Fabulous Flashguns

Matthew Richards tests the best Nikon-dedicated flashguns for every budget

"Bounce and swivel heads enable you to bounce the light off walls and ceilings, instead of firing it directly at the subject. This can provide a softer quality of light"

Often referred to as 'the most available light', a decent flashgun is an amazingly versatile camera accessory. It can make a huge difference to the quality of lighting in almost any scenario, from night-time shots and gloomy interiors, to portraits on a bright sunny day. What's more, all of the flashguns tested are fully dedicated to Nikon cameras. With TTL (Through The Lens) metering, dedicated flashguns can team up with your camera to enable correct exposures in all sorts of shooting conditions. The system works by using a brief pulse of light, fired by the flashgun prior to the actual exposure. This is reflected from the subject and passes through the lens, after which it's measured by the camera's metering system. The camera then communicates the correct setting back to the flashgun, and the duration of the flash during the exposure is adjusted as necessary.      
The Nikon and Metz flashguns on test actually go beyond regular TTL flash metering and add a TTL-BL (Balanced Light) mode. Pioneered by Nikon, this aims to give a better balance between flash and ambient lighting, for more natural-looking results. It works in wide-ranging scenarios, from relatively dull indoor conditions to bright outdoor lighting where, for example, you're using a flashgun to fill in shadows caused by direct sunlight. Typically, however, overall exposures can look a little darker, so you might prefer the results you get with regular TTL mode. Either way, it's easy to apply some positive or negative flash exposure compensation to adjust the flashgun's output power to your desired value for any given shot.      
Apart from the compact Nikon SB-500, all other flashguns on test have 'zoom heads'. These have a zoom range of at least 24-105mm or more, in fullframe terms, equating to 16-70mm focal lengths on a DX format camera. What's more, the zoom mechanisms in the flashguns are motorized so, as part of the 'dedicated' features, the flash can automatically zoom to match the focal length or zoom setting of the lens you're using. The bonus is that, as you sweep from wide-angle to standard and telephoto settings, the angle of flash coverage becomes correspondingly narrower. This makes more power available for illuminating subjects that are some distance from the camera when using longer lenses. For extra wideangle coverage, a flip-down reflector is usually included in the flashgun head.      
All the flashguns featured have bounce and swivel heads. These enable you to bounce the light off walls and ceilings, instead of firing it directly at the subject. This can provide a softer quality of light that's much more flattering for portraits. The softness of the light increases with the size of the light source so, if you bounce the light from a flashgun off a large surface like a white wall or ceiling, it effectively becomes much bigger. The trade-off is that the light has to travel further, and some intensity is lost, so greater maximum power ratings become preferable.      
Another option is to use the flashgun off-camera. This enables you to use shadows and highlights to capture the modelling of your subject, which gives images a much more three-dimensional look, rather than typical 'flashgun' lighting, which can appear very flat.

The contenders
  • NikoN SB-500 Speedlight £195/$250
  • NissiN Di700A + Air 1 £200/$300
  • Metz mecablitz 52 AF-1 £210/$320
  • NikoN SB-700 Speedlight £240/$330
  • NissiN i60A £240/$340
  • Metz mecablitz 64 AF-1 £310/$480
  • Phottix Mitros+ TTL Transceiver £330/$400
  • NikoN SB-5000 Speedlight £500/$600

What to look for...

Here are the features to consider when buying a dedicated flashgun


1 Power output
The maximum output power, expressed as a Gn (Guide number), increases at longer zoom settings, when the light is focused at a narrower angle.

Diffusers & reflectors
Apart from the Nikon SB-500, all the flashguns in this group have zoom heads with built-in wide-angle diffusers and pull-out reflector cards.

2 Zoom range
A zoom range of 24-105mm is pretty standard, but some flashguns extend the range to as much as 24-200mm, offering greater telephoto reach.

Bounce and swivel
Most flashguns offer a bounce range of 0-90 degrees, but some add a slight downward angle for close-up shooting. Swivel is usually 180 degrees to both the left and right.

3 info screen
A rear screen is fitted to all the flashguns on test, apart from the Nikon SB-500. The Metz flashguns incorporate touch-sensitive screens for the adjustment of settings.

4 on-boarD controls
You can typically apply changes to flash settings from menus in the host camera, but it's often quicker to use the control panel on the flashgun.

