Photography Lighting on the Cheap!

What a time to be a photographer! Just a few short years ago, the options for off camera lighting were fewer and much more expensive. Speedlights were primarily manufactured by Canon and Nikon, and unfortunately cost Canon and Nikon prices, and studio strobes were priced out of reach for many photographers to be able to afford. My first speedlights were Canon 430's, which cost over $300 a piece at that time, so a three light setup cost around $1k without factoring in stands, umbrella holders, cold shoes, triggers, and modifiers. I also picked up a few ancient manual flashes, like the 80's workhorse Vivitar 285HV, which are still being manufactured although lack a bit of the quality of the 80's originals.

The Yongnuo YN560-III (left), the Vivitar 285 and the Nikon SB-26

Over the last few years, Chinese manufacturers have stepped up their game, challenging the big boys in both build quality and performance, while keeping the price points within reach of most novice photographers! Companies like Godox, Yongnuo, and Neewer (probably all the same company) have reverse engineered some of the other companies most popular and expensive models, while keeping the price points extremely low, including a few models around the $100 price point or under!

Disclaimer: this article contains affiliate links to Amazon. Using any of these links to make a purchase will help support this blog, so please feel free to click them, even if you aren't necessarily purchasing the items linked.

So if you're tuning in because you think this is a lighting tutorial, I'm very sorry to disappoint. If you are interested in learning basic lighting, please head over to Strobist and check out Lighting 101. Photographer David Hobby has written an exhaustive amount on the subject, and all for free, so if you haven't checked it out yet it's definitely worth your time!

Manual Flash vs. TTL

If you're just getting into lighting, you've probably seen the term TTL (or iTTL, eTTL etc.) floating around the interwebs. TTL stands for Through The Lens metering and is an automatic mode in which the flash sends out a pre-flash, and then the camera meters the light and decides whether it's overexposed or underexposed, and then makes corrections before the final flash fires. All of this happens in a split second, and in many cases, the preflash isn't really noticeable.

It is said that the only thing consistent with TTL is its inconsistency. While many professionals like Joe McNally use it with great results, in most cases a beginner will want to start off with manual flash. Once you become fluent with manual, you can venture into TTL. I use both, and certain situations will call for one or the other so it's great to be confident with both!


If you're just starting out, I highly recommend learning how to light manually! Just as the manual mode on your camera allows you to dial into the camera the exact settings needed to get the photo you want (a pro would never shoot automatic), manual flash allows you to get exactly the flash power you need, nothing more and nothing less. In TTL, the camera makes all of the decisions, whether they are the correct decisions for your vision for the final photo or not.

With that said, if you are planning on eventually learning TTL or HSS (High-Speed Sync) it will be beneficial to skip buying a manual only flash and spend a bit more on one that will cover all of your needs, both present, and future.

If money is a concern, and you just want to get into off camera lighting as cheaply as possible, you can save a bit of money and buy a manual only flash, but keep in mind the resale value on these units is very low. You can get a decent manual only flash for around $70 at the time of this writing, but resale, when it's a few years old and used, will be next to nothing. The good news is that it can always stay in your lighting bag and be integrated into future lighting setups.

For an all manual flash, my personal pick would be the Yongnuo YN-560 III or YN-560 IV, paired with the YN-560 TX controller on camera. The main difference between the two flashes is that the 560 IV can act as a controller in place of the TX. If you use on-camera fill, then having a 560 IV on camera instead of the TX will be beneficial. If you rarely use on-camera fill, then save some money and grab a TX. These flashes have proven consistent in quality over the years, and have been the choice of many novices and professionals alike. At a $70 price point, if you are out shooting and the wind takes a light stand over, causing a flash to crash to the ground and die, it's a much more bearable inconvenience than if you were to lose a $530 Canon 600EX II-RT.

Another great flash on the market is the Godox TT600. With a similar guide number, it has two distinct advantages over the Yongnuo system. First, it works with the XPro trigger system, which means you can use the same transmitter as you will use if you decide to upgrade to the Godox TTL lineup at a later point. Second, when off camera and controlled by a Godox transmitter, the TT600 gains the ability to do HSS up to 1/8000s, which the Yongnuo offerings can't do. While I used the Yongnuo flashes before upgrading into the Godox ecosystem, if the TT600s had been available several years earlier I definitely would have gone that route instead.

Any flash you buy will work in manual mode, so if you're just starting out and looking to go cheap, just about any flash you find used at your local camera shop will be just fine. If you plan on using them for the long term, however, I would definitely buy something new, that has the features you will need now, and in the future. While some photographers go their whole careers working with manual flash only, it's great to have to ability to use TTL and HSS when you need it!


