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I am a relative newcomer to the photography world and am slowly building up a set of gear based around my Pentax K-x. Next on my list of priorities is a flash. As I have virtually no experience in this area, I am finding the array of choices and terminology to be a difficult (but intriguing) maze to navigate.

I have three primary questions, and beyond that any and all advice is welcome.

1) Price - A quick search on Amazon turns up Pentax-compatible flashes which range in price from about $50 to $500. What can one flash do that makes it worth $450 more, when on the surface they all appear to have similar features, i.e. swivel , zoom, etc.?

2) Brand - I have seen mention of incompatible flash units doing damage to a camera they are mounted on. Is this an area where I should stick with an official offering and not go with a third party brand?

3) Strobe Flash - This is something I see talked about on photograph blogs, websites, magazines…, mostly in the context of Nikon and Canon. I have a basic idea of what a strobe flash (or speedlite) is, but what I don’t know is if they replace standard flashes, or are for special ‘advanced’ uses. Also, I wonder if they are even available for a Pentax system?

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Welcome to photo.SE and photography! And good question. –  Reid Sep 25 '10 at 15:05
    
Note that Canon calls their strobe flashes "speedlite", and Nikon uses "speedlight". This is to distinguish them from studio lighting, which generally has a longer duration. As far as I know, Pentax just uses "flash". I'm removing the speedlite tag. –  mattdm Jan 2 '11 at 13:55
1  
On the question of flash units doing damage to a camera: this is not a concern with modern third-party flashes, but for older models, check this somewhat-canonical list: botzilla.com/photo/strobeVolts.html –  mattdm Jan 12 '11 at 15:39

4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

1) Power and features. A flash with more power will, of course, allow you to bounce to higher ceilings, go through larger diffuse objects, and do daylight fill-flash at further distances.

Quick feature discussion:

  • Tilt: Most models have this, save the lowly AF-200FG.
  • Swivel: Most model shave this, except the AF-360FGZ for some reason. Tilt/Swivel are not a problem if you get a flash bracket or sync cord.
  • Autofocus assist: Many flashes emit a cross hatch pattern to help auto-focus in low light. In general, this works much better than any AF-assist on a camera's body. It is non-disorienting, does not mess with exposures, and can work (depending on the flashgun) in extremely dark situations. Some even have an option to only AF-assist and not fire during an exposure, while some you can trick to do it (like the Sigmas).
  • Manual: Some flashes only have a couple manual power settings which can be a pain. Others have more steps and go to lower powers. Quite for old lenses (particularly macros), and of course with off-camera flash. In addition, some do not allow manual in certain modes (like Av, Tv, etc).
  • Zoom: The flash can adjust how concentrated its light is. Some flashes have less or more range, and some are more efficient at it.
  • Wireless: Majority of the P-TTL flashes support optical sync, where any Pentax body can act as a master to trigger the flashgun, wherever it may be sitting. Only certain (Pentax) flashes / workarounds exist for getting Wireless HSS flash, however.
  • High-speed-sync: Ability to use a higher shutter speed than the body's sync speed. Essential for daylight usage or any shots where the background is daylight. Say if you're under a tent during the day, it's either blown out background or dark people without HSS.
  • Auto-thyristor: The flash has a sensor on the unit to determine the correct amount of flash to output. If you use older lenses that do not communicate aperture, you need this as P-TTL will not work on these old lenses or you are stuck in manual flash power mode. Supposedly there is a workaround, haven't tried it. Only the high end P-TTL models have this, and the AF360FGZ for some reason.
  • Rear-curtain sync: Flashes by default fire right when the first shutter opens, as opposed to right before the second curtain closes. This means with longer shutter speeds, if your subject is moving, the flash will have exposed the earliest part of them. If this is a car driving in a line, it will be at the beginning of the line, as opposed to the end, which is generally not what you want.
  • Recycle time: How long it takes to recharge the flash. Pretty important during events and high flash usage.
  • Built-in bounce card: I guess it's nice to always have around, but its generally very small and you can't adjust the angle.
  • Modeling light: Emits a burst of flashes so you can see what the shadows look like.
  • Auto off: Some flashes don't let you adjust when it automatically turns off.
  • Sync-port: Some have a port where you can directly plug in a sync cable instead of requiring a hot-shoe adapter.
  • Stroboscopic mode: Emit a number of flashes during the exposure for creative effect.

2) Any in-production flash that says it supports P-TTL will not do any damage. What you are referring to are old flashes from long before P-TTL where the voltage may be too high. Generally, if you search, you can find out the voltage and see if it is compatible.

You can get old flashes for pretty cheap and many work great. The disadvantage is that they won't communicate with the camera via P-TTL. Many flashes have auto thyristor, or you can use manual mode. This means you can't just set whatever camera settings you want and have the flash compensate, but rather you need to set Aperture/ISO (flash speeds are generally so fast that shutter can be left to you to play with for creative effect) based on the flash's settings. My old AF280T (highly recommended for a cheap flash to play with) did seem to somewhat communicate in some modes, but I'm not really sure how well it worked.

IMHO, the best value flashes with most of the features and great power are the Sigma EF-530 DG Super and the Metz 48 AF-1. Having used the Sigma EF-500 DG Super (just less power than the 530) and the Metz 48 AF-1, I can detail differences if you'd like.

