The best flashgun for your camera is not the tiny pop-up unit built in, sadly. For best results, you need an external flash, or speedlight. This will give you more power and more lighting control, and can even be used off-camera. Hotshoe flashguns, alternatively known as strobes or speedlights, are not just about illuminating dark places – they can also freeze action, flatter portrait subjects, and do a whole lot more.
But which one should you choose? There are loads of flashguns made by loads of different manufacturers, from the familiar names you'll recognize from the front of your camera, to third-party makers who create some really capable units at extremely competitive prices. The key point is that they are all 'dedicated' flashguns, designed to communicate and work with specific brands of camera.
You should have no trouble getting a Nikon flash to work with your Nikon camera, or a Canon flash with your Canon, but own-brand flashguns tend to be more expensive, which is why there's also a big market for third-party flashguns which can work with a variety of different camera brands – but these will come in different versions for different brands, so you still have to make sure you get the right version.
We have a whole section devoted to third party flashguns in this guide, so check the specs box to see if they are made in a version to fit your own camera brand. We've added in the fascinating Kenko AB600-R AI, a flashgun with a bounce and swivel action, which is common enough, but with an AI 'brain' that can automatically work out the best angle to use. That's something that even human photographers can struggle with!
Of course, portable flashguns (or 'Speedlights') like these are not the only way to illuminate your subjects. The best LED panels still don't quite match the power of a flashgun, but they provide continuous what-you-see-is-what-you-get-lighting, which is ideal for lighting beginners and essential for video.
At the other end of the scale, you may need more flash power than any of these flashguns can provide. This is where you need to look at some of the best lighting kits for professional studio or location photography.
So what features do you need? TTL (Through The Lens) flash metering enables easy use in all sorts of conditions, while bounce and swivel heads give you the option of reflecting light off ceilings and walls for a softer effect. 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 here also offer wireless connectivity, simplifying off-camera flash. Different photographers will have different needs, and a flashgun that doesn't do something you don't need it do may well be cheaper than one that does.
We've divided our list into brand sections: Canon users should check out the Canon flashguns, Nikon users the Nikon models, and users of any brand at all should scroll down to the third-party section, where there are makes and models to suit every shooter.
The best flashgun or strobe in 2021
This might just look like a more powerful version of the Speedlite 430EX III-RT with a GN (Guide number) 60 rating, but the Canon EX600 II RT also 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 a powerful GN 60m, while 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.
The 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. You can use the flashgun as a wireless master or slave with other Canon RF-compatible flashguns, but it lacks an infrared wireless master mode. Further bonuses of RF linking are that the off-camera range is boosted from 10m to 30m, and triggering is more reliable in bright daylight. TTL flash metering accuracy is spot-on, recycling speeds are fast, and maximum output is pretty good.
The Speedlite EL-1 is Canon's flagship flashgun and has been designed specifically for high-end professional use. As such, it's the first Speedlite to carry the famous Canon ‘red ring’, normally only seen on L-series lenses. The EL-1 is built for endurance and dependability, with a weather-resistant design that uses sealing similar to that on top Canon cameras. Canon has paid special attention to the EL-1’s battery life, recycle times and continuous operation performance. It’s powered by a new lithium-ion LP-EL battery pack which offers approximately 335 flashes at full power and recycle times as short as 0.1-0.9sec. The Speedlite EL-1 has its own internal cooling system with a fan to allow up to 170 full power shots in quick succession without overheating, while a new Xenon flash tube increases durability, accuracy and consistency, offering manual power settings down to 1/8192 power. The Speedlite EL-1 is without doubt Canon's best-ever flashgun, but unless you're a pro shooter who really needs this level of dependability, the ultra-high price is hard to justify for most photographers.
The Canon Speedlite 470EX AI takes automation to a new level, with a motorized bounce and swivel head controlled by artificial intelligence. In fully automatic AI Bounce mode, the Speedlite fires a pre-flash pulse at the subject, then tilts vertically upwards and fires a second pre-flash pulse at the ceiling. It then calculates and sets the optimum bounce angle. If you’d rather bounce the flash off a white wall rather than a ceiling, or even fire it at a reflector panel, there’s also a semi-automatic AI Bounce mode. One disappointment is that fully automatic AI Bounce mode is unavailable when using some cameras, including all Canon DSLRs launched before the second half of 2014. In other respects, the 470EX-AI is quite basic. It lacks RF (Radio Frequency) connectivity and, for wireless off-camera flash, it can only operate as a slave, not a master. It also lacks up-market features like a programmable strobe/repeat mode and even a pull-out reflector card. Ultimately, if you don’t feel the need for automatically controlled bounce angles, it’s pretty poor value for money
The Nikon Speedlight SB-5000, replaces the SB-910 as the company’s flagship model. Compared with the SB-700, 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.
Read more: How to use flash for your photography
The Nikon Speedlight SB-700 is mid-range Nikon Speedlight that offers 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 boasts a 24-120mm zoom range too, though 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 a fairly low power rating – GN 38m at ISO 100 – the SB-700 wasn’t far below some competitors in our lab testing, and it beats the rival Metz 52 AF-1 flash at the 105mm zoom setting. Recycling is fast and TTL accuracy is excellent.
