PORTABLE ELECTRONIC FLASH UNITS—(PART 1)
ARTICLE PREPARED BY PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER JEFF RYAN/RYAN STUDIO OF PHOTOGRAPHY, OTTAWA, KANATA, Ont. (2018)
The numerous features found on today’s electronic flash units are quite simply, remarkable achievements in comparison to those of yesteryear. I will address several features for the benefit of the reader, addressing in detail their functions but initially, will review the various models I have used over the years which have proven themselves dependable upon repeated occasions. In a general sense, there are several models of flash units designed to attach directly to the “hot shoe” mounted directly on the top of the camera, and others, can be situated on a separate flash bracket commonly placed to the left of your camera. It has been my experience that flash units situated in hot shoes literally attached to the top of your camera are overall, not recommended. Several flash units are heavy and large and frequent problems such as the hot shoe of the camera or the mounting system of the flash itself breaking/detaching from the camera/base of the flash, has been my first hand experience.
Regrettably, the camera owner is now faced with repair charges which at times depending upon model of camera/flash unit, can be fairly significant. The recommended area to attach electronic flash devices is NOT on top of your camera, but off to the side on a sturdy extension bracket. The obvious benefit is that the hot shoe itself is not jeopardized in any way plus the issue of “red eye” may be eliminated when the flash is placed in this position as well. Regarding problems with red eye, the simplest method of addressing this concern is as mentioned, by placing the flash unit off to the side of the lens. Red eye is caused by the intensity of your electronic flashes burst of light placed too close in proximity to your lens axis to the subject. The blood vessels in the eyes retina are being illuminated/reflected at this point creating undesirable imagery. On another note, when flash units are placed on a bracket adjacent to the camera, the connection between the flash and camera is now terminated. The solution here is to purchase a relatively inexpensive connecting cord often called a “sync cord or a PC cord” which reconnects the flash to the camera permitting a continuance of flash photography. Camera owners should locate this female, circular receptacle on either the front or side of their camera body. If the camera dose not contain this sync cord receptacle, off camera flash operation via pc connecting cord is not possible. My recommendation at this point to the reader would be to visit “Article 3” in the “Photography Articles Section” of my website titled “Purchase Required Equipment Only”. There, I have listed the many features of a camera which I believe are worth while when making a purchase.
Various Portable Flash Units I Have Experienced:
There are at the time of this writing, an exorbitant amount of electronic flashes for camera enthusiasts to make their selection from. Many of these units produced by brand name manufacturers and other companies as well, are very sophisticated in nature offering a host of “automatic functions” in comparison to other products which are “fully manual” in design for the professional photographer. Recalling the flash products I have used over 40 years of photography includes many brand name manufacturers. For the sake of curiosity or to upgrade to more sophisticated items, I have purchased many of these and have endeavoured to list many of these products for reference purposes below.
-Portable flash units—Canon, Nikon, Vivitar, Sunpack plus many non descript, no name products early in my career.
-Professional Portable Units—-Lumedyne, Metz, Vivitar, Norman, Quantum.
While I will not take the liberty to reflect upon “each particular brand” and it’s apparent functions due to excessive repeatability, I will address in a general sense, the overall characteristics of more popular items/features that will benefit the reader. Below is a limited breakdown of functions pertaining to models worth noting.
Vivitar Flash Units:
The brand name of Vivitar has been in existence for numerous years at the time of this writing (August 2017), and practically every professional photographer has either heard of them or have already used their equipment for an excessively long period of time. Although these flashes are dated, they still have the basics of operation and should not be discarded when considering new purchases. These electronic flashes for many have been used as either their main flash system or as predictable and very dependable back up gear. Presently, I still own two of their most popular flash units being the models 283 and the 285. One can hardly imagine that these electronic flashes built so long ago are still available to this day as brand new equipment, and by visiting the second hand market as well. Should the reader ever consider purchasing and of these units, my preference and recommendation would be to purchase the Vivitar 285 device as opposed to it’s counterpart, the 283. The reckoning of this decision is that, the 285 contains a built in power ratio control device enabling the photographer to gain significant control of the output of the flash. Many “variables of light intensity” are now available for the photographer to select from enabling them to use the unit as a fill, main or accent light. This is a tremendous benefit providing photographer’s access to camera apertures at settings which are not fixed. For example, if your camera’s metering system is set at a specific aperture of F8, you now have the option of setting your flash to ratios slightly higher or low than this reading. You now have the advantage with power ratio control, of setting your flashes output to F8 ½ or F5.6 ½ in comparison to fixed output auto flash settings such as F11, F8 or F5.6 which several flash units contain. Again, when flash units are typically placed on automatic, they commonly must be set at fixed aperture settings such as F4, 5.6, 8, 11 etc. One can appreciate the convenience in having the luxury of overriding the standardized settings, to that of full image control. Photographers may purchase a separate power ratio control device for the 283 however, it would most likely be wiser to purchase the 285 that comes complete with it from the manufacturer thereby reducing your overall expense.
TILT / ZOOM HEAD FEATURE:
Tilt/Zoom heads for electronic flashes are also popular and beneficial in redirecting the light for bounce purposes or altering the pattern of light from a wide angle perspective to that of telephoto. (The above mentioned Vivitar 285) also includes this feature incidentally. The raw, directional light of a portable flash unit can create harsh, uncomplimentary lighting on a subjects face, and by bouncing the light into an attached white card or off a low ceiling if available, softens it’s effect and expands it’s overall coverage. Zoom heads are for the most part displayed with the following settings: Normal, Wide, Telephoto. By sliding the head of the flash to either of these areas changes the characteristics of the flashes light when it exits the front of the unit. When using camera lenses that are wide angle, you can now appreciate a wider coverage of “flash light” as opposed to when it is set at the telephoto setting. Telephoto settings will tend to tunnel the light as it leaves your flash as opposed to broadening it’s dispersion of light. Each photographic environment/application you are presented with will dictate the usage pattern of the flashes light in accordance to the camera lens you are using. A suggestion to the reader would be to conduct a test on your unit to visually determine the alteration of flash light when set at these different coverage’s. I have placed my portable flash on a bracket attached to my camera in a very dark room with wide, black backdrop paper. I have then altered the coverage of light/zoom head from wide to telephoto to determine the subtleties of change from one setting to the other. One can appreciate a difference visually in overall coverage when you have either a digital camera or are reviewing proof prints from your lab. A commonly used camera aperture of F8 was used during my tests to represent the spread of light on the backdrop. By using camera apertures smaller or wider than F8 will make the appearance of the width of light on the backdrop appear smaller or broader. Set your camera’s aperture at the F stop you use most often when conducting this type of test procedure. The reader should be made aware that flash units containing a zoom head feature are somewhat larger and slightly heavier as opposed to those that do not contain this option. This has not been a concern for many photographer’s who elect to use the previously mentioned flash bracket mounting system.
*****Should you for whatever reason determine that you cannot commit to the purchase of any new piece of equipment for testing procedures, consider the rental department of your local camera outlet. They often have a variety of good quality refurbished gear available for rent at a modest rate in comparison to the cost of new products. In addition, many photographic items at very discounted rates are frequently obtained on Ebay.ca/com which may suggest another route for you to travel while experiencing your photographic journey.
With Good Wishes,
Jeff Ryan Photographer/Ryan Studio Ottawa, Ontario. 2017