Monday, May 01, 2006

Vivitar 730 AF TTL Flash for Pentax

A bit of preamble. Unless you're careful, pictures that use the built-in flash from most cameras will have tell-tale signs. Bright areas with hairline shadows. Light falling off a few feet around the subject (changing the background into a murky underworld). Red-eye. Probably the most underrated issue with point and shoot photography is that those little built-in flashes make everyone's snapshots look the same. Thanks to bad lighting, there's a lot of uniformity to family albums in the past 30 years, but, personally, I think it's neat. It makes pictures look like little shoe box dioramas lit from in front by a camping flashlight. (This will be our heritage: an endless series of grandparents caught smiling with their eyes closed as they blink just at that wrong fraction of a second, lit by a tiny burst of blue light no bigger than my thumbnail.)

But when it comes to the built-in flash on most current DSLR cameras, especially the Pentax *ist DS or DL, I wish ordinary users wouldn't think that it's a final solution, or that getting a better flash means dropping a couple hundred dollars extra on potentially dead weight they don't want to carry around. The built-in flash has its moments, but not as often as you'd like. In deference to those who can explain why you'll need a flash better than I ever could (such as Strobist or Neil Turner), I won't explain the reasoning more than I have. But I know there are people who can probably afford the measly $60 it takes to experience the difference a semi-decent entry level flash can make, that there are people who haven't yet tried one, particularly a model that can be thought of as easy to use. And for them there's the Vivitar 730 AF. There are others, not to mention Pentax's entry-level flashes, but the 730 AF deserves a second look.

The Vivitar 730 AF flash, like it's twin the Sunpak MZ-440AF TTL, is a pretty inexpensive model, yet it has some of the things its more expensive cousins share: a head that both bounces and swivels (turns up and around), TTL (it can be used with the automatic settings on your Pentax that supports TTL), it has a guide rating of about no. 88 for 28mm shots (this is a bright, wide reaching flash), it can recycle in about 6-8 seconds, it can reach farther for auto-focus assist lighting than your camera can alone, and there's a Sto-Fen omnibounce available. By all accounts, it's a very capable flash that's available in models for Canon and Nikon, too, but that just doesn't seem to have found the right marketing to appeal to those people who aren't going to spend over $100 on a flash.

Vivitar's flashes are stalwarts for their brand. Their 283 and 285 models pack as much punch as anyone could use without bringing lights, and it's not uncommon to hear someone explain that one of these flashes can still earn its keep at almost 30 years old. Third-party adapters and battery packs are still being manufactured. But these are flashes with a bare minimum of on-flash control, and no TTL ability, not to mention a voltage risk for digital cameras. The 730 AF is almost as bright and poses no risk to Pentax digital cameras, but it lacks any manual control whatsoever besides the bounce direction. This is not so much of an issue for novices considering that when it's on an *ist, you can pretty much set the TTL exposure in camera to compensate as if you had some manual control, but it can't help you with expertly controlled curtain syncs, or for really minimizing the flash for fill while in manual mode.

Compared to the FGZ models from Pentax or other special Metz on-camera flashes, the 730 AF's construction can feel pretty cheap, and it needs to be outfitted with some extras to be used as a slave (it can only take shoe-mount adapters, such as the Pentax off-camera flash adapters F and FG for TTL). But for the cost, the 730 AF is pretty much everything you need your built-in flash to be, but without spending half as much as a new camera body. Just remember, if your camera is P-TTL only, this flash is a no-go.

Link: Vivitar 730 AF at B&H Photo


Kevin Roe said...

Hi. Thanks for the thorough review. It motivated me to buy this flash for my *ist DS. Seems to work very well, though I am having a hard time getting the auto-focus infrared light to work consistently. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. Any advice you have on making sure it always DOES work? (Kevin,

S. Monte said...

Hello. I have this flash, which I mounted on my analogic MZ-60. I´ve bought a K100D Super, thinking that the flash would be fine for it.In auto modes, I only get good pictures pointing to the ceiling.
I should have got some information about that p-ttl mode...I suppose ther´no way to solve it.
Thank you for the review and sorry for my English.

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