I’m Getting Rid of My Flash Gear and Here’s Why

Feb 29, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Feb 29, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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People often ask me about the flash equipment I currently use, and what I would do differently if I were to start over today.

I also often see “What should I buy?!?!” posts on photography groups on Facebook, and the simple truth is, we don’t know.  We have no idea what you need. We only know what we need.

This two part series of posts is a way for me to provide some insight into how and why I buy new equipment, and hopefully it will help you to look at your gear choices more objectively, so that you buy new gear because you need to, and not because “so-and-so said I should get this”.

In this first part, I’m going to go over my current gear and explain some of the issues I feel I’m having, what walls I’m hitting, as well as the stuff that I’m absolutely not getting rid of (and why).

I’ve been wanting to switch my flashes around for a while now.  It’s not that I’m particularly unhappy with my current equipment.  For the most part it does exactly what I need, but I just feel like I need to streamline things a little as flash technology has developed.

Also, with Nikon’s new wireless flash system on the recently anounced Nikon D500 DSLR and SB-5000 flash units, I feel it’s time to look again and re-evaluate my options.

Do I stick with what I’ve got for a while longer?  Sell up, buy into Nikon’s new tech, and wait to see what other compatible gear comes out in the future?  Or switch to a completely different 3rd party flash system?

My Current Flash Gear

I’ve acquired and gotten rid of a bunch of stuff over the years, but at the moment my main lighting kit consists of four Nikon SB-900s and four Yongnuo YN560-III speedlights, which I use primarily on location.

my_speedlights

I’ve been using SB-900s since about 2009 when I started shooting D300s bodies.  When Nikon’s CLS/AWL system won’t cut it (which is pretty much only when the flash is out of line of sight around a corner or inside a modifier), I use Yongnuo RF-602 radio triggers.

I have a dozen RF-602 receivers and four transmitters (2 Nikon mount, and 2 Canon mount, as I shoot both systems).  Yongnuo have revised their transmitter design on this system since I initially picked these up in 2010.

In the slight redesign, they lost the PC Sync socket and started slipping it out as the RF-600TX.  Mine are all the original no-longer-available RF-602TX with the PC Sync socket (this is important!).

rf-602-triggers

The Yongnuo YN560-III flashes I picked up a couple of years ago as Yongnuo had finally released a flash with built in RF-602 (and RF-603) compatible receiver.  I could finally put a flash inside a modifier, and not have to worry about flimsy connections between flashes and receivers and light stands.

As long as I don’t need to use High Speed Sync, they’re great.  I just need to turn them on, set the power level, and they’re ready to go.  They’re also almost as powerful as the SB-900s.

When shooting in the studio, I also occasionally use a Bowens Ringflash with 110º diffuser and Duo 2400 pack (now replaced in the Bowens lineup by the Creo 2400), although I don’t get the chance to use this anywhere near as often as I would like.

bowens_ringflash

Finally, I have three old Courtenay strobes that I picked up in a big job lot with a bunch of darkroom gear last year.

For the most part, the speedlights can manage about 90% of what I need to do, both inside the studio and on location, and most of the rest is covered in the studio by the ringflash and some borrowed or rented Bowens studio strobes.

What I’m Keeping

The Bowens Ringflash and RF-602 triggers I’ll keep, end of discussion.

The Ringflash speaks for itself, really.  It’s powerful, it’s sexy, and if I got rid of it, it wouldn’t be cost effective if I ever wanted to replace it (which I eventually would).  So, it’s with me until either it dies, or I do.

The RF-602 triggers I’m holding onto purely because I have the original RF-602TX with the PC Sync socket, and here’s where you find out why that was important.

As well as modern DSLRs with fancy hotshoes, I also shoot film with a Mamiya C330 Pro F, a Nikkormat FTn, a couple of Nikkormat FT-3s, and a few other older 35mm SLRs.

These cameras only have a PC Sync socket for communication with flash units, and if I want to utilise flash when shooting with those cameras, then a transmitter with a PC Sync socket is my only way of firing them wirelessly.

