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03-24-2012, 06:07 PM   #1
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Cheap vs expensive non-TTL off-camera flash

I've been scouring the internet and there seems to be a real void of information about what the difference, other than automatic features, there might be between cheap and expensive flashes. If the quality of the light coming out of a £10 flash is the same as a £100 flash, I'd be tempted to get a few cheap ones.. is this sensible?

I bought a cheap flash from a charity shop (Bell & Howell Auto 20, which I can't find any mention of on the internet), and I've just ordered a Cactus V5 trigger to start using off camera lighting. I chose this trigger because it can deal with old style high voltage output flashes, although in reality I have no idea if this flash is that old. I just wanted to be on the safe side. This flash was £10, and I haven't had a chance to buy any umbrella/tripod yet. I'm getting quite excited by the idea of having an easily transportable lighting system for not much money.

Ideally I'd like to end up with four or more flashes, but happy to start off with two and go from there. If I am happy to set aside TTL and walk up to my flash units to alter their output, is a more expensive flash really going to make much difference? One of the tricky things I've noticed is that there is no standard output measurement, unlike studio flashes, which are simply measured in watts. I'd really like to have flashes that are functionally bright for outdoor sunlight shots when required (I know that's vague but I am not totally sure myself yet), but capable of being made more dim for subtle lighting indoors. I'm pretty experimental with my camera, so ability to turn the flash from very low to high would be handy I suppose, but budget is also important.

There are some flashes going on eBay for under £10 - what's the catch?!

Is colour an issue with cheaper (or any) flash? Also, I've heard that cheaper flashes take longer to reload, but i've also heard that it's more down to the batteries used?? Either way, I'm happy to wait an extra second if it means saving an extra £100 per device.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions. I'm basically after value for money, but that doesn't mean just the dirt cheapest unless they really are okay for manually operated jobs. Any flash over about £100 is probably over my budget by the way, and am hoping to pay much less if the flash does a reasonable job.

My current main equipment is a Samsung gx-10 (pentax K10D in disguise) and a 50mm 1.4 asahi manual focus prime to which I add the occasional diopter for close-ups. I also have two kit zooms but am addicted to the asahi prime! My photography is either experimental artwork from all sorts of places or straight shots of domestic scale sculpture (my main job at the moment is as a sculptor).

03-24-2012, 07:55 PM   #2
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For older flashes price, value, and capabilities aren't necessarily all that closely related to each other. People selling old camera equipment often don't see the same value in flashes that they do in lenses and collectible camera bodies. A relatively unknown Sunpak flash like the 422 and its relatives could sell for around $10 used, while the more famous but not necessarily more capable Vivitar 285 might sell in the $60+ range. Partially because they are large, bulky, and don't offer digital TTL support I have seen several Metz and Sunpak hammerhead flashes sell with large numbers of accessories in the same $60 price range as the Vivitar 285 even though they are much more powerful and offer more precise control.

There are lots of excellent manual flash discussions by lighting enthusiasts spread around on places like Flickr (often Strobist related), and discussions on a number of very capable old Sunpak, Vivitar and Metz flashes here in the lighting forum.
03-24-2012, 08:14 PM - 1 Like   #3
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Well here is the low down on off camera flash. There is indeed a standard output measure that is a lot more reliable than the watts per second of the studio strobes. The power output is given in guide number (either in meters or feet). I say it's more reliable because not all studio strobes effectively convert the w/s into light energy, so you will find that some better (and more expensive) strobes will put out more light for the same w/s rating as a cheaper strobe. With guide number, unless they are using misleading info, that's the amount of light being put out.
Cheaper flashguns usually have less power, less features, less f-stops range and longer recycle times and of course less durable build.
For example my Metz 48-AF cost me about 3 times what I paid for the Vivitar 285HV. I've had the Metz for twice as long and the Vivitar already has a nasty crack on the plastic mounting shoe while the Metz is as good as new.
Although the type of battery you use will a lot of times change the recycle time for the flash, it will not be that way for all flashes. I had for example a small Metz with a guide number of 20 (m) and it took a full 10 sec to recycle no matter what battery you put in it.
My Vivitar goes from 10 sec to about 5 or 6 sec if I use NiCad batteries instead of alkalines, and my Metz 48 is usually in the 2 to 3 sec range. So it can be more than just an extra second or 2, waiting 10 seconds for your next frame can feel excrutiatingly slow when on a shoot.
I can change the power on my Metz from full to 1/128 power while the Vivitar goes from full to 1/16 power and some cheaper flashes have only full power and auto (thyristor controled) settings. So you have to adjust power by putting the light closer or further away. This of course will also affect contrast and might create uneven lighting due to the inverse square law. It's much better to have a wider power control range, allowing you to fine tune the light output without changing flash to subject distance.
The full power output of my Metz flash is 48 m ISO 100 @105mm, the Vivitar I think is 41 m ISO 100 @105mm (for more info on guide numbers read this article by David Hobby aka The Strobist)
I can mount the Metz on my camera and enjoy features such as tilt and swivel head, high speed sync, second curtain sync, P-TTL metering, focus assist beam (not much of an issue with the K-5, but it's there if you need it) and can even fire the Metz wirelessly (optical P-TTL) with the wireless triggering mode on Pentax bodies and flashes. Not that my flash spends much time mounted onto the camera (I'm a radio firing, off camera, manual flash power loving kinda shooter =P ) but again it's nice to have for those ocasional moments where you can't be placing lightstands and your best bet is to bounce that light of a ceiling or wall and pray for the best.
Some of the pricier models also give you the option of using an external battery pack to power the flash, giving you even faster recycling times and more flashes per charge.

