Working as a South Florida professional photographer, I have found that there are two types of on camera flashes, The standard, and the ones that pack a punch.
This article is not created to show my beautiful South Florida professional photography, it’s to explain and possibly teach a new photographer, or to share my personal take on the nuts and bolts of high powered on camera flashes. Today there are gazillion on camera flash units to purchase. Most measure their power output by guide numbers, often these numbers are in accurate, or are based on some odd ball testing. I have also found that some of the good ones burn out from use. Having shot over a thousand weddings I can tell you, nothing is more frustrating than working with a basic flash that has had it’s day. Flashes that are burnt out, are inconsistent, don’t recycle well and are guaranteed not to fire, in that key moment. The same goes for on camera flashes that have dying batteries. One shot is fine, then the next had no power, then the next shot, gives a full power blast when you only need F-5.6
If you need the power, to over power the sun, bounce light off a wall, then a kick-ass flash is what you need. Why over work a standard flash when you could use a high powered flash that is designed to produce a strong burst of light? Now some of you seasoned pros, may be questioning this article and saying, why not use a battery powered studio strobe? This is an excellent solution, and I love using battery powered studio strobes. However, using a high powered studio strobe requires a lighting assistant, lugging gear, usually onto a beach, then having your assistant, run after you, trying to get the light in the right spot while you, the photographer, directs your subjects.
As a South Florida professional photographer, I have many years of extreme photography experience, Check out the About Jeff section. From my college days, to my time working and learning photography in Los Angeles, and the fact that I have worked as a top notch photo lab printer is a testament to my knowledge and skills. Starting with film, I grew up breathing F-stops, Shutter speeds, Lens selections, and lighting. Most of the cameras, flashes, computers, have been sold or traded for newer gear. Some of the equipment I parted with I regret selling. For example, I had thousands and thousands of dollars of Hasselblad gear. When digital started, I sold almost all of it. The prices dropped, and it made no sense to keep it. Today some of that old Hasselblad gear is work more than the original price I paid. Who knew? I certainly didn’t.
I’ve written this article, for mostly one reason. Website ranking, yes that’s it. Sorry, for my honesty. While the information in the article is true, and reflects my feelings toward some of my old flash equipment. I would think that somewhere out there exists a photographer, who is just as nostalgic about some of this old gear as I am. However, in this article, I’m also offering up real valuable photography lighting information. The information I’ve written includes real world photographic lighting techniques. If you are a serious photographer, this info could be put to good use today. I’ve also included the progression of kick-ass flash gear. These units are big, bulky and often overlooked by todays photographers. Why, my guess is simply a matter of cost, and not wanting to carry around a big heavy flash when a tiny, small flash that is inexpensive may get the job done. Of course if you analyze the results, and you are honest about reporting the results, you will see that in many cases, these big powerhouse flashes do a much better job. Working as a professional South Florida professional photographer, I care about image quality. If that means lugging around a big flash, than so be it.
Why would a South Florida professional photographer want a Kick-Ass on camera flash anyway? I’ve been a professional photographer for lots of years. In my time I have owned more than any photographers fair share of on camera flashes. As a matter of fact, I have owned almost every type of flash made. My first serious studio strobe was the Novatron 440Plus with 4 separate flash heads. Actually, I still own this strobe system and it still works perfectly. Not only does it work perfectly, it’s dependable, and extremely accurate. Basically a professional photographers strobe is just a flash tube, connected to a big capacitor that gives a burst of light energy. I also purchased White Lightings 1200 watt second studio strobe, and a few Alien Bee strobes. In addition I have used almost every type of light modifier created. I have a wide range of flash umbrellas, soft boxes, and scrims. One of my favorite light modifier systems was the famous “Light Forms” designed by a famous commercial and portrait photographer Dean Collins.
Any professional photographer will tell you, soft pretty light comes from a really large light source.
