Flash is without doubt one of the most useful tools in the photographer’s arsenal. Whether used as a solution to a problematic lighting situation, or for creative effect, the impact it can have on images is simply huge. But while the restrictions of pop-up flash mean that to many it has become synonymous with excessive contrast and unwanted side effects such as red-eye, a quality external option like the six in this round-up can revolutionise the way you shoot. The greater power of these units allows their light to reach further for images where the subject is at distance.
Their adjustable heads can be used to bounce light and produce a more natural illumination in shots. And advanced custom settings mean total control of their output, and an end to unpredictable results. Add in the ability to use them off-camera with the right accessories, or further customise the look of their light with attachments, and the benefits of using an external flashgun are numerous.
If you’re considering purchasing a flashgun for your camera, read on for our in-depth guide to the best models that are available for under £150. From affordable first-party options to feature-filled third-party offerings, we cover them all so that you can be sure that the model you decide on is the right choice for your kit bag...
1. Nissin Di700
The first thing that sets the Di700 apart from its competition is its intuitive handling.
With a colour rear display and responsive selection dial, its interface is a joy to navigate. While a few features like the flashgun’s zoom still have to be set in-camera, we found most of the settings we needed close to hand and quick to adjust. Talking of its zoom, with a range of 24-200mm, and a built-in adapter for 16mm, it covers a much larger range then most of its rivals.
With a maximum Guide Number of 54 (when set to 200mm), the Di700 is also pretty powerful, providing more than enough output for the enthusiast shooter. This power can be adjusted in manual mode from Full to 1/128 in full-stop levels. Other available modes include Auto, TTL (with flash compensation), and three wireless slave options including a slave TTL.
Fully adjustable, the head of this flashgun can be tilted upwards by 90°, down by 7°, and both left and right by 180°. Combined with the built-in bounce card, this means that no matter your location you should always be able to use the Di700’s light indirectly. Thanks to an AF assist beam with an effective range of 0.7-6m, focusing in testing conditions is also made easier.
Alongside its metal hotshoe, this flashgun has inputs for PC sync, a 3.5mm jack and an external power source, the latter enabling use with the brand’s optional power pack. A quick-loading battery magazine takes four AAs, with the flashgun recycling in 4 seconds when powered with alkaline batteries. Available in Canon, Nikon and Sony fits, this stylish unit provides plenty of advanced features not found on the cheaper models in this round-up.
Solid power output
Versatile head adjustment
On-camera adjustment of some settings
Slow recycle time
2. Sunpak PZ42X
Despite costing just £10 more than the Sigma, this Sunpak model offers a notably more rounded set of features.
With a maximum Guide Number of 42 (when set to 100mm), it’s substantially more powerful than an in-built flash, and highly competitive for a device at this price point. With manual and automatic control possible, its zoom covers a focal range of 24-105mm, with 20mm available when using its pull-out wide-angle adapter.
Although there’s no in-built bounce card, the head can be adjusted upwards 90°, to the left 180° and to the right 120°, allowing plenty of scope for bouncing its light. Alongside TTL (with the option to use flash exposure compensation), the PZ42X allows full manual power control in 7 stops, ranging from Full to 1/64. All of these settings are controlled via a light-up rear display and two buttons, keeping operation simple, if a little long-winded to navigate. The focal length displayed can be intuitively switched between full-frame and APS-C equivalent lengths, meaning accurate setting reference at a glance, no matter what body the flashgun is mounted on.
An AF assist light aids focusing at distances between 1m and 5m when shooting in low light. However, like the Sigma, there’s no PC sync input or wireless slave mode, so this flashgun can only be triggered via its plastic-footed hotshoe. Powered by four AAs, the PZ42X has a recycle time of around 3.5 seconds when powered by alkaline batteries. It also auto-powers off when not in use. Available in Canon, Nikon and Sony fits, this compact unit provides a great blend of function and value that will be sure to suit many enthusiasts.
Full manual control
Good power output
No wireless slave compatibility
No in-built bounce card
Read the full review: Sunpak PZ42X
3. Calumet Genesis SP692
With a respectable guide number of 50 (at 180mm zoom setting), Calumet's Genesis SP692 can fire an intense flash powerful enough to illuminate a subject from a considerable distance.
This output can be controlled manually in full, or 1/3 stops, down to just 1/128 power. This makes it suitable for use with wide apertures, or as an effective fill light. There are also Multi-flash and TTL (with flash compensation) modes available, while the SP692 can be used as either a master or slave in Nikon or Canon’s optical wireless systems.
The flashgun’s zoom can be controlled automatically or manually, with the spread of light adjustable for focal lengths from 24-180mm. There’s also a wide panel adapter for shooting subjects at close distances. Fully adjustable, its head can rotate 90° left, 180° right and upwards by 90°. This allows excellent control of flash direction for bounce effects, while there’s also a pull-out bounce card.
