Smart flashguns, clever features

Some flashguns are a lot more advanced than others. Check for the functions you need to suit the way you shoot

Super Tip!

Ni-MH batteries are preferable to alkaline cells for use in flashguns. Not only are they rechargeable, but recycle speeds between flashes also tend to be noticeably faster. One problem, however, is that most Ni-MH batteries lose their charge quite quickly: it’s annoying if you put freshly charged batteries in your flashgun, then go to use it a couple of weeks later and find that they’ve already gone flat. Some Ni-MH batteries I are engineered to hold their charge for many months, which is much more useful. Popular choices include Sanyo Eneloop, Panasonic Infinium and Uniross Hybrio.

The flashguns in this test group all have bounce and swivel heads. This is a must-have feature for softening the light (see ‘Bounce the light’, opposite). Most flashguns offer a zero to 90 degrees bounce facility, and a full 180 degrees of swivel in at least one direction, and between 90 degrees and 180 degrees in the other.

Maximum output power is measured as a Guide number (Gn). This is usually stated at a camera sensitivity of ISO100, at the flashgun’s maximum zoom setting, which we’ll come to later. Dividing the Gn by the aperture you’re using gives the maximum reach of the flash. For example, a flashgun with a Gn 43 rating at an aperture of f/5.6 has a maximum range of 7.7 metres (43÷5.6=7.7). Naturally, you can extend the range by using a higher ISO setting; bear in mind, however, that the range will be greatly reduced if you’re bouncing the light off ceilings or walls.

Recycling speeds can vary noticeably between different flashguns. The time it takes for the unit to be ready after a low- power flash is usually ‘ almost instantaneous, but can slow down to several seconds after a full-power flash. Most current flashguns feature silent recycle systems, doing away with the annoying whistling noise that’s common in older designs.

Getting back to zoom heads, most advanced flashguns have motorised mechanisms. This is a further benefit of being dedicated to the camera, as the head zooms automatically to track the focal length or zoom setting of the lens being used. It’s good to have because, if you’re using a longer focal length, you don’t need to illuminate such a wide-angle area, and by zooming in to match the area you need to illuminate the maximum reach is extended. The most common zoom range is 24-105mm (full-frame equivalent), although the Canon 600EX-RT stretches to 200mm at the telephoto end. By contrast, the Canon 320EX only has a basic, 24-50mm manual zoom.

Advanced features

Most flashguns offer advanced modes that include HSS (high¬speed sync) and rear-curtain flash. HSS enables flash with fast shutter speeds, ideal for fill-in flash on sunny days, while rear-curtain sync fires the flash at the end of an exposure, rather than at the beginning. It’s good for panning, as it creates motion blur behind moving objects. Some up¬market flashguns also feature a Strobe mode, for multiple flashes in a single exposure.

One thing that often separates basic and advanced flashguns is their wireless abilities. Most have a wireless slave function, so they can be fired remotely when used off-camera, either by a flashgun with a wireless master function or the camera’s pop-up flash.* High-spec units usually have full master/slave flash options.

Bounce the light’

Bring a little softness to your images

The hardness or softness of light depends on the relative size of the light source, and how far the light is from what it’s illuminating. So while direct sunlight is very hard, on an overcast day the whole sky acts as a giant diffuser, effectively increasing the surface area of the light source, so the quality of light is much softer.

Similarly, a flashgun produces a fairly direct, harsh light that can be unflattering for portraits and makes for poor still life images, but by using the bounce and swivel features of a flashgun you can redirect the light to reflect off ceilings or walls. Naturally, this works best if the ceiling is quite low, or the wall is nearby, and they’re white or off-white in colour (you can always correct a colour cast later if reflected light creates one). After bouncing back off a large area of ceiling or wall, the size of the effective light source is greatly increased, and therefore produces a much softer light.

Another neat trick is to use the flashgun off-camera. With Canon bodies like the 7D and mid-range cameras like the 600D onwards (but not the 100D), you can use the pop-up flash as a wireless master. This gives the option of using the flashgun off-camera, giving you more flexibility over its placement. For example, you can position the flashgun high and to one side of a portrait sitter’s face, for a more artistic and three-dimensional ‘modelling’ effect. If your camera doesn’t act as a wireless commander you can use a remote flashgun cord, which costs about £50.