Jargon buster
Gn (guide number)
This is a measurement of flash power, quoted in metres or feet, usually at ISO100. The maximum distance for a correct exposure equates to the Gn divided by the aperture. For example, a rating of Gn 24 would give a maximum shooting distance of 3m at an aperture of f/8.

Wireless connectivity
This goes beyond a simple optical sensor for using off-camera flash in manual mode, and includes an infrared link for TTL metering communication. Some flashguns add RF (Radio Frequency) wireless communication.

Nikon SB-500 speedlight £195/$250
Compact and capable, but quite basic


Compact and lightweight, the SB-500's downsizing comes at the expense of a reduced feature set. It's the only flashgun on test to lack an information screen, which is substituted with basic status LEDs. It also lacks a zoom head, built-in diffuser panel or reflector card, instead being limited to an (effective) focal length of 24mm (16mm for DX cameras). Power is supplied by two AA batteries, rather than the usual four.      
On the plus side, it's one of only two flashguns on test to feature an additional LED 'constant' lamp. This adds to the flashgun's versatility because, naturally, flash is useless if you're shooting video, whereas the constant LED can give useful short-range illumination. It's also good for shooting extreme close-up stills.

Performance
Maximum output is pretty respectable at the 24mm fixed zoom length, although recycle speed is sluggish. The wireless slave mode is a bonus (channel 3 only), but the commander mode only works with recent midrange and up-market cameras.

Power output


Gn is close to that of other flashguns on test at their wide-angle zoom settings.

TTL accuracy


Performance is impressive; the SB-800 delivers reliably consistent exposures.

Recycle speed


Because it only has two batteries, its recycling time is the slowest on test.

Verdict
Features  ★★★
Build/handling  ★★★☆
Performance  ★★★☆
Value for money ★★★
Overall ★★★☆
It's a bit lacking in features, but the fact that it boasts a constant LED is a bonus.

 

Nissin Di700A + Air 1 £200/$300
A keenly priced wireless flashgun kit


The Di700A isn't much to look at; controls boil down to a rotary dial and solitary 'Set' button, so only basic settings can be altered without resorting to controls on the camera. The info display is rudimentary, too, although at least it lights up in colour. The sophisticated part is the 'Air 1 Commander', which slots into the camera's hotshoe to trigger the flashgun remotely.      
Communication is via RF (Radio Frequency), which boosts the range to 30 metres, as well as being able to find its way through obstacles and around corners. The Di700A also has the more usual infrared slave facility for triggering from Nikon cameras and flashguns in commander mode, plus optical slave modes for use with other flashguns and studio heads, with or without pre-flash pulses.

Performance
For best results in TTL mode, you generally need to dial in about half a stop of positive flash exposure compensation, but recycling speed is super-fast and the maximum output is hefty. It also boasts a long maximum zoom of 200mm.

Power output


Power is impressive at longer zoom settings, but drops off at the short end.

TTL accuracy


Our review sample delivered consistent underexposure of about half a stop.

Recycle speed


With NiMH batteries, recycling speed is the fastest of any flash on test.

Verdict
Features  ★★★★☆
Build/handling  ★★★★
Performance  ★★★★☆
Value for money  ★★★★★
Overall  ★★★★☆
This kit is a smart budget choice if you're after advanced wireless flash options.

Metz mecablitz 52 AF-1 £210/$320
Very easy to use, but not the quickest


Take a quick glance around the back of this Metz flashgun and you might think that the control interface is even more simplistic than that of the Nissin Di700A. But looks can be deceiving, and the lack of buttons, dials and general clutter is due to the fact that it boasts a touch-sensitive screen. This makes settings and adjustments easy to get at, and intuitive to use, even when dipping into advanced set-ups like infrared commander and slave modes.      
Up top, it has a fairly standard zoom range of 24-105mm, along with 0-90 degree bounce, but a slightly stunted swivel facility: you get a full 180 degrees of swivel to the left but only 120 degrees to the right. As with other similarly-priced flashguns on test, there's an Auto FP mode for high-speed sync, but no programmable repeat (stroboscopic) mode.

Performance
TTL flash is a little over exuberant and the Metz benefits from about half a stop of negative flash exposure compensation. Recycling speed is a bit sluggish too.

Power output


It beats the Nikon SB-700 at short to mid zoom settings, and equals it at 105mm.

