There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, that you had to spend a lot of money to get a powerful, all singing, all dancing external speed light. Yep, if you wanted a speed light with a guide number of more than 50m (@ISO 100, 35mm) that had manual/TTL/HSS/second curtain sync modes you had to be prepared to dig deep and spend large. The top end Canon speed light (600EX) and Nikon speed light (SB900) are still very expensive, even today but there are budget speed lights out there that are just as good.
Over the last few years the Chinese manufacturers have taken the world of flash photography, shaken it by the scruff of the neck and are now giving the big boys (i.e. Canon, Nikon, Olympus) as well as the established third party manufacturers (i.e. Metz, Sigma, Nissin) a hard time.
When the Chinese manufacturers first released their budget speed lights they were, for want of a better word, terrible. The early Chinese speed lights didn’t communicate with the camera as they should, consistently misfired, ate batteries like there was no tomorrow, and were not up to the job. The other thing was they looked cheap and nasty too, which is not good when you’re trying to impress and make a name for yourself as a photographer.
The Chinese manufacturers soon updated the early budget speed lights and the models they sell today are totally different (and I mean totally different) to the first attempt speed lights, and they have improved no end.
The Chinese speed lights are powerful (i.e. have high GNs), have manual mode, full through the lens metering (TTL) mode, High speed sync (HSS) mode, front and rear curtain sync modes and also stroboscopic mode. The speed lights perform every bit as good as the top end Canon, Nikon, Metz, Sigma and Nissin speed lights do. There are some areas where the Chinese speed lights out perform the top end speed lights, and the one that springs to mind is the battery power and life. Some of the Chinese speed lights use a single cell battery that is more powerful and also provides more bursts of light between charges than the 4 x AA batteries the top end speed lights use. Some of these budget speed lights even have an in-built wireless trigger so you can use them for off camera flash photography without having to invest in a load of radio triggers, although you will still have to buy a transmitter to attach to your camera.
The only difference between the top end speed lights and the budget speed lights from the Chinese manufacturers is the build quality. The top end speed lights are super tough, super durable and will deal with any abuse you care to throw at them. The budget speed lights from the Chinese manufacturers are not made from such high grade materials and components and when you compare a budget speed light from a Chinese manufacturer to a top end speed light from Canon or Nikon the difference in build quality is clearly noticeable.
The Canon and Nikon speed lights are bomb proof and they not only feel weighty and well-built but they also look weighty and well-built. The budget speed lights from the Chinese manufacturers don’t look so tough and sturdy, and they aren’t but then when you consider the price differential this is to be expected.
Okay, the budget speed lights from the Chinese manufacturers may not be as tough and sturdy as the top end speed lights but this doesn’t mean they will fall apart after five minutes. All things considered the budget speed lights form the Chinese companies are very well put together and they will provide years of trouble free service, providing you treat them with a little respect of course. I have had my Chinese made budget speed lights (I use the Godox Ving 860) for a few years now and I have had no issues or problems whatsoever.
When you consider you can pick up an all singing all dancing budget speed light form one of the Chinese manufacturers for a fraction of the cost of one of the top end speed lights it is easy to see that if you want to have a go at flash photography on a budget a speed light from on the Chinese manufacturers is the way to go.
When I bought my first budget speed light from a Chinese manufacturer I wasn’t expecting much at all. The only reason I bought one of these budget speed lights was because my Canon 580EX broke and I needed a speed light for an up and coming shoot but I was skint. The only option I had was to buy a cheap and cheerful speed light and use it to generate the money I needed to replace my Canon 580EX. I was so impressed with the Godox V860 I bought I forgot about buying another Canon 580EX and bought three more V860s instead.
Since I discovered how good the budget speed lights from the Chinese companies are I haven’t looked back, and I don’t plan to either.
Godox & Yongnuo – the best budget speed lights
The Godox and the Yongnuo speed lights are pretty much the same and neither one is superior to the other. Both speed lights are full of technology and feature manual mode, TTL mode, HSS etc. and both are priced around the same level.
