Monday, March 3, 2014

Before the Cheetah Lights, there was the Olympus FL-600r - an Enthusiast Review

Before I purchased the Cheetah lights, I bought the Olympus FL-600r to go with my OMD E-M5.  If there was one piece of gear that helped improve my photography, I would say this flash was it. When I first started shooting, I was obsessed with getting the best and newest lens whether it be a prime or zoom. I lie, I still obsess about glass and I am currently drooling over Panasonic's 42mm f1.2 lens, but I digress. Adding a flash was and continues to be the great equalizer.  A particular lens' strength in sharpness becomes less apparent when I stop down the aperture and introduce specular highlights from an external light source like a flash (the strobist blog explains specular hightlights extremely well).  For all m43 users, nothing can beat the versatility of this accessory, save for the re-badged Panasonic versions and the third party offerings from Metz. Below I have outlined of all the strengths and weakness of the this particular unit and you will see I have added more from my previous post.

"Better lighting trumps better gear" - wise words from my friend Joe Gunawan. 

  1. Compact - a great complement to my OMD E-M5 and currently the E-M1
  2. Effective and smart TTL and TTL-FP mode (essentially high speed sync)
  3. Built very well and feels like a quality product
  4. Great RC/Slave mode for studio work or off camera photography (Still has TTL mode when set off by the proprietary clip on Olympus Flash). Giulio from Small Camera Big Picture has a terrific explanation of how to use the RC mode with the OMD E-M5 - here
  5. Ability to control the power from the camera in RC mode
  6. Syncs perfectly with the E-M1 at 1/250th of a second in manaul mode and 1/200th of a second in TTL
  7. Power is controllable from the OMD and up to three are programmable from the camera
  8. Lasts a long time off one set of batteries.  
  9. Built in LED lighting can be activated for video (though I have never used this feature)
  10. Locking flash head positions.

Shot using TTL mode 
  1. Optical Slave does not work well in bright sunny days
  2. Abysmal recharge rate from half to full power.  This gets worse as the battery starts to drain
  3. True guide number in the mid 30s at ISO 100.
  4. Takes AA batteries.  OH How I HATE AA BATTERIES   

So how does this flash fit into my workflow? I always believe in using the right tools for the job and I believe the FL-600r really shines with event photography where your subjects are in a constant flux. For the following shots, I rely on TTL or through the lens metering to give me the power I need to light my subject. However, I rely on manual shutter, aperture and ISO control to determine not only my depth of field but the amount of ambient light I want to capture in my photo. The following shots were all taken at various events (see caption below for my technique). 

This shot was taken on the top deck of yacht.  I wanted to expose for  the killer sunset
leaving my model pretty much under-exposed.  The light from the flash balanced 
out the ambient and subject.  In this situation, it would have been impossible to 
capture this shot without adding light.  If using only available light, I would 
either have a nicely exposed background with an underexposed subject or a nicely
exposed subject and a blown out background. 

For this shot,  I had very little light to work with.  I wanted to create some bokeh 
(also known as background blur) from the twinkle lights behind the subject.  
Pointing the flash directly at her would not have been very pleasing, so I opted
to bounce the flash using the low, white ceiling above me to soften the light.  

Isolating the subject was my goal for this shot.  So I decided really bring down 
ambient light by increasing my shutter speed (increasing the speed also helped 
with capturing this shot, as it did not last very long). For this shot I used a stofen 
flash diffuser to help soften the light.  
This was honestly a difficult shot for me, as this capoeira performer was 
about 60 feet away from me and was moving an extremely fast pace. I did
not dare shoot manually with my flash and relied on TTL to help expose for the 
shot. I started out with the flash head zoomed out to 24 with a stofen modifier,
but noticed I was not getting enough reach. So I decided to remove the 
modifier and zoomed my flash head to 105mm to focus the light and got this
interesting shot with a vignette built in.   

I rarely use this technique, but find it quite fun to use when people are dancing. 
In this shot, I purposefully set the shutter to 1 second and rotated my camera 
upon pressing the shutter release to create this ethereal look.  I had to stop
down a bit, as not to over expose the ambient light, but the flash of light "froze"
the subject.  I use this sparingly, but throw it in to mix things up a bit.
Although I prefer to shoot manually whenever I can, I see the importance of having a unit that has TTL capabilities. I don't always have the luxury of time to take multiple exposures to get it right in camera and the metering system is highly capable of getting it right or good enough. This flash unit is a great complement to any micro four thirds camera, especially if you have one of the larger bodied ones.  Don't get me wrong, it is a very light weight unit, but would be taxing on the hands if you are using a GX-1 or an E-P5 for extended periods of time.  

So now the big question, would I recommend this to a professional event photographer?  I give this a qualified yes.  As an advanced amateur, I would say it is perfect for my needs, as I only shoot a handful of events a year and I value its small, but powerful-enough stature along with it's TTL FP or High Speed Sync mode.  I don't think this cycles fast enough for those photographers who run and gun with their shutter.  Wedding photographers will not get many bursts at full power, but may be able to get away with low burst speeds at under half or quarter power.   For these particular situations, I would recommend looking into a micro four thirds Metz flash.  I hear they are a lot more powerful and have a faster re-cycle speed, but sacrifice size and weight.

Metz 50 AF-1 on an Olympus OMD E-M5.  Thank you Fed for the photo.

If I had any say in the creating an updated version of the FL-600r, I would make the following recommendations to improve the speedlight.  

  • Please ditch the AA batteries and move towards a lithium ion battery pack so we have faster recycle times. Please follow Godox's lead and possibly have the BLN power the flash. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, it would be sublime to have one set of batteries for my OMD and FL-600r.
  • Allow for the built in LED light to be used as a focus assist light for stills photography that coordinates with the shutter release on the camera.  
  • Built in receiver for radio control. I believe the Yongnuo brand of flashes have this and is quite impressive
  • A GN rating of 50 or higher at ISO 100 (or Low on Olympus cameras)
I hope this blog post about the Olympus FL-600r helps you determine whether or not this speedlight will fit in your workflow and/or needs.  For the occasional event photographer, this is the flash for you.  Thanks for stopping by.

So say we all,

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