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Gadget Bag: In A Flash!

Electronic flash units will add dimension to your photos
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gadget bag

Strobe. EFU. Speedlite. Speedlight. Flash. No matter what you call it, a portable electronic flash unit is one of the most important accessories any photographer can own. But many who mainly shoot outdoors overlook the possibilities. Flash photography is by no means restricted to inside!

Some of the best advice that can be given to beginning outdoor photographers when they ask how to improve their pictures beyond the snapshot level is “Turn your flash on outside.” Properly applied, a flash can brighten colors even in daylight, remove shadows from faces, add catchlights to eyes and enable early-morning and late-evening low-light shooting. A good one also can extend the range and accuracy of your camera’s autofocus system. Better flash units have a built-in AF assist beam that helps your camera focus in dim light by projecting a near-infrared ray that can be seen by the camera’s autofocus system.

In order to create light in sufficient and controllable quantities, you need an accessory flash. One that fits in your camera’s hot shoe will probably do the trick, although the larger handle-mount strobes are still popular in some circles.

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Canon Speedlite 580EX II
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Canon Speedlite 270EX

Most camera manufacturers offer two or three models, typically a small, medium and large option. Luckily for us, their model numbers often indicate their power. A throwback to the bad old days when flashbulbs and electronic flash units were manual, flash exposure settings once were calculated based on a Guide Number (GN). The GN was equal to 10 times the numerical value of the ƒ-stop that would yield correct exposure at a distance of 10 meters and at a given ISO. (Actually, it was ASA back then, and the distance was expressed in feet, not meters.) The higher the number, the stronger the flash.

In simpler terms, a flash that has a GN of 45 requires the camera’s lens to be set at ƒ/4.5 when the subject is 10 meters away. To determine which ƒ-stop should be set to take a picture at a different distance, divide the camera-to-subject distance into the GN. The GN system was so confusing for most people that the flash gun was often left in the closet after the first few mishaps. Today, everything is calculated automatically, but the GN is still important to know. All GNs in this article are in meters at ISO 100 except where noted.

Modern EFUs (as manufacturers refer to them internally) are powerful, automatic and simple to use. They differ by output power, physical size, bounce capability and angle of coverage. All but a few are powered by AA batteries (NiMH rechargeable cells are recommended).

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gadget bagOlympus FL-36R

gadget bagOlympus FL-50R

Larger-output EFUs allow you to shoot at longer distances and smaller apertures. They generally recycle faster, too, keeping you ready for the next shot instead of waiting for the capacitor to recover. Compact flash units are easier to carry and provide greater stability and handling ease when they’re sitting in the hot-shoe. Some use two (instead of four) AA batteries, which translates into lighter carry weight. And bounce capability means that the flash tube can be aimed at a reflective surface while the camera and lens are facing the subject, producing a soft, even lighting effect with no harsh shadows.

On high-end units, angle of coverage—and the ability to spread the flash over a wide area—is sometimes adjusted by zooming the flash head. The advantage here is that you get maximum power at a given zoom lens setting and smooth, even lighting even when you’re in the wide-angle position. Some small units include a translucent diffusing lens that snaps in place over the flash tube to broaden the dispersal of the light.

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Nikon Speedlight SB-400
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Nikon Speedlight SB-900

A Sampling Of Flashes
Canon currently offers five EFUs. Its top-of-the-line model, the Speedlite 580EX II, has a GN of 58 (GN 190 in feet at 105mm) and can rotate a full 180° in either direction for maximum bounce versatility. It features dust- and water-resistance and a metal foot. The AF assist beam is compatible with all AiAF points on every EOS SLR, and white balance information is transmitted to the EOS camera’s processor to assure accurate colors. Canon also has a new flash, the über-compact Speedlite 270EX. Despite its squat stature, it provides bounce functionality and two-step Coverage Angle Selection (28mm and 50mm). Powered by two AA batteries, it recycles quietly and quickly (0.1 to 3.9 seconds). GN is 22 (at the 28mm coverage setting) and 27 (at 50mm). Effective range is greater than 13 feet. This combination of features makes it the ideal traveling companion for Canon’s popular G-series compact digital cameras as well as Canon D-SLRs.

Nikon has long offered a very complete Speedlight system. The SB-900 (GN of 56 at 200mm) provides zoom coverage from 17-200mm in the FX format and 12-200mm coverage in the DX format. It also offers three light dispersion patterns: Standard, Center-weighted (for portraits) and Even (for groups or interiors). Built for hot-shoe use, the SB-900 works equally as well in wireless applications as the trigger unit or as a wireless remote light source. You can wirelessly control an unlimited number of compatible Speedlights using the SB-900 in Wireless Commander Mode. For a smaller unit, Nikon makes the SB-400, which covers as wide as 18mm on a Nikon FX-format (full-frame) camera. It uses Nikon’s iTTL technology, takes two AA batteries, and the head can be adjusted to bounce up to 90º. The GN is 15 at 18mm.