I also already have several cables for the RF-602 receivers with Nikon’s 10 pin connector plug on the end, which means I can use them as remote triggers for my DSLRs (and my Nikon N90s 35mm SLR).

rf-602-camera-trigger

Occasionally, I’ll have a DSLR sat on a tripod at the back of a set or shooting wide on location for behind the scenes shots.  With these, I can have a transmitter in my pocket, and fire off that camera whenever I like.

Also, I sometimes shoot multicam timelapse.  Having three or four cameras pointing at the same scene from different angles with RF-602 receivers connected to each of them, means that I can fire them all simultaneously from a single trigger mounted in the hotshoe of another camera controlled by a Yongnuo MC-36R intervalometer.

Plus the RF-602 triggers aren’t exactly expensive even when they’re new, so 6 year old used ones will probably be worth next to nothing, and practically giving them away when they’re still so useful just seems like a waste.

The Limitations & Annoyances

The only major limitation I find with my current flash setup is the power, or a lack thereof.  Speedlights can overpower the sun, but only under a fairly limited set of conditions.

Because Speedlights don’t have anywhere near the power of big strobes, high speed sync is a constant balancing act between composition, flash distance to subject, recycle time, battery life, flashes going into “overheat protection mode”, and what modifiers I can use.

If I want bare hard light, I can usually do some full length seated portraits with just a single SB-900 and high speed sync in very bright conditions.

This was shot just after noon with the sun high in the sky slightly behind my subject, with a bare SB-900 from about 10ft away.

1/5000 f/4, ISO200
1/5000 f/4, ISO200

But, if I want to put that SB-900 inside a 2ft softbox and shoot high speed sync, I’m pretty much limited to headshots with the front of the softbox sitting about 3ft away from my subject.

1/1250 @ f/8, ISO200 without and with flash
1/1250 @ f/8, ISO200 without and with flash

Sometimes, I’m able to put several speedlights inside a big modifier or behind a sheet of diffusion material acting as a single light source and get a couple of extra stops of light.

Sorry, Tony :)
Sorry, Tony :)

But, often, I cannot.  So, more power is the answer.  I want to be able to use a 4ft octabox from 6 or 8 feet away at f/8 on location in bright sunlight with no access to mains power.

One of my other big annoyances has always been radio triggers, which is partly why I originally picked up the Yongnuo YN560-III flashes.

Built in radio receivers meant I didn’t have to worry about that extra point of physical failure mounting a receiver between a flash and a bracket, or having to deal with flash heads that no longer lined up properly with modifiers on stands.

With the YN560-III having both RF-602 and RF-603 receivers built in, I was sorted and, in a pinch, if I need to gang up multiple lights to make larger light sources, I could always put RF-602 receivers on the SB-900s, and fire all 8 flashes at once.

The only problem there was that I really only need to gang multiple speedlights together when shooting high speed sync, which neither the YN560-III nor the RF-602 system support.  If I can stay below sync speed, I often just don’t need that much power.

So, the YN560-III have basically been getting used when Nikon’s optical AWL/CLS system won’t work due to line of sight issues, or I want to put a speedlight somewhere potentially risky (like on a stand in the middle of a river), and for when I’m teaching.

I feel like I’m duplicating equipment there, where I shouldn’t need to.

I like the convenience of Nikon’s AWL/CLS system and controlling everything from the hotshoe, but I also like the reliability of radio triggers, and the much lower cost risk when my speedlights reside in precarious positions on location.

If not for the fact that the YN560-III doesn’t support HSS, I’d have picked up a YN560-TX and gotten rid of the SB-900s a long time ago.

One minor annoyance that I’ve just learned to deal with is batteries.  I need to have a big stack of AA batteries on standby in a bag in case they die in the flash during a shoot or recycle times get too slow.  I need to have another stack of AAA batteries for the RF-602 receivers in case I need to use those, as well as a bunch of CR2 batteries for the RF-602 transmitters.

As for the Courtenays.  They’re not that amazing, they’re not that powerful, they’re not a standard modifier fitting (not even S-Fit), and I’ve used them maybe twice since I got them.

I really wouldn’t be all that broken up about getting rid of them.

TL;DR Summary

I need to reduce the number of speedlights in my arsenal, because half of them are typically being wasted on any given shoot.  I may keep half of them, or I may get rid of all of them and buy into a new system.