3) Speedlight is a name used by Nikon and Canon to name their hotshoe flashes. I will assume you mean strobes, which generally refer to studio lighting where they are hooked up to a battery pack or wall. These are bigger, have much more power for going through large umbrellas/soft boxes, and do not go on a camera. They often have faster recycle times and a model lighting mode. You can trigger them with a Pentax system using a sync cord or wireless gadgets like Pocketwizard or Cactus.

A good guide to Pentax flashes can be found here. It is pretty thorough, and he is in the process of updating it with any other differences that are pointed out.

A great flash photography resource is Strobist.

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I was under the impression that high speed sync couldn't really help your flash/ambient ratio much, because you lose power as the flash has to pulse multiple times as the shutter travels. –  Evan Krall Jan 3 '11 at 0:33
    
@Evan, it doesn't help your ratio (it actually does hurt it) so much as allowing you to bring down the overall exposure so you don't clip everything. ND filters will retain a better ratio if you need the distance for fill flash. –  Eruditass Jan 3 '11 at 5:27

I'm not really here for self-promotion, but I would like to point out that I have put a lot of work into creating a Definitive Guide to Pentax Flash Options (http://pttl.mattdm.org/) website, specifically giving a detailed comparison of features of different Pentax P-TTL-compatible flash options, both from Pentax and third-party (Metz, Sigma, Promaster, Tumax/Generic).

Hopefully this will be helpful to people!

In general, your brand options are:

  • Pentax: Unfortunately, Pentax's own lineup is a little weak. The top-of-the-line flash is nice, but basically the whole setup is dated. There's plans for a new mid-range flash in 2013, but the rumors so far are underwhelming. That said, if you want the maximum guarantee of compatibility, this is obviously the way to get it.
  • Metz: Well-respected German flash maker, and one of those few classic third-party brands that is still actually the real company. Generally new models every couple of years, with up-to-date features (including wireless P-TTL) and a lot of customization and control. If you want a flash-based auto-mode (as opposed to P-TTL), the Metz 58 AF-2 series is your best bet. Lower end models are now made in China, but if you want one of those you'll at least have the Metz brand behind it. Higher models can be updated with new firmware via USB.
  • Sigma: Not famous for their flash system, but they do produce a pair of flashes in versions for all major camera systems. The "Standard" model is a lot of power for the price (but short on features), while the "Super" version is competitive with the other mid/top-end flashes for features.
  • Promaster: Used to have a lot of options, but Pentax compatibility has been a die roll recently. There's a new lineup, some of which appear to match the generic flashes before (it's possible that now, they all come from there).
  • Icorp/Generic: Hong Kong-based Icorp makes "private label" flashes sold as Tumax, Vivitar, Rokinon, Polaroid, Cactus, Bower, and more. Pretty much any time you find a new previously-unheard-of flash for Pentax, it's another rebadge. Exact specs vary but they're all in the same ballpark for a given model. Even the low-end Metz flashes come from here: Metz admits as much, but says that they're not the same as the generics, being "equipped with a special electronic technology which has been developed by Metz in Germany". (I'll let you come to your own conclusion, having not dissected one myself.) The low prices are often tempting, but compatibility (particularly with future models) is questionable, and while they don't seem to be particularly unreliable for the price, service is usually not a real option.

My guide doesn't cover non-dedicated automatic and manual flashes which also work with Pentax, so in that sense it's not completely comprehensive, but for P-TTL, I don't think I've left anything out. Let me know if I'm missing something.

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+1 A really great informative site. I went with second-hand Metz 58 AF-1 after studying all the options. –  Imre Apr 30 '11 at 20:28
    
+1 - Very well-written. In fact, I've bookmarked this site several months ago! –  DragonLord May 3 '11 at 18:20

Eruditass covered all the high points for question 1 however, in terms of brands, I would suggest going new and with one of:

  1. Pentax, obviously the safest choice, but most expensive.

  2. Sigma. I have the Sigma EF-530 DG Super and it has all the bells and whistles for less money than the comparable Pentax option. Only downside is that it's a little clunky on the user interface for setting up, but once you get used to it it works great.

  3. Metz. I have the Metz ringflash and it also works great. Perfect for macro work.

A strobe is a hotshoe flash, just a different name for it. Speedlight is the name used by Nikon, and Speedlite is used by Canon, but they're both flashes that can mount on their cameras, hence the reason you hear it reference to them. Net effect, for question 2, the answer is yes, a rose by any name is still a rose. :)

One thing to make sure you get with a flash you select is wireless support for Pentax, which is why I suggested new and known brands. It is very handy to be able to fire the flash when it is off camera and the K-x supports this functionality. I can honestly state that my Sigma has been fired, almost exclusively, off my camera once I figured out the freedom it gave me.

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The Pentax flashes can do Pentax-TTL and Pentax Wireless (which works pretty well). For strobist work you probably not need this.

But, from my own experience: avoid the Pentax AF360FGZ. It has a standby function which can not be disabled and will mess up your strobist experience. I still own and use a AF540FGZ which works nicely.

But for radio triggers other flashes like the Yongnuo YN560 will work great.

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See pttl.mattdm.org/feature:customizable-auto-off if this is important to you. –  mattdm Jan 2 '11 at 13:23

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