Whats the Difference Between Handle-Mount, Top-Mount and Built-in Flash Units?

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Whats the Difference Between Handle-Mount, Top-Mount and Built-in Flash Units?

A flash is used in photography to provide ample light to capture a photograph when the lighting conditions are poor. Additionally, photographers use a flash to control or alter the light in a scene. Different situations call for different flashes and lighting. This is why there are so many different types of flash units to choose from. When shopping for a new flash unit, it can be hard to determine what type of flash is needed. Before shopping for a flash unit, photographers should be sure that they understand the terminology that goes along with flashes. This will make it easier to compare flashes and understand their capabilities. Photographers will then need to understand the differences between handle-mount top-mount, and built-in flashes, as well as their capabilities and limitations so that they can choose the type of flash that best meets their needs.

Glossary of Flash Terms

Before learning about the different types of flashes, it is important for photographers to understand the terminology that is used to describe flash units and how they function. Understanding the correct terminology for flash units can help photographers decide which kind of flash best suits their needs when comparing different flash units. The table below lists some of the main vocabulary associated with flash units, as well as their definitions.




A brief, instantaneous burst of light used to illuminate a scene or subject in low lighting conditions.


A metal connection on the top of a camera where an external flash is mounted or connected. May or may not have an electrical connection depending on the type of camera.

PC Sync Cord

Short for Prontor/Compur cord. Used to connect an external flash to the camera. This allows the camera to control when the flash is fired.

Flash Modifier

A tool used to modify the light sent out from the flash. It can diffuse the light or bounce the light off of another surface to soften the light.


Another term used to describe external flash units or flashes that are not a part of the camera itself.


A flash that is a part of the camera and does not disconnect from the body of the camera.

Recycle Rate

The rate in which a flash can fully recharge so that it can be used again.

Shooting Distance Range

The distance range in which a flash can effectively illuminate a scene or a subject.

Flash Sync Speed

The fastest shutter speed that can effectively be used with the flash.

Slow Sync Flash

When a slow shutter speed is used in combination with a flash to create a motion blur effect. Used to increase the brightness of a scene.

Guide Number

Indicates the power of a flash unit. Used to judge the shooting range distance of a flash.

Flash Synchronization

How the flash coincides with the shutter. It can either be "front curtain" and illuminate when the shutter opens or "rear curtain." This is when it fires the flash at the end of the exposure.

Many of the terms in the table above refer to the flash units themselves, while others are features of the camera a photographer is using. For example, the hotshoe is a part of the camera rather than part of the flash. Also, flash sync speed and slow sync flash both refer to the camera's shutter in relation to the flash. When shopping for flashes, it is important for photographers to first understand the capabilities of their cameras to ensure that they find a good match.

Handle-Mount Flash Units

Handle-mount flash units are also sometimes referred to as potato masher flash units, bracket flashes, or grip flashes. These are large external flash units that are positioned to the side of the camera. A handle-mount flash unit comes with an L-shaped bracket that attaches to the tripod mount on the underside of the camera. The arm extends up the side of the camera and the flash sits on top of the arm. The arm functions as a grip to hold onto when using the camera. Handle-mount flashes use their own power sources and use a separate cord to connect to the camera electronically.

Benefits and Disadvantages of Handle-Mount Flash Units

Handle-mount flashes have their benefits and disadvantages, and they're definitely not for every photographer. Before investing in a handle-mount flash, photographers should investigate the limits and capabilities of this type of flash. When looking at a handle-mount flash, they'll want to take the convenience, power, adjustability, and battery or power source into consideration.


Handle-mount flashes must be mounted properly before they can be used. This means that they are not very convenient to use for quick shots. Additionally, when the flash is not needed, it takes time to disconnect a handle-mount flash and put it away. Once the flash is mounted, it will remain securely in place though. Also, since the flash also provides a grip, the photographer may find that they have more control over the camera when handling it.


A true handle-mount flash has a high output, which means that it has a lot of power. How much power the flash has depends on the unit that the photographer purchases. Some photographers purchase a flash bracket separately and attach a different kind of flash to the handle. These flashes may not be as powerful as a true handle-mount flash which can have a shooting range distance of 100 feet or more.


Some handle-mount flashes remain in a fixed position while others can be adjusted in a different direction. When being used from far away, being able to point the flash in the direction of the subject helps to illuminate the room evenly. When used at closer distances, it can be helpful to diffuse the light or bounce it off of another surface to soften the light and reduce harsh shadows. Additionally, handle-flash mounts can easily be used with flash modifiers. When it comes to handle-mount flashes, photographers have options when it comes to adjusting the direction of the light.


Handle-mount flashes are external flash units. This means that they require their own batteries or power source. Depending on the power of the flash, they may drain batteries quickly. Additionally, if the batteries are not strong enough, it can take longer for the flash to recycle and be used again.

Ideal Uses for Handle-Mount Flash Units

Handle-mount flashes are extremely powerful flash units that are not ideal for everyday use. Instead, handle-mount flashes are used by the press, in weddings, or in auditoriums where the photographer is positioned far away from the subject. The size of the flash is big enough and bright enough to illuminate the room and the subject effectively from far distances.

Top-Mount Flash Units

As the name suggests, a top-mount flash is a flash that connects and sits on top of the camera. These are external flash units that connect to the hotshoe of a camera. For this reason, they are also sometimes referred to as shoe-mount flashes. There is an electrical connection on the hotshoe that allows the camera to signal the flash when it needs to fire. Older cameras have a coldshoe rather than a hotshoe. This means there is no electrical connection when the flash is mounted on top of the camera. The top-mount flash needs to be connected to the camera via a PC cord or triggered wirelessly. Because it is an off-camera flash unit, it relies on its own power source.

