I teach a lot of lighting workshops, and many of these classes are on speedlight photography techniques. Today's speedlights are affordable and advanced; having one speedlight in your camera bag opens up endless creative possibilities. Better yet, today's speedlights have user-friendly modes, TTL metering and wireless shooting capabilities. With a little practice, any photographer can shoot nice flash images using a speedlight. But one aspect overlooked is how to use a speedlight efficiently, and the biggest complaint is long recycling times. Nothing is more frustrating listening to your speedlight whine as it recycles while you miss the best image of a portrait session. Use these tips below and never miss a shot.
1. Use good batteries. AA alkaline are the most common batteries out there, but they don't offer the best performance with speedlights. I recommend Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable batteries. These Ni-MH batteries have faster recycling times similar to other rechargeable batteries, but with one significant difference; they hold their charge for months. I've tried other rechargeable batteries, and after a week or so after recharging, they have lost significant power. Not so with the Eneloops. You could charge them today, and use them a month from now, and you will still have almost full power.
2. Get closer. This might sound obvious, but you would be amazed at how many times I see speedlights distant from their subjects, with no creative reason behind their placement. Put your speedlight as close as you can to your subject for your image. Closer means less power needed from the speedlight, which saves batteries and ensures faster recycle times.
3. Use a wide aperture. Similar to above, use the widest aperture opening with your lens that you can for your particular shot. If you need F22, then use F22. But if depth of field isn't a major concern, trying opening up a few stops to F8. F8 requires less flash output for the right exposure, and is much easier on your speedlight.
4. Use a higher ISO. If your speedlights are struggling to recycle fast enough, how about using a higher ISO? ISO performance is excellent in today's cameras, and bumping your ISO up a couple of stops requires a lot less light from your speedlight for proper exposure. Once again, your flash will be happy.
5. Double up speedlights. Use two or more speedlights rather than one. I really like to use my Lastolite Triflash Bracket, which holds three speedlights. This cuts the power to 1/3 of what I would need using one light. Using multiple speedlights is a great way to get fast recycliing times and extended battery life.
6. Try an external battery pack. There are many external battery pack options for speedlights, including the popular packs that hold 8 AA batteries. These packs more than double the amount of flash pops you get, and cut recycling times as well.
7. Warm up those batteries. I frequently shoot in cold, winter environments, and batteries quickly lose their power and go dead in extreme cold. I carry a second set in an inside coat pocket to keep them warm. When my flash batteries are dying, I switch them out with the warm set. Instant better performance!