Sunday, March 3, 2019

Your First Flash

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The Adorama Zoom TTL Flash: At one time I would have suggested that you hold out until you could afford a clean, used Nikon SB-800, which in my opinion is the greatest flash (“Speedlight” in the Nikon parlance) ever made. They are getting harder to find in good working condition, since they have been out of production since 2008 and Nikon is no longer repairing them.

Nowadays, there is a flash that offers high value for the price: the Flashpoint Zoom TTL R2 (AA version) by Adorama (aka Godox 685). I’ve been playing with both the AA battery and the lithium ion battery pack versions and have some opinions about their usefulness.*

Zoom TTL: Priced at $139.00, this flash is probably the deal of the century, especially if the flash is discounted to less than $100.00. I’ve been using this particular version for a few months now, and will say it’s a good entry level flash, with some reservations. When starting out, it will do fine for light duty event photography. But if you advance to a more rapid-fire environment, that recycling time starts to get very, very long. Weight is 18.7 oz. w/ 4 AA batteries.

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Lithium Zoom TTL R2 (aka Godox 860):  List price is $179.00 with one 11.5 volt (proprietary and rechargeable) battery and charger. Now spare batteries are $40.00 each, and it would be foolish to not carry a fully charged spare. Out the door, the combination will cost you $219.00. But you get eye-blink recycling time, which will significantly up your game if you ever work a large crowd, or need light-squandering modifiers to up your lighting game. Weight is 19.1 oz. w/battery.

The take-away is in the weight. The Lithium-Ion version weighs a fraction of an ounce more than the AA version, so there isn't a weight disadvantage in going with the faster, more expensive version. It's true that you can add a dedicated power pack to the Zoom TTL, but then you'd have to deal with the inconvenience of power cable and the additional weight. Alas, convenience costs.

Now nothing is perfect, so let me dispense with the minor shortcomings shared by the two Zoom TTL flashes.

Buy your Stofen Dome here
No OEM Diffusion Dome. The diffusion dome, first introduced by Stofen, can improve the quality of your on-camera flash photos. As it turns out, these flashes use the same dome as the Canon 580 EX. Caution: I checked the Adorama website and they are going to discontinue their house-brand dome for this unit. Other makes (Promaster, Yongnuo), have little "ears" on the sides while the original Stofen and Vello do not, so check for them before you order or buy. I find they make the domes easier to remove when I'm  in a hurry.

No OEM Gel Kit. Both Canon and Nikon now provide gel kits for their top end flashes. It would have been convenient if Adorama had some pre-cut gels as Nikon did with its SB-800 speedlight. I must admit that gelling ones on-camera flash may not be a concern for photographers purchasing this unit, and I could understand that such a kit would be a slow seller. Since I started cutting my gels and taping them to the flash head, I haven't missed the OEM gel kits I always purchased for my Nikon speedlights.

Head Tilting and Rotation: The head on the Adorama unit has detents for specific orientations. These require a fair amount of torque to adjust, and this twisting could damage the camera's hot shoe. The Nikons use a lock to return the head position to "zero", and less aggressive detents, resulting in less stress on the shoe during rotation.

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The Biggest Reason To Own This Flash: Now here's the big surprise: The iTTL system can communicate with the Nikon Creative Lighting System flash commander. If you own a Nikon body with the built-in flash with the iTTL commander function, it can communicate with these Adorama/Godox units. This means that you can play with dedicated, off-camera flash photography for a fraction of the cost of a genuine Nikon speedlight. Considering how expensive it was for me to learn the ins and outs of multiple flash lighting solutions, this is HUGE. And as you master off-camera flash, you can upgrade your hardware to a radio commander that gives you full TTL and manual control over greater distances. Without getting too technical, there's a lot of growth potential with these Adorama units. Also, the radio "transmitter", as Adorama describes it, only works with R2 compatible Adorama/Godox units, but the flash itself can respond to either the R2 radio commands or the Nikon CLS line of sight optical controller.

Final Word: Get the less expensive, AA battery Zoom TTL unit and start playing with it. As your assignments start to get more challenging, consider getting the Zoom Li-Ion TTL unit, complete with spare battery, and keep your AA version as a backup, or as as second flash.

Addendum March 8, 2019:  In my opening paragraph I mentioned Nikon continued to support the SB-800 for about ten years after its production run from 2003 to 2008. Like many legacy companies, Nikon continued to support (repair) the flash about until 2018. When I checked the Adorama web site, I found that the AA version of the R2 TTL will be discontinued when current supplies run out. This could mean that the Lithium Ion Battery version is more popular, or that a new technology is waiting on the horizon. I am suggesting that you consider the purchase of this flash as an expense, rather than an investment, in part from its low cost and relatively short production life. As reliable as the unit might be, when it dies, it dies. I'll be watching how this all unwinds.

* April 18, 2019: I tried out several battery packs with two variants of the  Godox 685 (one Nikon, one Fuji) and NEITHER one would function. I can't imagine that I could have gotten two bad samples, but power notwithstanding, the flash is still a good buy, but one with limitations.