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Two-Fisted Flash

By Mike Pasini, Editor
Imaging Resource Newsletter

One of the things we have most missed from our 35mm press photography gear (it was in a previous life, Shirley) has been our external flash.

"We like to move the flash an arm's length away, up high or even to the other side of the camera, depending on the subject."

The other day Kodak was kind enough to lend us a DC290 Zoom -- which just happens to support external flash. We're delighted to see this feature on more and more digicams.

Off-camera flash is the best way to avoid red-eye, period. But, with the right unit, it can also give you more options than any built-in flash. From various fill settings to extraordinary bounce options, it easily turns difficult flash situations into pieces of cake.

Our press configuration (well, we got it from Bill Harvey, who in 1997 was awarded the lifetime achievement award by Press Photographers Association of Greater Los Angeles) has served us admirably for social occasions like weddings and dinners, too. We wondered how it would translate from the 35mm world to the digicam frontier.

It starts with a Vivitar 283 flash unit, which we were astonished to see is still being sold ( Just set the ASA, swivel the sensor to one of several distance settings and look up the color-coded distance setting on the illuminated dial to find the correct f/stop.

Its big brother, the 285 added zooming capability to the flash head, but we don't shoot direct flash with the 283 anyway. We bounce.

You can use a rubber band and an index card to do it but to keep up professional appearances, we bounce the light off a plastic reflector made by Sto-Fen of Boulder Creek, Calif. ( Sto-Fen makes several accessories for the 283, as well as Canon and Sunpak strobes.

The one we generally use is the Twin Panel Bounce. Its clever design eliminates hot spots and covers lenses from 24mm up. Our standard 35mm zoom is a 43-86mm, so we're covered no matter what we do.

But we're also fond of Sto-Fen's Omni Bounce, which is a white plastic dome with a black panel on the back that sits right on top of the 283 lens.

Either bounce comes with a black plastic mount that just snaps over the 283. Very simple, very elegant and very reliable. We've been using ours for more than 20 years.

The 283 has a removable sensor. A very big feature in our eyes. We can mount the removable sensor on the camera's hot shoe, but move the light around. This isn't through-the-lens precision, but it's close. It keeps the sensor with the camera, and that's plenty good enough.

We like to move the flash an arm's length away, up high or even to the other side of the camera, depending on the subject. We know the sensor will adjust to whatever we're forced to do, rather than forcing us to do something the flash expects.

We can wave the flash around because it's mounted on a very nice, molded Vivitar grip. The grip pops on and off a bracket that attaches to the camera via it's tripod mount. Couldn't be simpler.

"Off-camera flash is the best way to avoid red-eye, period. But, with the right unit, it can also give you more options than any built-in flash."

The whole rig is a bit ostentatious, making us look like we actually know what we're doing. But it's very easy to use, very comfortable and lets us paint the picture with the light of the flash.

So we were anxious indeed to try it with the Kodak.

We were pleased to see how easily the Kodak mounted (and really pleased that it weighed less than our 35mm body, motor drive and lens). But we did miss the hot shoe. The Kodak has a synch cord outlet. Which would have to do.

With everything attached, we just had to tell the Kodak to use the external flash (or the built-in strobe would fire, too) and set the f/stop. That done, we unleashed it on a very nasty subject.

It's a small clay figure of Pinocchio we've wanted to photograph for some time. But our Average Digicam with its built-in flash makes a mug shot out of it and the natural light is never bright enough where we've displayed the puppet to make a decent shot. We needed to bounce some flash at it.

And the Kodak did a great job. Soft shadows, great exposure, up close.

The remarkable thing isn't the image, but that the 35mm setup transferred so well to the digicam. When we get around to replacing our Average Digicam, we'll look for a hot shoe and an external flash option.

But we still don't think we'll turn in our 283 very soon.

This article is reprinted from The Imaging Resource Digital Photography Newsletter,
Advanced Mode Column, published August 25, 2000


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