Flashes

Metz 40 MZ Flash Review

Who is Metz?


When I started out with learning about lighting via the Strobist website, I was into the idea of picking up a couple of cheap Nikon SB24, 26, or 28 flashes on eBay. I soon realized however that this was a fool’s game as the Nikon SB line had been strobisized by David Hobby, and the used prices were over $100 for what should have been a cheap strobe to use with my cheap Chinese radio triggers. Then I asked myself a basic question, “Why buy a Nikon SB24/26/28 anyways?” What about a Metz?


The Nikon SB flashes are nice since they’re powerful and certain models can dial down their power to 1/125 or 1/256. This means you have a lot of flexibility with fine-tuning the exposure while shooting. By comparison, the Sunpak 383 and 120J (two of my favorites) only dial down to 1/16 and my Sony FL58 only does 1/32 in manual mode. After some searching I realized that Nikon wasn’t the only option for a quality flashes with a large power range and looked to Metz. Metz is a professional flash producer out of Germany. They’ve been making flashes since before I was born and produce a quality product that rivals the offerings of the camera makers. Metz flashes are generally designed to be workhorses for pro users who need to flash away all day at a wedding or some other event. This means they’re robust and designed to last a long time. Some even have user replaceable flash tubes. I reviewed the Metz offerings on the used market from the viewpoint of price versus performance, and eventually settled on the 40 MZ-3i.

The Metz 40 MZ


The Metz MECABLITZ 40 MZ-3i is a sweet flash (although now discontinued), and also offers a unique body design for off-camera flash work. Most shoe-mount camera flashes all look the same, the head points straight up in the normal position, and you have to angle it 90 degrees to shoot into an umbrella. The 40 MZ is designed exactly opposite to the norm. In the normal state it’s already pointing along the axis of the camera lens, which makes it perfect for mounting on a light stand and shooting into a softbox or umbrella (it’s more centered along the axis of the umbrella than a traditional flash). Additionally, the head tilts up, slightly down, plus it rotates around. So, basically with the 40 MZ you have a compact flash which is excellently designed for off-camera use with a large power range.


The MZ40 has all the features you want for off-camera (call it Strobist is you like) use. It has decent power, a guide number of 40 (ISO 100, 50mm), the flash power dials down to 1/256, you have a modeling light, stroboscopic function, zoom head (20mm to 105mm), external battery packs, etc. Additionally there’s an integrated wide angle diffuser, the the head pivots vertically between minus 13° to plus 90°, and can rotate 270°. The 40 MZ was produced in three main versions (I, II, III) plus an i designation. The 1 and 3 versions are basically the same except for some minor added functions. For off-camera manual use there’s really no difference.


I picked up two 40 MZ-3i’s to shoot with on the used market (one from KEH and one from Adorama). There’s a battery pack you can buy or just shoot with 4 AA batteries. I recommend avoiding the battery packs since they’re old, and if you can get one it probably is run down and will hold fewer flashes than using the standard 4 AA’s. On the back of the flash you can control all the flash functions, which for me means leaving it on manual and adjusting the power level or zoom. If you have a compatible camera and SCA module you can use the TTL functions, but since the 40 MZ is rather old (from the days when film ruled), it’s possible that with your new digital camera the flash won’t work on anything but automatic or manual (no TTL) mode. In automatic mode the flash determines the proper exposure after you set the aperture and shutter speed on the control screen, in csae you want to use it on camera. You can check the function compatibility on the Metz website (a chart shows what functions work with different cameras).


Metz builds two types of flashes, some specifically for certain camera makes like Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc. The other type they produce is adaptable, with separate SCA modules so a flash body can be used with just about any camera body you like (Canon, Nikon, Mamiya, Leica, etc.). The 40 MZ is this type, using SCA modules. This doesn’t really mean anything unless you want to use it on your camera. I have one 40 MZ with a standard shoe (one single pin) and I have one with the module for a Leica camera. Both types are easily triggered using a hotshoe adapter plugged into my Elinchrom Skyports or any other radio trigger.

