Friday, June 29, 2007

Some Thoughts About Flashes

Crop from a photo (c) by Ned Bunnell, original and more photos are here.

Ned Bunnell has posted some pictures of the new AF200-FG flash from Pentax that will ship in August (he's the Marketing VP of Pentax USA and has himself an advance unit). Without any sarcasm intended, I actually like the pinkish-tan color cast to the product photos he took on his patio, so he has nothing to apologize for in my mind about the pictures. The flash looks good, if a little more portly than I expected. But the coolest feature I can now see, thanks to Ned's pictures, is that there's a great little dial at the back to immediately dial in -0.5 or -1 exposure for fill flash. Excellent!

Which brings me to a little digression I want to make about the state of consumer flashes. I think it's terrific Pentax has made a new interation of the perennial entry-level hot-shoe flash with P-TTL and that they added some manual control to it. But in my mind I think "entry-level" flashes could be advanced a little bit more now considering where we are with digital cameras and what the pop-up flash already accomplishes. The AF200-FG is a fine flash, yet it's a bit retro considering how similar it is to flashes from the early 80's. And despite being inexpensive, good for illumination, and red-eye avoidance, it's still a flash that conforms to the "pop-up flash mentality" of picture taking, which is by and large the biggest problem with average snapshots. The mentality I'm talking about is the average person's reluctance to understand how to control light and rely on a "one size fits all" lighting solution.

Entry-level consumer flashes are pretty easy to use and the AF200-FG will be no exception, but what I want to see in the near future are more difficult features made easier to use for entry-level photographers, and part of that means making wireless TTL and rotating+bounce+zooming flashes more affordable. Pentax's top of the line AF540-FGZ is the only one they sell that does all three, and I think that that level of flash is really what should be the status quo.

If you read Strobist regularly, you'll understand that there's a whole world of lighting possibilities to explore and it usually starts with a good flash with manual controls that you can use off-camera. Using my AF360-FGZ wirelessly with a K10D is a lot of fun and very easy, which is why I'm pouty that so many people are still intimidated by any add-on flashes, typically avoiding them because they're too big and seemingly complicated. What stands to reason is that a camera company or flash company could probably reinvigurate the market if they started to really push the technology and make what stands presently as the more professional flash the new entry-level, raising the bar, and putting out new flashes that give photographers more options. Granted, the way digital cameras interface with flashes has become more complicated (matrix multi-segment auto-exposure is not the easiest thing to do). However, while we're less shy today of lithium battery packs and miniature components, not much has changed with flashes lately, even though wireless controllers, Wi-Fi, LED, software, batteries, and the digital cameras themselves are becoming enormously sophisticated.

So where do I see flashes going?

Smaller, Wi-Fi wireless, more energy efficient, and able to work more easily in numbers. Imagine a small flash the size of an iPod, and cheap enough so that you can set up half a dozen around a large room or space, and that they all adjust output based on the camera(s)'s location, the subject(s)'s location and pre-defined settings on which are key or fill or ambient lights, with built-in color modifers using LEDs, to change the temperature for effects without using gels. (I have some ideas about how to do this, and I'm practically prepared to start my own company to develop them if I don't see it soon).

My point is that flashes should whet your creative appetite and not merely appease it.

Links: Ned Bunnell's Blog, Strobist


Dr Hiding Pup said...

I'm an avid Strobist reader - bought my third flash - a Vivitar 285 - this week for £10... I like your idea, but it's never going to sell for £10... In the past, flashguns used to come with plastic filters which acted like gels. I assume this is less expensive than your new LED tech, cool as though that sounds... Reminds me of the Fisher Spacepen vs Russian pencil debate!

OK-1K said...

I have a couple flashes like that, including a Vivitar 283. The tehcnology behind those flashes is essentially 30 years old, which is why it's not hard to find used ones for cheap. What I'm advocating is that the bar gets raised substantially so that in 30 years the cheap used flashes offer way more than they do today. There has to be forward momentum, and it feels like things are stalling.

Anonymous said...

Pentax still has some way to go with their flash guns. One feature they have omitted is direct wired connection to the flash unit itself rather than thru connectors. The current bodies don't work well with the previous crop of flash guns and much as P-TTL is good, good old TTL flash gave more predictable results.
Better wireless flash? You need the K10D, no luck with the K100D.

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