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Let’s Check These Budget Flashguns (Part 1)

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9/23/2014 11:24:04 AM
An add-on flash can give an extra dimension to your photography, without the harsh, red-eye look that plagues pop-up flash.  We shine the spotlight on eight flashguns costing $350 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.

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 group 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.

A proper flashgun can enable far greater flexibility and creativity

A proper flashgun can enable far greater flexibility and creativity

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

Canon Speedlite 270EX II

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 there’s sufficient power for bouncing the flash off ceilings that aren’t massively high. There’s no swivel function, however, so you can’t direct 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.

Canon Speedlite 270EX II

Canon Speedlite 270EX II

The lack of control buttons or an LCD screen means that all adjustments have to be made from the camera’s Flash 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.

Verdict

·         Price: $150

·         For: Amazingly compact and lightweight, but still features a bounce and manual zoom head

·         Against: Maximum power is relatively low compared with most flashguns; no LCD info panel

Canon Speedlite 320EX

A step up from the 270EX II, 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 there’s still heavy reliance on using the camera’s Flash Control menu for making most adjustments.

Canon Speedlite 320EX

Canon Speedlite 320EX

Uniquely in this group, the 320EX features a secondary LED lamp, which gives continuous lighting for shooting video; however, illumination is limited and it’s only of any use for very short-range work. Also like the 270EX II, but unlike all the other flashguns in the group, there’s no 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 it’s almost as expensive as the Canon 430EX II, the 320EX doesn’t really do enough to justify its price tag.

Verdict

·         Price: $200

·         For: Secondary LED lamp for video shooting; remote camera firing button

·         Against: Fairly low in power; lacking in onboard control buttons; no LCD info display

 

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