TTL accuracy


TTL flash is overpowering, so it's best to dial in a little negative FE compensation.

Recycle speed


Despite the fact it boasts four batteries, recycling speed isn't especially quick.

Verdict
Features  ★★★★
Build/handling  ★★★★
Performance  ★★★☆
Value for money ★★★★
Overall ★★★★
The touchscreen interface is slick, but performance could be better.

 

Nikon sb-700 speedlight £240/$330
a solid performer that won't break the bank


More of a 'kit' than just a flashgun, the SB-700 comes complete with a clip-on diffusion dome and colour correction filters for use with both fluorescent and tungsten ambient lighting, all with auto-sensing when fitted. There's no shortage of built-in features either, with a range of illumination patterns to choose from, a powerful 24-120mm zoom range and wireless commander and slave modes.      
The control panel is wonderfully intuitive, except for the fact that you can only switch from TTL-BL mode to standard TTL flash by changing the metering mode on the host camera body. Unlike with Nikon's range topping SB-5000, wireless connectivity is limited to infrared, rather than Radio Frequency, and there's no repeat (stroboscopic) flash mode.

Performance
Maximum power output is low compared with most flashguns on test, but should be sufficient for most shooting scenarios, even in bounce/swivel mode. TTL flash metering is accurate, and recycling speed is quick.

Power output


For outright power, it lags behind most of the other flashguns on test.

TTL accuracy


Accurate in wide-ranging conditions, TTL metering is impressively dependable.

Recycle speed


Recycling speed is very fast with NiMH batteries, but less so with alkaline cells.

Verdict
Features  ★★★★
Build/handling  ★★★★
Performance  ★★★★☆
Value for money  ★★★★☆
Overall  ★★★★☆
This own-brand flashgun is a really solid performer, and a great buy at the price.

Nissin i60A £240/$340
a compact flasH that packs serious punch


Most 'compact' flashguns have rudimentary features and controls, and limited power output, but the diminutive i60A boasts a power rating of Gn 60, an impressive 24-200mm zoom range, and runs off four (rather than two) AA batteries. It also offers a full 180 degrees of swivel both left and right, and is supplied with a diffusion dome.      
Despite the compact design, Nissin has still made space for a constant LED light for video and close-range stills shooting. The i60A improves on Nissin's own Di700A by incorporating a more comprehensive set of on-board controls, complete with a particularly good colour display screen. Wireless infrared and optical slave functions are built in, but the Air 1 Commander RF trigger is sold as an optional extra for about £50/$80.

Performance
Maximum power outputs match those of the Di700A throughout the zoom range, although recycling speed isn't quite as fast. The i60A has slightly less of a tendency for TTL underexposure, and overall performance is superb.

Power output


Maximum power outputs are impressive throughout the 24-200mm zoom range.

TTL accuracy


More accurate than the Nissin Di700A, but it still tends towards underexposure.

Recycle speed


Recycling speed is impressive, even with standard alkaline batteries.

Verdict
Features  ★★★★
Build/handling  ★★★★☆
Performance  ★★★★☆
Value for money ★★★★
Overall ★★★★☆
For a compact flashgun that still packs a punch, the Nissin i60A can't be beaten.

 

Metz mecablitz 64 AF-1 £310/$480
it's a bit like two flashguns in one


Big, solidly built and feature rich, the 64 AF-1 is capable of plenty of top-end tricks thanks to its serious power output, 24-200mm motorized zoom range, -9 to 90 degrees of bounce, and full commander and slave infrared connectivity. This pro-level flash looks disarmingly simple thanks to its clutter-free interface, but as with the 52 AF-1, it features a highly intuitive, auto-rotating colour touchscreen.      
Along with a full range of flash modes including programmable repeat, the 64 AF-1 also boasts a feature that's unique to the flashguns on test: namely, a secondary, sub-flash module that works brilliantly for delivering fill-flash when using the main head in bounce mode.

Performance
TTL metering accuracy is very good. There's just a hint of overexposure that remains very consistent in a wide range of scenarios. Maximum output is impressive throughout the zoom range, but it's best to avoid alkaline batteries if you want fast recycling.

Power output


A match for Nikon's flagship SB-5000 throughout the zoom range.

TTL accuracy


With just 1/6 of a stop of overexposure, the Metz is accurate and consistent.