Now that I've given you a run down of how a "cheap" Vivitar flash compares to a more expensive flash unit, it is important to note is that the Vivitar is a classic and probably one of the best "cheap" non dedicated off camera flashes you can buy (it runs for about 85$ from Adorama).
Buying a cheap flash with a guide number of 20 m is just wasted money, it won't serve for much more than a hair light and shooting through or bouncing off an umbrella always makes you loose a few stops of light, so by the time the light has reached your subject, it's probably weaker than the light put out by your built-in flash. Granted it will be nice soft directional light, but very underpowered forcing you to shoot open wide with fast glass or with higher ISO. You can certainly forget balancing strong sunlight with those flashes. I speak from my experience with the Metz Mecablitz 20 (and it cost me 60 bucks, a mere 20$ less than the much better Vivitar).

If you have the money, buy a couple of Metz 48-AF (I think the current version is the 50-AF) or equivalents, if you're on a very tight budget, consider something like the Vivitar 285HV (you will at some point have to replace the plastic hotshoe; they are prone to breaking). I have also heard some good things about those Yongnuo flashes (quite cheap for their feature set), but since I have never used one (nor held one in my hand) I can neither recommend nor discard them as an option.
03-25-2012, 03:53 AM   #4
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Thanks for the really useful info! I'm becoming torn between the Sunpak 3600 or the Metz 48-AF now. The Sunpak because it is a third of the price, but the jargon I've found seems to be full of typos and I can't tell if it will give similar power to the Metz or not, and I'm guessing the Metz is going to be lighter weight/have more adjustable manual features? I'm looking at that particular Sunpak just because it's appeared on eBay for £25 ($40).

03-25-2012, 06:23 AM   #5
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The Sunpak 3600 is the same Sunpak 522 (it was called Sunpak 522 in the US and internationally 3600). So you might more reliable info if you search for Sunpak 522. I believe it has a guide number of 36 ISO 100 @35mm so it puts out slightly more light than the 48-AF (33 ISO 100 @35mm)
There are several disadvantages I see when compared to the metz flash are size/weight (it weighs a ton compared to the metz) and it goes from full to 1/32 power (the metz has 2 full stops extra range control). Also the Sunpak puts out 120V through the PC connection (no hotshoe) which means you can't connect to most triggers or digital cameras.
The Sunpak is a handle mounted flash so it sits atop a long tube, this means mounting with umbrellas or other modifiers might require careful consideration. Some handle mounted flashes can be removed from the long handle tube, I don't know if that is the case with the Sunpak.
03-25-2012, 06:46 AM   #6
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Hmm, I see. Thanks very much for that info, it does seem to be a minefield. It seems that even using manual settings, there isn't much point going for the really ancient flashes compared to the modern second hand ones (unlike lenses). Regarding budget, I've found that Cactus V5 receivers accept high voltage flash but there is a critically acclaimed competitor ends up cheaper anyway (if you buy multiple receivers)
. I said earlier that I'd ordered the Cactus, but fortunately I just put it in the shopping cart and walked away from the PC so I still have options open.

So it's becoming tricky to balance all the pros and cons! I think you've swayed me with the more modern Metz over ancient Sunpak, and will carry on thinking about which exact semi-modern/modern flash to invest in.
03-25-2012, 08:15 AM   #7
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Yongnuo flashes are worth looking at. I've got a 560 - there's now a mk.II available now as well - and it's a powerful, fast recharging easy to use manual flash. It also has a wide range of settings for power output and zoom. If you buy from a UK vendor they're £50 new inc. P&P, though YN do also sell less powerful ones for less money.
03-25-2012, 03:27 PM   #8
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Thanks again, I've been thinking about Yongnuo flashes (I've finally taken the plunge and ordered a yonguo set of radio triggers in anticipation of getting a flash). But now I'm looking at the Metz 48-AF, and it says 'for Olympus'. Can I still use it?? I know that's probably a very novice question but it's driving me nuts trying to find out all these details.

