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Let’s Check These Budget Flashguns (Part 4)

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What extra features do you get if you pay top dollar for a flashgun?

On the face of it, $350 or less can buy you a very smart and sophisticated flashgun. For example, most of the models in this group feature motorised zoom heads, which can automatically adjust to the focal length of the lens, or keep step with zoom lenses; typically, the range is about 24-105mm. Most offer high-speed sync and rear curtain sync options (the latter being good for shooting vehicles with light trails at night), and as we’ve mentioned, some even offer wireless master as well as slave modes. So why would you want to pay more?

Top-flight flashguns like the Canon 600EX-RT, which costs the best part of $1,000, and its predecessor the 580EX II are fully professional devices with build quality to match, including environmental seals to keep out moisture and dust. They also often have a higher maximum power output, and feature PC sync terminals and sockets for powering them from external, high-capacity battery packs, so you can keep shooting for longer. That said, the Nissin Di866 Mk II Pro, on test here, also has PC sync and external power supply connections, plus a USB port for applying firmware updates.

The Speedlite 600EX-RT is Canon’s flagship flashgun, but it’s three times the price of the most expensive models in our group

The Speedlite 600EX-RT is Canon’s flagship flashgun, but it’s three times the price of the most expensive models in our group

One really neat new feature of the Canon 600EX-RT that none of the flashguns in our test can match is built-in wireless radio control. This works on RF (Radio Frequency) transmission so, unlike more basic master/slave arrangements, it doesn’t require line of sight between the transmitter and receiver. Remote triggering works over distances of up to 30m when using the flashgun on or off the camera.

Sigma EF-610 DG Super

The ‘super’ Sigma serves up many of the same features as the exotic Nissin Di866 Mk II Pro, including a full set of strobe, high-speed sync and rear curtain modes, delivered through a high-power head boasting a Gn rating of 61. Likewise, both of these flashguns offer full wireless master/slave operation, in all four transmission channels and with three alternative groups available for more complex multi-flash setups.

Sigma EF-610 DG Super

Sigma EF-610 DG Super

It’s not all good news, though. Build quality isn’t all that great – for example, as with only the cheaper Nissin Di622 and the Sunpak PZ42X on test, the mounting plate is plastic rather than metal. And the Sigma’s wide-ranging onboard menu system is a little arcane and long-winded, a flaw that’s made worse by the fact that, unlike most flashguns in this group, hardly any of the settings can be changed via the host camera’s Flash Control menu; you’re limited to being able to dial in flash exposure compensation via the camera.

The Sigma has a tendency to underexpose by about a third of a stop in E-TTL mode. Recycling speed is also disappointing, taking almost eight seconds to recover from a full-power flash. All in all, for a high-spec flashgun, the Nissin Di866 Mk II has a lot more going for it.

Verdict

·         Price: $225

·         For: Includes advanced flash modes and  master/slave wireless operation

·         Against: Awkward menu system, and adjustments can’t be made from host camera’s menu

Sunpak PZ42X

Not so long ag, this  Sunpak flashgun would have been a contender for a best value award, and it’s a sign of how far things have moved on in the past couple of years that it’s no longer in the running. By current standards, the PZ42X is a very basic affair. It has no high-speed sync or even a rear curtain mode, and it’s the only flashgunin the group that can’t function as a wireless slave.

Sunpak PZ42X

Sunpak PZ42X

Apart from flash exposure compensation, flashgun settings can’t be altered from the camera’s Flash Control menu. The flashgun’s menu system itself is quite basic, although it does at least allow you to cycle through E-TTL or manual flash, with +/-1.5EV bias or manual levels between full power and 1/64th respectively. You can also switch the motorised zoom head between full-frame and APS-C focal lengths, as well as applying manual zoom settings. The head features a wide-angle diffuser, but there’s no reflector card.

Maximum flash power is pretty respectable at Gn 42, practically equalling the Canon 430EX II, but recycling takes more than twice as long at 7.1 seconds. The Sunpak’s flash exposure accuracy is also disappointing; in E-TTL mode it consistently overexposes by half a stop.

Verdict

·         Price: $140

·         For: Very simple to use, and has a respectable maximum flash power

·         Against: Lacks most of the features that are taken for granted in the latest flashguns

Five things we learnt in this test

1.    For comfortably holding a camera in one hand for portrait orientation shooting, and using the other hand for holding an off-camera flashgun, it’s worth investing in a battery grip.

2.    NiMH batteries, like Sanyo Eneloop and Panasonic Infinium, are ideal for flashguns as they hold their charge for a long time when unused.

3.    Wireless slave flash isn’t the only way to go. Flash cords are useful, and independent makes won’t break the bank at around $50.

4.    LCD info panels are good to have as they give you an instant indication of your settings.

5.    Greater maximum flash power is especially useful for when you need to bounce the flash off walls and ceilings.

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