Over the past few years, the company everyone has been talking about has been Godox. Not only are their flashes and strobes very high quality and offer both TTL and HSS up to 1/8000s, but they have flashes that are compatible with almost every camera system, from Canon and Nikon to Fuji, Sony and Olympus. Also, with the exception of their on-camera flashes, off camera speedlights can be made compatible with multiple systems by merely switching out the transmitter.

This is a revolution in the photography industry! Previously, if you had a Canon lighting setup to match your Canon cameras, and then decided to switch to another brand camera, the lights would only be able to work manually and with additional triggers. With the newer Godox lights, the flashes retain all of their features when switching between camera brands by simply switching the transmitter to one compatible with the other camera.

For example, if you have a lighting setup with four Godox V860II-C's and an XPro-C transmitter, if you switch over to Fuji, you can still use all of the functions of the lights by switching the transmitter to the XPro-F!! This would have been unheard of only a few years ago!

The other great thing about Godox lights is that if you start your lighting setup with their less expensive speedlights, like the TT350 or TT685, you can eventually move up into their larger lights and strobes like the very popular AD200 and AD600, using the same transmitter you used for the less expensive lights! Also, all of their lights have the same 2.4G radio system built in, which eliminates the need for external triggers like Pocket Wizards which also require sync cords and another set of batteries to worry about!

Godox V860II-F
TT685 or V860II

For years, speedlights have been powered by AA batteries and many like the TT685 have a port to allow an external battery pack. When only the AA batteries are used, they have to power all of the electronics and the flash, and usually start to lost power after around 100 full power pops, causing the flash output to diminish, and the resulting exposure to decrease.

When the external battery pack is used, the onboard AA batteries power the electronics, while the battery pack powers the flash itself. This gives the flash a much faster recycle time, and also allows between 200-300 full power pops, depending on the output of the battery pack.

The V860II bridges the gap, by removing the AA batteries altogether and adding a Lithium-Ion battery pack to the flash. The Li-Ion pack gives the benefit of a much faster recycle time, and a much longer battery life than it's AA equivalent. The V860II is rated for 650 full power pops...more than most professionals will ever need for a full day of shooting.

Both flashes provide manual, TTL and HSS up to 1/8000s, and have the same guide number of 60. At the time of this writing, the price difference for the two is around $80, and additional Li-Ion battery packs (if you're really paranoid) are about $40.

To me, $80 is a small price to pay to get away from constantly charging and replacing AAs. I might replace AAs 3 or 4 times throughout a wedding or event, but I will rarely ever hit the 650 mark! When you add the cost of an external battery pack, AAs, and charger, you are well over the $80 price difference!


A step up from the TT685 or V860II is the increasingly popular AD200! A cross between a speedlight and a studio strobe, the AD200 gives more light output and a faster recycle time than the V860ii in about the same size package.

The Godox Witstro AD200

The interesting thing about the AD200 is that it has a removable fresnel head, allowing you to attach a bare bulb head instead. The bare bulb will give you a much wider light spread, similar to a studio strobe. The fresnel is zoomed to 35mm and will give a similar throw to a traditional speedlight with the same zoom. What it's missing is a moveable head, or the ability to place it on camera, but why would you ever do that?

Another cool feature of the AD200 is the Godox AD-B2 twin head mount. This mount allows you to mount a pair of AD200s in tandem, giving you double the power output, and gives you a standard Bowens mount for your softboxes and other modifiers. This is a great feature for when you need a little more power than a single AD200 can give, but you don't have the funds to step up to the larger AD600. In fairness, the AD600 is cheaper than a pair of AD200s and will give more power, but if you already have a couple of AD200s in your kit, the AD-B2 is a great way to tie them together. It also gives you a powerful LED modeling light, which can be used in a pinch as a video light as well.

Like the V860II, the AD200 has a Li-Ion battery pack and is rated for more than 500 full power pops. At the time of this writing, a replacement battery pack runs around $66.

The beauty of the Godox system is that you can mix and match their speedlights and larger strobes, so you can start with the least expensive models and add on as you go. This is very important, as it provides a complete system from small, on-camera flashes to large and capable studio units. Also, as technology advances and newer units come on the market, a single wireless system for all units means compatibility with future purchases!


Starting out with off camera flash, manual is the only way to go, but keep an eye on the future and what your needs will be. The difference between a Yongnuo YN-560 IV and a Godox TT685 is about $40 at the time of this writing, but the increased capabilities are well worth the higher price point.

If money is tight, consider checking out the local camera shop and grabbing a few used flashes to start off, but realize that it's not a huge financial leap to get a brand new and vastly more capable unit!

Products mentioned:

Manual Flashes



Popular Posts