People often go through various stages of fascination and impulsive buying when getting into photography equipment (but I also admit I’m a little special in this regard). Once you figure out how to use a normal speedlight like the Nikon SB family of flashes or the Vivitar 285 or Sunpak 383 flash, you start to lust for more. You don’t know what that “more” is, but it’s something like a studio flash but portable like a speedlight. That’s when you decide that it would be cool to buy a bare-bulb flash, and the Sunpak 120J is the obvious choice.
The Sunpak 120J is a bare-bulb design, which means it doesn’t have a fresnel lens to focus the light from the flash tube when it goes pop. Aside from offering cool lighting possibilities, the bare-bulb design is wicked-retro-cool. The flash tube looks like it would fry your brain if it were set off too close and reminds one of a mad-scientist lab. But nothing useless is ever truly beautiful, and the 120J not only looks cool but produces a lot of light. It comes with a standard silver reflector, but you can remove this for use in softboxes and beauty dishes (which is what I do). The 120J was originally a manual flash, but was later produced in a TTL version with a switch-out module. With the TTL version you can buy a TTL module for Canon, Nikon, Minolta, etc. or just use a 1-pin module when triggering with slaves. I love these module designs because it gives more choice to the customer and doesn’t lock you into a flash-camera system. The original 120J is triggered via a HH-plug cord, and includes a screw thread at its base instead of a hotshoe connection. This is awesome since you can directly screw it into a flash bracket or light stand. The 120J runs on four AA batteries, but it was also sold with the TR-II battery pack. This pack is essential with a 120J in my opinion, because the flash can drain the 4 AA’s pretty quickly. Now that you know what it is, why exactly should you want one?
Why the 120J?
The 120J isn’t the only bare-bulb flash around. There’s also the Quantum flash line and the Sunpak 622 can be fitted with a bare-bulb flash tube head. However, the Quantum line is expensive and units require an external battery pack. For the money an Elinchrom Quandra setup makes more sense than a Quantum. The 622 is affordable, but with the bare-bulb head attached the setup is massive. The 120J offers bare-bulb and power in a compact package. As with many classic flashes, once it became popular with people who follow Zach Arias and Strobist, the used price sky-rocketed. I’ve seen the 120J with battery pack listed for 400 USD, that’s just crazy. If you pick up a used 120J (without battery pack) for much more than 200 USD you’re starting to tip over the price-value line for a flash of this caliber. I bought the original version for 180 USD and later the TTL version with battery pack (for like $350 or something) and I don’t regret it, but the second one was a tad overpriced.
I don’t recommend getting the TTL version because it doesn’t offer much more for the money. The chances that your digital camera will actually work with the TTL function is probably pretty low, so you’re left with the same manual power settings as the original version. The original manual version is triggered with a standard HH plug cord, and the TTL version accepts a 1/4 inch plug. However, it should be noted that the mounting system on the original 120J is the most bomber of any flash I own. Instead of a hotshoe connection there’s a standard screw thread, so you can securely place it on a bracket and never worry about stressing the shoe mount. This makes it ideal for off-camera setups. Both versions include 5 manual power steps, from full down to 1/16th power (like the Sunpak 383). The body design is nearly identical to the Sunpak 383, which is why I like using them together.
The 120J in Use
I primarily use my 120J flashes for location shooting, either in a small softbox or with my Kacey Beauty Reflector. For example, when I worked with Margarita, I used a 120J in a Kacey beauty dish placed close, and was able to knock back the ambient light of the area we were shooting in. This combination gives me a lot of beautiful light wherever I am in the world. When coupled with an external battery pack (Sunpak, Quantum, etc) it’ll keep flashing nearly all day and at the highest power will give you sun exposure balancing flexibility. I also use the 120J indoors in my apartment studio when I want a lot of hard light by installing the 120J silver reflector. This sends a lot of unmodified light where I want it. For example, I used a 120J in my Urban Ninja series to place a hard shadow in the image just below the Ninja shown below.
Despite it’s big-bulb design the 120J travels pretty well. When I fly I just take out the bulb and pack the 120J body in my Think Tank Airport Acceleration or Pelican 1510. Two 120J’s pack together symmetrically and it takes just a few seconds to reassemble the flash for action.
