Flash guns

Brighten up your Canon photography with a flashgun and learn how to benefit from using these valuable tools. We shine the spotlight on eight flashguns for ?200 or less First, the bad news. Flashguns have huge potential for producing ghastly images. Flash photography is fraught with issues such as the dreaded red-eye, and harsh lighting that gives portraits a washed-out, haggard look. And how do you fancy hopeless mismatches between different areas of a scene that are lit by ambient lighting and flash? In short, flash can make images shot on even a top D-SLR look like snapshots from a cheap compact camera. And yet, flashguns can still be a wonderfully versatile tool for any photographer, and are often an essential requirement for decent shots.

Flash guns

Most Canon D-SLRs have a small pop-up flash, but a proper flashgun enables far greater flexibility and creativity. For starters, all the flashguns in this Super Test feature bounce heads, so you can bounce the flash off ceilings and walls to produce softer, kinder and more flattering lighting for portraits. All but one offer swivel as well as bounce, so you can bounce the light off a ceiling even when you re shooting in portrait (upright) orientation; this also gives you greater freedom for bouncing the flash off walls, or just about anything else.

Better still, all the flashguns in this group are fully ’to Canon cameras, so you can expect them to work in harmony to produce the best possible results. As wesee, however, some are more dedicated than others...

Let there be light There s more to a good flashgun than its power rating The single most useful aspect of dedicated flashguns is that they offer E-TTL (Electronic —Through The Lens) flash metering. A pre-flash pulse of light is fired, reflected back from the scene and measured by the camerametering system, and the strength of the flash is set accordingly. This means that, for example, you can zoom in on a subject to fill the central region of the frame with their face, then press the Flash Exposure Lock button on the camera to set and lock the flash power. You can now zoom out and recompose, and the flash power will still be correct. At least, thatthe theory. In practice, some flashguns can produce slightly underexposed or overexposed results; if so youneed to dial in some flash exposure compensation and re-shoot. Again, thanks to dedication, you can apply flash exposure compensation directly from the camera s Flash Control menu or Quick menu. When it comes to camera menus, however, some flashguns are more dedicated than others. For example, all the Canon models on test enable you to adjust flash modes direct from the Flash Control menu on your EOS. These can include E-TTL and manual flash modes, as well as sync options for regular, high-speed sync and rear curtain. The same often canbe said for other manufacturer s flashguns, making the ease of use of onboard controls all the more important. While E-TTL is ideal for general shooting, sometimes it pays to go manual to fine-tune the balance between the ambient light and the power of the flash. In manual shooting mode, you can set the aperture and shutter speed to give you the exposure setting you want for the ambient lighting, and then dial in flash power manually for the best results. Flashguns can also be used to create fill-in flash on sunny days, for example to avoid facial shadows in portraits. But when you use flash a limiting factor is the maximum shutter sync speed of the camera, which is often 1/200 sec, but the HSS (high-speed sync) mode on most flashguns enables you to use flash at any shutter speed; the only proviso is that, at very fast speeds, the maximum power of the flash will be limited. High-end options What extra features do you get if you pay top dollar for a flashgun? On the face of it, ?200 or less can buy you a very smart and sophisticated flashgun. For example, most of the models in this group feature motorised zoom heads, which can automatically adjust to the focal length of the lens, or keep step with zoom lenses; typically, the range is about 24-105mm. Most offer high-speed sync and rear curtain sync options (the latter being good for shooting vehicles with light trails at night), and as wementioned, some even offer wireless master as well as slave modes. So why would you want to pay more? Top-flight flashguns like the Canon 600EX-RT, which costs the best part of ?600, and its predecessor, the 580EX II are fully professional devices with build quality to match, including environmental seals to keep out moisture and dust. They also often have a higher maximum power output, and feature PC sync terminals and sockets for powering them from external, high-capacity battery packs, so you can keep shooting for longer. That said, the Nissin Di866 Mk II Pro, on test here, also has PC Sync and external power supply connections, plus a USB port for applying firmware updates. One really neat new feature of the Canon 600EX-RT that none of the flashguns in our test can match is built-in wireless radio control. This works on RF (Radio Frequency) transmission so, unlike more basic master/slave arrangements, it doesnrequire line of sight between the transmitter and receiver. Remote triggering works over distances of up to 30m when using the flashgun on or off the camera. STEP BY STEP Go wireless for off-camera flash Flash function In the Flash Control section of a I compatible camerashooting menu, select in flash func. setting’. You can choose whether only the main flashgun fires, or both the pop-up flash and flashgun fire (as here), or firing for multiple flashgun setups. Power ratios Here we ve selected firing for both the pop-up flash and remote flashgun in wireless slave mode. You can then go on to define the relative power ratio between the external flashgun and the pop-up flash; in this case itset to 2:1. Slave mode To enable wireless off-camera firing of the flashgun, set it to slave mode. For the Canon 430EX II, press and hold the Zoom/Wireless button —you can then select the wireless channel and, if using multiple groups of flashguns, the relevant group. Canon Speedlite 270EX II www.canon.co.uk Flashguns tend to be quite bulky, but the pocket-sized 270EX II is remarkably compact and lightweight. Factors contributing to this downsizing include the absence of an LCD display for flash information and a lack of any control buttons except for the off/slave/on switch, while it runs on two AA batteries instead of the usual four. With a Gn (Guide number) of 27, maximum flash power is the lowest of any flashgun on test, but it does include a bounce head, and theresufficient power for bouncing the flash off ceilings that aren t massively high. Thereno swivel function, however, so you candirect flash at the ceiling when shooting in portrait orientation with the flashgun mounted in the hotshoe; the wireless slave mode comes in handy for this. The lack of control buttons or an LCD screen means that all adjustments have to be made from the cameraFlash Control menu. That s not as painful or long-winded as it might sound, however, as camera-driven operation is seamless and flawless, and a neat extra is that you can fire the camera remotely from a button on the flashgun. E-TTL metering is very accurate, but recycle speed is a bit sluggish, taking about twice as long as for the other two Canon flashguns in the group.