03-25-2012, 04:05 PM   #9
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QuoteOriginally posted by wildweasel Quote
Yongnuo flashes are worth looking at. I've got a 560 - there's now a mk.II available now as well - and it's a powerful, fast recharging easy to use manual flash. It also has a wide range of settings for power output and zoom. If you buy from a UK vendor they're £50 new inc. P&P, though YN do also sell less powerful ones for less money.
I just got one of the first models of YN560 and a question I have about it is 'what is the flash connection as the PC chords I own do not plug into it or at least do not make a proper connection.

To the OP, I bought the YN560 based mostly on good recommendations on this forum and wanted to use the same flash with from my K-r to my 4X5.
03-25-2012, 04:10 PM   #10
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QuoteOriginally posted by PentaxLearner Quote
Thanks again, I've been thinking about Yongnuo flashes (I've finally taken the plunge and ordered a yonguo set of radio triggers in anticipation of getting a flash)
You didn't order the 603 triggers did you? If you did you will have to send them back and get the older 602's or another brand. The 603's will not fire off on Pentax bodies - some sellers of these note "compatible with Pentax" while some note "not compatible with Pentax", the 603's are not compatible.
03-25-2012, 04:17 PM   #11
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QuoteOriginally posted by redrockcoulee Quote
I just got one of the first models of YN560 and a question I have about it is 'what is the flash connection as the PC chords I own do not plug into it or at least do not make a proper connection.
This is the one from "Camera-2-Flash" (a generic one anyways) ->
M-M FLASH PC Sync Cable Cord Kabel NIKON CANON PENTAX | eBay

And another
http://www.amazon.com/DURAGADGET-Flash-Cable-Olympus-Pentax/dp/B007MAYDIG/re...2717496&sr=8-7
03-25-2012, 04:30 PM   #12
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Thanks Redrock and Joe! My instinct is that the YN560 would be easier to use than the Metz 48-AF, because there are no menus to go through which is probably a bonus when working at faster pace. I've heard both great and not so great things (mostly that they have died fairly quickly) about the YN560's. I'd rather spend £30 extra for a more durable Metz, but then again, it's difficult to tell sometimes if reports of failure are just isolated scares rather than something to really worry about.

Joe, I bought the 602's, it took a while to finally realise that these are fine and the 603's aren't.. it was eventually a choice between three 602 receivers+1 trigger, or four cactus V5 trasceivers. The £87 price difference was the deal breaker for me.
03-25-2012, 04:39 PM   #13
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QuoteOriginally posted by PentaxLearner Quote
Thanks again, I've been thinking about Yongnuo flashes (I've finally taken the plunge and ordered a yonguo set of radio triggers in anticipation of getting a flash). But now I'm looking at the Metz 48-AF, and it says 'for Olympus'. Can I still use it?? I know that's probably a very novice question but it's driving me nuts trying to find out all these details.
The ones that specify "For Olympus" will fire with a radio trigger, but you would not be able to use the advanced features if placed on-camera. I just think it would be a shame to pay the price for the flash and not be able to use everything it offers.
The Metz's menu and controls are pretty simple to use, and even simpler when using it in manual mode. Press the "Mode" button to put it in Manual (it only has 3 modes) then use the + or - to increase or decrease power.
The menu system is only used to set advanced features. Unless I want to change zoom settings I never go into the menu system when shooting off camera.

Like I said before, I've never shot Yongnuo flashes so I can't compare how much simplere (or complicated) their menu and operation controls are.
03-25-2012, 05:35 PM   #14
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I wish there was a 'like' button here! I must use Facebook too much.. (add me if you like, I'm Josh Redman, usually with a profile pic of obscure ceramics or an arty photo).

I'm certainly not disagreeing with you Jase, but the price difference is tricky to work out because I should imagine that I could hold out for a second hand Pentax Metz... is this the model you have? I'm not sure if the ''Mecablitz'' thing means anything.. Metz Mecablitz 48 AF-1 Shoe Mount Flash for Multiple Brands 719821281122 | eBay
03-25-2012, 05:50 PM - 1 Like   #15
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Actually, there is a "like" button - well, link, it is under the posting users name left side bottom base of the actual reply...
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