The best flashgun in 2017

Not just for the dark times in life or indoor shooting – a flashgun can transform sunny-day portraits, fill in shadows and produce more balanced lighting.

The full-size, dedicated flashguns in this group test offer wide-ranging benefits. TTL (Through The Lens) flash metering enables easy use in all sorts of conditions. Bounce and swivel heads give you the option of reflecting light off ceilings and walls for a softer effect, and motorised zooms automatically track the focal length of your lens to extend your flash's reach when shooting at longer focal lengths. To varying extents, the flashguns on test also offer wireless connectivity, simplifying off-camera flash.

Here are eight top models for current popular systems, from Canon and Nikon DSLR lines through to the mirrorless offerings from Sony and Micro Four Thirds stables. We've put them all to the test to see which deserves your attention.

1. Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

Canon’s flagship flashgun, updated

Compatible with: Canon | Bounce: -7 to 90 degrees | Swivel: 180/180 | Zoom range: 20-200mm | Wide-angle diffuser: 14mm | Manual power settings: 1/1 to 1/128 | Wireless master/slave: Master/Slave IR/RF | Dimensions: 79 x 143 x 123mm

Tough, weather-sealed construction
Very effective wireless system
Full-power flash recycle a bit slow
Quite pricey

Not simply a more powerful version of the Speedlite 430EX III-RT with a GN (Guide number) 60 rating, Canon’s range-topping flashgun boasts advanced features inside a weather-sealed construction. One crucial advantage over the 430EX III-RT is the inclusion of wireless master facilities, both in infrared and RF modes; RF has a 30m range that can work around corners or through obstacles. The motorised zoom has a range of 20-200mm and there’s full 180-degree swivel in both directions, while a programmable strobe/repeat mode is also on hand. Compared with the original Speedlite 600EX-RT, the Mark II runs cooler, enabling up to 50% more flashes in continuous shooting. Maximum output is as powerful as any of the other top-rated flashguns on test, and recycling speeds are rapid when using alkaline as well as NiMH batteries. TTL accuracy is also excellent. Overall, the 600EX II-RT combines spectacular performance with intuitive ease of use.

2. Nissin Di700A + Air 1

Simple yet highly effective

Compatible with: Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fujifilm, Four Thirds | Bounce: -7 to 90 degrees | Swivel: 180/180 | Zoom range: 24-200mm | Wide-angle diffuser: 16mm | Manual power settings: Slave IR/RF* | Wireless master / slave: Slave IR/RF* | Dimensions: 75 x 140 x 115mm

Fast recycling speed
Consistent TTL metering
Limited on-board interface settings
Wireless trigger has limited range

The disarmingly simple on-board interface of the Nissin Di700A is based on a solitary Set button and a surrounding control wheel, both of which sit below a colour screen. Operating modes include fully automatic, TTL, manual and no fewer than three wireless modes. Anything beyond rudimentary settings, like TTL exposure bias, requires the use of on-camera menus. These include rear-curtain sync, high-speed sync and manual zoom of the motorised 24-200mm head. Wireless slave mode via infrared is available with the assignment of three independent groups, and there’s also a digital optical slave mode, which ignores the pre-flash pulses of master flashguns, plus a film slave mode, which triggers on the first pulse of light. Both modes require manual power settings. Recycling speed is very fast, despite a high maximum power output. The bundled Air 1 Commander slots into a hotshoe and enables advanced RF control and triggering of compatible Nissin flashguns in wireless slave mode.

3. Nikon Speedlight SB-5000

Added power and radio reception

Compatible with: Nikon | Bounce: -7 to 90 degrees | Swivel: 180/180 | Zoom range: 24-200mm | Wide-angle diffuser: 14mm | Manual power settings: 1/1 to 1/256 | Wireless master / slave: Master/Slave IR/RF | Dimensions: 73 x 137 x 103.5mm

Effective integral cooling system
TTL accuracy and recycling speed
RF slave operation only
Pricier than other Nikon flashes