Recycle speed


Swift with NiMH batteries, but takes over twice as long to recycle on alkaline cells.

Verdict
Features  ★★★★★
Build/handling  ★★★★★
Performance  ★★★★☆
Value for money  ★★★★★
Overall  ★★★★★
It's a brilliant flashgun that combines serious power with intuitive control.

Phottix Mitros + TTL Transceiver £330/$400
well connected, the phottix is a good team player


From its high Gn 58 power rating to its weather-sealed foot, which neatly shrouds the camera's hotshoe, there's a lot to like about this Phottix flashgun. Wide-ranging flash modes include a programmable repeat option, and it comes complete with a diffusion dome. You also get a full 180 degrees of swivel both left and right, although zoom range is limited to a disappointing 24-105mm.      
It features full infrared commander and slave modes and, like the Nikon SB-5000, it also boasts RF connectivity. But whereas the Nikon only has a receiver module built in, the Phottix has a transceiver, so it can also work as commander unit in RF mode for triggering other compatible flashguns. It's also compatible with Phottix Odin and Stratos radio triggers.

Performance
Maximum power output fell a little short of expectations in our tests, and our test sample suffered from almost a full stop of overexposure in TTL flash mode. Apply some negative flash exposure compensation, though, and it's a very capable flashgun.

Power output


Despite its Gn 58 rating, the Phottix lags behind some other flashguns on test.

TTL accuracy


There's significant overexposure when using TTL metering in most conditions.

Recycle speed


Recycling speed after a full-power flash is about the same as it is in the Metz 64 AF-1.

Verdict
Features  ★★★★☆
Build/handling  ★★★★☆
Performance  ★★★★
Value for money ★★★★
Overall ★★★★
High-quality construction and a built-in RF transceiver are the main plus points.

 

Nikon sb-5000 speedlight £500/$600
a powerful flashgun with added radio reception


Taking over from the SB-910 as Nikon's flagship, pro-grade flashgun, the SB-5000 is a powerful beast with a Gn 55 rating, a 24-200mm zoom range, a programmable repeat mode and comprehensive on-board controls. State-of-the-art features include an integral cooling system, which enables more than 100 rapid-fire shots even at the full-power setting. Another plus is the inclusion of built-in RF connectivity, alongside the more standard infrared option.      
There's a catch, though, because you can't use the flashgun as a commander in RF mode. To use multiple flashguns with RF, you need to buy Nikon's WR-R10 transceiver, plus a WR-A10 adaptor if your camera has a 10-pin accessory connector, adding as much as £165/$200 to the cost.

Performance
In our tests, the SB-5000 delivered greater maximum power than any other flashgun on test, along with excellent TTL accuracy. Recycling speed are fast as well, and all-round performance is superb.

Power output


Puts other flashguns in the shade for power output at most zoom settings.

TTL accuracy


The SB-5000's TTL flash metering is unerringly accurate and consistent.

Recycle speed


Fast with both NiMH and alkaline batteries, even when shooting continuously.

Verdict
Features  ★★★★☆
Build/handling  ★★★★☆
Performance  ★★★★★
Value for money  ★★★☆
Overall  ★★★★☆
A fantastic flashgun, but it's a shame RF connectivity isn't better implemented.