CLASS – MID-RANGE/ GUIDE NUMBER (200MM @ ISO 100 IN METRES) – 60M / RECYCLE TIME (FULL POWER IN SECONDS) – < 1.5 SECONDS/ MANUAL POWER SETTINGS - /1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32,1/64 AND 1/128 TTL MODE - YES/ STROBOSCOPIC MODE - YES/ HSS MODE - YES/ FLASH EXPOSURE COMPENSATION - -3EV - +1EV/ OPTICAL SLAVE – YES/ OTHER TRIGGER – WIRELESS TTL SLAVE MODE/ SWIVEL FLASH HEAD – 0 DEGREES TO 360 DEGREES/ FLASH HEAD TILT - -7 DEGREES TO +90 DEGREES/ MANUAL ZOOM HEAD – (14) 20 - 200/ AUTO ZOOM HEAD – (14) 20 - 200/ BOUNCE CARD - YES/ LCD DISPAY - YES/ BATTERIES REQUIRED – SINGLE CELL BATTERY/APPROX PRICE ($USD/£GBP) - $199 / £161
CLASS – MID-RANGE/ GUIDE NUMBER (35MM @ ISO 100 IN METRES) – 39M / RECYCLE TIME (FULL POWER IN SECONDS) – 3 SECONDS/ MANUAL POWER SETTINGS - /1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32,1/64 AND 1/128 /TTL MODE - YES/ STROBOSCOPIC MODE - YES/ HSS MODE - NO/ FLASH EXPOSURE COMPENSATION - -5EV - +5EV/ OPTICAL SLAVE – YES. 2 MODES. / OTHER TRIGGER – WIRELESS TTL SLAVE MODE/ SWIVEL FLASH HEAD - -180 DEGREES TO +90 DEGREES/ FLASH HEAD TILT - -7 DEGREES TO +90 DEGREES/ MANUAL ZOOM HEAD - (18) 24 - 105/ AUTO ZOOM HEAD - (18) 24 - 105/ BOUNCE CARD - YES/ LCD DISPAY - YES/ BATTERIES REQUIRED – 4AA/ APPROX PRICE ($USD/£GBP) - $80 / £70
Rather than buying a super cheap speed light I would suggest buying a used film camera manual flash speed light, which will cost around the same price – if not a little less. Speed lights like the Canon 430EZ or 580EZ are tough, durable, powerful and you can pick them up for little money. Don’t believe me? Take a look on eBay using the search box below and see just how little money you need to part with to buy one.
You will have to set the flash exposure of these speed lights yourself, but with a bit of time and practice it’ll come second nature. These manual speed lights are perfect where the flash to subject distance remains constant but next to useless when dealing with subjects that are moving around. If the subject is moving around, i.e. the flash to subject distance frequently changes you need a speed light with TTL mode otherwise you are going to miss the shot. In these circumstances the Godox or Yongnuo speed lights are ideal.
Off camera flash – firing the flash
The off camera flash cords are cheap and one hundred percent reliable. The problem is, as I am sure you have already sussed, is the cord is cumbersome, gets in the way and can create more problems than its worth. I have used off camera flash cords in the past, for about five seconds, and then changed tack to the wireless flash triggers.
If you want to take your flash off camera I recommend using wireless flash triggers. There was a time when these essential gadgets were exceptionally expensive, and not always reliable. Times have changed, technology has moved on and there are now budget flash triggers that are just as reliable as off camera flash cords. You can drop several hundred bucks on a wireless flash trigger set up (such as a set of Pocket Wizards – which are seen to be the market leader) but there is no need to. Once again, the Chinese flash photography equipment manufacturers have come to the market selling wireless flash triggers that do everything the top end flash triggers do (ETTL, HSS etc.) but at a fraction of the cost.
Yongnuo YN622 flash triggers
- The Yongnuo YN622 flash triggers are available For Canon cameras from Adorama, Amazon (US), eBay, Amazon (UK)
- The Yongnuo YN622 flash triggers are available For Nikon cameras from Adorama, Amazon (US), eBay, Amazon (UK)
If you want to have a go at off camera flash photography and do it the cheapest way possible you need to by an old manual flash and buy an off camera flash cord to fire it, and you can get an off camera flash photography set up like this for a few quid. Would I recommend this? Probably not, although I would need to know your specific circumstances to give an opinion.
The best way to get in to off camera flash photography without spending a fortune is to buy a speed light like the Godox V860 or Yongnuo 565 or 585 and a set of Yongnuo YN622 flash triggers. With this set up you get a speed light capable of all the different modes you’ll need, and with the trigger be able to use these functions with the flash off camera. This off camera flash photography set up is more expensive than the one above, but it is just as good and versatile as using the top end speed lights and flash triggers, and at a fraction of the cost. By all means go cheap, just don’t go too cheap otherwise you will end up regretting it.
