Shoe Mount Flash Buying Guide

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Shoe Mount Flash Buying Guide

A shoe mount flash is, with good reason, the first camera accessory bought by many budding photographers. In almost any light conditions, an external flash can provide the camera operator with the ability to capture finer details and subtler colour tones. The aspiring photographer will immediately notice the dramatic effect a redirected light source can have on the quality of the prints they produce. However, a small amount of research prior to purchase is usually a good idea, as buying an incompatible flash can be a very expensive mistake.

Camera Flash Shoe Mount Development

Cameras were originally fitted with accessory shoe mounts that permitted little more than the physical attachment of an external accessory. These early "cold shoe" flash devices were mechanically controlled by the camera shutter. In the 1970s, external flash devices became available which were triggered electronically via an outboard cable. Following on from these came the modern hot shoe devices used today, which are triggered electronically via contacts located within the shoe mount itself.
Various manufacturers have developed the standard ISO camera mount to include proprietary contact points, compatible with their own range of accessories. The shoe mount has also been adopted as a mounting system for a variety of other devices, such a rangefinders, microphones and GPS geologgers.

Choosing a Shoe Mount Camera Flash

Care should be taken when selecting a camera flash for a modern digital camera. At best, incompatible devices can fail to deliver their complete range of functionality; at worst, permanent damage can be caused to both pieces of apparatus.

Shoe Mount Flash Compatibility

Just because a camera flash physically fits in the shoe mount adapter, does not mean the two devices are compatible. The key compatibility issue between camera and flash is the trigger voltage. If the flash trigger voltage exceeds that of the camera, a single flash cycle can cause permanent damage to the delicate electronics inside the camera.
When there is any doubt on the issue of compatibility, the safest option is to seek the advice of a camera specialist. Alternatively, it is possible to ascertain trigger voltage compatibility by checking the manual for both devices. The flash trigger voltage must not exceed the camera trigger voltage or damage may result.
The trigger voltage of the flash can be further verified by placing a multimeter, on the 100V setting, across the outer and inner contacts of the flash while it is fully charged up.

Deciding on the Brand

Because camera manufacturers all offer their own designs of shoe mount connectivity, it is usually best to choose an external camera flash from the manufacturer's own range. Third party manufacturers also offer models which are compatible with the more popular camera brands and some of these can merit serious consideration. For a given price point, third party flash heads usually offer extra power and functionality over their more well-known rivals.

Shoe Mount Flash Features

There are a number of desirable features to look out for when buying a shoe mount camera flash and these are detailed in the table below. Which are a priority will depend on the individual photographer, the flash head's intended use and also to some extent the size of the budget.

 

Guide Number

The Guide Number (GN) of an external flash gives an indication of the amount of light the device is capable of producing. Preference should be given to flashes which offer the highest possible guide number, within the allotted budget.

Shoe Mount Contact Compatibility

Where possible, it makes sense to take advantage of all the extra functionality offered by propriety hot shoe contact points. Selecting an incompatible flash can mean the loss of important features, such as Through The Lens (TTL) metering.

Turn and Swivel Head

The ability to adjust the aim of a shoe mount flash is often an important part of the motivation for buying the device. Many cheaper external flash devices can only be rotated in one plane, significantly reducing their versatility. Most devices state the maximum degrees of rotation in each plane in their spec sheet.

Recycling Time

The recycling time is the minimum number of seconds between flashes, running on a fresh set of batteries, with the flash head on its maximum power setting. The best device will therefore be the one with the smallest recycling time figure.

Flash Zoom

As the camera lens is zoomed in on the subject, the camera communicates this information to the flash head allowing it to reduce size of the resulting light field. This makes the most efficient use of the light that is available, which can significantly improve battery life.

Auto Focus Assist

Most external flash heads take advantage of their superior battery power to project a brighter focussing pattern on the subject. This useful feature can enable the camera to be more quickly and accurately focussed.

Master and Slave Functionality

More expensive external flash devices permit their use as a master unit, capable of controlling a number of other items of flash equipment.

Manual Override

It can sometimes be useful to have the facility to manually set the operating power level of the flash head.

Special Effect Modes

Some flashes offer special effect modes, which enable the subject's movements to be reflected in the image produced. Strobe mode and second curtain sync are two examples of these.

External Battery Facility

Many external flashes allow the fitment of larger external battery packs, enabling the camera to be used for longer periods without it being necessary to tend to the power source. This can be a particularly useful feature where the flash head is to be used repeatedly, such as an indoor photo shoot.

Accessories

Several of the more expensive flash devices are supplied with accessories such as cards, filters, lenses and diffusers. These additional components can be used to direct, soften and warm the output light. Where such accessories are not supplied, it can be worth checking whether similar items can be purchased at additional cost.

Conclusion

The purchase of a shoe mount camera flash will usually produce an immediate marked improvement in the quality of the images produced. As the majority of cameras and flash heads are incompatible, caution needs to be exercised when choosing which particular unit to buy. Extra care needs to be taken when intending to introduce a new flash head to the camera for the first time. For the best match of camera and flash it is often advisable to stick to one brand for both products, although some third party devices can offer the best deal. Which additional features are the most important to have, will vary from one photographer to another. However, getting a device with the highest guide number possible is usually considered to the most important aim when buying an external camera flash.

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