At some point I want to experiment with the DIY radio camera triggers or the Radio Poppers and see if you can control the TTL flash remotely. If this happened it would almost be worth the crazy prices some people are willing to pay for one. The 120J is also one of the few flashes with a user removable flash tube. Replacements are about 30 USD and are easy to obtain from stores like B&H or Adorama. If you want a 120J check out places like Keh.com and eBay. The eBay prices will probably be more than the 120J is worth, but if you’re rigirous in searching you might snag one for a fair price. I bought both of my 120J’s at Keh, one was “bargin” grade and looked almost like new.
For more info on using the 120J checkout Zach Arias or the 120J Flickr group.
18 thoughts on “Sunpak 120J Flash Review”
Hi guys, just a short question:
how can the sunpak 120j auto pro be triggered with a canon 7D?
thanks for your effored
Do you mean by the pop-up flash on the 7D? I don't think this would work as there's no slave sensor on the 120J.
nope i mean what trigger would work with the 7D? Can it be triggered via the pc-sync on the 7D? Is that save or will the voltage from the Sunpak grill that camerabody?
Ahhhh, in that case, the answer is yes, you can trigger the 120J via the pc-sync on your 7D. However, I would recommend using a Safe Sync from Wein. This will insure that the trigger voltage from the 120J to your 7D will not rise above 6V (and hence protect your camera). Here's a link to the product,
I really like your job! very interesting, i like the skin color the you can get with this type of flash.
do you think i can use the canon 50 D and one of this flash ?, i have seen them for $199 on ebay
can you explain me how.?
i really appreciated thanks
Sure, the only thing is if you're using it on the Canon or with a radio trigger. If you are using on the camera then you should use a Safe Sync from Wein to ensure the voltage seen by your camera is below 6V so you don't damage the 50D.
I swear by my 120J’s, and use them far more than my studio strobes. I love the quality of the light and their portability (perfect for location work). I use them exclusively off-camera, triggered by pocket wizards.
I trigger my solitary 120J either by radio trigger, or optical slave. If you don't want to chance connecting it to the camera body, using the body's integral flash at 1/16th power with an optical slave, is the least expensive way to go. Use it with the reflector, bare, or in a softbox. Wonderful little tool.
I use all 120J flashes for my weddings. The quality of light is unbelievable. I shoot an entire wedding on 16th power with one on camera 120 and one off. i can typically get though a wedding shooting 2500 plus shots with 8 AA batteries. All my weddings are shot with 120J flashes. If you look at my website and go to the wedding gallery you can examples. http://www.evocativestudios.com
I’ve 2 questions 🙂
1) which cable did you use for trigger in this picture on the sunpak 120j
2)which trigger for the triggering?
can you explain?
I have 3 sunpak 120j but ?’ve a lot of problem about triggering :/
The cable is a coiled HH to MiniPlug from FlashZebra:
It plugs in directly to the HH port on the 120J and then to the Elinchrom Skyport radio trigger. I find this setup to be very reliable with the 120J.
Where to buy a new Sunpak 120J Flash.thanks
A “new” Sunpak 120J? Can’t be bought new anywhere as production was stopped long ago. Check eBay or KEH.
The 120j bulb. What is the wattage of the bulb? I have the Lumedyne system and the bulbs is 800watts uv coated.
ok , i just bought a sunpak 120j , but is the TTL version , it was my only choice, so have to stick with it , my question is :
which module should i use to trigger the flash off camera on Manual mode, i do not care about TTL option ( i have Canon 50D )
Hello. I am glad to have run acrossed your post. I hope you are able to respond since it has been a few years since you posted this. I have the set up, as seen in the photo at the bottom of your post, and do not know how to work it. I have all new batteries in it and I still cannot figure it out. Granted I am new to photography as far as understanding my camera but I cannot seem to understand how to work it. And it did not come with instructions. Could you possibly guide me or send me to another page for help?
Thank you kindly.
I can’t say for sure what the problem would be. I bought two packs with the original batteries, but they will die eventually. In general the battery pack on the 120J is very basic, just recharge it with the wall adapter and it should be ready to go. Can you send me more specifics on the batteries that you’re using?
Can anybody tell me how to tighten the swivel head on the Sunpak 120J?