BetterPhoto Q&A
Category: Best Photographic Equipment to Buy : Choosing the Right Camera Flashes

Photography Question 
Linda Kessler

Quickness and Simplicity of Autofocus, Fill Flash

It is getting more difficult to focus with close baby portraits and children on the move with my Nikon FM2. However, I love the simplicity, smallness, and lightness. I am used to shooting manual. I am considering the Nikon N80, for TTL fill flash vs. the Canon EOS system with focus auto tracking. What are your opinions?

Also, when using fill flash that is non-ttl, automatic Sunpack 28 I use the light meter to take a non-flash reading and then open up 2 stops on the flash, e.g. F8 to F4 (can't open up 1 stop on the flash). Or, I keep it at the setting at F8 and use 1/4 power. Is this the best strategy for soft fill flash either outdoors in sunlight or indoors/outdoors with light behind the subject?

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7/1/2003 7:15:51 PM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
My method for fill outdoors when using a manual camera (Olympus OM-1n) which has an X-sync of 1/60th:
(1) Meter scene somewhere with shutter speed at 1/30th second. Set aperture for that or between that and about half-way toward 1/60th. This is one shutter speed setting longer than the OM's 1/60th X-sync and tightens up the aperture by one to one-half f-stop compared to metering it at 1/60th.
(2) Shift shutter speed to 1/60th. Alternative method is metering at 1/60th and then stopping down by one to one-half f-stop. I've done it both ways.
(3) Ensure flash is turned on and in the Auto mode (uses the sensor built into the flash). Set flash to lens aperture setting. My Sunpak handle mounts and the Metz shoe mounts allow setting power level for "Auto" mode in one f-stop increments over a wide range of lens apertures.
(4) Shoot photograph.

This gets about half the light from ambient and the other half from flash. With your FM2, you should have a little more flexibility with shutter speed. IIRC, its X-sync is 1/125th which would allow you to use that or 1/60th hand held.

I'm not that familiar with the Sunpak 28. Sounds like it's an older unit. My Sunpak's are the 544 and 555 "potato masher" flash handles. The Metz units are the 40 MZ-2 and 40 MZ-3i shoe mounts (very similar to each other), but I have a bracket and handles for them. I also have softboxes for the Sunpaks and bounce cards for the Metz's to soften and diffuse the light.

You might think about buying a more capable flash unit if yours doesn't allow setting power level for its "Auto" mode in single f-stop increments . . . or if it doesn't allow a wide range of them (about five minimum). This could prove to be much less expensive than an entirely new camera system.

Regarding fast moving kids:
Watch their behaviors, what triggers them when they're playing, etc. I think you'll find there is a fair amount of repetition. Then set up the situation to trigger what you want where you want it, or simply wait for it to occur and be prepared in advance as it unfolds. Patience is key and you won't get everything (even with an AF program mode camera).

Hope that helps.

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7/4/2003 12:16:47 AM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
  Oops . . . garbled (1) above:
(1) Meter subject/scene with shutter speed at 1/30th second. Set aperture for that or somwhere between that and about half-way toward 1/60th. This is one shutter speed setting longer than the OM's 1/60th X-sync. It tightens up the aperture by somewhere between a half and a full f-stop compared to metering it at 1/60th.

Hope that's a bit more understandable.

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7/4/2003 12:24:34 AM

Linda Kessler   John,

Thanks for your response. I checked and have a Sunpack 383. I auto mode it only gives me 3 f-stops, e.g. 400ASA, 4, 8 and 16. If I am understanding you correctly, I meter for a scene using 30 for the shutter speed. So let's say it comes to F8. I close down to F11 and change the shutter speed to 60. On the flash unit I use F8 and shoot.

The advantage doing is that I can work in 1 stop increments. As mentioned, I have experimented with shooting the scene usng 60 getting F8 and then opening up to F4. Alternatively, I will stay at F8 both on lens and flash and use only 1/4 power. With using this last way, it may work more like 1 stop.