After years of people photography experience, I have learned that it’s the soft facial lighting that looks best. At least looks best when it comes to females, I remember a famous photographer, I don’t remember whom, but I know it was a famous girl photographer, actually I think it was Bambi Cantrell telling me on a girl, a harsh line is a wrinkle, on a guy, and it’s character. So for me, soft lighting on woman face is best. So let’s talk about that large light source. Let’s say, I’m at a wedding, and I have very limited time because everything is running late, by the way, everything running late is very common at weddings. I’m there by myself inside a huge ballroom or the bridal suite with my camera and and my on camera flash. How do I get a really big light source? I bounce my flash off the wall behind me. When the light from the flash hits the wall, it scatters and bounces back to the person, the source of the light hitting the person is very large. When a photographer takes a picture with direct flash, the light source is tiny when compared to light bouncing off a wall. Of course there are other factors that come into play. For example, how far away is the flash head from the wall? What color is the wall? Both of these factors affect to look of the portrait. Think about this,
Imagine, you are painting a person with a water hose; which would look better?
I know this is an odd example, but follow me on this… If water is light, and you are lighting someone with water from a hose, in your minds eye, which would look softer / better? Would it look better if you took the hose and shot the water directly into the person’s face? Or, Would it look better, if you shot the water against a wall and a fine mist from the water softly coated the person face? Do you see my point here? Well the same goes for lighting, light bounced off a wall will cover your subject with much softer / prettier lighting.
Given the above information, let’s talk about on camera flashes. For me, I have found that this concept of “off the wall bounce lighting” works wonders. I never considered what type of flash was needed to perform this task because, when I started my career as a professional photographer, I owned a Kick – Ass flash right out of the gate. My boss / teacher started me with a kick-ass flash from the start.
I started with a medium format film camera. Without getting too much into medium format film cameras, lets just say, it’s a different world, Medium format film cameras are bigger, heavy, and film photographers are limited to ASA or ISO by the film speed selected. Working as a professional photographer, with the limitations of film, required a flash that packed a big punch. Shooting film, also means, there is no room for exposure errors, if a photographer needs F-stop of F8 then the flash needed to deliver F8. Anything less or more was a real problem.
When you consider the facts, the flash required needs to be accurate, powerful, and very reliable. This left me with few choices; there was the Norman, which is still considered one of the finest lighting equipment companies. Norman still makes the A200C with is a powerful kick-ass flash. The problem with the Norman A200C is the fact that, it had only a few power settings, no auto setting and no TTL. These limitations seriously limit the use of the A200C. All I could say is, “man” if Norman make an updated A200C with more features it would be my go to flash for difficult lighting situations. Another one of these lighting companies is Lumedyne. Lumedyne equipment offers to same quality of Norman, however like Norman, Lumedyne lacks a wide range of settings.
Next there is Metz, Metz made a wide range of on camera flashes. However, the one to own was the 60 CT-1 the 60 CT-1 offered high power, and a very accurate auto setting. For the photographer using the 60 CT-1 how you set the flash was what you got. If you wanted F8 the flash would give you just the right amount of power to give you F8, want F11 just dial in F11 and the Metz 60 CT-1 would give you f11. Building on the success of the 60 CT-1, Metz created the 60 CT-4. The 60 CT-4 included the same amount of power, but with a better setting display and the addition of what became known as a wink flash. This flash was made for bounce photography.
However, the person who designed this flash must have been an experienced professional photographer, because the designer thought about lighting and what a photographer would need to create beautiful images. Here’s what I mean, the Metz 60 CT-4 had a big flash head that packed a punch. The large flash head could be turned in any direction so bouncing it off a wall or ceiling would be easy. However, soft lighting from a big light source is nice, but the other question is, from which direction is the light coming? If the light hit the person from above, the result would be shadows under the eyes and chin, not pleasing. So what Metz did with the 60 CT-4 was to add a small additional flash, just under the main flash head. By having the addition of this small flash head, the photographer could fill in the area under the eyes & chin with just the right amount of light to make a beautiful flattering portrait. Unfortunately this flash was sometimes frowned upon by some professional photographers, and was given the name, potato smasher. Ok, I’m sure you could smash a potato with it. You could also make beautiful portraits with it as well. Another reason why lots of professional photographers didn’t approve was the same reason why I loved it. It was powerful, but put to the wrong use, it could make really crappy pictures. Some very inexperienced and less artsy photographer, shot this flash as full power, or direct flash, which created images with shitty lighting, and black backgrounds. The background would go black because the flash would put too much light on the subject face. In photography, you can’t have everything. Decisions need to be made, and in the case of a person with direct flash hitting their face, you had the effect of, blasting light into their face, (Think of my water, painting paragraph) and to compensate for the extra light on the face the background went dark. Another reason to have a kick-ass powerful flash is to over power the sun. I have found that most photographers, who shoot against the sun, for example having the sun in the background during a sunrise or sunset, use a studio type strobe. Check out some of these pictures taken against the sun, all required some form of fill flash.
