Read any book or tutorial about flash photography and I can guarantee that most of them will say manual flash is better than automatic flash, and that using manual is the way to go. In many circumstances manual flash does produce better results than automatic flash or ETTL flash, however this is not always the case and there are times when ETTL flash outperforms manual flash every time.
I agree that manual flash photography, i.e. manually setting the flash power, is best when the flash to subject distance remains constant and doesn’t change and you have time to correctly set the flash power, but when the flash to subject distance frequently changes or there is no time to correctly set the flash power automatic flash, i.e. using the flash in ETTL mode is best.
If you shoot wedding receptions, parties, corporate functions and other such events ETTL flash is by far the best setting. In these situations you will be milling around with your camera taking photos off the cuff, the subject to flash distance will be constantly changing, you will have to act quickly to get the shot and you don’t have any control over the situation and cannot pose people for the shots you want to take. In these situations manual flash is going to be virtually impossible to use.
If you shoot in the studio or take organised portraits setting the flash power manually will yield consistent results. Okay, you can use the flash in ETTL mode but the skin tone of the models and the colour and reflectiveness of their clothing will affect the flash exposure, leading to inconsistencies. Setting the flash power manually will ensure consistent exposures shot after shot, and it doesn’t matter what skin tones the models have or what they are wearing.
“Do I need a flash with ETTL?” The answer to this depends entirely on your style of shooting. If you only shoot in the studio or on organised shoots where you can spend the time to set the flash power manually you can get away with strobes and speed lights with manual settings only. If, however, you shoot occasions where you have no control and have to “go with the flow” a speed light with ETTL is essential and you can’t get by without it.
I would always recommend speed lights and strobes with full ETTL because they are the most versatile and allow you to shoot any situation you find yourself in. Flash guns with ETTL technology have a manual override and allow you to set the power manually should you wish.
The all singing, all dancing speed lights and flash guns with ETTL technology are more expensive than manual only flash guns but the additional cost is well worth it, and you’ll soon find the flash gun will end up paying for itself.
GODOX VING – MY GO TO FLASH GUN
The flash gun I use is the Godox Ving 860, and I have invested in four of them. The Godox Ving speed lights are tough, durable, well made and have all the features of top end speed lights like the Canon 580EX and the Nikon SB900. Unlike the top end Canon and Nikon flash guns the Godox Ving is a fraction of the cost. To put this in to perspective and demonstrate just how cheap the Godox Ving is I am happy to say I bought four Godox Ving 860 speed lights for a few bucks more than the cost of a single Canon 580EX.
If you want a lot of bang for your buck the Godox Ving 860 is a speed light you need to take a look at. The Godox Ving speed lights are third party Chinese manufactured flash guns but don’t let this put you off one because they really are top drawer speed lights. For an honest and unbiased review of the Godox Ving 860 take a look at "Quick review of the Godox Ving 860".
If you ever want to take your flash guns off camera and still use ETTL mode, but with multiple speed lights, this is possible using some flash triggers. Up until recently only the top end flash triggers, like the Pocket Wizards, enabled full ETTL and given the ridiculous price of these units it put many people off buying them, myself included. Fortunately, times have changed and there is now a cheaper alternative that is just as reliable and, in my opinion, just as good. This cheaper alternative is the Yongnuo 622 flash triggers, and these are an essential purchase if you like off camera flash photography.
For portrait work I often gang 3 speed lights together (to see how I do this "How to gang 3 speed lights" may be of interest), off camera of course, and putting each one of these on a Yongnuo 622 flash trigger allows me to use ETTL mode and focus on directing the model, posing the model and getting in the optimum position than having to constantly worry about setting the flash power. To give you some idea just how much cheaper the Yongnuo 622 flash triggers are than the Pocket Wizards I have to say that I picked up three Yongnuo 622 triggers (one for each speed light) plus a transmitter for the camera's hot shoe for less than the cost of one Pocket Wizard unit!
With the Yongnou 622 triggers you get a lot of bang for your buck and they really are top drawer triggers. I am amazed how Yongnou can charge so little for such quality triggers, or is it just that Pocket Wizard are taking the mickey and charging way too much (and making too much profit) and ripping us off in the process? I'll let you make up your own mind on that one, but I know exactly what my thoughts are on the matter. For my a review of my experience with the Yongnuo 622 triggers, as well as my thoughts and opinions "Quick review of the Yongnuo 622 flash triggers" may be of interest to you.
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.