There are plenty of light modifiers out there to buy and the prices range from very cheap (small shoot through umbrellas) through to very expensive (top brand soft boxes). The products at the top end are overpriced and a total waste of money. Sure, they are good products and they will soften the light but there are similar alternative products that do exactly the same job for a fraction of the cost.
It is worth remembering that a light modifier softens the light by diffusing it, enlarging it or reflecting it back on to the subject. Just because one brand of light modifier is more expensive than another it doesn’t mean it is better. It is the quality of the light source in the first instance that matters more.
My favourite light modifiers are shoot through brollies and reflectors. Shoot through brollies don’t eat up too much light, are easy to use and are cheap. For outdoor work, when it is too breezy for a brolly, I have a (homemade) shoot through frame line with shoot through brolly material.
The reflector I use is a stiff bit of card from the local hobby shop. You can buy branded reflectors that fold up, but these are pretty expensive (for what they are) and they don’t perform any better than a plain bit of card.
It is possible to spend a fortune on various different light modifiers, but there really is no need to and if you are prepared to have a go at getting your hands dirty there are plenty of ‘light modifier hacks’ you can try in order to get a unique and bespoke light modifier that does exactly what you want it to, and for a very good price to boot.
Many photographers choose a 50mm f1.8 lens as their first lens after the camera’s kit lens, and it is easy to see why. 50mm f1.8 lenses are small, light and fast, and the 50mm focal length is versatile and can be used for many different subjects. If there is one lens all photographers should own at some point it is a 50mm f1.8 lens.
50mm f1.8 lenses are cheap, and this is reflected in the overall quality and the sharpness of the lens. I have read comments from 50mm f1.8 lens owners saying the lens is “tack sharp”, which isn’t true. Sure, the 50mm f1.8 lens is sharp compared to kit lenses, but compare it to other lenses and the softness soon becomes apparent.
Just because a 50mm f1.8 lens is a little soft it doesn’t mean you should discount one of these lenses. There are times when slightly soft focus enhances the photo and is a good thing. For example, photographing babies, infants, young children and women often requires a slightly soft lens to capture the most flattering photos. Super sharp lenses highlight every spot, pimple, blemish and variation in skin tone, which doesn’t result in a flattering photo. When taking these types of portrait shots a 50mm f1.8 lens is a cracking lens, and one I highly recommend.
Canon and Nikon both have their own 50mm f1.8 lenses, and whilst in the big scheme of things they are affordable compared to other 50mm prime lenses they are very expensive and, in all honesty no better. There are cheaper, and by cheaper I mean much cheaper, 50mm prime lenses out there for both Canon and Nikon cameras that are just as good as the Canon and Nikon branded 50mm lenses, and the best budget 50mm prime lens is the Yongnuo 50mm f1.8 by far.
The first thing you will notice about the Yongnuo 50mm is the build quality and that it feels, for want of a better phrase, cheap and nasty. The Yongnuo 50mm lens is made mostly from plastic and feels more like a child’s toy than a serious bit of photography equipment. I should point out that the Canon 50mm f1.8 lens is made in exactly the same way and feels just as poorly made, and from what I have read online and in magazines etc. the Nikon 50mm f1.8 is no different – although I cannot confirm this as I have never used Nikon before.
Whilst this lens may feel like a child’s toy and that it will fall apart in five minutes I can vouch for its longevity. If you treat this lens with a little care and respect, and don’t bang it around too much or use it in adverse weather conditions without some kind of cover it is a lens that will serve you well and last. Surprisingly, it is quite a tough and robust lens.
The build quality may be a little suspect but then you do have to remember it is a lens costing around £50, and you don’t get a lot for £50 nowadays. In fact, all things considered I am amazed this lens is as robust as it actually is for the low price.
The image quality of this lens is very good and the same as the Canon 50mm f1.8. I have read claims the Canon has superior image quality, however I am struggling to see this. I have tested both lenses and compared the photos side by side, and they look identical printed out. I have even gone pixel peeping on the computer to look for fringing, check colors etc. and I still struggle to see a winner in the image quality stakes. There are subtle differences in the images but neither lens produces an overall better image.
