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The external flash options available to you will vary greatly, depending on what kind of camera you have. For example, at the time of this shooting Nikon makes five different external flashes, not including specialty flashes for macro shooting. By comparison, Fuji makes two flashes for their X system. As discussed in the guide number movie, the main difference between flashes will be differences in power. If you give some thought to what kind of shooting you typically do, and how much range you think you'll need, then you can pretty quickly zero in on a flash size that's right for the type of shooting that you do.
However, when you're shopping, you'll want to consider if you might ever want to advance to a multiple flash system. If so, then you might want to invest in a flash that can serve as a master to other flashes. In the future, you'll then be able to buy less expensive slave flashes to grow your system. Or maybe you're not sure if you'll ever head toward multiple flashes and don't need a flash with tremendous power. In that case, buying a less expensive slave and saving the option for a master until later will get you started with flash shooting and let you grow into a more complex system as you go along.
If there are third party flashes available for your camera then you might have a more complicated buying decision as you'll have more choices to consider. In these instances you'll want to pay close attention to whether a third party option is fully compatible with your camera. You'll also need to look for evaluations of the candidate flashes and metering systems. You want to look into whether a third party system works as well as the system made by your camera vendor. If all things appear equal performance-wise then you can start looking at secondary issues. What's the price difference? Does one flash recycle faster than another? Does one offer longer battery life then another? Is the interface easier on one flash or another? Are there differences in construction? A metal foot that goes into the hot shoe Is much more durable than a plastic foot, for example.
I actually encountered this one time. I knocked my, a flash stand over and the plastic foot broke off in my flash, costing money to get it replaced. I expect you'll find, though, that shopping for a flash just isn't nearly as complicated as shopping for a camera. You have fewer options and you generally won't find huge differences in competing products. Your main concern will simply be to decide how much flash power you need. If you like controlling your flash manually, then I heartily recommend skipping your camera vendor options, and going for something much less expensive like this Yongnuo flash.
This has almost the same guide number as a Canon 580EX. It's very well built, it has a great interface, but it offers no TTL metering of any kind. No automated metering of any kind. This flash can only be used in manual mode. But, I was able to buy it new from Amazon for only about $80. It can be optically slaved to my other flashes, making it an affordable way to build a multi-flash system. And if you're used to working manually, it's a great alternative to the dramatically more expensive Canon or Nikon alternatives.
There's lots of good review sites out there, so with a little research you can make a very informed purchase. That said, you'll also do just fine by taking the easy route and buying a flash made by your camera vendor.
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