, or position of a light to keep the same flash exposure level. TTL can make for a more dynamic workflow, even in a studio setting, by letting you drag your iso, aperture, and light placement, not just your shutter speed.
Because there's flash/camera communication involved, TTL is proprietary and is brand-specific. If you want this feature, you have to look for a flash that's compatible with the camera system you're using.
Also be aware that film-era TTL is different from digital-era TTL. Film-era TTL was more like Auto mode (see below) using a sensor inside the camera body to measure reflectance off the film; while digital TTL meters a preflash (the glass UV/IR cut filter over the sensor screws up reflectance TTL schemes). Digital-era OEM flashes can typically switch between film and digital TTL, but film era flashes, obviously, only work accurately for film.
M, like M on the camera, is full manual mode, where you can directly set the flash's power output as a ratio of its full power. The ratios are most commonly given in full stops (1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, etc. etc). And, just like using M on a camera, you use this for consistency from shot to shot and precision of control. It's most commonly used for studio situations where the lighting is controlled and unlikely to change rapidly without a chance for retakes, but can also be used to override autoexposure when metering for TTL gets things wrong. The wider the range of settings, the more control you have over the flash's output. 1/128 power, for example, can be very useful when working close in for macro or product work because of the inverse square law. M also becomes very important as the only way to control the flash's power output if you're using manual-only radio triggers for off-camera flash.
Auto is a different way to automate the flash's light/power output that doesn't require TTL communication with the camera, so can be found in older film-era and manual-only 3rd party flashes. A sensor on the flash (typically an autothyristor) is used to cut off the flash output at the appropriate time. You may have to input the aperture and iso settings used for the shot into the flash. The main advantage of an autothyristor mode is that it does not require a camera that can do TTL communication: it can be used cross-brand and off-camera.
Cameras have sync voltage limits. With a digital-era flash, this is not a concern as most of them sync with less than 6V. But vintage flashes have been measured with much higher voltages, some exceeding 300V. These are typically going to be from the '70s-'80s or earlier, so it's unlikely you'll run across a flash that can fry your camera. But know the sync voltage limit on your camera (Canon/Nikon publish it at 250V (with the exception of the first generation of Canon dSLRs, which were limited to 6V); Fuji X at 300V; everybody else, best guesses are here). If you still want to risk that old vintage flash or strobe bargain off eBay, consider learning how to measure the sync voltage, or get/build a voltage limiter, like a Wein Safe-Sync.
High-Speed Sync/Focal Plane Flash
Most interchangeable lens cameras use focal plane shutters these days. Your shutter speed is determined by how big the gap between the first and second curtains is as it sweeps across the sensor. At a certain shutter speed, that gap becomes smaller than the sensor itself. And because most flash bursts are going to be much faster than the shutter speed, if you go higher than that shutter speed, the curtains will cover parts of the sensor when the flash goes off, and you'll get black bars at the top and/or bottom of the frame. That magic shutter speed is body-dependent and is known as the "maximum sync speed" of the camera (typically around 1/200s for most dSLRs).
High speed sync (HSS; aka "focal plane" sync or FP) overcomes this limitation, but requires proprietary communication between the flash and camera hotshoe, so, like TTL, you have to find a flash that's compatible with the camera system you're using. In addition, entry-level Nikon and Fuji bodies cannot do it. The camera tells the flash to pulse and act like a continuous light source for the duration of the exposure. The cost of the rapid pulsing, however, is a power loss of roughly two stops.
This is most typically used when creating fill flash for portrait work with a shallow depth of field in bright sunlight. In sunny-16 conditions, (iso 100, f/16, 1/100s), if you want to use a larger aperture, you have to increase your shutter speed. You could also use ND filters instead of HSS. But HSS can also be used for freezing motion with high shutter speeds if there is a lot of ambient light.
Footnote: fixed-lens cameras and some medium format lenses typically use leaf shutters, which can sync at much higher shutter speeds (e.g., 1/1000s) and may not require HSS for daylight fill.
The Strobist way of studio-style lighting with off-camera speedlights is widespread, and you may get bitten by the bug. So, consider how many ways a flash lets you fire it when it's not on the hotshoe. The following features to look at are:
- PC (Protor-Compur) sync port [typically only on higher-end flashes]
- 1/8" (or 3.5mm) minijack sync port--like headphone jacks [3rd party only]
- proprietary wireless (TTL) slave mode [Canon: wireless eTTL; Nikon: CLS]
- "dumb" optical slave mode [Nikon: SU-4 mode; 3rd party "optical slave" modes]
- built-in radio receiver [typically only works within a specific (same-brand) radio triggering system]
The main distinctions here are how many signals are communicated from the camera to the flash (full hotshoe protocol or only the sync signal), and the mechanism by which they're communicated (radio, optical, cable).
For example PC and 1/8" jacks can be used with cables for manual-only triggering; or as a way to connect a manual radio trigger without using the hotshoe. The camera hotshoe and the flash's hotfoot can be tethered with a TTL cable for full communication. And of course, either can be connected to some optical/radio triggers or sync connector adapters (i.e., a way to add a sync port if your flash or camera doesn't have one).
When a triggering system is labeled as "TTL" that doesn't just mean you can perform TTL over the system, but that most of the hotshoe signaling protocol can be used. These systems let you remote-control the flash as if it were on the hotshoe (possibly with some feature exceptions). Triggering systems that are "manual only", however, can only tell the flash to fire in sync with the exposure being made.