Compared to the Canon 50mm f1.8 the Yongnuo 50mm f1.8 is virtually identical in every respect, and if you remove the Yongnuo branding you would never tell the two lenses apart, unless you took a lucky guess that is. Both lenses have the same build quality, both lenses have the same image quality, both lenses have the same auto focus performance and both lenses feel the same on the camera. From what I have read and heard the Nikon 50mm f1.8 lens is exactly the same too.
The only difference between the Canon 50mm f1.8 and the Yongnuo 50mm f1.8 is the price, and there is huge difference here. The RRP of the Canon 50mm f1.8 is c. £110 whereas the RRP of the Yongnuo 50mm f1.8 is c. £50. The yongnuo is less than half the cost, which is one heck of a saving.
You will find any Canon shooters out there claiming the Canon 50mm f1.8 lens is superior to the Yongnuo and that the build quality/image quality of the Canon is the best. In my experience, and yes I have extensively used both of these lenses, this is utter rubbish. There is no difference between these two 50mm f1.8 lenses and I think it is just the Canon users trying to justify why they have the Canon lens.
If I had to buy another 50mm f1.8 lens it would be the Yongnuo without hesitation. In fact, I wouldn’t even bother with the Canon 50mm f1.8. The Yongnuo and the Canon are identical in every way except for price. If you are on a budget and want a 50mm f1.8 prime lens (and it is a lens I highly recommend) the Yongnuo 50mm f1.8 is the lens for you. If you want the best value for money 50mm f1.8 lens on the market the Yongnuo 50mm f1.8.
The Yongnuo 50mm f1.8 is available in Canon fit from Adorama, Amazon (US), eBay, Amazon (UK)
The Yongnuo 50mm f1.8 is available in Nikon fit from Adorama, Amazon (US), eBay, Amazon (UK)
Lenses are expensive and are usually the second most expensive pieces of photography kit photographers own, with the camera body generally being the most expensive. That said, I like many other photographers, have a lens or two that cost more than the camera. Thinking about it…….. lenses are probably the most expensive items photographers own, and when you get a nice collection of them the cost quickly mounts up.
I am the sort of person who seldom gets rid of anything and will research and reviews before I make any purchase (to make sure I am buying the right thing) and because of this I rarely get rid of any of my photography equipment, let alone lenses. Consequently, I have to admit that I was sceptical before I bought my first used lens and I totally get anyone who has doubts over buying used lenses.
Buying used lenses is a gamble, and unless you have the equipment to test them (check the internal glass, look for dust etc.) before parting with your money you can never be too sure what you are getting. A lens can look totally mint on the outside yet may contain so much dust inside it is worthless. On the flipside a lens can look a state on the outside (being battered, scuffed, dinked etc.) yet be immaculate on the inside.
It wasn’t until I joined a local camera club I really considered buying used lenses. I got speaking to a few photographers there who had purchased used lenses, and I have to say they were in mint condition, everything (auto focus, distance scale, image stabilisation etc.) worked as it should, there was nothing wrong with the image quality and they saved loads of money to boot. This first-hand experience (or at least as first hand as it could be without me buying a used lens) was enough to convince me that my next lens purchase was going to be used one.
Buying used lenses from eBay
If you’re careful, think before pressing the “Bid now” or “buy now” button and only buy from reputable eBay sellers you shouldn’t have too many problems buying used lenses off the site. A few of my camera club buddies have bought used lenses from private eBay sellers, and have ended up with some cracking lenses however there is no way I would drop a few hundred bucks on a used lens from a private eBay seller and the only way I would ever think about doing so would be if the lens was very, very cheap.
Very cheap lenses presents another issue though and you have to ask yourself “why is it so cheap?” If the price of a used lens is too good to be true, it generally is and you’re likely to end up wasting your money. Think about it this way, if you had a lens you were looking to sell would you accept a few hundred bucks less than what it’s worth? Even if you needed the money you’d take it to a camera shop and sell it to them at a lower price than you would a private person right?
It is possible to get royally ripped off buying used lenses from eBay, however if you use the right seller you won’t have too many problems, and if you participate in an auction (as opposed to a “buy it now”) you could end up getting an absolute bargain. Over the years I have managed to get some great deals on used lenses from eBay, however I have to admit I haven’t spent the big bucks on eBay like I have done on used lenses from my local camera shop.
