If there is one area of photography that we need to master above others, it’s the lighting. The intricacies of lighting setups and how we control light for a certain scene is out of the scope of this article, but it’s enough to say that without any form of light, we would have completely blacked out images.
The above may seem like an obvious statement, but the merest introduction of a drop of light into a scene starts to create shadows and highlights, which we can then start to manipulate. In terms of the best lighting for portraits, this will mean soft, flattering light from ideally different angles, large and small, to bring out the most character.
Along with the light sources themselves, light modifiers are used such as umbrellas and softboxes to shape and manipulate the light rays. Just for the sole sake of brevity, we will be focusing on the most common types of lighting for portraits in today’s rundown, which will include flashguns, strobes, and continuous lighting.
Flashguns are the most commonly used as they can be used on and off-camera and are generally quite affordable. Strobes are usually more powerful, bigger, heavier, and usually the first choice for studio photography. Lastly, continuous lighting is mostly used for video work, but can also be an ideal solution for the beginner who has not yet mastered the rigmarole of constant exposure changing with a flash or strobe.
1. Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT (Overall Winner)
The Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT is the latest iteration of this highly regarded and very useful flash, with all the features you need for effective lighting for portrait shots. Features such as 2.4 GHz wireless triggering and full TTL provide full automatic use as well as all the manual tweaking you could ever need.
The flash head has a full range of motion to cover all shooting angles, with a zoom range of 24-105mm, dot-matrix LCD, flash exposure compensation, and light distribution settings. High-speed sync is also included, along with first and second curtain sync modes, custom functions, and roughly 180 flashes per set of batteries.
The built-in wireless triggering on this flash unit is a wonderful addition and if used in manual mode or full automatic TTL, the flash can be dialled into just the right amount of light for each exposure.
While there are cheaper flash units on the market offering very similar features, the Canon Speedlite series just simply works and more importantly is built to take the rigors of everyday shooting. I’ve dropped my Canon Speedlites so many times and they just seemed to bounce and keep on working, which can’t be said for cheaper units.
It should also be mentioned that if you’re on the Nikon platform, the Nikon SB-700 flash is equally as capable.
2. Godox Thinklite TTL Camera Flash TT685N
Godox has definitely been ruffling the feathers of same-make flashguns, offering similar features at a far more competitive price. The Godox Thinklite TTL Camera Flash TT685N has standard full TTL workings, with a built-in 2.4GHz radio system, a guide number of 197′ at ISO 100, and the ability to be used as a complete wireless master or slave unit with a bunch of other flashes.
Those familiar with the workings of same-make flashes will be right at home here with an easy-to-use LCD panel and menu. Along with full automatic control, manual power can be adjusted from 1/1 to 1/128 in 1/3 EV increments or with more advanced features such as high-speed sync.
A USB connection is available for firmware updates, which means this flash provides a wonderful set of features for the price point. Which begs the question why would you pay more than double for a same brand make?
The basic answer is the build quality, as the same-make versions are built to take the rigors of daily use. This won’t be a problem for careful, occasional use of the Godox or in a photo studio, but if you plan on using a flash for everyday use or in all weather, you simply can’t beat the peace of mind of a same-make brand.
3. Genaray SP-AD75
Don’t necessarily think that continuous LED lighting will be cheaper than other solutions, as the video guys can testify, you can literally spend thousands. This is why the Genaray SP-AD75 is so reasonably priced considering its features.
The 14.5-inch light spread with 600 LEDs provides 120 watts of power output, a CRI rating of 96, a beam angle of 120 degrees, and dimming settings from 10 to 100 percent. The whole unit runs on AC power but can use optional batteries with a D-tap connection.
Although the light setup may not be the first choice for portrait shooters, it provides a plentiful amount of light output, which can obviously double up for video use.
4. Godox AD200Pro Pocket Flash
Where the Godox AD200Pro Pocket Flash stands out is with its compact form and ability to produce 200W of power. Essentially, this unit is more or less the size of a regular flashgun but has the output levels of a studio strobe.
The unit comes with a standard speed light and bare bulb head, lithium battery charger, and its own carry case. Manual and full TTL modes are available, with power output adjustable from 1/256 to 1/1 and an extremely quick recycle time.
The battery is good for around 500 full-power flashes, with additional features such as first or second curtain sync and high-speed sync.
This is a very versatile flash unit, which is remarkable in that it can offer strobe-level power in such a small unit. It’s also remarkable in that it can offer this level of power output for the same price as a good quality same-make flash.
As a side note, I know some of you are wondering why the likes of a Profoto strobe hasn’t been included. As well as these units being quite expensive, they also have enough power output to light up a whole continent. This means that for general portrait use, the Godox AD200Pro has loads of light output for a more affordable price.
5. Yongnuo YN 560IV (Budget Winner)
If you want a truly cheap as chips flashgun, then you can’t do better than the Yongnuo YN 560IV. I have to hold my hands up and say that I bought this flashgun thinking I got the deal of the century, but on receiving the thing I realized it doesn’t have TTL and was manual only. Never mind, it’s still very useful for studio portrait shots or if you don’t mind deliberating over exposure settings and output.
In all other respects, the flash has a lot of features. It includes a 2.4 GHz wireless radio transmitter and receiver, a guide number of 190′ at ISO 100 and 105mm, a zoom range of 24-105mm, a fully tiltable head, and a built-in diffuser and bounce card.
In use the Yongnuo is remarkably efficient, providing an even color temperature of 5600K, with a respectable range and output. Lined up against my Canon 580EX II, both flash units look almost identical, which makes you wonder how they can build a flash with so many features for the price.
However, it’s clear by just holding the two together, the same-make version is built to a far higher standard and includes weather resistance. Which is again a major factor for regular use. But if you’re on a really tight budget, the Yongnuo is an exceptional value, if you don’t mind it’s all manual workings.
What’s Your Take on the Best Lighting for Portraits?
When considering the best lighting for portraits, you don’t necessarily need the whopping power output of a studio-level strobe. Most flashguns have enough range to cover close-up portraits and they are cost-effective enough for a multi-light setup.
If you don’t mind full manual workings and you treat each unit like a porcelain doll, the Yongnuo can’t be beaten for the price. These units are also very cost-effective when bought in multiples. However, for the best build quality and ultimate compatibility, you can’t beat same-camera brands.