Benefits and Disadvantages of Top-Mount Flash Units

Top-mount flash units are smaller and a bit easier to handle than the handle-mount flashes mentioned above. They do have their own limits and capabilities though. Photographers will also need to consider the convenience, power, adjustability, and power source of a top-mount flash before making a purchase.


Top-mount flashes conveniently slide into the hotshoe mount on the top of a camera. As far as external flashes go, they are the quickest and easiest to install and use. Since they are relatively small, these flash units can also be conveniently carried and stored.


As an off-camera flash, the top-mount flash uses its own power source, and so it has the ability to be brighter than built-in flashes. The photographer has several different top-mount flashes to choose from when shopping which means that he has the ability to choose a flash that is as powerful as they need it to be. Many top-mount flashes are used at a shooting distance of less than 100 feet, but photographers will also be able to find flashes powerful enough to be used over 100 feet.


Top-mount flashes have the ability to be very adjustable. The flash itself may move up and down to change the direction of the light, or it can be used when not mounted. A shoe-mount cord can be purchased separately so that the flash can be connected to the camera, but used apart from it. Top-mount flashes can also be used with some flash modifiers to change the direction or intensity of the light. Because the top-mount flash can be adjusted and does not point directly at the subject, they prevent the occurrence of red-eye in portrait photography.


Top-mount flash units use their own batteries, so they do not drain the battery of the camera. Many use standard alkaline batteries that are easy to replace. Unfortunately, when the batteries are running low, the flash won't be as powerful or may have a longer recycling time.

Ideal Uses for Top-Mount Flash Units

While a top-mount flash is large and bulky, it can still be used for a variety of purposes. The power and size of a top-mount flash allow it to fully illuminate a room and provide more natural and softer lighting on the subject. Top-mount flashes can be used for everyday photography and also for large events.

Built-In Flash Units

A built-in flash unit is one that is part of the camera itself. It can't be removed or adjusted like off-camera flashes can. The camera is able to communicate with the flash without needing additional connections or cords, because everything is located inside the body of the camera. The built-in flash also uses the camera's battery and does not require its own power source.

Benefits and Disadvantages of Built-In Flash Units

Many professional photographers would say that built-in flash units have more disadvantages than advantages. These types of flashes are not completely useless, and still have some benefits that other off-camera flashes do not have. Because a built-in flash is a part of the camera and does not need to be purchased separately, it is the cheapest and most convenient lighting option for a camera. When deciding if a built-in flash will be sufficient, photographers need to assess their needs and then consider the convenience, power, adjustability, and battery or power source of this type of flash.


In terms of convenience, a built-in flash can't be beat. It doesn't need to be connected while in use, and it doesn't need to be disconnected for storage. The flash is always handy when needed to capture quick snapshots on short notice.


Built-in flash units have an effective shooting distance range of about 10 feet. This means that a built-in flash won't be sufficient for lighting large rooms or for illuminating a subject from far away. One advantage to this low power flash is that the photographer can move in closer to the subject and still use the flash.


Built-in flash units cannot be adjusted. They are attached in a fixed position on the camera and always shoot in the same direction. Because the light is coming from directly in front of the subject, it is harsh and can cast unnatural shadows. Additionally, built-in flashes are more likely to cause red-eye because of the direction they flash.


Built-in flashes use the camera's battery for power which can cause it to drain quickly. On the plus side, photographers won't have to worry about additional batteries to power the flash along with the batteries already needed for the camera. However, because the flash is using the same batteries that are powering the camera, it will have a longer recycle rate. This means that the flash can't be used to take several quick pictures in a row.

Ideal Uses for Built-in Flash Units

Cameras with a built-in flash unit are designed for capturing quick snapshots. In these instances, capturing the photo is more important than worrying about the lighting of the room. Cameras with built-in flash units are ideal for everyday use by just about anyone. Those who are not concerned with changing the direction or the power of the light won't need to purchase additional off-camera flashes, because a built-in flash is sufficient. Those who are disappointed with how the built-in flash performs may wish to explore other options.

Shopping for Off-Camera Flash Units

If you've decided that you need an off-camera or external flash to meet your photography needs then you can begin looking for one that fits in your price range. Since off-camera flash units vary in power, performance, and adjustability, their prices will also vary. Typically the higher the guide number is on a flash, the more expensive it will be. You can find a number of flash units in camera stores, and if the store does not carry the one you're looking for then they can special order it for you. Buying used items is a cheaper way to obtain the flash you're looking for. There are many photographers who are getting rid of their old units so that they can purchase new ones. You can connect with other flash buyers and sellers from all over the world on eBay.

Finding Off-Camera Flash Units on eBay

To get started with your search for off-camera flash units on eBay, go to the Cameras and Photography section of eBay. From here go to Flashes and Flash Accessories then Flashes to see all the flash units that are currently available. You can filter the results by brand, camera type, condition, and price range to make it easier to find what you're looking for. If you already know what you're looking for, then you can use a keyword search or an Advanced Search to search for it directly.


Photographers need flashes for many different subjects, scenes, and lighting conditions. Determining which kind of flash unit is needed can be difficult if a photographer is unfamiliar with the differences and purposes of each unit. In order to compare the different flash units, it is beneficial for photographers to learn the vocabulary that is commonly used to describe flash units. Additionally, photographers need to understand the differences between handle-mount, top-mount, and built-in flashes. Understanding the benefits, capabilities, and limitations of each type of flash will make it easier for a photographer to find the type of flash that will meet their needs. No matter what kind of flash a photographer is looking for, a huge selection of new and used flash units is available on eBay.

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