The Right Equipment To Shoot Just About Anything

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There is no unqualified "best portable light in the world" that works for every photographer. The lights and accessories discussed are ones that have worked well for me or have been used successfully by photographer friends and colleagues. Nikon camera owners will find certain advantages in using the latest Nikon flash units, and the same holds true for Canon owners and Canon flash units. The basic requirements for an efficient, portable flash are simple, and many new and used flashes on the market fit the bill nicely. You need to make your buying decisions based on your budget, your requirements, and just how flexible you need your lights to be. Here are the ground rules for the "basic" mimimalist flash unit:

1. Usable in a standard hot shoe. (Yes, I told you to get the flash off die camera, but the hot shoe "foot" is widely used as a point of attachment on light stand adapters as well as an interface for syncing with radio receivers and optical slaves. This requirement may rule out current Minolta and Sony flashes, as they have a proprietary flash "foot" making it a "closed system.")

2. Has a guide number of over 100. (The guide number refers to the power output of the flash. Most units that accept four AA batteries have guide numbers of at least 100.)

3. Has the ability to reduce power in manually set steps.

4. Accepts AA batteries. (This requirement yields several benefits, including the ability to switch batteries from unit to unit as well as the ability to use homemade high-yield battery packs.)

This is where the camera and the flash meet up to share information. The "foot" of a modern, dedicated flash, like this Nikon SB-28, has a number of electrical contact points that inform and control the computer in the flash. The center contact also triggers the flash.
The "shoes" of the latest Nikon flashes are made of sturdy metal to increase reliability. The center contact point is the sync trigger that detects a trigger voltage from the camera. All the other contacts relay information between the camera and the flash unit.

An important feature of all the professional series of flashes from Nikon is the standard PC flash connector, which allows for use with the widest range of third-party products. This close-up (top left) shows the connection of the flash to an ancient PC cord. A second view (top right) is shown without the cord.

A high-voltage battery pack from Digital Camera Battery (right). This unit, shown attached to the HV socket of a Nikon SB-28, can recycle flashes in approximately 2 seconds and has the capacity for hundreds and hundreds of full-power exposures. Be sure to read the instructions, as most battery-operated flashes can be damaged from being triggered too quickly for too many accua-tions. A dedicated cord is required for each brand of flash.

5. Finally, the unit should weigh less than two pounds with batteries.

The weight may seem inconsequential, especially if you transport your lights in a rolling case, but many of the mounting options we'll discuss use lightweight hardware or even duct tape to secure the units. If a Hash unit is too heavy, you'll limit your mounting options.

The above describes the most basic model of electronic flash you'll want to use in your location lighting kit. If your requirements are more demanding and you

have the budget, you may want to consider upgrading to the next level of features.

The "step up" grade of electronic flash unit would have three features that may become more and more useful to you as you begin to explore more complex and demanding lighting situations.

1. Built-in standard PC connector (a universal plug for sync cords).

2. The ability to use high-voltage battery packs for faster Hash recycling and all-day power reserves.

3. The ability to turn down the power in precise |/3-stop increments, all the way down to /12s power. These three features can make a long and technically exacting shoot a bit easier by giving you more flexibility.

If you don't need to watch every cent and want the most advanced portable electronic flashes on the market, you might want to add the two following features, but be aware that these extra capabilities are usually only available when used in conjunction with specific cameras from Canon and Nikon or other camera manufacturers.

1. Wireless off-camera flash control. (The Nikon camera and flash combination will allow you to control up to three different groups of flashes, setting flash levels and turning groups on and off from the camera. Canon's systems are similar.)

2. FP flash capability. (The ability to be used, automatically or manually with high shutter speeds instead of the normal, limited flash synchronization for a given camera. This makes balancing the flashes with daylight easier and gives you more lighting options on bright days.) Other features such as "stroboscopic" modes are less important.

Once you've figured out the features you need and want you'll be ready to start searching for your flash units. In the following section there is more detail about various models, but it's really beyond the scope of this book to discuss every available unit. I'm a Nikon shooter so I'm more comfortable with Nikon flashes, but the capabilities of Canon and some Metz units are nearly identical.

Vivitar 285 HV. This side view shows off the Vivitar 285's zoom head feature as well as the lighted white dial that allows quick automatic and manual settings. The "HV" in the name refered to its ability to be used with dedicated high-voltage, external battery packs.