Nikon’s newest flashgun replaces the SB-910 as the company’s flagship model. Compared with the SB-700 that's also on test, it adds more powerful GN of 55m (at 200mm, which changes to 34.5mm at 35mm), as well as a longer 24-200mm motorised zoom range, a programmable strobe/repeat flash mode, on-board selection of TTL and TTL-BL modes, and the option of using an external power pack. A new integral cooling system enables quick-fire shooting for 100 or more shots, even at full output power. Nikon has taken a leaf out of Canon’s book and incorporated RF wireless communication as well as infrared into the unit, although it’s not so well implemented. Whereas the Canon 600EX II-RT features an RF transceiver, the SB-5000 only has a receiver and can’t work as a master. To use multiple flashguns with RF, you’ll need the WR-R10 transceiver, plus a WR-A10 adaptor if your camera has a 10-pin port, adding as much as £165/$200. Continuous shooting stamina aside, the main performance boost over the SB-700 is in maximum output power. TTL accuracy and recycling speeds are excellent.

4. Metz Mecablitz 64 AF-1

See (and press) things in colour with the 64 AF-1's touchscreen

Compatible with: Canon, Nikon, Micro Four Thirds, Sony | Bounce: -9 to 90 degrees | Swivel: 180/120 | Zoom range: 24-200mm | Wide angle diffuser: 12mm | Manual power settings: 1/1 to 1/256 | Wireless master / slave: Master/Slave IR | Dimensions: 78 x 148 x 112mm

Intuitive colour touchscreen
Strobe/repeat and sub-flash modes
Slow recycling with alkaline batteries
Slight overexposure in TTL mode

Offering a sizeable step up from the 52 AF-1 (more on this later), this is Metz’s range-topping powerhouse of a flashgun, with pro-level aspirations. It has a beefier GN 64m power rating (at 200mm, ISO 100) as well as a broader 24-200mm motorised zoom range, an extended tilt function that stoops to -9 degrees, and an additional strobe/repeat flash mode. It’s also the only flashgun here to feature a sub-flash module, ideal for adding a little fill-flash when using the head in bounce or swivel mode. Like the 52 AF-1, this upmarket Metz has a touchscreen that should prove more intuitive for the smartphone generation – but this time it’s colour rather than mono, and even clearer for menu navigation. Again, there are full wireless master and slave modes, but they’re limited to infrared, not supported in RF connectivity. TTL flash metering here is more accurate than in the 52 AF-1, with just a smidge of overexposure. Despite the bigger power output, recycling is faster on NiMH batteries, but there’s a big slowdown if you use alkaline cells.

Read more: The cheapest full-frame cameras you can buy right now

5. Phottix Mitros+ TTL Transceiver Flash

Do the hotshoe shuffle

Compatible with: Canon, Nikon, Sony | Bounce: -7 to 90 degrees | Swivel: 180/180 | Zoom range: 24-105mm | Wide-angle diffuser: 14mm | Manual power settings: 1/1 to 1/128 | Wireless master / slave: Master/Slave IR/RF | Dimensions: 78 x 147 x 103mm

Programmable with generous power
Excellent build quality
TTL flash a bit bright
A bit short in maximum power

Available in Canon, Nikon and Sony options, this is a seriously pro-grade flashgun. It offers a full range of high-speed sync, rear-curtain and programmable strobe/repeat flash modes, a generous GN 58m (at 105mm, ISO 100) power rating and an excellent build quality to boot. There’s an external power pack socket and, like the Canon 600EX II-RT, the Phottix has a weather-sealed mounting foot to shroud the camera’s hotshoe. Also like the flagship Canon, the Phottix includes an RF transceiver. This puts it ahead of the Nikon Speedlight SB-5000, because you can use the Phottix as a wireless RF master as well as a slave unit in multi-flashgun setups, without having to buy an additional RF transmitter or transceiver. Even so, the flashgun is also compatible with Phottix Odin and Strato radio triggers. TTL flash is a bit on the bright side, but at least it’s consistent. The maximum output lags a little behind the most powerful flashguns in the group but, overall, the Phottix is a feature-rich and a solid performer.