Using the 40 MZ


There’s little to say about shooting with it, because the 40 MZ is great to shoot with. It’s a workhorse flash with lots of power and a large power range. It’s compact and versatile for off- camera shooting.  The combination of compactness and functionality makes it ideal for location shooting. I also mix the MZ40 with my studio strobes. For example, I might have an Elincrhom BxRi in a CreativeLight softbox paired with a Metz 40 in a Kacey Dish. The MZ40 acts as the control light to fine-tune shadow details while the BxRi lights most of the scene. This is what I did when I shot Oksana, the ability of the Metz to dial-down to a low power made the lighting work, whereas a more powerful flash like a Sunpak 383 would have washed out the fine details of Oksana.


On the other hand, the MZ 40 packs a lot of power, and is ideal when needing to balance the power of the sun on small shoots. This is what I did when shooting flowers on the terrace of my old apartment. The sky was blue, the sun was high, I was bored, and the tulips were in full bloom. So I setup the MZ40 dialed up to maximum power and used it with a weak-powered Contax TLA280 to create some awesome tulip pictures. When I’m traveling I easily drop a few MZ40’s into my Pelican 1510 case like Tetris blocks and pull them out as needed.

Buying a 40 MZ-3i


If you’re looking for a unique flash for off-camera use I recommend checking out the Metz 40 MZ series. On the used market the 40 MZ-3i generally goes for about the same amount (or less) as a Nikon SB, but since nobody except for you, me, and a couple other folks on the internet know about it, you’re not as likely to get into a bidding war on eBay. I bought the 3i version because it’s newer, but they cost more and if you’re looking for a bargain search for the 1i model.

The Gist


The MZ 40 was one of my first flashes, and I liked it so much I bought a second one. Large power range, decent price on the used market, and unique head design, perfect for off-camera use. If you want more functions than a Vivitar 285 or Sunpak 383 and want to avoid the Nikon SB-line, check out the Metz 40 MZ.

Elinchrom BxRi Flash Review

Why the BxRi?


If you’ve been playing around with small flashes and are starting to find them limiting, or just want to blow some more money on photo lighting, then a studio flash might be the answer. I evaluated a lot of different studio flashes in my quest for a pair of larger lights, and eventually settled on the Elinchrom BxRi range when I decided to put together a photo studio in my apartment. The past 5 years have seen an explosion in flash consuming by non-pro hobby and semi-pro photographers. Fueled by the internet and gear lust, many have reasoned and re-reasoned the need for a pair of studio strobes in your heads. But why? Have your small flashes lost their luster? After all, light is light, the photos from small flashes are the same as those from studio strobes.


“Can I do this shoot with small flashes?”


Probably you could, but it would probably be cooler with larger ones. The fact is, when you’re shooting on location or in a studio space the large monolights are nice to have. If you have an AC power outlet you never have to worry about the batteries dying and can enjoy large light output the whole day long. I know what you’re thinking, “more brains, less light” or “enhance the natural ambient” lighting instead of blasting a scene with a lot of light from a studio strobe. This is the philosophy I started with during my Strobist-dominated lighting education. But the truth is, I got into studio strobes simply because I wanted more lighting power and more flexibility and control over the light. The small flashes had become limiting and I found myself lusting for something more. There are many options for proper studio strobes, but I settled on Elinchrom for the nice mix of expandability, dependability, and value. The Elinchrom BxRi series offers an attractive combination of features including, fast flash duration, integrated Skyport with control, mid-price range, good recycle time, and multi-voltage capabilities. More expensive than Alien Bees but cheaper than Profoto the Elinchrom line offers a good price/performance value.

