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I'm planning to get a hotshoe flash soon (I currently only have the onboard), and I have narrowed my choice down to several options, but I'm having a hard time deciding which way to go.

ETTL

This is probably the simpler option, and I think I would go ahead and buy the Canon Speedlite 580EX.

This would certainly work, but I have a limited budget, so I am considering a cheap (but decent quality) manual instead.

Manual

Mostly based on the lower cost, I am leaning towards these.

My Question

There are two parts to this... First, is there anything important I'm going to miss by going with a manual flash? From what I can tell it simply makes it easier to use it in auto settings.

Second, is there any significant difference between the LumoPro and the Vivitar? Both are inside my budget, but the price difference is significant, so I want to make sure there's not something I'm missing.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I just picked up a LumoPro LP160 (about a week ago, in fact). I'm pretty happy with it so far. As Matt indicated, this flash will be manual only, but it works fine as an optical slave (triggered by an onboard flash), and it works fine on the hot-shoe with TTL metering or in manual mode. If you end up getting remote flash triggers (ex: Pocket Wizard or Cactus), this should work fine with those, too.

I've seen reviews that show its flash power at maybe one stop lower than the Canon 580, which is pretty good for $160. Some of the reviews talk about its recycle time (it's slower than the 580), but I haven't had a big problem with that - especially if you use less than 100% power, it doesn't take long at all to recycle. All-in-all, I think it's a steal for the price.

Incidentally, you may also want to add the Sigma EF-530 DG Super to your evaluation list. It's a little more expensive than the LumoPro, but it also adds many of the Canon 580's features (E-TTL II, for example). Again, it's not quite the same as the Canon, but it's close, and it's about half the price. I went with the LumoPro figuring I'd get the benefit of the flash in manual mode for now, and if I decide later that I really need a 580, I can still use the LumoPro as a slave.

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Thanks for the info! It's sounding like the lp160 is probably where I'll start. –  chills42 Oct 9 '10 at 18:14

Aside from the obvious thing you're missing (automatic exposure control) the 580EX (and the cheaper 430EX) have an AF-assist LED light which is activated during focussing that can be very useful in low light. It also allows second curtain sync (flash which fires as the shutter closes rather than opens, useful for when doing long exposures with flash), as well as high speed sync which pulses the flash for use with shutter speeds above 1/200s. On a 1 series body the 580EX offers weather proofing.

I have shot events with a manual flash, it's doable but you will get a lot of over/under exposure if you bounce as the flash as the amount of light returning from the ceiling/walls varies as you move around.

If you mainly do creative lighting / portraits and fun experiments rather than shooting events I would wholly recommend the manual flash, it's an excellent learning tool. I've had mixed experiences with the modern Vivitar 285HV (the old Vivitar 285 non-HV are reliable but have very high trigger voltages so may not be safe for shoe-mounting DSLRs) build quality (two were DOA), as the LumoPro was designed by and for enthusiasts I would definitely give it a try.

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So you can't do second curtain sync with a manual? –  chills42 Oct 8 '10 at 21:23
    
not with a Canon - instead of simply sending the flash signal to the hotshoe when the shutter is closing, which would enable second curtain sync with any flash, the camera sends the shutter speed to the flash so a Canon E-TTL flash can time when the shutter is closing and fire the flash. –  Matt Grum Oct 8 '10 at 21:30
    
figures... does anyone know if there is any way around that restriction? Perhaps an ettl wireless transmitter or something? –  chills42 Oct 9 '10 at 3:14
    
Actually... using the flash as an optical slave could work for rear curtain, triggered by the onboard at low power. –  chills42 Oct 9 '10 at 3:21
    
YN-622, Pixel Kings, Phottix Odins, and TTL PocketWizards can do wireless 2nd-curtain sync, but Canon's wireless schemes (optical and radio) cannot. –  inkista Apr 24 at 15:37

Assuming you're buying a new flash, here's what you'll be missing.

Vivitar 285HV

  • Decent build quality and reliability. Vivitar no longer makes flashes, they license out the name to Sakar, and the Sakar units are not the old reliable workhorse units, although they look and are named the same. A brand new 285HV is not like a vintage 285, and is very much the same as a Cactus KF36.

  • 1/8 manual power setting. You'll have 1, 1/2, 1/4, and 1/16. But no 1/8.

  • A standard sync port. The Vivitar sync port is non-standard--it's not a 3.5mm minijack and it's not a PC port.

  • TTL communication and all the attendant goodies.

However, you will gain an autothyristor.

Lumopro LP160/LP180

  • TTL communication and all the attendant goodies.

However, you will be gaining a 3.5mm sync port, and built-in optical slave modes. And the flashes are manufactured and tested to known high standards.

580EX

  • A sync port of any kind

The 580EXII gained features over the 580EX: menu commandability (with Digic 4 and later bodies), weather-sealing, an authyristor mode, and a PC sync port being some of the main highlights. So, yes, there are reasons to go for a 580EXII over a 580EX.

Manual vs. TTL

TTL communication isn't just about having e-TTL, it's also about having the camera and flash communicate with each other. You need this for features like e-TTL, high-speed sync, and changing flash settings from the camera menu. And most TTL-capable speedlights with rotating heads can be put into Manual mode.

eTTL on the flash is like having Av mode on the camera. It's a way to automatically set the flash power level based upon through-the-lens (TTL) metering. The camera tells the flash to output a "preburst" flash of a known brightness level, meters it, and then adjusts the flash's output power for the main burst, based upon the reading and the flash's power limits. It's fast and it's convenient, and is most typically used for on-camera run'n'gun event situations (parties, weddings) when you may only have one chance to get the shot, and you're moving through changing lighting situations.

High-speed sync is the ability to use a shutter speed faster than your camera body's maximum sync speed (usually 1/200s).

Menu commandability is a nice luxury when shooting with an on-camera flash, but today there are a lot of affordable radio triggers (Yongnuo YN-622, Phottix Odin, Pixel King) that use this menu command protocol between the camera and the flash to give you control over a remote flash from the camera body via the flash control menu. This is extremely handy when it comes to adjusting manual power levels, particularly if your flash is placed somewhere hard to reach (or has its body inside a softbox).

Final thoughts

To my mind, unless you know you're going to do studio lighting setups exclusively, for a first or only flash, a TTL-capable unit (preferably an OEM one that won't be subject to the vagaries of reverse engineering) is best, because you can use it with equal facility for on-camera run'n'gun shooting with eTTL, and off-camera Strobist setups. The manual-only flashes are typically better as 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. units when you get into off-camera flash.

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