I like your system and will do a test roll.

If I do invest in another flash unit for my FM2 which do you recommend?


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7/4/2003 3:19:16 PM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
Hmmmm . . . guess I did garble it some, and your Sunpak 383 complicates things a bit.

I have a 383 although it hasn't been used in quite a while. It's a reliable, fairly powerful, basic shoe-mount auto flash, and their price makes them a very good value. Also can swivel and tilt which most others in is price range cannot do. Even if you get another one, don't get rid of it. Keep it as a backup. It's why I still have mine.

The one drawback of the 383 is its auto mode settings. There are only three, they are two stops apart, and the three f-stops you can use depend on film speed. For the ISO 400 film you mentioned, it can be set for f/4, f/8 or f/16.

This complicates things a little in trying to use the method I tried to outline before.

With ISO 400 film:
(a) Adjust shutter speed using 1/60th or 1/125th for a lens aperture of f/2.8, f/5.6 or f/11. Do this as if you were going to shoot it without flash. If you cannot get one of these apertures using 1/60th, then use 1/125th. Don't use a shutter speed faster than that or your FM2 will not X-Sync properly. If it's a very bright scene such as direct sunlight, you may not be able to do this with ISO 400 film.
(b) Stop down by one f-stop. Your lens aperture should now be set to one of the options you have on the 383.
(c) Set flash in auto mode and select the same f-stop setting on the flash as on the camera lens.

What you are doing:
You are setting an exposure that would be one f-stop underexposed if you shot it without a flash. By setting the lens to an aperture that matches one of the three you can set on the flash, and then adjusting the flash to that same aperture, it will put out enough light to properly expose the photograph.

You may find ISO 400 film too fast during the day outdoors, unless it's very overcast and you're in deeper shade. If you find you cannot get the shutter speed down slow enough to allow an aperture setting you can use on the flash, try ISO 200 film.

This method produces a 1:1 fill ratio. Half the light for the exposure is ambient and the other half is from the flash. It's about the maximum ratio you can provide from a flash before it becomes obvious you used one.

I use this method quite a bit with ISO 160 professional portrait film and a flash that has a lot more auto settings on it than the 383 does. I still have trouble in direct sunlight because I cannot stop the lens down far enough to get an X-sync shutter speed. Because of this I put people into shady areas with lower light levels when doing it. The ambient light in shade is also diffused which eliminates harshness.

Flash recommendations:
These will be a bit more expensive than your Sunpak, but you should be able to find them in excellent condition used with a little patience:

Shoe mount:
Metz 40 MZ-2
Metz 40 MZ-3i
For the FM2, you only need the generic SCA-301 foot and these Metz units should come with one. Used price should be about $200 (presuming it includes the SCA-301 foot). The MZ-2 and MZ-3i are nearly identical with some minor changes in the switches on the back. The 40 MZ-2 is the better value as it a slightly older model and sells for a little less. Metz is a German company and the name is well known among pro photographers. They are very well built, pro grade units.

Handle mount:
Sunpak 544
Sunpak 555
For your FM2, the 544 would be the better choice, and would be a little less expensive. It is more flexible with film speed and auto mode settings. Flash hooks up to camera using a short cord that plugs into the PC flash socket on your camera, and it should come with this cord. The cord will look like a longer, coiled and heavier duty version of the one that came with your 383. You can also use a hot shoe adapter with a PC socket on it if you wish.
The 555 has about the same power level, looks almost identical, but is really made to work with TTL flash control which the FM2 cannot do. It's great with a camera that supports TTL control, but it doesn't have quite the flexibility in Auto mode. I have a 544 and a 555; IIRC they were about $150 or so used.

I'd like to be able to suggest one of the older Nikon Speedlights for your FM2 and found the specs for them (SB-10, SB-15 and SB-16B). Unfortunately, all offer only two f-stop settings in Auto mode giving you less flexibility than your 383 has. Otherwise, the SB-16B is a fine flash unit.