6. Nikon Speedlight SB-700

It goes for quality over raw power

Compatible with: Nikon | Bounce: -7 to 90 degrees | Swivel: 180/180 | Zoom range: 24-120mm | Wide-angle diffuser: 12mm | Manual power settings: 1/1 to 1/128 | Wireless master / slave: Master/Slave IR | Dimensions: 71 x 126 x 104.5mm

Full master and slave wireless
Good range of accessories
Infrared wireless only
Recycle slow with alkaline cells

There’s a feast of features in this mid-range Nikon Speedlight. Luxuries include full master and slave wireless functions, a range of illumination patterns, downward as well as upward tilt, and full 180-degree swivel in both directions. It beats the competing Canon 430EX III-RT in all these respects, as well as boasting a bigger 24-120mm zoom range. However, wireless connectivity is limited to infrared. There’s a tempting range of supplied accessories, including a diffusion dome and colour-matching filters for both tungsten and fluorescent lighting. On-board controls are easy to operate, but you can only switch between Nikon’s TTL and TTL-BL (Balanced Light) flash metering modes by changing the main exposure metering mode on the host camera body. Despite having the lowest rating of any flashgun on test – GN 38m at ISO 100 – the SB-700 wasn’t far below some competitors in our lab results, and beat the Metz 52 AF-1 at the 105mm zoom setting. Recycling is fast and TTL accuracy is excellent.

7. Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT

More slave than master

Compatible with: Canon | Bounce: 0 to 90 degrees | Swivel: 150/180 | Zoom range: 24-105mm | Wide angle diffuser: 14mm | Manual power settings: 1/1 to 1/128 | Wireless master / slave: Slave IR/RF | Dimensions: 71 x 114 x 98mm

Good TTL metering accuracy
Fast recycling speeds
Wireless slave mode only
No stroboscopic repeat mode

The recent Mark III edition of Canon’s Speedlite 430EX inherits a respectable maximum power rating of GN 43m (at ISO 100) and a motorised 24-105mm zoom head with 150 and 180 degrees of swivel, to the left and right, respectively. On-board controls are now more intuitive, and build quality is very good, albeit without the pro-grade finish of the 600EX II-RT. High-speed sync and rear-curtain flash modes are supported, but there’s no stroboscopic repeat mode. Along with simplified controls and a cleaner layout, the Mark III also adds RF (Radio Frequency) triggering that was lacking in the previous iteration. Worth noting is that the Mark III lacks wireless master functions, so it can only be used in slave mode. TTL flash metering accuracy is spot-on, recycling speeds are fast, and maximum output is pretty good. Conventional infrared mode is retained to maximise compatibility, but the RF mode boosts off-camera range from 10m to 30m when using a compatible transmitter, and is more reliable in bright, outdoor conditions.

8. Metz Mecablitz 52 AF-1

Smarter than it looks

Compatible with: Canon, Nikon, Sony | Bounce: 0 to 90 degrees | Swivel: 180/120 | Zoom range: 24-105mm | Wide-angle diffuser: 12mm | Manual power settings: 1/1 to 1/128 | Wireless master / slave: Master/Slave IR* | Dimensions: 73 x 134 x 90mm

Wireless master and slave functions
Easy-to-use controls
A little underpowered
Pedestrian recycling speeds

Take a peek around the back of the mid-range Metz, and it looks too simple to be taken seriously, with just a pair of control buttons. You can, however, prod a sophisticated set of features into action, thanks to the flashgun’s mono touchscreen. The GN 52m (at ISO 100) power rating is a cut above similarly priced Canon and Nikon flashguns, and the range of additional dedicated options stretches to Micro Four Thirds, Pentax and Sony. As with all other flashguns on test, the 52 AF-1 features a bounce-and-swivel head with motorised zoom – 24-105mm in this case – complete with a wide-angle diffuser and reflector card. It lacks the RF triggering of some flashguns here but, unlike the Canon 430EX III-RT, infrared wireless modes include both master and slave functions – check the Metz website for compatibility. Outright power levels don’t quite match expectations and recycling speeds are a little pedestrian, while TTL flash metering tends to be a bit bright. Even so, performance is good overall and slick controls make this Metz easy to live with.

Read more: The best photographic accessories you can buy right now