The second hand lenses I have bought
Just two of the used lenses I have bought comprise:-
Canon 100 - 400mmL IS (full review here)
Whilst searching through the used section of the website of a local camera shop I stumbled across a used Canon 100mm - 400mm lens for £1,800, i.e. half the cost of a new one. The website had it graded at a four star so I was stunned at the condition when I went to see the lens in the shop – it was mint and totally mark free. The bloke behind the counter said it was originally up for £1,000 (which is still a good buy) but it had sat on the shelf for a while so the decision was made to reduce the cost to £750 to ‘get rid’. The only problem with the lens was that it didn’t have its case, but with Canon selling cases specifically for the Canon 100mm - 400mm prime lens for £37.49 the missing case was not too much of a problem. The lens was a steal, and whilst £750 is a lot to spend on a lens it isn’t a lot for this particular lens.
Out of all the used lenses I have bought to date this remains to be the best bargain, in my opinion.
Looking for a used Canon 100mm - 400mm lens? eBay may have exactly what you’re looking for - try the search box below:
Canon 24mm – 70mm f2.8L (full review here)
I had researched the 24mm – 70mm lenses and whilst the Sigma, Tamron and Tokina equivalents looked good (and got great reviews and write ups) the Canon version was the one I wanted but the eye watering c. £1,500 price tag was a bit of a limiting factor – it was just too far out of reach.
During a trip to the city with the better half I went and had a look in the window of a local camera shop, and in the used section was a Canon 24mm – 70mm f2.8 with a price tag of £525. The lens was given a three star rating so I was expecting it to be a little beaten up with some scuffs, marks, worn bits and signs of use. When I looked at the lens there was the odd blemish here and there but you really had to look hard and study the lens to find them. The overall condition of the lens was very good, and considering it was a third of the price of a new one it seemed a real bargain.
The bloke behind the counter offered a six month guarantee and said that if I wasn’t happy with the image quality after taking a few shots with it, i.e. there was visible signs of dust and the like, I could take it back for a no quibble refund although I only had two days to make this decision and provide proof, which I thought was pretty reasonable. After all, I only live a few miles away from the shop.
I bought the lens, took a few test shots and then went pixel peeping on the computer to see if I could find any dust spots and/or dirty marks. The photos looked spot on to me so there was no need to go back for a refund, and I managed to get a professional grade lens for a great price. Sure, I would have loved a mint lens (but I know it would have cost a few hundred quid more) but then no-one knows it is a used lens other than me.
This lens is awesome and if you want some great deals on used Canon 24mm – 70mm f2.8L lenses you may find eBay a useful place. Just make sure you buy from a business rather than an individual.
Getting a used lens for the best price
If you are in a rush to buy a used lens the chances are you will pay over the odds for it. Sure, you may strike it lucky and want a lens (then and there) as the price drops but more often than not it won’t work like this.
Another method I have used successfully to buy a used lens at a good price is to haggle. To be successful at haggling the price down you need to go and see the seller face to face, show that you are interested in buying the lens on the spot (if the price is right) and show the colour of your money. Haggling online is a waste of time, and the price advertised on line is the price you will end up paying – the potential market online is just too big for the seller to risk taking an offer.
When haggling on used lenses at your local camera shop you have to contain your excitement and show that you can “take it or leave it”. You also have to be prepared to walk away if you can’t get the lens for the amount of money you want to part with. In the past I have bought a used lens for a ridiculously low price buy shrugging, saying I’ll go elsewhere and walking out of the shop - the shop owner came running out after me accepting my offer. He still made a profit out of the deal and I got the lens I wanted for a lot less than I could anywhere else – happy days.
Being prepared to walk away isn’t always successful and more often than not you’ll get a response of “go elsewhere then”, “good luck in getting one for that much” or some other similar comment. This is all part and parcel of haggling and it is important you don’t ‘crack’ and go and buy the lens anyway. It is worth remembering that lenses are two a penny and there plenty of them about. Even if there isn’t one right at that time, there will be in the future – this is where you have to be patient, and also thick skinned for any potential comments and derogatory remarks from the shop owner – although I have to say this rarely happens in the real world because no shop owner would jeopardise selling other photography equipment in the future just because someone’s been a bit cheeky and offered a low price for a used lens.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.
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