Adding a flash

While I've been thinking about it for a while, a couple weeks ago I decided it was time to get an external flash for my camera. Thus began a lot more research and a little bit of luck also came into play. The first thing I tried to do is figure out how I would use an external flash. My initial thought was to use it for macro shots, where the built-in flash both didn't give satisfactory results. For some shots it was sufficient, but because of its position there was usually a lot of glare, in addition to a lot of texture on the object being lost. The other big reason was that the bellows was large enough to block most of the flash, so only the top part of the object got lit. To get by these restrictions, I often just used a flashlight from the side for illumination, but since flashlights don't have an even beam, I had to fiddle quite a bit to get the proper lighting.

While I don't do many portraits (in fact, normally it's only for our holiday letter) I was also looking for some better results. I was also inspired by watching an interview with David Hobby and looking through his site, Strobist. Kellen has also been playing with off-camera flash and has a shoot-through umbrella and stand which he's used every now and then.

Deciding on a flash

So I knew that I wanted an external flash, and most likely would be using it off-camera. The options for going off-camera I looked into were:

  • infrared slave, which would require a flash that not only could detect the camera's flash and sync to that, but would also be able to ignore the first pre-flash (the camera does that for TTL flash metering; it can't be disabled),
  • a TTL shoe cord, which would only require a flash be electrically compatible with my camera (older flashes have too-high voltages), and
  • wireless triggers, which can be inexpensive or pricey, and I'd need to figure out how many receivers I'd want (and whether I'd need ones that can handle high voltages).

The other part of the equation was what flash to use. The east expensive would be to use the Vivitar 285 and/or Vivitar 5200 from my film days. I was pretty sure that the 285 couldn't be used directly on the camera (because of the hot shoe voltage), and wasn't sure about the 5200. Ends up I wasn't able to get them working, so the next option was to buy a flash.

I "narrowed" my search to used 285s, the Vivitar 383, the Olympus FL36 (and similar Panasonic FL360), the Nissin 466, and a couple Metz flashes. All but the 285 would work with TTL on my camera, as long as I got the proper version (or purchased an extra adapter in the case of the Metz flashes). The 383 and Nissin have a slave function, but only the Nissin can ignore the pre-flash.

KEH had the Olympus and Panasonic used, the Vivitar 383 new for about the same price, and the Vivitar 285 for a bit less. Kenmore Camera had low prices on used Metz flashes, as well as the Vivitar 285 for even less. In fact, the Vivitar 283 was less expensive yet. It was tempting to go check them out, but I saw Glazer's Camera had the Panasonic version of the Vivitar 383 for a very good price. Going there with my camera, I tried it out and everything worked as it should. Knowing the only downside was the slave function, I'd need to think of how I'd want to use it off the camera. I bought the flash and took it home to experiment.

Testing the flash

One of the first things I did at home was compare the flash to the built-in one. Definitely more powerful, and  I could get a much better look by bouncing and using the built-in reflector card. I also played with varying the flash output and lens aperture to change the exposure, as well as the shutter speed to change the background exposure. Fun stuff.

Even though I knew that in slave mode the flash would trigger off the TTL pre-flash, I decided to give it a try anyway. It actually worked, which was somewhat confusing. I took a closer look and it was firing with both the pre-flash and the main flash. To test that, I put the flash at full power, and it only fired with the pre-flash (since it didn't recycle in time for the main flash). Ends up it also won't work at half power, so using it in slave mode limits me to quarter power, which for now will probably be fine.

Kellen and I also tested with his camera, and it worked fine. However, he has problem controlling both his flash and mine at the same time. We're not exactly sure why, but of the two flashes, mine was the one that correctly triggered. We were thinking it could be that my flash was interfering with the communication between his camera and flash.

Where to go from here

I'll experiment more with the flash as it is now, but will probably get remote triggers for it. I'm also hoping I can try out Kellen's umbrella and stand with it, possibly getting a set for myself. With the remote triggers, we'll both be able to use both flashes, which will be fun to try.

Before too long, I'll probably also get a set of filters so I can play with mixing flash and ambient light. I wouldn't need them outdoors, but would when the ambient light is either incandescent or fluorescent.