From Olympus comes a pair of similar shoe-mounted flash units, the FL-50R and FL-36R. The FL-50R has a GN of 50 at 42mm (85mm in 35mm terms) and a GN of 28 at a 12mm focal length. Using the same standards, the FL-36R has a GN of 36 at the 42mm zoom setting. Both units have heads that bounce and swivel, and both deliver TTL exposure control with Olympus cameras. The FL-50R uses four AA cells; the FL-36R uses two.

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Metz Mecablitz
58 AF-1
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Sunpak PZ42X
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Quantum Qflash TRIO QF8C

The Pentax AF-540 FGZ has a zoom head that accommodates lenses as they zoom from 24mm to 85mm and works with every Pentax camera (even the older 120 roll-film cameras). Special features available to Pentax D-SLR users include P-TTL preflash evaluative metering, HSS focal-plane high-speed flash sync, wireless TTL capability with ratio lighting control (and four transmission channels), AF assist lamp and more. The AF-540 is a power-miser, too, and delivers up to 250 flashes from four rechargeable 2500 mAh batteries (not included).

The Sony HVL-F58AM features a GN of 58 and a host of pro features. At the core of its competencies lies ADI, Advanced Distance Integration, which allows the unit to work efficiently with lenses with distance encoders built in. The TTL information is combined automatically with other data, including the distance to the subject, the ambient light and the pre-flash reflectivity of the subject. It also provides auto white balance info exchange, high-speed sync (up to 1⁄4000 sec.), wireless control of up to three groups of flashes and enhanced recycle performance.

Don’t Splash The Flash
Although certain flash units are marketed as being “weather-resistant,” use extra caution when using any EFU in the rain. All flashes contain high-voltage storage capacitors that can inflict great bodily harm if discharged into a human subject. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the flash operates on four small penlight batteries —it can pack a wallop if it short-circuits!

Available in models to fit all popular D-SLR cameras, the Metz Mecablitz 58 AF-1 TTL shoe-mount flash is perhaps the only one of its kind that has a USB port that allows for future firmware updates via the Internet. Boasting a GN of 42 (based on use with a 50mm lens), this popular Metz unit offers high-speed sync and wireless TTL operation (depending on camera model). Specially designed reflectors help boost output and are said to reduce red-eye effect. The bounce head automatically zooms along with lenses from 24mm to 105mm and comes with a wide-angle diffuser that expands coverage to match 18mm lenses.

Remote Flash Triggers
Nature photographers have specialized needs where flash photography is concerned. Because photographing wildlife often requires some stealthy maneuvers, having the ability to fire an EFU remotely from a distance is often a significant advantage. Remote flash triggers, such as the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and Tamrac MicroSync Digital, include one component that communicates with your camera while sitting in the hot-shoe and a second piece that attaches to the flash. Using radio frequency, they allow flash activation at distances of up to 1,600 feet. Some models can be used as remote camera triggers, as well.
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Tamrac MicroSync Digital

For the ultimate experience in electronic flash performance, look to the Quantum Qflash TRIO QF8C with its parabolic reflector (that can be removed for bare-bulb lighting), with a GN of 34 and built-in RF capabilities for wireless TTL, sync and shutter control. Its boasts a USB port for firmware updates, a dedicated high-output battery system and an ultrafast recycle time of 1 to 1.5 seconds. The QF8C can be used as a shoe-mounted on-camera flash, as a master controller of off-camera units or as a standalone with the use of an optional Pilot or FreeXwire module—all of which means it delivers incredibly robust versatility. Of course, it provides full directional tilt and swivel orientation options and adjustable output settings down to 1/32 power in 1/3-stop increments.

Despite its budget price, the Sunpak PZ42X TTL is a good match for compatible Canon and Nikon cameras. It offers a GN of 42, variable power output settings, full zoom, bounce and swivel mobility and light weight (9 ounces empty). The AF assist lamp has a 16-foot range, plus an automatic shutdown mode saves batteries by turning the flash off after several minutes of inactivity.

(800) OK-CANON

Metz (Bogen Imaging)
(201) 818-9500

(800) NIKON-US

(888) 553-4448

(800) 877-0155

(914) 347-3300

Quantum Instruments

(631) 656-7400

(877) 865-SONY

Sunpak (ToCAD America)
(973) 627-9600

(800) 662-0717