Canon Speedlite 320EX

The smallest and lightest flashgun in the group, this Canon is also light on features. It has the smallest power rating at Gn 32, lacks a motorised zoom head and has no info LCD for keeping a check on settings. There’s no wide-angle diffuser or fill-in reflector card, and no AF assist lamp. Instead, you generally have to rely on an annoying flickering flash for AF assist, as with a pop-up flash.

Extras include a secondary LED lamp, which can supply continuous illumination for shooting movies, although it’s of very low power. The flashgun also has a remote control button for triggering cameras that are compatible with RC-1, RC-5 and RC-6 infrared remote controllers.

Around the back, controls are very basic. Pretty much all adjustments have to be made via the camera’s flash control menu, from flash exposure compensation and setting manual flash power levels to selecting high-speed sync or rear-curtain sync. One i redeeming feature when using the 320EX as a wireless slave is that there are handy switches for selecting slave mode and choosing any of three groups and four channels.

Canon Speedlite 430EX II

Despite costing only £15 more than the Canon 320EX, this flashgun is in a whole different league. The maximum power rating of Gn 43 is still a little down on most other flashguns in the group, but, while it’s not much bigger or heavier than the 320EX it packs in many more features. For starters, you get a motorised zoom head with a 24-105mm range, extending to 14mm at the wide-angle end if you use the built-in diffuser. These focal lengths relate to cameras with full-frame sensors, but the flashgun can automatically convert zoom settings when used on an APS-C camera.

Other refinements include a red AF illumination lamp and wide-reaching onboard controls for flash settings, backed up by an LCD info screen, making it much more intuitive to use than the 320EX, especially as the controls and menu system are so well implemented.

Whereas the 320EX often gives slight overexposure in E-TTL flash mode, the 430EX is spot on practically every time, and it also matches the 320EX’s fast recycling time of three seconds after a full-power flash. The wireless slave mode works a treat, but there’s no wireless master facility.

Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT

A significant upgrade to the now obsolete 580EX II, this is Canon’s latest top-flight, fully professional flashgun. Headline attractions include a powerful Gn 60 maximum output and a motorised zoom head with a class-leading 20-200mm range, plus built-in wide-angle diffuser and a fill-in reflector card. There’s also extra bounce and swivel range, with an additional downward bounce angle of -7 degrees and 180 degree swivel in both left and right directions, and a strobe flash mode.

Other pro features include a socket for powering the unit from an external CP-E4 power pack. As you’d expect, there are full master/slave wireless facilities for multi-flashgun setups but, even here, the 600EX-RT goes further than most. As well as having infrared connectivity and an optical slave unit, the flashgun also boasts RF (Radio Frequency) transmission. This boosts the working range to 30 metres and, unlike with infrared, you don’t need ‘line of sight’ between the camera and flashgun. As an added bonus, you can also fire the camera remotely from the flashgun, either by using an optional ST-E3-RT radio trigger (£300) or a second 600EX-RT flashgun.

Metz Mecablitz 52 AF-1

This is a new addition to Metz’s line of dedicated flashguns, and a worthy upgrade to the older 50 AF-1. As well as a slightly more powerful Gn 52 rating, the 52 AF-1 offers full master/slave wireless functions, whereas the previous model only had a wireless slave mode.

The generous feature set includes a motorised zoom head, red AF assist lamp, and options for high-speed and rear-curtain sync, plus a flip-down wide-angle diffuser and fill-in reflector card. Build quality feels up to Metz’s usual high standards, and integration with in-camera menus is good.

We criticised the onboard control system of the older 50 AF-1, as it was a little confusing to navigate. The 52 AF-1 puts that to rights with a new touchscreen LCD, which greatly simplifies making adjustments to settings; indeed, it’s the only flashgun in the group to have a touchscreen info panel. Considering that the maximum power output is a fair bit less than that of the most powerful flashguns in the group, recycling time after a full-power flash is a bit sluggish, at 5.2 seconds. In our tests, exposures in E-TTL mode were a bit on the bright side and lacked consistency.