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7/4/2003 7:31:11 PM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
  Just occurred to me . . .

Do you have an FM2 or an FM2n?

Look at your shutter speed dial. The FM2 has a red "125" in the middle of the other shutter speeds, and a red "X 200" at the end of the shutter speed range. The later FM2n has a red "250" in the middle of the other shutter speeds, and there is no additional red number at the end of the shutter speed range.

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7/4/2003 7:37:08 PM

Linda Kessler   John,

I guess I have an FM2n although it says FM2 on the camera, which I always thought I have. But, according do your questions the red "250" is in red. I guess this will play a role in sync speed?

Also, according to your suggestion why is the only advantage of doing it the way you suggested to have a 1 stop vs. 2 stops decrease of light? Why is not the way I mentioned practical, outside of the problem with the two stops. All the literature I have read says to open up not to stop down on the flash. I am just curious. I have done tests and it seems to be fine but I would prefer your expertise. Also, why is not just using 1/4 flash power practical? Again, just interested from a technical point of view.

As far as the flash, I need to understand the shoe and handle mount. I was hoping to get a flash that would fit into the shoe of my camera and also use off the camera with the stobofrom bracket I have. I try to keep things simple. However, I will research what you mentioned. What about the Vivitar flashes? But, not when I think of it I think it also is limited in the Fstops like the Sunpak 383.

Also, I rented a Nikon N90s and set it on auto for fill flash with aperture priority and it seemed to work pretty good. I know the N80 has a pop up flash and I was thinking trying it out with the babies/children portraiture. Do you think that would solve some of my problems. As time goes on I find it difficult to focus with my macro 90 lens with extreme close up portraits. There are some that are too out of focus, even a tiny bit, for my liking. this is why I was thinking of the N80 autofocus, which I can use manual and purchasing a 28-105 macro zoom, 1.4 or close for the aperture. Perhaps in Tokina or maybe Nikon if I can afford it. Any thoughts? I may try to keep using the Nikon FM2 (n) but I will have to see how my focusing goes. I use progressive lenses which I had problems with due to the narrow ranges of optics for each of three distances. So, then it was suggested to have just distance levels when photographing. It has been quite an ordeal. I photograph exclusively fine art, natural shots of pregancy, babies, children, families. If you have the inclination you can view my website, and see some of my work.

You have been terrific. I am a self-taught photographer and always learning.

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7/4/2003 7:59:25 PM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
  To address the last thing first . . .
I'm into the Presbyopia age bracket. Won't tell you long I've been there though. :-) It's a PITA getting a waiter to hold the menu across the restaurant so I can read it. Had one pair of progressives made and that was the last set. Drove me crazy hunting for the "sweet spot" all the time.

I assume from your posting that your glasses have some correction for far distance, and not just for mid and reading distances. If you do NOT have astigmatism, or if it's very slight, one of the best things you can do is put a dioptric correction lens into the viewfinder and get rid of your glasses when using the camera. I did this a number of years ago and it was the best thing I ever did to improve focusing speed and accuracy. The difference was quite dramatic. Couldn't see the entire viewfinder image with them and couldn't focus accurately without them. Lived with this misery for many years and now I don't know why I put up with it for so long when the fix was so inexpensive! Unfortunately, if you have significant astigmatism, a dioptric correction lens on the viewfinder won't help. Astigmatism is oriented in a particular direction and cannot be corrected for both orientations of the camera.

Your eye focuses on the image on the focusing screen. The viewfinder optics effectively place this image as if it's several feet in front of the camera. Because of this, viewfinder correction should be based on far distance vision, not reading or mid-distance correciton.