Flash guns

Canon Speedlite 320EX www.canon.co.uk A step up from the 270EXII, the 320EX is slightly more powerful, runs from four rather than two batteries, and has a head that swivels as well as bounces. The zoom function is still manual rather than motorised and, also like the 270EX II, it has no info LCD for displaying flash settings. Wireless slave functions are more refined, with onboard switches for setting the channel number and any of three flashgun groups, but therestill heavy reliance on using the cameraFlash Control menu for making most adjustments. Uniquely in this group, the 320EX features a secondary LED lamp, which gives continuous lighting for shooting video; however, illumination is limited and itonly of any use for very short-range work. Also like the 270EXII, but unlike all the other flashguns in the group, thereno red lamp for AF assist, so it emits an annoying rapid-fire burst of bright pulses from the flash tube in low lighting to help the camera autofocus. The flashgun is prone to slight overexposure in E-TTL mode, but recycling is fast at three seconds after a full-power discharge. Considering that italmost as expensive as the Canon 430EX II, the 320EX doesnreally do enough to justify its price tag. Canon Speedlite 430EXII www.canon.co.uk Much more of a serious photographerflashgun than either of the other Canon models on test, the 430EXII is well equipped, with direct-access buttons for switching between E-TTL and manual flash modes, highspeed sync and rear curtain functions, flash exposure compensation and more. You always know exactly whatgoing on as well, thanks to a backlit LCD info display. Compared with the other Canon guns theremore power on tap, with a rating of Gn 43. Other refinements include a motorised zoom head and wide-angle diffuser; another neat touch is that the flashgun senses whether the host camera has a full-frame or APS-C sensor, and adjusts the zoom setting and info display accordingly. In wireless slave mode the 430EX II works as flawlessly as youexpect of a genuine Canon flashgun, and custom function adjustments are easy to make, either using the controls on the flashgun itself or via the camera menu; the latter option is actually better, as it offers supplementary information about each setting. E-TTL flash metering is spot-on and recycling is both fast and silent; the lack of annoying whistling used to be a selling point of the 430EX II, but most competing flashguns have caught up. Metz Mecablitz 50 AF-1 www.metzflash.co.uk The Metz has robust build quality and luxuries that include a bounce and swivel head that can be angled down to-7 degrees, as well as all the way up to 90 degrees; it can also swivel though 180 degrees to the left or 120 degrees to the right. Therea motorised zoom from 24-105mm, and the head features both a flip-down wide-angle diffuser and pull-out reflector card, the latter of which is omitted on the Canon 430EX II and is good for giving a catch-light in bounce mode. Wireless slave operation works in all four channels and three groups. Like the Canon flashguns on test, the Metz has high-speed sync and rear curtain modes. Better still, the high level of dedication enables custom functions and settings to be adjusted via the cameraFlash Control menu —which is just as well, as the onboard controls arenvery intuitive. Unfortunately, the Metz tends to underexpose shots by about two-thirds of a stop in E-TTL mode, so you re likely to have to apply positive flash exposure compensation. The recycling time from a full-power flash is pretty average, at 5.3 seconds. To ensure compatibility with future Canon cameras, the Metz features a USB port which you can use to apply firmware updates. Nissin Speedlite Di822 Mk II www.nissindigital.com Despite being the joint cheapest flashgun in the group, along with the Sunpak PZ42X, the Nissin Di622 Mk II boasts a surprisingly full set of features, along with a marginally higher maximum power rating than the more expensive Canon 430EX II. Plus points include a motorised zoom head with bounce and swivel functions, a wide-angle diffuser and reflector card, and wireless slave compatibility. Dig a little deeper though and a few minus points come to light. In common with only the Sunpak in this group, recycling is anything but silent, producing a clearly audible whining noise. The zoom motor is also quite noisy. The wireless slave mode only works in channel 1, group A configuration and the flashgun lacks a high-speed sync mode. Therealso no info LCD, but at least you can apply flash exposure compensation via switches on the flashgun, albeit only within +/-1.5EV in 0.5EV increments. Alternatively, you can apply flash exposure compensation through the cameraFlash Control menu. Exposure accuracy isn t too far off in E-TTL mode, with a tendency to underexpose by about one-third of a stop. The recycling time after a full-power flash is pretty nippy at 4.1 seconds. Nissin Speedlite Di866 Mk II Pro www.nissindigital.com Like its smaller sibling on test, the Di866 used to be a noisy beast, with a loud zoom motor and recycling circuitry, but the Mk II model is more refined. It really earns its ’moniker too, with