Nissin Speedlite Di622 MK II

The Di622 Mk II is only about half the price of most flashguns in the group, and less than a quarter of the price of the Canon 600EX-RT. Nevertheless, it features a motorised zoom head, complete with wide-angle diffuser and fill-in reflector card, a red AF assist lamp and a wireless slave function. The maximum power rating of Gn 44 is also very respectable, and on a par with the Canon 430EX II.

Dig a little deeper though, and a few omissions come to light. There’s no info LCD on the back, just a rudimentary mode selection switch and flash exposure compensation buttons. Compensation itself only ranges between +/-1.5EV, instead of the more usual +/-3EV. Similarly, manual power settings only go down to 1/32 of full power, whereas most flashguns in this group go all the way down to 1/128.

Another niggle is that the Di622 Mk II is the only unit on test that lacks silent recycling; there’s a noticeable whistling sound, and the head’s zoom motor is quite noisy too. At least recycling is fairly quick, at 4.1 seconds after a ful l-power flash. Another catch is that wireless slave mode only works in channel 1, group A configuration.

Nissin Di866 Mk II Professional

One of the most powerful guns in the group, the Di866 Mk II matches the mighty Canon 600EX-RT with a Gn 60 rating. It also boasts many of the Canon’s pro-friendly features, including a strobe output for multiple flashes in a single exposure, and a power socket for attaching an external power pack. Another nice touch is that the battery caddy is removable, so you can buy additional caddies for fast swapping. Flash settings are easy to adjust, thanks to a colour LCD screen and highly intuitive menu system. Custom functions can’t be altered from the camera’s menu system but, unlike the Canon 430EX II, full descriptions of functions are displayed on the info LCD.

An extra bonus is a secondary sub-flash tube mounted on the front of the unit — it’s great for adding a little direct flash when using the main flash in bounce or swivel mode. Unlike the original edition of the

Di866, the Mk II has a much quieter zoom motor and silent recycling. Advanced controls are a doddle to use, especially the wireless master/slave setup. The only slight disappointment is that recycling after a full-power flash is a bit sluggish at 5.9 seconds.

Nissin MG8000 Extreme

In most respects, the MG8000 Extreme is very similar to the Nissin Di866 Mk II: it has the same Gn 60 maximum power rating, colour LCD info screen, 24-105mm motorised zoom, and secondary sub-flash tube. The main difference is this unit’s ‘extreme’ heat resistance.

A problem fashion and event photographers often face is that, after a prolonged period of rapid-fire use, a flashgun may start to overheat. There’s normally a safety cut-out feature, but you’ll need to wait while the flashgun cools down again. The MG8000 has a specially designed quartz flash tube and heat-resistant materials, enabling it to fire more than a thousand full-power flashes in continuous, non-stop use.

Another difference between the two Nissin flashguns is that the MG8000 lacks the Di866 Mk I I’s wide-angle dif f user and fill-in reflector card, no doubt to assist the cool running of the head; instead it comes with a separate dif fusion dome that clips to the front. In our tests, the MG8000 consistently overexposed shots in E-TTL mode by about half a stop; this is in marked contrast to the Di866 Mk II, which typically gave very slight underexposure.

Sigma EF-610 DG Super

There’s no shortage of features on this Sigma, which has a full complement of high-speed sync, rear-curtain and strobe modes on hand. The motorised zoom head comes complete with wide-angle diffuser and reflector card, and there’s a red AF assist lamp plus full master/ slave wireless functions. It’s not all good news, however, as build quality feels a little downmarket. Like only the budget Nissin Di622 Mk II, the mounting foot is plastic rather than metal, and the battery door of our review sample was very stiff and fiddly to operate. There are plenty of onboard controls, but the red-on-black lettering of the top row of buttons is difficult to read. The menu system is quite long-winded, and falls well short of the intuitive systems of most competing units; this problem is compounded by the fact that most of the settings and custor functions can’t be adjusted from the host camera’s menu, only on the flashgun itself. There’s plenty of power on tap, with a class-leading Gn 61 rating, but the Sigma generally underexposes shots by about a third of a stop. Recycling speed from a full-power flash is the slowest in the group, at 7.9 seconds.

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