The Hähnel Modus 600RT flashgun matches or beats the features of camera manufacturers’ own-brand flagship models, but at a fraction of the price. Three different options are available, so you can buy the flashgun on its own, or as a wireless kit that includes a hotshoe mounting Viper RF (Radio Frequency) transmitter. There’s also a pro kit that comprises two flashguns and a Viper trigger, enabling the versatility of dual-flash lighting setups. Advanced flash modes include high-speed sync and programmable repeat (stroboscopic) options, and wireless RF master/slave operation has a massive range of up to 100m. Another boost is that the flashgun is powered by a rechargeable Li-ion battery pack, instead of the usual four AA batteries (and this can be charged in the unit via USB). This gives far greater stamina, of up to 550 full-power flashes between recharging, along with very fast recycling speeds of 1.5 seconds after a full-power flash and just 0.7 seconds after a half-power flash. The only catch is that additional batteries (should you want any) cost around $60/£50.
At nearly double the price of some ultra-budget strobes from brands like Neewer, Yongnuo’s flash isn't the very cheapest flash you can buy. It also doesn’t offer fancy features like TTL metering or High Speed Sync, and there’s only a single hot shoe contact, indicating this is a fully manual flashgun. But there are hidden depths. The head can zoom froom 20-199mm, and while you need to set this manually, it’s only a button-press away. The large backlit LCD screen is another welcome feature. Then there’s the built-in radio frequency receiver that allows the flash to be used as a slave, triggered by a second YN-660 or a YN-560 flashgun. This provides a 100-metre wireless range (far superior to more basic, optically-triggered slave modes) and can trigger up to 6 groups of flashguns. The YN-660 certainly isn’t short on flash power, either, boasting a huge GN66 rating at ISO100/200mm.
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.
If you’re not overly confident about working out the best angles for bouncing flash off the walls or ceiling, for a more three-dimensional and softer lighting effect, this ‘artificially intelligent’ flashgun from Kenko will do all the maths for you. Available in Canon or Nikon dedicated editions, its motorised head automatically tilts up through a range of 120 degrees, and by a full 180 degrees to the left and right, with an uncanny knack of getting the angles just right.
Read more: Kenko AB600-R AI review
This hugely popular flashgun certainly ticks the budget box, yet with a power rating of GN38, it matches the brightness of the much pricier GN40-rated Nissin i40 (more on which further down). Power is adjustable in eight steps and flash coverage is fairly even, with only a hint of corner vignetting, though as you’d expect at this price, the head won’t zoom to match your lens's focal length. It does however sport 0-90 degrees tilt and 270 degrees of rotation, and conceals a typical bounce card and diffuser panel. You get essential extras like S1 and S2 slave modes, with the latter being useful if your master flash emits pre-flash strobing. In S2 mode, the TT560 ignores the pre-flashes and only fires in sync with the main flash burst. Both modes work well, although as with any optically-triggered system, don’t expect perfect reliability outdoors. Controls are very simple, with power and mode controls, and a test fire button. Being a completely manual flashgun, though, there’s no TTL exposure control, and the basic (yet metal) hot shoe has a single contact so will work in any standard camera hotshoe.
Offering a sizeable step up from the 52 AF-1 (more on this later), the Metz Mecablitz 64 AF-1 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 motorized zoom range, an extended tilt function that stoops to -9 degrees, and an additional strobe/repeat flash mode. It’s also rare in the flashgun world for featuring a sub-flash module, ideal for adding a little fill-flash when using the head in bounce or swivel mode. This upmarket Metz has a color touchscreen for intuitive and clear menu navigation. There are full wireless master and slave modes, but they’re limited to infrared, not supported in RF connectivity. TTL flash metering 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.
The i40 is Nissin’s attempt at making a compact flashgun that doesn’t sacrifice any performance. Unlike some slimmed-down speedlights, the i40 is powered by 4 AA batteries, not just 2, so you can expect at least 220 flashes per set/charge, as well as fast recycle times. We found flash power to be consistent with Nissin’s GN40 rating. With the auto-zoom head set at 50mm to match our test lens, we noticed some minor vignetting, but no more so than with other zoom flashguns. Rather than trying to cram in a LCD display and buttons on the rear panel, Nissin has kept things simple and there are just two dials. One sets the flash mode (TTL, manual, TTL slave and manual slave options are available), the other dial adjusts flash power (or exposure compensation when in TTL mode). It’s a refreshingly simple and direct control system that works well, although we did encounter a couple of crashes that required the battery compartment to be opened and closed before the i40 would respond again. Otherwise, build quality feels excellent. The head boasts a full range of articulation, there’s High Speed Sync capability, and even a useful LED video light with 9 levels of brightness adjustment and a 3.5-hour runtime.
Available in Canon, Nikon and Sony options, the Phottix Mitros+ TTL 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 on the market, but overall, the Phottix is a feature-rich and a solid performer.
Take a peek around the back of the mid-range Metz, and the Metz 52 AF-1 Digital Flashgun 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 RF triggering 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.