Optical triggering systems use light to communicate. Proprietary TTL/HSS-capable optical systems translate the hotshoe protocol into light signals; generic "dumb" manual-only systems use a sensor on the flash to sense when another flash has gone off as the time to fire. Optical systems are limited by "line of sight" (the sensor has to "see" the master signal), and ambient lighting conditions (the more light there is, the more the signal can be overwhelmed).
Radio triggering is unhampered by line-of-sight or ambient lighting conditions and have better range and reliability. However, most triggers--particularly those that are built-in--are designed only to work within a specific system. It's incredibly rare for triggers to work across brand or systems. Add-on triggers may give you more flexibility of choice, but built-in triggers will often add more function (e.g., power/zoom control for manual-only flashes) and are more convenient, as you don't need to remember to bring along the triggers and extra batteries for them.
Also, like all other triggering systems, the amount of communication can vary: some are sync-signal (manual-only), some allow for sync and remote power control, HSS, or tail-sync, and some mimic proprietary optical or RF systems. Consider how much communication you want or may want in future. And also consider, if you're getting a built-in RF trigger, what upgrade paths are available.
UI and Controls
Most modern speedlights use an LCD display to show the settings. But a speedlight can only have a limited number of buttons. Cheaper/older speedlights these days use set LCDs and put multiple labels on the buttons which do double or triple duty. Newer speedlights often use dot-matrix displays and "soft" button labels, for less confusion. And an LCD at least can show you most of your settings at the same time, unlike a single row of LEDs. It's easier to read "1/4" on a display than to have to remember that two LEDs off means 1/4 power. Similarly a slide lock is nicer than a screw lock on the foot. And a control wheel is a lot easier to use than four-way or up/down buttons to adjust power.
Radio triggers tend to be part of a specific system. You typically can't mix triggers made by different manufacturers, even if they all operate on the 2.4GHz bandwidth. And it's worthwhile to look at what a system offers in terms of future expansion.
Yongnuo, for example, has five separate, mostly-incompatible triggering systems that won't let you mix their super-cheap manual-only gear with their more expensive TTL/HSS gear. Or their Canon RT clones. And they only offer speedlights and one small strobe (YN-200). And they only support TTL for Canon and Nikon and Sony, and you can't mix the three. The YN-560-TX Pro was supposed to integrate everything, but without compatibility firmware updates for the older gear, they just made a fifth system (YN-560-TX Pro+YN-200).
If you ever plan to add or move to mirrorless cameras, or you might need to share your lights with a different-system shooter, or you need more power than a speedlight can provide, this could be problematic. Also, if you're used to remote power control, TTL, and HSS over your speedlights, not having the same over a combination of speedlights and studio strobes could be frustrating.
You may want to look and see if a lighting/triggering system will support you with larger than speedlight options, whether you can mix TTL and manual gear, and whether or not it offers cross-system support. There are many systems that offer one or the other or both (e.g., Godox, Nissin, Broncolor, Elinchrom, Profoto, Jinbei/Westcott FJ/Rollei Freeze). The Godox X 2.4 GHz system is a current favorite because it offers both cross-brand TTL/HSS support, bigger lights both manual AC-powered and TTL/HSS battery powered and a plethora of speedlights (both AA and li-ion powered) at lower prices.
Battery Pack Port / Li-ion battery pack
Speedlights mostly use four AAs. In heavy use, those AA batteries may have to be replaced multiple times, so an external battery pack can come in useful. Also, a larger power source can reduce recycle time (but bring a higher risk of overheating).
There are some speedlights now on the market that use a Li-ion battery pack instead of AA batteries. This cuts down on battery management for multiple speedlights, and works like an external battery pack (increases capacity; reduces recycle time) without the hassle of cables and an additional unit.
You have your eye on a super-cheap 3rd-party speedlight, amiright? While it might make sense, just understand what you're giving up by going with the lower pricetag. Build quality, copy consistency, and component quality are likely to be more variable than with OEM. Support, warranty, and resale value are likely to be of much lower quality. And future/backwards compatibility is likely to be lower, as are TTL accuracy and consistency, AF-assist function, and overheat protection.
Most 3rd party manufacturers reverse-engineer the hotshoe communication protocol, and as a result, while the flash may work very well with a current camera model, it may not work as well with a future or older model or, say, a film body with what is ostensibly the same flash protocol. To ease this issue, some 3rd party flashes can upgrade their firmware, but most of the super-cheap manuals (YN-660, Godox TT600, Amazon Basics, etc.) cannot. And firmware may not be able to fix everything.
Also keep in mind, there's a lot of rebranding going on at the cheap end of the market. Neewer, for example, doesn't manufacture flashes, they simply rebrand models from Meike, Yongnuo, Godox, Triopo, Voking, etc. etc. It can sometimes be very hard to tell what you've got or what’s compatible with what. And this isn’t helped by the fact that they’ve got a Q system with Godox lookalikes that are incompatible with Godox gear. And I suspect the AmazonBasics flash and Neewer TT560 are only two of the many rebrandings of the Godox TT560. In addition, the Westcott FJ and Rollei Freeze systems are two rebrands of Jinbei’s RT system, but have deliberately been made incompatible with it, probably to keep that rebrand exclusive to a specific region.