This means a lighting assistant or a big heavy-duty tripod with sandbags holding it down. Then there is the fact that a studio strobe will need a wireless shutter. The photographer won’t be able to move around too fast, unless the assistant is helping. With the Metz, 60 CT-4, shooting against the sun is a one photographer job, and the photographer can move anyplace easily. Between the fact that this flash had power, was dead on accurate, could be bounced in any direction, had that nifty wink flash, this was the prefect flash for a Florida professional photographer, or any photographer. By the way, there was one drawback, actually two. One is the fact that the 60 CT-4 is big heavy flash that needs to be mounted to the camera with a bracket. Also, Metz stopped making and supporting this flash, which really stinks. The battery in the Metz 60 CT-4 is a custom made battery that fits into a special power pack that houses part of the flashes electronics as well. This means, if you own one, you can’t get a battery. At this time, all the old batteries available have been exhausted so good luck finding one. You can’t. I have tried all the new Metz flashes. None compare or even come close for that matter, they all actually stink, which pisses me off, because every time I see my un-useable Metz 60 CT-4 sitting in the closet, I cringe.
Read more about the Metz 60 CT-4 here: Patrick Shannon’s 60CT-4 article
So what is a South Florida professional photographer supposed to do, with no Metz 60 CT-4?
Move on to the next Kick-Ass on camera flash. This is from a from a company named Quantum. Quantum only makes one type of flash. The one I own is the Qflash TRIO. In many ways the Qflash is much better than the Metz. In other ways, it’s not. While part of the electronics of the Metz was built into the power pack, the Qflash has its electronics built into the flash unit. Also, the Qflash has TTL, with TTL the flash makes an exposure decision that is based on both the flash and the camera. The Metz had an auto setting in which the photographer picked the F-stop and the flash gave that F-stop. In TTL the flash delivers the F-stop based on which F-stop the camera is set at. This means there is more communications between the camera and the Qflash. As camera technology advanced, companies tried to make photography as easy as possible. This means anyone can pick up a camera, even a professional camera and start shooting amazing pictures. Well, not really. The problem with TTL is that the system, doesn’t know what the picture is supposed to look like. This is a decision that needs to be made by the photographer, and it’s up to the photographer to override the TTL’s decision. For example, a bride in a white wedding gown, against a dark background, will expose for the average. Actually the camera will try to make the image 18% grey. The result will be a white blown out bridal gown, against an 18% grey background. It’s up to the photographer to override the TTL to ensure the gown is dark enough to show detail.
One of the popular wedding and portrait photography “Looks” is known as light and airy. In a light and airy image, the entire image has a, well, light and airy look. Lot’s of photographers specialize in light and airy. The question is, did the photographer shoot light and airy on purpose, or does the photographer have no understanding of exposure. Heck the picture already has a washed out wedding gown, why not add a pastel filter, and call it light and airy. Yes, some light and airy photographers know what they are doing, but many don’t.
