How to Choose a Flash or Monolight for You

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Pentax K50 image samples (3 of 10)ISO 1001-160 sec at f - 8.0

When you’re first getting into the world of off-camera flash (or flash lighting in general) it can be a very daunting task. Like cameras and lenses, there are so many different choices that you might not know what you should get. But with lighting, you’ve got a whole new list of needs and features that you can work with.

In truth, any light when used correctly will make your images pop and look much better. But the differences is with the features, pricing, power output and integration into your camera system.

Heard of Profoto? Yeah, they make great products. What about Yongnuo? Yup, good there, too. But these two companies are on two totally different side of the spectrum and you wouldn’t make a ridiculous comparison like a high end Profoto Monolight to a sub-$100 Yongnuo flash.

So here’s how to navigate this new world.

The Basics

Model: Bec Fordyce

Model: Bec Fordyce

To start you’ll want to learn about new terminology. You’re not talking about full frame sensors, bokeh or autofocus performance here. Instead we’re focusing on a couple of new things:

Guide Number: for hot shoe flashes, this is a measure of the power output. I really personally hate this standard.

– Watt seconds: for monolights, this is a measure of the power output. This is my preferred standard. For example, most hot shoe flashes are around 80-100 watt seconds. Many mid-level monolights are around 500-600 watt seconds. The higher end ones start at 1,000 watt seconds and tend to go beyond that.

Let’s put this into perspective:

– 80 watt seconds is great for events where the flash is on your camera or the light is close to your subject.

– 500 watt seconds is great for illuminating a banquet hall if done correctly or being put into large light modifiers.

– 1000 watt seconds is more power than most folks need.

Flash duration: how fast the flash actually goes off. The faster the flash duration, the faster the movement that you can actually capture.

High speed sync: the ability for your flash to outdo the normal shutter speed limitations. Good cameras will stop at 1/250th of a second, but great flashes can sync with your camera beyond that point.

-Power Source: This is typically AC or DC. It means your unit will either need to plug into a wall or plug into a battery of some sort.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer NYCC New York Comic Con 2013 exports (42 of 84)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 5.6

-Power control: This dictates how you can control the power output of the flash and monolight, and it’s incredibly important. Some brands like Profoto and Paul C Buff let you increase the power very incrementally; we’re talking 1/10th of a stop. But others let you do it by third or quarter stops; and some only offer full stop control.

Why does this matter? Because it dictates what your aperture needs to be when you shoot. When you have more control, you’ve got an image that can look closer to what you really have in mind.

TTL/Manual: This has to do with the type of metering. Manual control is what many professionals use, but other types of work really demand the need for TTL (through the lens metering.) This all depends on what camera system you’re using.

-Recycle time: A very important feature. Are you going to need to shoot machine gun style? If so, then you need a very fast recycle time on your flash. If you’re not, then you can do better with a one or two second recycle time. When shooting models or couples, a poor recycle time can slow down the momentum of a shoot and it will suffer.

In some cases you may also want to think about color consistency. But with modern software, this isn’t a big problem.

Your Needs

Now that you’ve become familiar with a couple of basic terms, you’ll need to apply this to what you need to do. This obviously depends on various factors.


Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Essentials The Mobile Headshot photographer (1 of 6)ISO 2001-250 sec at f - 4.0

For starters, consider the size of the unit(s). Are you traveling on busses and subways? Then you may want something smaller and lighter. If you’ve got a car, a monolight (or a couple of them) could be a more feasible option.

Smaller flashes surely don’t put out the light that larger monolights do but they’re known for the portability.

Situations You’re Shooting in

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Essentials Summer Concert Shooter (3 of 7)ISO 2001-50 sec at f - 5.6

Next, it all depends on the situations that you’re shooting in.

Capturing fast moving action at events? You may want a hot shoe flash.

Shooting models and products? A monolight may be better.

Doing action and adventure sports shooting? A monolight with a fast flash duration will be your best friend.

Doing a wedding? You’ve got two options:- hot shoe flashes with TTL or a couple of monolights with TTL aimed at the ceiling and illuminating the subjects.


Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Essentials for th Strobist Street Photographer (6 of 9)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 5.0

Your budget is obviously very important. But keep in mind that the cheaper you pay, the lesser quality you’ll generally get. For a while, we thought that TTL monolights were always going to be uber expensive but then Phottix came out with their own. The company also shook up the industry with their radio transmission flashes that were cheaper than Canon’s.

Power Output

Model: Erica Lourde

Model: Erica Lourde

Are you photographing in very large stadiums? What about a building with high ceilings? Or are your lights controlled and in modifiers? That and do you need to have a big, soft light source and stop the lens down quite a bit with a lower ISO setting?

Consider these questions.


Will you be shooting in rough conditions? Will your light most likely take a tumble? Or will it be in the hot shoe most of the time?

Compatibility With Cameras

Lastly, consider your camera system. Some flashes and monolights are designed for one camera system over another. Alternatively, manual systems generally work with anything–so if you’ve got many camera systems or are thinking about switching, you should know that your lights will perform reliably.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.