Sunday, May 1, 2016

Nissin i40 Flash

Photo from B & H Photo.
Gripe grip gripe. OK, I'll stop.

An answer to the shortcomings to the Fuji EF-42 may be at hand, and will be riding in my bag soon, once I become better acquainted with it.

The company, Nissin, offers two different flashes for the Fuji X cameras. The larger i60A / Fuji has not yet hit the market, but the smaller i40 has been on the market since 2014. I saw one at Keeble and Shuchat in Palo Alto, and purchased it literally minutes after handling it.  The easy access to output controls and the variety of trigger options justified its relatively high price tag ($269.00), which are far and above those provided by the Fuji unit, a flash some people have whispered is actually a Sunpak PZ42x . The outward appearance is the same, but I can't say if the features are. But I digress.

Photo from B & H Photo
When I held the unit, I was taken by the simple layout of the controls. The two most used settings, Manual and TTL, are clearly marked, and the no-nonsense mode dial (left) and the equally clear settings dial right were easy to understand, and unlike the EF-42, allowed for plus and minus adjustments from any given setting. The twin index lights (left for manual, right for TTL) were a pleasant surprise.

Attaching the flash was a snap, but removing it was a different story. It's a little tricky to get off, so just be slow and careful. It reminds me of the proprietary mounting system first employed by Minolta DSLR cameras, which evolved into the current Sony cameras. It suffices to say the system is secure enough, but takes some getting used to.

All current Nikon and most third party speedlights use a combination of a retractable retaining pin and some sort of clamping action on the the shoe itself. The Nissin employs only the retaining pin, and relies on a tighter-than-normal fit between the foot and the shoe for secure mounting..

This is a scan of the official "quick start" instruction sheet. It is probably the shortest instruction manual/sheet I've ever seen, but with the logical control layout, there isn't that much that needs explaining. I wouldn't find out until later that there is a full instructional PDF which you can download by clicking here. If you buy the unit, you MUST download this document!

Manual Zoom Settings Legend
I read the flash's reviews AFTER I made my purchase, in the hope that everyone who purchased the unit gave it five stars and reviews that dripped with praise, thus justifying my impulse purchase. I noted the comments of one particular nay-sayer, the only one who gave it a single star. This particular malcontent cited several shortcomings, which I quote:

"This is an excellent compact flash. Trying to use it wirelessly is not supported wit (sic) Fuji X. Trying to manual zoom is not supported on Fuji X.

I mean this really is totally useless except that it is compact. Otherwise it is not worth the money."

After a moment of thought, I decided that while this reviewer either couldn't type or  couldn't spell, he did have a point. I think his/her complaints were based on Nissin's lumping the Fuji unit in with all of the other variations (Canon and Nikon) which I assume do support  the wireless triggering. The abbreviated instruction sheet (Fuji) includes no mention of either feature, and to believe that it did was an assumption, not an inference, on the part of said reviewer.

Nikon Version - B&H Photo
If you look at this closeup of the i40 Nikon version, you can see the Groups A, B, and C are supported on all four channels. Remember that the Fuji bodies themselves don't support wireless TTL flash exposure, since this feature requires physical coordination between body and flash (controller).

The Manual Zoom feature is truly there, but does not function in the TTL mode. Again, this is explained in the PDF but not the quick-start sheet. And I dare say it would be impossible to figure out by trial and error.

One must still question the validity of a review that starts with "This is an excellent compact flash..." and ends with "...Otherwise not worth the money." As in most cases, there a middle ground that takes both opinions into account.To that end, here's what I have come to believe so far.

To The Good:
  • Compact Size. It is a small unit, almost cute. I totally comfortable mounting it on my (relatively) tiny X-100S.
  • Swiveling Head. The head swivels 180 degrees both left and right.The Fuji doesn't.
  • Dial Adjustments. To go from 1/4 power to 1/2 power, the Fuji has requires the user to move through 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, back up to Full Power, then finally down to 1/2. On the Nissin, you simple rotate the output dial clockwise or counter-clockwise to the desired setting (as low as 1/256 power). The same holds for adjustments for Exposure Compensation.
  • Film and Digital Off-Camera Triggering. This is optical trigger. Good, solid, 1970's technology.
  • Ships With Diffusion Dome. Nissin calls it a Soft Box, but we know better.
  • Easy To Deploy Fill In Reflector. Nice touch - The deflector is rigid and slides out, and in.
  • Manual Zoom. Yes, the beam spread can be adjusted manually, although the quick-start sheet fails to mention it. You need to download the full PDF.
  • Video Light Mode: There is a built in, adjustable LED that can be used to help find your equipment in the dark. While not as good as a flashlight for navigation, it's available.
To The Not So Good
  • Non-Clamping Foot: Flash foot relies on the flash's retaining pin and does not clamp the shoe in any way. This could cause problems with some umbrella bracket cold shoes that can't accommodate the retaining pin.
  • Manual Zoom Limitations: The Manual Zoom settings only work in Manual, Slave Film and Slave Digital modes. Once set, the flash will remember the setting when the flash is turned off. However, if you change to the TTL mode, the zoom function returns to Auto.
  • Pricey: It's more expensive than the EF-42 ($229.99 vs $269 for the Nissin), and WAY more expensive if you can find the EF-42 on eBay or Amazon.

Things That Might Be Nice
  • Zoom Control In TTL:  I purposely narrow my beam angle when bouncing the flash to gain just a little bit more light. Based on specifications, one whole stop can be gained by zooming from the 35mm setting to 105mm, which is the narrowest it will go
  • An Intermediate Tilt Detent Between 0 and 45 Degrees: This a small thing, something that might never be used. But I'd like to see it in a i40 reboot.

Photo from B&H Photo
Another Optiion? The Fuji EF-X20 sports a single dual use (flash output, TTL exposure compensation) like the i40, but doesn't have the tilt/rotate bounce capability, and runs on a pair of  AA batteries. MSRP is around $200.00, which is a lot of money for a good idea with limited options and output.

I liked the idea of a dial adjustment, and would have considered this model, but the increased capability of the i40 makes for a more versatile flash, certainly one worthy of a place in my camera bag. I'll need to get comfortable with the consistency of the TTL mode, but in the mean time, the bounce versatility made it a worthwhile purchase.

Addendum May 3, 2016: For some reason, the manual mode of my  i40 does NOT function on any of my X-E1s. TTL works fine. All modes work on my X-100S and X-T1. However, in manual mode, it worked on a handy D70. Strange.

Addendum May 25, 2016: For a lark, I mounted the i40 on a X-E1 body and it worked! Can't explain why it didn't earlier. but that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.