BxRi Features


Basically, I bought a pair of BxRi strobes because they offer a nice range of lighting features and remote power control. An Elinchrom Skyport is integrated into the BxRi design, so you can adjust the power level of up to four different light groups from the controller on your camera. Since the devices are integrated into the flashes, you never have to worry about charging their batteries or even turning them on, they’re just there and ready to work when the lights are powered up. Having power control is very nice when you don’t have an assistant to run around and change your lights. Also, if a light is far away or placed high on a boom, it’s a hassle to bring it down just to change the power level on the light.


Since you can buy a universal Skyport to trigger a non-Elinchrom flash (like a Sunpak, Nikon, Canon, Sony, etc.) it’s very easy to create a setup with multiple lights and not be tied to the Elinchrom system. For example, I often use a three-light setup with my BxRi strobes in softboxes and a Sunpak 383 with my Kacey beauty dish. I have the two flashes programed to different channels so I can adjust their power individually, or chose to fire one or the other for different lighting effects. I should note here, if you’re mixing strobes from different companies, there’s the possibility of a color shift between the lights. How much this matters to you is hard to tell, but it’s important to mention. Naturally the BxRi also have modeling lights, which are fantastic for assisting the autofocus on you camera and showing where the light will fall.

BxRi in Studio


I love shooting with the BxRi strobes in the studio instead of or mixed with small flashes like the Sunpak 383 or Metz 40MZ. The BxRi flashes come in either 250ws or 500ws versions. I chose the 250ws lights because for my studio size (the ah, room in my apartment) it just didn’t make sense to get the 500ws version (although I might add a 500ws head in the future). I bought a set with two Portalite softboxes and stands. The Portalites are basic softboxes, very light and without an internal baffel. They setup up quickly and pack down to almost nothing. I often setup the BxRi strobes on the sides of the studio and then add fill in the front with reflectors and a Kacey Dish or an Orbis ringflash. With the built-in Skyports I’m able to setup the  BxRi lights and then fine-tune the lighting from the camera with the model/person in the shot. The stobe in the Kacey dish is then the only strobe I need to configure on its own. All the lights are triggered with Skyports, with one for the small flash. This process goes far faster than when shooting with all small flashes on munual which all need to be adjusted individually on the strobe body.


The BxRi design is multi-voltage , allowing one to shoot on 120V or 220V AC, basically giving a photographer the ability to shoot anywhere. This capability was actually a big reason why I bought into the BxRi lines as opposed to the Elinchrom RX lights. I travel to the United States about once a year, and it’s just sort of strange to buy an electronic device which can’t be used in other countries. I know, you can always buy a voltage converter, but I never know which one to buy, I would forget to pack it, and it just seems safer to go with a light which can run on either 120V or 220V. However, I’ll admit that this is like the Canon tilt-shift lens syndrome. You want to buy a Sony for the camera features but think, “but what if I get into architectural photography, they don’t have a tilt-shift lens like Canon or Nikon.” A lot of people get into the Nikon or Canon systems because of the large range of lenses and accessories, and then end up only using a few not-so-special zoom lenses. You could make the same argument for the multi-voltage or Skyport issue, but it’s nice to have when you need the functionality.

Build Quality


The BxRi series is robust, designed to wow the amateur and be used by the professional user. The body is made of plastic but seems pretty durable. Ah, here I should mention that I sort of broke mine, but it’s because I put a super heavy 150cm Walimex Octabox on my BxRi, and had to tie a piece of rope to the handle to make it support the weight of the octa. I think I sort of bent or damaged the inner support ring, as the locking mechanism doesn’t release correctly anymore, but if you stick with the normal Elinchrom modifiers and don’t overload the design, you shouldn’t have any problems.

The Gist?


