For a long time, the though of off-camera flash scared the daylights out of me. It always sounded cool in theory, but the execution was never as easy as it seemed. Big brand flashes are very expensive, with some of them getting over $500 for a single flash unit! It was daunting to think that I’d need to spend upward of $1500 just to get three flash heads alone, not counting any modifiers, stands, triggers (if needed) and anything else that is needed. So I really just didn’t bother. I learned to shoot in natural light, which is okay sometimes, but there are some times where it’s just flat out impossible to get a good shot without some kind of modification. I then got a big pop reflector and it was like my world got turned upside down! You could position the light wherever you wanted it to go, albeit in a very limited capacity, but still much better than just playing the cards that are dealt to you with natural light only.
After spending some time with full manual flash units, starting with the trusty Vivitar 285’s, I grew to love them. Adding flash to my photos presented endless creative opportunity and made me really think about the shot I wanted to make, rather than letting the shots come to me. I started planning shots for days, and thinking about exactly how I wanted them to turn out. And the best thing of all is that all of this gear could be bought on a very tight budget! I did start to get annoyed with a few aspects of the Vivitars, like having to walk to each unit to manually change the settings, and also having to have a trigger mounted under it, making it sit higher in the umbrella than I’d really like it to be.
Not too long ago someone recommended the Yongnuo YN-560 Mark IV units and the on camera YN-560TX flash controller. I’d seen this brand before but just assumed it to be a cheap knock off that would just die after a season or so and be moderately unreliable on a good day. I could get three flashes and the controller for half the price of a single brand name flash. There was no way these things could be any good. Boy was I ever wrong.
The YN-560 IV has the exact same feel in the hand as my old Canon 580EXII. The build quality is very good, and the overall shape and size are very similar. The recycle time is quick and it’s packed with features. The big one that it is missing is the TTL feature, but hey, these are manual flash units! We want full control, not the camera!
Like most flashes, these run on 4 AA batteries and so far my battery life has been very good with them. They do offer a port to plug up and external batter though, and i really like that idea, though I haven’t utilized it myself just yet. The flash output goes from your typical full power of 1/1 all the way down to 1/128, which is crazy considering my Vivitars were only 1/16. Sometimes even on the lowest setting it would be too bright. Having the ability to drop it down to 1/128 is a very nice feature to have. The head also zooms, which narrows the cone of light that is output, from 24mm on the wide end all the way to 105mm zoomed all the way in. The zoom is handled inside the unit which I like, so you do not have to extend a portion of the head like on some other manual flashes to zoom. Just push a button and it works.
One of the biggest features that was added to the Mark IV version is that it can now be used as a slave or a master, meaning you can use it to trigger multiple YN’s if used on the camera’s hot shoe. I typically do not like to shoot with a flash on the camera though, and that is where the YN-560TX Controller comes in. You just mount it to the hot shoe and have full control over your flashes. You can put them into groups to adjust settings individually, or lump them into one group to make the same changes to each flash head. I personally shoot with three flashes most of the time, and always put them into individual groups just for more precision and control over the lighting. And best of all, I can do all of this without moving to each light stand individually to make an adjustment. All I have to do is dial the flash up or down right from the controller on the camera. Talk about a time saver!
These units are all radio units, meaning you don’t need line of sight to trigger them. If you’ve ever used infrared systems you know just how much of a pain the rear that can be. If you’re using a flash for rim lighting there is a good chance that your subject is completely blocking the signal on an infrared system. But with a radio signal that doesn’t matter. These flashes have been extremely reliable from all different distances and absolutely zero line of sight sometimes.
As I said before, the best thing about this system is just how inexpensive it is. The fact that you can get an entire 3-light setup for under $300 is amazing. If you’ve never tried shooting with off-camera flash, I would recommend making this your next purchase. Not a new body, not a new lens. Getting familiar with flash will increase the overall quality of your images 100x more than what a lens or body will do. Sure, those things are great, but you’re still relying on what the light gives you. Take control of the the light yourself and you will be surprised at how much better it makes you as a photographer!
Below are links to individual pieces to build your kit, or a couple of bundle options if you just want to knock it all out in one click! I definitely recommend getting the three light setup for full control of your images.