I need portable lights that are more powerful than speedlights, but which also feature High Speed Sync Capabilities.

I need them to be relatively inexpensive so that I don’t have to worry about them so much when using them in risky locations where they may fall to their death without warning.

I need lights with built in radio triggers.  Ok, I want lights with built in radio triggers.  It’s not so much a need, but it does drastically improve workflow efficiency while shooting.

I need remote control of all flash units from the hotshoe.  Again, it’s a workflow efficiency thing.

AA batteries are the bane of my existence.

I’m not including the Bowens Ringflash in those requirements, as the pack will be close to where I’m shooting anyway, as the camera mounts onto the flash head itself.  I’ll also not be using it on location away from mains power, or be using it with high speed sync.

So, there you have it.  That’s my current flash gear.

Would I buy the same again if I had it to do over?

Sure.  With the options available at the time of each purchase, I still feel they were the best choices for my needs.

If I had to buy it over again now, would I still go with the same gear?

Quite probably I wouldn’t, new options are out now which can help to streamline my flash workflow, while still giving me exactly what I need.

What would I recommend that you buy?

I’ve no idea.  Your needs and requirements, not mine, are going to determine what equipment you should buy.

In Part 2, you’ll see what I’m thinking of replacing it all with and my reasoning behind it, which will hopefully help you to put a little more thought into some of your own purchases.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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22 responses to “I’m Getting Rid of My Flash Gear and Here’s Why”

  1. UnWise Guy Avatar
    UnWise Guy

    is this diy? DIBuy more like. How much money have you got in your flash kit?

  2. Daris Fox Avatar
    Daris Fox

    I started out as a Strobist photographer back in 2006 to around 2010-11, the reason I gave up being a Strobist was that I ended up duplicating a lot of kit that I used with studio lights, plus because the market wasn’t as fleshed out as it is today much of it was jury rigged and prone to causing headaches on set. This is one of the key reasons I jumped at the chance to get a Elinchrom Quadra which has proved invaluable for lighting on location, and the quality of my work took a major leap as it was quicker, easier and more reliable to set up a Quadra so I could concentrate more on the client than the gear. The other advantage is that I can now use the studio gear outside if I need to without things like the Godox units.

    I don’t regret my journey as a Strobist, it taught me a lot about how to light with minimal gear. However when people ask me about what gear they should buy I always advise them to look at the style of photography they are going to do and what gear they’re wiling to carry. Downside of battery packs like the Quadra is the price of entry which puts off a lot of people. This said I still use flash guns with the Quadra, they can act as accent lighting and can be balanced fairly easily or apply gels.

  3. willdmo Avatar
    willdmo

    I’d go for Cactus V6, Nikon Sb-24, sb-25, sb-26, sb-28 and quantum battery packs. I refurbished my packs (got 3 for 30 bucks) with LiFePo4 cells with real 4500mAH capacity on 6V. You can change everything from hotshoe and I never where able to empty one battery pack in one shooting on one location.

    It solves 90% of your problems, Is conveniant and DIY :D

  4. Fielding Smith Avatar
    Fielding Smith

    Take a look at the Godox (aka flashpoint, cheetahstand, neweer, bolt, etc) setup. You could get V850/860 for standard hotshoe and the AD360 for 300ws, all with the same rx/tx system an no more AA batteries! The new Mark 2 versions are coming out right now with Sony/canon/nikon TTL versions, but if you don’t need that you can pick up the older versions on the cheep.

    1. Marc W. Avatar
      Marc W.

      That’s what I did. Got the Flashpoint 360 and love it. Selling my SB-900 and SB-6000 for the Godox (or Flashpoint equiv) V860IIN and the Godox (or Flashpoint) X1n system.

  5. Lyn Rees Avatar
    Lyn Rees

    You talk about overpowering the sun with speedlights, but then you talk about high-speed-sync. My understanding is that high-speed-sync is counterproductive in this respect due to the reduction in flash power.

    Isn’t ND filters the way to go to control the background exposure? Then you can gang up speed lights, if required, and shoot at max sync speed.

    I’ve never done much, and it’s been a while, so I might be talking out my bottom!