The bottom line is this: to get the most out of portable location lights, you'll want to select a flash from the family of flashes sometimes called "cobra head" (lashes. These lit in the hot shoe of a 35mm-style camera and articulate near the middle so that the flash head faces forward but sits tip high on the camera (hence the reference to cobras). Flashes were originally designed this way to eliminate red-eye when used atop cameras. The articulated head also makes it easy to "bounce" the light from these units. If you follow the above guidelines, you'll find a wealth of new and used flashes to choose from. Some information on a few favorites follows.

THE HEROES: THE LIGHTS

Manufacturers of portable flashes seem to have hit their stride around 1972. A number of companies competed in a growing market, and each one brought out new features to differentiate their products. One company suc-

cessfiilly found the right combination of features and performance and quickly became the market leader. That company was Vivitar.

The grandfather of modern, hot shoe style electronic flashes was undoubtedly the Vivitar 283. This was the first "system" flash designed to actually make location shooting easy, and the designers put a lot of time and effort into figuring out what pros would like in a portable unit and how to make it work without overtaxing brain cells. The Vivitar 283 was part of a new generation of "thyristor" flashes that worked with automatic settings. The sensor on the front of the flash would sense when a scene had received enough light, and it would squelch the light output while conserving any unused power in the flash's internal capacitors. The sensor on the front was removable. It could be placed on a long, dedicated cord which attached in the sensor's place on the flash unit, providing the first simplified, off-camera flash that would retain accurate automatic exposure control. You could also remove the automatic exposure sensor and replace it with a knob that would let you "dial down" the amount of light the flash would give off, from J/2 power down to J/i6 power. This is the basic flash for minimalists. If you are on a strict budget, this is the unit that meets all die minimum requirements. It's got relatively high power with lots of control. Since the Vivitar was incredibly popular, millions were made and many may still be available on the used market.

The Vivitar 283 sounds like a great solution but, unless you get the deal of a lifetime, you should pass on it and look for its replacement, the Vivitar 285 HV. This is the model that took all the best features of the 283 and supercharged them. The engineers at Vivitar added a zooming flash head that enables users to change the angle of coverage put out by the 285. The telephoto setting concentrates the light output, giving higher guide numbers for telephoto lens users. At the wide angle setting photographers can get even lighting with their 28mm lenses. A slot at the front of the flash diffuser allows for extra wide-angle diffusers or color filters. The 285 kept the removable automatic sensor, while the previously optional ratio control (power reduction knob) was built into the flash. The Vivitar 285 hit the U.S. market in the early 1980s and was (and is) so popular that it has been reintroduced to the market just this year. If you don't need any sophisticated automatic functions, several of these flashes would make a good foundation for a basic portable lighting kit. The Vivitar 285 HV is available new at the current street price of around S89.00.

Several other flash manufacturers brought out very similar flashes to compete with Vivitar. A little research will uncover comparable flash units from Sunpak, Metz, Braun, and others. All are very usable as basic units. Just be sure to follow the "required features" guidelines at the beginning of this section.

The next revolution in hot shoe flashes came from Olympus. When they launched the Olympus OM-2 camera body, they changed the game for everyone by introducing TTL flash. The flash exposure on all other flashes had always been metered by a sensor on the front of the flash, or a sensor coupled to the flash. But the automation in these units could be tricked by filters 011 the camera lens, large areas of light or dark within the metering area, and other complications. Olympus changed all this by putting a flash sensor in their new camera body. During an exposure, the OM-2 camera would meter both the flash exposure and the ambient exposure right off the film itself. This served to eliminate most exposure mistakes and pioneered the evaluation of all light hitting the film, real time.

Soon all major manufacturers introduced their TTL flash solutions. Independent flash makers also launched TTL flashes, but their job was more complicated because each camera manufacturer came up widi a different hot shoe interface and proprietary circuitry requiring the independents to play catch up and build versions of each model for each supported manufacturer. Thank goodness die minimalist lighting philosophy largely ignores TTL flash metering, favoring power ratio control for more precise and consistent results.

Nikon has been producing flashes under their brand for decades. While never achieving the market share of the Vivitar and Sunpak flashes, there are a number of

Thank goodness the minimalist Lighting philosophy largely ignores TTL flash metering, favoring power ratio control for more precise and consistent results.