If you’re into getting some studio lights for all the right (or wrong) reasons the BxRi line won’t disappoint. The lights are awesome, the integrated Skyports work great and the overall design gives you a lot of lighting funtionality. There are other options than Elinchrom, I had been lusting after a set of Alien Bees Einstein strobes, but even if I still lived in the US I would probably tend towards Elinchrom instead of, Alien Bees (for example). It’s only recently that Alien Bees released the Einstein units, which now allow remote power control and an attractive set of power setting features and short flash durations. Although you can get them in Europe, Alien Bees ship from the UK (an earlier distribution deal with Gotham Audio in Switzerland had fallen through),  at a price significantly highter than the US offering, and after shipping and import duties,  the final price is on the same level as Elinchrom. Then there’s Hensel and Profot lights, but they’re just too expensive for me at this time. If the BxRi are still too much you can also check out the cheaper range, the D-Lite strobes, which has been steadily adding features like a cooling fan and now integrated Skyports as well. The primary difference most users will care about between the BxRi units and the D-Lites is the flash duration, which is faster on the BxRi units (but this might not matter to you).


If you’re looking to buy some Elinchrom lights in Switzerland you have to go through Profot AG. For some reason they’re the one and only distributer in the country, but they offer a range of packages to choose from. To check out more on specs and stuff, go to the main Elinchrom website.

Sunpak 120J Flash Review

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.

Bare-Bulb Design


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.

Which Version?


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.

Accessories


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.

Sunpak 383 Flash Review

There are many classic things in the camera world. Classic cameras, lenses, shades, etc. But if you’re starting out (or well-established) in the off-camera flash mindset, you should know about the venerable Sunpak 383 Super. Sunpak is an interesting company, they basically make electronics, and have a long history of producing camera flashes at affordable prices. The 383 is a bare-bones device. It has no zoom head, takes 4 AA batteries, has a swivel head (with tilt) and 5 levels of power adjustment (down to 1/16th power). It also sports a nice little plug for a radio trigger and two-prong outlet for a Sunpak battery pack. The 383 is light, compact, and reliable.


The Sunpak 383 is my general go-to flash for travel, mountaineering and location shooting. If it gets dropped in the ocean or falls off the side of a mountain I won’t cry about it. If I lost my Sony F58 it would cost over 500 CHF to replace. For off-camera type use it’s a compact workhorse that you can easily toss in a camera bag or large coat pocket. I’ve taken my 383 hiking up Mt. Santis and on failed ascent attempt up Balmhorn in Switzerland. On the latter adventure there was ahhh, lighting and a quick retreat involved when I had the bright idea to do a night solo ascent in unstable weather. After the weather moved in I took to shooting a snail on the trail with my 383 until lighting started popping in the trees above my head and I decided it was time to stop doing stupid things like night mountaineering.


I also use the 383 in the studio with my Elinchrom BxRi flashes. Generally I have the Elinchroms in softboxes and I use the 383 with my Kacey Beauty Reflector. The 383 also pairs well with the Orbis ringflash, either on or off-camera. When I shoot concrete walls they often benefit from some fill light. For this I pair the 383 with my Orbis ringflash and put the 383 on a Gorilla pod.


Because of the analog power setting on the back, it’s easy to adjust the power level without looking at the back of the flash. This is very nice if you have it up on a boom (as I often do) and can’t see the back of the body. This makes it easier to adjust your light settings and concentrate on shooting instead of fiddling with little black boxes.


The classic 383 Super is generally available on the used market, either on eBay or at places like Keh.com, Adorama, or B&H. The prices are bit crazy since the flash became Strobisized (but still affordable) and if you’re paying over 80 USD, you’re probably paying too much. I found one used in like-new condition at a camera shop in Winterthur, Swizterland for about 10 USD. Since being discontinued sometime ago the 383 has been resurrected as a TTL version with manual settings possible. For the money, I see no reason to get the TTL version unless you want it for TTL usage. You also have the option of getting a Sunpak battery pack and can then power your 383 with a short charging time and shoot all day long. Basically, the 383 is a great flash to start with when learning about off-camera flash and I highly recommend picking one up if you find it at a decent price.