In pursuit of my low light photography passion I an considering purchasing a speed light. because I am so new to photography I am unsure of what the results will be using a speed light flash instead of the built in flash of the camera body.

I had been reading up on this and aside from the difference being like night and day I cant really find anywhere to quantify the results of using a dedicated flash instead of the camera's flash.

Can any one with a dedicated flash chime in and explain the difference in image results and any differences in the act of taking pictures with a speed light?


There's basically 4 things you gain, 3 of the automatically.

  • More Power
  • Flexibility in the direction of the flash
  • Control. You can adjust the strength of the flash, so as to add only a touch of it.
  • The ability to move off camera, with am optional external trigger (Most Nikon and some recent Canon cameras don't require an external trigger, see your camera's manual)

With built-in flash, all you can do is light it full on. This leads to bland pictures, without much interesting going on.

With the dedicated flash and no external hardware, you can actually point the flash in a different direction. A common thing to do is to point it straight up. This will "bounce" the flash on your subject, giving them a much more natural look. It will also tend to light up the whole scene much better, and almost never produces red-eye. It also avoids weird shadows, as the shadows tend to be in the downward direction.

These two shots, the fist one uses bounce flash, the second doesn't. Notice the second one has alot more reflections, is blown out in some areas, and generally has less detail. I think I used a diffuser for it, but it's still harsher then I would have liked, but sometimes you've just got a moment to get a shot, so...

Bounce Flash

Direct Flash

  • Hah, beat me by a minute with basically the same answer. :) – mattdm Jan 9 '11 at 0:36
  • LOL, it often happens with these basic questions;-) It looks like there was actually 3 answers that basically said the same thing within a few minutes of each other... – PearsonArtPhoto Jan 9 '11 at 0:46
  • Can you also adjust the strength of the flash in order to get a hint of glow on the subject in a dark room? – kacalapy Jan 9 '11 at 0:51
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    Another advantage of speedlights is the abiity to adjust power settings quickly without digging around in the menu like for your pop-up flash. – Evan Krall Jan 9 '11 at 0:53
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    The boy seems to be lighted both by direct flash (key) and bounce light from ceiling (fill). Neither of them reaches under chin, which explains the hard shadow. Bounce alone would have left a longer and smoother shadow, catchlights would be missing and the hair on top of head would have been lighter. Diffuser would not have made the cheeks stand out so well and the shadow would have been smoother. – Imre Mar 22 '11 at 0:15

There are two key factors here:

  • Power: Even the most basic hotshoe flash will have 3-4x the raw power of the built-in flash. This allows light to cover more of the scene, making it all look better. A mid-range flash is 2-3x the power yet again, and so on.
  • Bounce: a decent hotshot flash (including Nikon's entry-level SB-400) can tilt, allowing you to bounce light from the ceiling, giving a wide, diffuse light source, with no ugly shadows. This is where the "night and day" comments come in.

And, beyond this, many mid-range and up flashes can be triggered (with full exposure control) via wireless optical remote. (Your D7000's built-in flash can act as the controller for this). That gives you even more control over how light falls on the scene, without the added bulk of a big shoe-mounted flash.

  • There was a answer that mentioned bounce cards, in response to that post that disappeared: Sound like the additional benefits of bBounce cards would be desirable in use with all flash applications. Why don't speed lights come with this feature built in? Would you not want to bounce light from above, below, and more locations to get light distributed evenly on the subject? – kacalapy Jan 9 '11 at 0:58
  • Many flashes do have a built-in pull-out bounce card. They work, but are rather small (by nature). As for where you want light, that depends. There have been some great posts here recently on portrait lighting..... – mattdm Jan 9 '11 at 2:53
  • The pull-out bounce cards are there to create catchlights in the subject's eyes, not for creating a competing direction for light. – Imre Mar 22 '11 at 0:23

I'd like to add some things not yet mentioned in other answers:

  • a pop-up flash is often obstructed by tele lens or a big lens hood; a speedlight is positioned much higher and therefore this problem will not occur.
  • distance further away from lens means also that red-eye effect will happen rarely, if ever
  • speedlights often offer features not found in camera menu, such as
    • rear curtain sync - flash fires at end of exposure, so moving objects will be frozen in front of motion blur
    • strobe light - multiple flashes per shot
    • high-speed sync - use flash at shutter speeds faster than max sync speed, which is usually around 1/250 seconds
    • zoomable flash head for efficient use of flash power and/or selective lighting
  • separate power source for flash - faster recovery, flash will not drain camera battery
  • ability to pop the speedlight multiple times from different angles and locations during a shot with long shutter speed (at least several seconds), creating a photo that looks like one made with many light sources
  • some entry-level cameras use strobing light from pop-up flash as AF assist light; the AF assist beam built into some speedlights is much more discrete

There are also some negative aspects for speedlights:

  • more batteries and backup batteries are needed, perhaps even a separate charger
  • need to remember actually charging the flash batteries before going out to shoot
  • you'll have more stuff to lug around
  • if you envy point-and-shoots for their small size, your camera will be even bigger and heavier with a speedlight attached
  • some flashes, especially cheaper ones, may make an annoying high-frequency whistling sound while switched on; good luck finding that from tech specs
  • more possibilities implies that usage is more complicated than for pop-ups
  • you might soon want to have several speedlights, remote triggers, lightstands, modifiers, studio strobes etc. therefore causing marital problems over the budget and/or space requirements
  • you will loathe photos you make with pop-up flash :)
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    +1 for marital problems and loathing photos. My wife actually says "can you just take a normal photo this time?" when I start to go for my stand & umbrella. My answer is usually "no". :-P – Craig Walker Mar 21 '11 at 21:46

The biggest advantage that an on-camera speedlight has over the pop-up flash is power. A speedlight has enough power that you can afford to lose some of it trying to improve the lighting quality.

Some things that you can do with a speedlight that are difficult to do with the pop-up flash:

  • Bounce flash. Most speedlights have the ability to direct the light up or sideways to bounce off ceilings and walls.
  • Modifiers (there are many, but these are some of the more common ones):
    • Diffusers, which don't really diffuse the light directly, but scatter it in all directions so that some bounces off of walls, ceilings, and objects before hitting your subject.
    • Gels, to color the light, to match fluorescent or tungsten lighting.
    • Bounce cards, which allow you to bounce off the ceiling, but also direct some light forward as an on-axis fill, to avoid the dark shadows under the eyes that can happen with bounce flash.
  • Off-camera lighting. You'll need more equipment for this, but a speedlight is the key part. You can't rip your camera's pop-up flash out and use that.
  • I'd like to upvote this but unfortunately I can't because the power of a speedlight is completely pointless in comparison with the ability to bounce the flash. – che Jan 9 '11 at 16:16
  • @che: although the added power is necessary to make bounced light practical in all but the tiniest of rooms. – mattdm Jan 9 '11 at 16:26
  • @mattdm: You're right, but you can make better pics with GN 13 bouncable flash (either bu going into tiny room, or by setting ISO 6400) than with fixed front-looking 4800 Ws Profoto head on your hotshoe. – che Jan 9 '11 at 17:09

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