Nikon units, previous to the current SR-600 and SB-800 units, that are very desirable for minimalist lighters who choose not to use the i-TTL system available in the current Nikon digital cameras.

The SB-24 was introduced in conjunction with the F4 film camera in the early 1980s. It is a wonderful flash unit for a location lighting kit. It has zooming capability that can be set manually, and a power ratio control that drops the power in full stops from ]/i to /i6. Like all top-of-the-line Nikon flash units introduced over the last twenty years, it comes complete with an industry standard PC socket that allows the flash to be easily wired to a trig-

Nikon SB-28 flash. A good all-around flash for manual use. It can be ratioed down to '/ic power, has a convenient PC socket for slave device connections, and is very well made. It does not work weLl in TTL modes with the latest cameras from Nikon and cannot be used in the hot shoes of Canon cameras or most other camera brands featuring dedicated flash shoes.

Nikon SB-28 flash. A good all-around flash for manual use. It can be ratioed down to '/ic power, has a convenient PC socket for slave device connections, and is very well made. It does not work weLl in TTL modes with the latest cameras from Nikon and cannot be used in the hot shoes of Canon cameras or most other camera brands featuring dedicated flash shoes.

gering device or directly synced to just about any professional camera. The SB-24 takes four standard AA batteries but also has a plug just under the red window on the front of the unit allowing a direct connection for high-voltage battery packs. The SB-24 is a bit bulkier than current models but is a great value if you can find one cheap.

Nikon followed up the SB-24 with the SB-25, which added wired multiple flash control capability (not very useful) and several small enhancements such as more advanced power management and better wide-angle coverage capabilities. The replacement for the SB-25 was the SB-26. These two flashes look very much alike, but the SB-26 was the first flash built to work in conjunction with the "3D" flash metering of the Nikon F5 camera body. The 3D flash meter used distance information from lenses to fine-tune flash exposures. The SB-26 also boasted a very elegant addition, a built-in optical slave cell. Now SB-26s could be wirelessly triggered (but not wirelessly controlled). The SB-26 was very well received, and few of them seem to surface on the used market. It has a reputation for being "indestructible" and very accurate with various Nikon film bodies.

The next wrinkle for camera manufacturers was the widespread introduction of digital SLR cameras around the turn of the century. Photographers quickly found that the flashes that had worked so well in TTL modes with their film cameras were pretty bad when used in the TTL modes on their new digital cameras. Apparently, the surface of film was relatively uniform, and its reflectance was consistent enough to supply really good exposure accuracy. Such was not the case with digital. The sensors in the cameras had a reflectance that varied depending on the angle at which light struck. The anti-aliasing filters used over the digital sensors also had reflection issues. The net result was a slew of inconsistent and unreliable exposures. Flash exposure became digital photography's Achilles' heel. Many professionals switched back to older technologies, some relying on the automation provided by the flash unit's front-mounted sensor, others went back to figuring out exposures manually.

The Nikon SB-28DX was Nikon's solution to the lighting dilemma, and while it was better, it still had its problems. The SB-28DX was the first of the Nikon flashes to use visible pre-flashes in conjunction with TTL metering to try to get closer to the optimum exposure.

Nikon called this adaptation D-TTL flash. In all other measures, the SB-28DX is a great flash, it offers almost everything one would want in a portable unit; it is smaller and lighter than the SB-24, 25, and 26 but offers the same power. Its power management (also known as the "standby") mode was more advanced, and it was more frugal with its batteries. Of course, the SB-28DX can be dialed down to 1/¡ó power and has the front plug for direct connection with high-powered battery packs. In the last year or so, lightly used examples of this flash have come on to die used market in the SI00.00 to S125.00 range. That's not a great bargain for someone determined to use them with the latest Nikon digital cameras but is a real find to location photographers who trigger their location flashes with radio triggers or optical slaves.

The next flash from Nikon was the SB80DX, a totally-redesigned unit. This flash replaced the plastic "foot" of the previous models with a very sturdy metal one and also introduced a new switch to lock the flash onto the hot shoe of the camera. Older models used a round, plastic knurled knob that had a tendency to get stuck. While not much more accurate with digital cameras than the SB-28DX, the controls on the back were easier to use and, according to Nikon, the unit was more powerful and efficient with batteries. It is certainly usable for location lighting in a minimalist system but is rarely available at the bargain prices of the previous models.