Comparison table
How the systems compare

  NikoN SB-500 Speedlight NissiN Di700A + Air 1 Metz mecablitz 52 AF-1 NikoN SB-700 Speedlight NissiN i60A Metz mecablitz 64 AF-1 Phottix Mitros + TTL Transceiver NikoN SB-5000 Speedlight
  www.nikon.com www.nissindigital.com www.metzflash.de www.nikon.com www.nissindigital.com www.metzflash.de www.phottix.com www.nikon.com
Target price £195/$250 £200/$300 £210/$320 £240/$330 £240/$340 £310/$480 £330/$400 £500/$600
Max claimed Gn (ISO100, metres) Gn 24 Gn 54 Gn 52 Gn 38 Gn 60 Gn 64 Gn 58 Gn 55
Bounce (degrees) 0 to 90 -7 to 90 0 to 90 -7 to 90 0 to 90 -9 to 90 -7 to 90 -7 to 90
Swivel (left/right) 180 / 180 180 / 180 180 / 120 180 / 180 180 / 180 180 / 180 180 / 120 180 / 180
Zoom range 24mm (fixed) 24-200mm (auto) 24-105mm (auto) 24-120mm (auto) 24-200mm (auto) 24-200mm (auto) 24-105mm (auto) 24-200mm (auto)
Wide-angle diffuser No 16mm 12mm 12mm 16mm 12mm 14mm 14mm
Reflector card No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Flash Exposure Compensation +/-3EV +/-2EV +/-3EV +/-3EV +/-2EV +/-3EV +/-3EV +/-3EV
Manual power settings 1/1 to 1/128 1/1 to 1/128 1/1 to 1/128 1/1 to 1/128 1/1 to 1/256 1/1 to 1/256 1/1 to 1/128 1/1 to 1/256
AF-assist beam No Red lamp Red lamp Red lamp Red lamp Red lamp Red lamp Red lamp
Secondary lamp Constant LED No No No Constant LED Sub-flash No No
Wireless Master/Slave Master/Slave IR* Slave IR/RF Master/Slave IR Master/Slave IR Slave IR (optional RF) Master/Slave IR Master/Slave IR/RF Master/Slave IR/RF
TTL/TTL-BL modes TTL + TTL-BL TTL TTL + TTL-BL TTL + TTL-BL TTL TTL + TTL-BL TTL TTL + TTL-BL
Full-power recycle time (NiMH/alkaline) 4.6/6.8 seconds 2.2/3.4 seconds 4.1/5.2 seconds 2.7/5.4 seconds 3.5/3.9 seconds 3.4/7.4 seconds 3.5/7.1 seconds 2.3/2.9 seconds
Supplied accessories Pouch, foot Stand, RF commander Pouch, foot Pouch, foot, dome, filters Pouch, stand, dome Pouch, foot Pouch, foot, dome Pouch, stand, dome, filters
Dimensions (W x H x D) 67x115x71mm 75x140x115mm 73x134x90mm 71x126x105mm 73x112x98mm 78x148x112mm 78x147x103mm 73x137x104mm
FEATURES ★★★ ★★★★☆ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★★ ★★★★☆ ★★★★☆
BUILD/HANDLING ★★★☆ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★☆ ★★★★★ ★★★★☆ ★★★★☆
PERFORMANCE ★★★☆ ★★★★☆ ★★★☆ ★★★★☆ ★★★★☆ ★★★★☆ ★★★★ ★★★★★
VALUE FOR MONEY ★★★ ★★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★☆ ★★★★ ★★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★☆
OVERALL ★★★☆ ★★★★☆ ★★★★ ★★★★☆ ★★★★☆ ★★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★☆

*D5500/D7200/D750/D810 only

The winner is...

Metz mecablitz 64 AF-1 £310/$480

What's good: Full range of flash modes, secondary sub-flash, colour touchscreen.
What's bad: Very slight overexposure in TTL mode, no RF connectivity.
Our verdict: It's a superb flashgun that combines great versatility with intuitive control.

For its wealth of high-end features and flash modes, excellent build quality, colour touchscreen and the inclusion of a secondary sub-flash module for fill-in lighting in bounce and swivel modes, the Metz 64 AF-1 is a real winner. It's keenly priced in the UK as well, but it's not quite such a bargain in the States. The Nikon SB-5000 certainly isn't lacking in power and trick features but, with only a receiver rather than a full-blown transceiver, its RF connectivity is limited, while its capacity for cool-running throughout long bursts of continuous shooting will be unnecessary for many photographers. If you prefer to stick with Nikon kit, the SB-700 is arguably a more suitable option for most of us. Both of the Nissin flashguns on test are also very impressive; the Di700A is great value - not least because it comes complete with an 'Air 1 Commander' for RF triggering - but we prefer the compactness and graphical display of the newer i60A (and you can always buy the RF commander separately, if you need it).

Runners-up

Nikon sb-700 speedlight £240/$330
What's good: Wide range of modes, clear interface, good range of supplied accessories.
What's bad: No on-board switching between TTL and TTL-BL modes, no repeat mode.
Our verdict: It's not that powerful, but it works well and is great value.

Nissin i60A £240/$340
What's good: Impressive power output, compact build, graphical colour info display.
What's bad: Unlike its sibling, the Di700A, it doesn't come with an Air 1 Commander unit.
Our verdict: Packs serious power and features into a compact unit.

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