With an illuminated rear LCD, directional pad and multiple buttons, control of the flashgun is comprehensive on-device, though not as intuitive as the simpler system of the Nissin. An AF assist lamp is present, while there are inputs for PC sync and an external power source. Powered by four alkaline AAs, the recycle time is 5 seconds.
While the SP692 feels less durable than the first-party offerings and the Nissin, it’s still well built and benefits from a metal hotshoe. A well-priced and fully-featured offering that puts the user in full control of all settings, it’s a shame that operation doesn’t feel as intuitive as some of its rivals.
Manual power and zoom control
Handling could be improved
Build quality not test leading
4. Sigma EF-610 DG ST
It may be the cheapest flashgun in the entire round-up, but the 610 DG ST is also the most powerful.
With a maximum Guide Number of 61 (when set to 105mm), its light has excellent reach, which even some substantially more expensive models can’t match. An autozoom function automatically sets the optimum illumination angle in accordance with the lens’ chosen focal length, with the available range stretching from 24mm to 105mm. With the built-in wide panel, the flash is effective even when shooting as wide as 17mm. Its fully adjustable head can be tilted upwards by 90°, and swivelled left by 180° or right by 90°, making it well suited for more creative effects. There’s also a pull-out bounce card, meaning that non-direct light can be produced even when there are no reflective surfaces nearby.
Disappointingly though, this flashgun only has three available modes, and no dedicated manual power or zoom controls. These are selected via a switch on the device’s rear and are TTL, Manual High (full power) and Manual Low (1/16 power). There is no PC sync input, meaning it can only be triggered via its hotshoe. An AF assist light is present to aid focusing in low light conditions, while the flashgun also has a modelling light function.
The 610 DG ST is fairly bulky and the design looks a little dated, but the build quality is reasonable, and it comes with its own soft case and stand. Power is supplied via four AA batteries, with a slow charging time of roughly 7 seconds per full power flash when using alkaline batteries. An Auto-Off function is built-in to the device to save power. This is a very solid option for those on a budget, and is available in a wide range of hotshoe fits.
Top Guide Number in the group
Limited modes and controls
No PC sync input
Read the full review: Sigma EF-610 DG ST
5. Canon Speedlite 270EX II
Following the very basic 90EX, the slightly more advanced 270EX II is Canon’s most affordable flashgun.
With a reasonable maximum Guide Number of 27 (at 50mm), it’s powerful enough for most day-to-day subjects. Featuring a pull-out head, it has two manually selectable zoom positions – 28mm and 50mm. Tiltable upwards by 90°, this head’s light can be reflected off a ceiling, but it lacks the ability to be rotated, restricting its bounce capabilities. There is also no built-in bounce card or dedicated AF illuminator on this flashgun. The device has an on/off switch that does, however, feature a slave position, allowing it to be triggered wirelessly off-camera as part of a compatible setup. There are no other setting controls on the 270EX II though, meaning that manual power control and all other flash modes must frustratingly be set via an attached camera’s flash menu.
The 270EX II does have one unique trick up its sleeve though, as it allows users to trigger an EOS camera with the remote release button found on its side. To use this function the camera must be set to its Self-timer/Remote Control mode, with a 2-second delay taking place before the shutter is released.
Powered by two AA batteries, the flashgun has a recycle time of 3.9 seconds when used with alkaline batteries. Like the Nikon, it’s also truly pocketable, weighing just 155g and measuring 66x65x77mm (WxHxD). With a metal hotshoe, and very good build quality, it will survive being flung around in a kit bag with ease. While not one of the all-singing, all-dancing options, this flashgun would be well suited to those Canon shooters looking for a blend of power and portability.
Remote release button
Limited head adjustment
Few on-device controls
6. Nikon Speedlight SB-300
With the weakest power output in this round-up, the SB-300 is one of two entry-level flashguns from Nikon (the other being the SB-400).
Offering just a few improvements over the standard in-built flash, it’s designed for those looking for a minor performance upgrade only. Measuring just 57x65x62mm (WxHxD) and weighing 97g, alongside the Canon, it’s easily the most pocketable option in this test. This could make it a great choice if you’re looking for something that could get you out of a jam, but that doesn’t take up much room in the kit bag. However, it has a weak maximum Guide Number of 18 (at a fixed 27mm), and no zoom functionality. It’s head is also partially fixed, allowing adjustment upwards by 120° for bounce flash, but no right or left rotation, seriously limiting how its light can be directed. This is further hampered by the lack of a bounce card.
With the only on-device control being an on/off switch, all settings are selected via the host camera’s flash-control menu. This means that while TTL and basic manual control of the device’s power are still possible, the SB-300 is less straightforward to use than its rivals. There are no inputs and no AF assist light on this flashgun, though firmware can be updated via a connected camera.
Powered by two AAAs, the SB-300 has a slightly slow 4-second recycle time when used with alkaline batteries. Shipped in a carrying pouch, the flashgun does at least have a very solid build quality worthy of the Nikon name, and a durable metal hotshoe complete with locking switch.
Solid build quality
Weak power output
No on-device setting controls
This group test was first published in the March 2016 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.