The current top model from Nikon is just right. It's called the SB-800, and it offer a tremendous number of features and capabilities. This and the SB-600 are the units to own if you intend to make use of the i-TTL wireless system from Nikon. The SB-800 keeps the metal hot shoe of the SB80DX, works flawlessly in the TTL modes with the latest generation of Nikon digital cameras, and can be used as a "master" control center for up to three groups of flashes in a wireless network. The SB-800's high purchase price keeps it from being recommended as a unit to be used with radio slaves or optical triggers exclusively. It is the perfect choice for the professional who needs to use all three light triggering options from time to time and would also like to break the rules and use her flash right on top of her Nikon digital camera—in the hot shoe!

The Nikon SB-600 is a stripped-down flash that has nearly every feature a location lighter would like in a

The Nikon SB-800 is the current top-of-the-line flash .in the Nikon system. Used in its commander mode it can control up to three groups of flashes. Its preflash system is the current champion for correct exposure control. It is smaller and more powerful than its predecessors. Shown here mounted to the new Fuji S5 Pro digital camera it provides the Fuji product with the same range and features as the Nikon cameras.

Nikon flash. It does not have a PC sync socket, however; in fact, it doesn't have any plug or interface that will accept a sync cord except for its hot foot. Nikon shooters who like to work with the i-TTL wireless flash control system like the SB-600 just the same. It offers the same controllability as its big brother, but since its power output is slightly lower it recycles more quickly, and its four batteries last 1 5 to 20 percent longer. One additional caveat for i-TTL wireless users is that die SB-600 can only be used in the "remote" setting and not the "master" setting. (These mysterious settings will be explained when we get to the how and why of i-TTL versus radio slaves versus optical slaves.)

SPEEDLIGHT SB-800

FUJifILM

Canon Speedlite 580. The 580 EX 2 is the current top of the line for Canon s line of digital ready flash units. Its closest competitor is the Nikon SB-800. Used in multiples, it represents an effective alternative to tradition AC-pow-ered flashes for photographers who use Canon digital cameras.

Canon didn't sit around waiting for Nikon. There are two current models and three recently discontinued models that fit all of our basic parameters and embody the same kind of constant improvement shown by Nikon. The two current flash units are the 580EX and the 550EX. Feature for feature they are almost identical to their Nikon counterparts in their capabilities. Both units can be dialed down to /12s power, can be used as master flashes in Canon's wireless flash system, and can be used in the FP mode. The one area in which the Canon flashes lag behind the Nikon flashes is the omission of a PC sync socket. Canon flash users who want to connect radio slaves must use hot foot-to-PC socket adapters, which eliminates the ability to use shoe mounts on light stands.

Canon also made the 540EZ, 430EZ, and 420EZ. These units all have the basic capabilities location lighters need (with the exception of a PC socket). They differ in having slightly less power output and a good bit less weight than the latest models. Most Canon digital users will want to opt for one of the two newest models to take advantage of all the latest wireless capabilities.

The German company, Metz, makes several very good units. A recently discontinued but highly regarded unit

The Metz MZ-54 is a very well-built flash. The flash shoe of the MZ-54 can be interchanged to provide optimum integration with most of the major TTL flash systems. We use our MZ-54s with a standard shoe having only one contact on the bottom for basic triggering. The camera has a full complement of features that are desirable for minimalist lighters, including a very precise power ratio control, excellent automatic aperture operation (using the front mounted sensor instead of camera TTL), access to a full complement of high-voltage batteries, and more. They are a great value when purchased used.

Canon Speedlite 580. The 580 EX 2 is the current top of the line for Canon s line of digital ready flash units. Its closest competitor is the Nikon SB-800. Used in multiples, it represents an effective alternative to tradition AC-pow-ered flashes for photographers who use Canon digital cameras.

was the 54 MZ 3. An interchangeable shoe module made this flash compatible with many different camera systems including the previous Nikon D-TTL system and the Canon E-TTL system. It was made obsolete in the Nikon world by the introduction of i-TTL. It is a powerful flash with a manually adjustable zooming flash reflector and the ability to dial down a manual exposure from full power to /128 power in ¡/3-stop increments. Prices on these units have dropped since the introduction of the Metz 54 MZ 4. This flash is current and is offered in dedicated versions for each major camera manufacturer. Sadly, this unit does not support the wireless system for either Nikon or Canon.

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