advanced features including a quick-loading battery magazine, an external power input for use with a high-capacity battery pack, a USB port for applying firmware updates and a PC sync socket to enable triggering via a cable. The Nissin boasts a stroboscopic multi-flash mode as well as high-speed sync and rear curtain modes. Everything is wonderfully easy to get at too, thanks to a colour LCD screen and four-way control buttons. Thereeven an orientation sensor, so the display will be the right way up during both landscape and portrait orientation shooting. Full wireless master and slave functions are on hand and, uniquely in the group, there s a secondary sub-flash module, useful for delivering direct fill-flash in bounce mode. Exposure is consistent in E-TTL mode but proved very slightly underexposed at-0.2 EV in our tests. Recycling is quite pedestrian too, at 5.9 seconds. We can forgive it that, however, as the Gn rating of 60 makes it the most powerful flashgun in the group, along with the Sigma. Sigma EF-610 DG Super www.sigma-imaging-uk.com The ’Sigma serves up many of the same features as the exotic Nissin Di866 Mk II Pro, including a full set of strobe, high-speed sync and rear curtain modes, delivered through a high-power head boasting a Gn rating of 61. Likewise, both of these flashguns offer full wireless master/slave operation, in all four transmission channels and with three alternative groups available for more complex setups. Itnot all good news, though. Build quality isnall that great —for example, as with only the cheaper Nissin Di622 and the Sunpak PZ42X on test, the mounting plate is plastic rather than metal. And the Sigmawide-ranging onboard menu system is a little arcane and long-winded, a flaw thatmade worse by the fact that, unlike most flashguns in this group, hardly any of the settings can be changed via the host cameraFlash Control menu; youlimited to being able to dial in flash exposure compensation via the camera. The Sigma has a tendency to underexpose by about a third of a stop in E-TTL mode. Recycling speed is also disappointing, taking almost eight seconds to recover from a full-power flash. All in all, for a high-spec flashgun, the Nissin Di866 Mk II has a lot more going for it. Flash gunsSunpak PZ42X www.sunpak.jp/english The last time we ran a flashguns Super Test back in issue 40, this Sunpak won our Best Value award, and ita sign of how far things have moved on in the last couple of years that itno longer in the running. By current standards, the PZ42X is a very basic affair. It has no high-speed sync or even a rear curtain mode, and itthe only flashgun in the group that canfunction as a wireless slave. Apart from flash exposure compensation, flashgun settings canbe altered from the cameraFlash Control menu. The flashgun s menu system itself is quite basic, although it does at least allow you to cycle through E-TTL or manual flash, with +/-1.5EV bias or manual levels between full power and l/64th respectively. You can also switch the motorised zoom head between full-frame and APS-C focal lengths, as well as applying manual zoom settings. The head features a wide-angle diffuser, but thereno reflector card. Maximum flash power is pretty respectably at Gn 42, practically equalling he Canon 430EX II, but recycling takes more than twice as long at 7.1 seconds. The Sunpakflash exposure accuracy is also disappointing; in E-TTL mode it consistently overexposes by half a stop. Verdict Therea lot to like in the Canon 430EXII, Metz 50 AF-1 and Sigma EF-610 DG Super flashguns. They re all similarly priced but, while the Sigma leads the way with its higher maximum flash power and wireless master function, we actually prefer the Canon. The 430EX II works so seamlessly with Canon D-SLRs it feels like an entirely natural extension of the camera. However, for sheer sophistication, pro-level features and advanced functions, the Nissin Di866 Mark II is simply unbeatable. It s the outright winner by a clear margin. At the cheaper end of the scale, the Canon 270EX II is an attractive option when space (or lack of it) is a consideration, but itvery basic and doesneven feature onboard controls. For useful features and performance, Nissin wins again with the Di622 Mk II. It s the cheapest in the group, along with the Sunpak PZ42X, but has much more to offer. The Nissin Di866 offers a host of pro-level features Five things we learned in this test For holding a camera in one hand for portrait orientation shooting, and using the other hand to hold an off-camera flash, it s worth investing in a battery grip. Ni-MH batteries, like Sanyo Eneloop and Panasonic Infinium, are ideal for flashguns, as they hold their charge for long periods of time when not being used. Wireless slave flash isn t the only way to go. Off-camera flash cords are a good alternative, and independent makes won t break the bank at around ?30. LCD info panels are good to have on flashguns, as they give you an instant indication of your current settings. Greater maximum flash power is especially useful for when you need to bounce the flash off walls and ceilings.

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