    1. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      ND are absolutely the way to go if your flashes aren’t capable of going beyond the sync speed, but the amount of light that gets eaten up by HSS on flashes that do support it would also get eaten up by NDs when trying to stay below the sync speed.

      If I’ve got to put 3 or 4 stops of ND on the lens, that means a speedlight at full power is essentially running at 1/8th or 1/16th power. If I’ve got to go up to 1/2000th or 1/4000th, I’m also losing about 3 or 4 stops of power from the flashes.

      So, it doesn’t really solve the problem.

      1. Lyn Rees Avatar
        Lyn Rees

        …apart from cost. You’re not wrong in what you say, but you can buy 6 YN560IIIs (and 1 Westcott tripple threat), for example, for the price of one SB910. That’s a lot of light.

        1. Kaouthia Avatar
          Kaouthia

          The cost can also be quite significant even going the other way. I have Schneider 1, 2, 3 and 4 stop ND filters that are over $200 each @ B&H.

          I also already have four SB-900s and four YN560-III, as mentioned in the article, so both HSS and using NDs are already options with no cost other than that which I’ve already spent (and the gear’s already paid for itself multiple times over).

          If it works for you, then that’s awesome, stick with it, but I’ve tried both, and using NDs just isn’t practical for me on location. It’s not efficient enough of a workflow.

          1. Lyn Rees Avatar
            Lyn Rees

            Can’t argue with that. Wasn’t endorsing anything really, just presenting alternatives. At the end of the day, I’m sure you can’t really beat bigger lights.

  6. Cesar Sales Avatar
    Cesar Sales

    Sounds like you need some Einsteins. They tick all your boxes: relatively inexpensive (based on your current outlay – each one is cheaper than a SB910), controlled from hotshoe, high speed sync, radio triggers, more powerful than speedlights. Fantastic company to work with too!

    1. Lyn Rees Avatar
      Lyn Rees

      They’re not really an option in the UK.

      1. Cesar Sales Avatar
        Cesar Sales

        Ahhh too bad. Didn’t get the location from a quick read.

        1. Kaouthia Avatar
          Kaouthia

          Unfortunately not, I’m also in the UK. :)

          1. Cesar Sales Avatar
            Cesar Sales

            Goes to show how often I read the bios!

  7. Adam Avatar
    Adam

    I’d ditch all the flash except the sb900 for on board bounce and get some quadras. They are better value than profotos, and take all the light mods by elinchrom. My favourite is the 27 inch beauty dish.

  8. Mark Niebauer Avatar
    Mark Niebauer

    I’m Yongnuo all the way myself. . . I have 5 YN600 with the radio trigger. Heaven

  9. MindGrenadius Avatar
    MindGrenadius

    The RoveLight 600WS ($399). Inexpensive, radio controls built in, studio lights with built-in batteries. The poor mans ProFoto B1. If there were an effective way to get them at that price in AU I would get two coupled with my 3 YN560’s.

  10. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
    Kay O. Sweaver

    I currently have a mish mash of Godox strobes, Yongnuo strobes and Yongnuo triggers. I’m tentatively thinking about a switch to Godox entirely since it seems like they’re finally putting together a wholly integrated ecosystem from speedlites to strobes and triggers.

  11. Me, Myself and I Avatar
    Me, Myself and I

    I have 7 Godox V850c/860 flashes.

    The v850c are TTL for Canon, the V860 are manual only but can do some tricks with fancier receivers than their native receiver (hss, rear curtain …).

    – Triggers: clip on the side of the flash and use the flashes internal battery.
    – Battery: Massive LithIon battery good for 600 pops (+/-) at 1/1
    – Cost: 150$
    – Control: You can set flashes in groups and control power output from their transmitter.

  12. Marcus Wolschon Avatar
    Marcus Wolschon

    Why don’t you use any of the high-voltage external power packs for the YN560-III? Recycle time is no longer an issue with these and they are even trivial to convert to add an external 12V DC-input for mains power in the studio.

    1. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      Because recycle time is only really an issue when I’m shooting high speed sync, which the YN560-III don’t support anyway. I do have SD-9 battery packs for the SB-900s, but then they start going into “Overheat protection mode” quite quickly.