The QFlash packs a punch, similar to the Metz 60 CT-4, however, it is more of a studio flash that can be mounted directly on the camera. That’s how the flash communicates with the camera. There are a few pins that connect to the camera and share exposure information with the camera. Also the Qflash had a removable flash tube, which is awesome. The photographer can use the flash dish to funnel the light directly to the subject, or the photographer could put a diffuser over the dish to soften the light, or the photographer could bounce the flash off a wall, just like the Metz 60CT4. There is no forward facing wink flash, so bouncing the flash could result in shadows under the eyes and chin. One fantastic option for the Qflash is the bare bulb option. With no light dish attached the Qflash has a bulb that sends light in every direction. In a ballroom, the bare bulb will scatter light off the walls, ceiling and directly at the subject. The result is beautiful even lighting that is a mix of bounce in every direction and some direct lighting, it’s really cool.
There is a cord, that connects a Quantum battery to the Qflash, and the battery is smaller than the Metz 60CT4 power pack. As a professional Florida photographer, I use my Quantum Qflash at times when I need the power. Fighting the sun, bounce flash in a ballroom, the Qflash will usually get the job done.
The Qflash has some issues, First, the $$ cord between the battery and the Qflash must be pulled out, every time the battery needs to be changed. Inside the connector are 5 pins. I have found a battery pack is good for about 200- to 300 shots, before the battery needs to be swapped. This constant swapping for the battery causes the cord, or the battery connection to go bad over time. How much time depends on the jobs. I have found I need to send my entire Qflash and batteries in for service every one to two years. The problem is, when the Qflash goes bad, it’s a headache. You don’t know if it’s the cord, the battery, or the unit itself. For me, the result is almost always a combo of items. Sometimes, I’m replacing the cord & the battery, other times it’s a flash repair. Either way, it’s a few hundred dollars. On the back of the Qflash is an LCD screen, the screen gives a lot of valuable information. Most of the time, the information doesn’t make sense. The LCD will tell you what F-stop the camera is set to, this is usually wrong, the Flash LCD also tells you the camera ISO, also often wrong. This wrong info just leaves me, shaking my head. However, if you have a command of photography, and understand lighting, the Qflash is awesome. It puts out very pretty light, is a joy to use, and could be reliable. Every time, I use my Flash, I can’t help but to think, why can’t they make this just a little better?
As a South Florida professional photographer, I find, my flash is mostly accurate if you can mentally override the fact that the LCD screen settings are off. I know this makes no sense. As an experienced photographer, I could simply figure out, what the Qflash is doing, even if the Qflash can’t tell me through it’s LCD screen. The Qflash is dependable 90% of the time. That 10% of the time that it’s acting up really sucks. If I’m at a wedding, and shooting something such as, the bride walking down the aisle, I’ll have another camera, with another flash either next to me, or attached to me. I almost never, need to switch to the second camera, but I consider myself a South Florida professional photographer, which means there is no room for error. Another, issue with the Qflash is the fact that the case cracks easily. This is a total design flaw. There is an odd (knob, fastener – whatever you call it.) That holds the reflector dish in place. This seems to work well, however, when you tighten it, are a tightening one part against the plastic case. I have no idea what is tightening against what.
As it turns out, my second photographer also has a Qflash, she loves it. However, one day I saw that her Qflash had a cracked case. I asked her what happened. She couldn’t really tell me. She said, maybe I banged it against something? Then several months latter, my Qflash cracked in the same place. Then I learned that this cracking of the case is the result of a design flaw. Both my second photographer and I have a love / hate relationship with the Qflash. On one hand, it’s power kicks –ass, it’s bare bulb option is wonderful, when you get it set right, it’s consistent and accurate. However, its flaws are upsetting. I must admit, the service department at Quantum is staffed with people who know the flash and are knowledgeable photographers. Have a love for their product, and try to offer the best advise and solutions. I think they know they have a really cool, sometimes temperamental product and their product has a following.
As I look at my cracked Qflash case, and consider sending it in for service, which I’m sure will cost $300.00 or $400.00, I can’t help but wonder, what other options are there. Maybe instead of servicing my Qflash, I should park it next to my old, Metz 60CT4 and purchase the Godox ??? In talking with some people in the know, I have been told the Godox is a copy of the Qflash. However, I have heard that the Godox ### is a re-engineered Qflash with some welcome additions and the flaws fixed. I have not purchased a Godox yet, but I think that will be my next Kick-Ass flash purchase.