The best method to set up your camera with correction is to go to a camera dealer that has the Nikon dioptric viewfinder correction lenses for the FM2 and find the correction strength that works best for you (same style fits FE2 and FA also). The marked strength may not be exactly the same as your distance prescription due to interaction with the viewfinder optics. Nikon still makes them and suggested list price is just over $20. It screws into the threads on your viewfinder. Then consider adding a eyecup if you haven't done that already (DK-3); list price on them is $12. Didn't improve focus, but it's another Good Thing I did some time ago!

More on fill in a little bit.

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7/4/2003 11:04:40 PM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
  Major T-storms tonight . . . shut down for a while to protect computer from surges. What a fireworks display we've had this year!

About Fill:
Perhaps I should have first asked why you're using fill.

If it's to bring a shaded subject up to the brightness level of a directly sunlit background, the technique is different from what you've been doing, from what I've described, and a little more involved. Because of the setup time required to do this, I use find acceptable backgrounds outdoors that are equally shaded as the subject (e.g. north side of building, thick stand of trees, tall hedge, etc.) and avoid trying to fill to match a bright background if at all possible. It takes too long to set up and I usually don't have the time to do it (wedding stuff). In addition, the brightness level difference between subject and background is too high to make the effect subtle (usually 3-4 stops). It almost always results in a photograph that shows obvious use of flash.

I use the method I described to add catchlights to the eyes and let the shaded background fall a little lower in brightness compared to the subjects by about a half stop or so (due to farther distance from flash). With a diffuser to cut the harshness (large bounce card on the Metz), the effect is relatively subtle. This is the effect, or something similar, I presume you are trying to achieve.

Metering and setting exposure on the camera as without flash, then setting flash at two stops wider without changing camera settings:
This sets a proper exposure as if there were no flash, and then adds some light with the flash. You will get a slight overexposure, but I believe it will result in variability with the results. Electronic flash output is varied by changing the duration of the flash, not by changing brightness of the Xenon tube. Its brightness when it fires is always the same. As a result, there is a minimum flash duration. You are demanding so little light from the flash that it's very likely up against the minimum duration most (if not all) of the time, and that's why I'm thinking you will get varied results.

Metering and setting exposure on the camera as without flash, then setting flash at same aperture and power level switch to 1/4th:
This will result in much greater overexposure than the other method you've been trying and I belive it's enough to be noticeable. The power level switch has no effect on flash power when the 383 is in Auto mode! Doesn't matter what position the switch is in, it's as if it's set to the "full" position. It's why there's an "A" printed above the "full" position on the switch. The power level switch is only for Manual mode, and only affects flash output when the 383 is in Manual mode.

Handle Mount Flash:
You've undoubtedly seen a "handle mount." They're also called a "potato masher" due to their shape. The flash is permanently attached atop a handle. The handle attaches to a base plate that bolts onto the bottom of the camera using its tripod screw socket.

The handle ends up on the right or left side of the camera depending on how you mount it. Think press photographer from about 25 years ago. It's also how the larger flashbulb units attached to cameras.

Hot shoe mounted flashes can only have so much power. If you really need mondo flash, the only ones that can deliver it are the potato mashers. The 544 has a GN of 140, the 555 has a GN of 150, and they're mild. The Metz 60 CT-4 and Sunpak 622 Super Pro with standard head deliver a whopping 200 GN; almost enough to light up a block party. None of them have a zoom head. These are the GN's for 35mm wide angle lens coverage. Most flash brackets have an optional mounting scheme that allows puting a handle flash onto the top of the bracket (without the base plate for the camera base). They tend to end up being mounted rather high and many feel they make the bracket top heavy.

Shoe Mount:
Your 383 is a "shoe mount" flash and it's what most people own. Do you have a "flip flash" stroboframe, or the "camera rotator" style? Either way, since you're using a camera bracket I recommend you think about one of the two Metz units. Because of their profile, you might have to adjust a "flip flash" style bracket slightly compared to how it would be set up with the slightly higher profile Sunpak 383.

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7/5/2003 1:48:48 AM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
  More on the Metz flash units:

There are other reasons I'm thinking one of the two Metz units (40 MZ-2 or 40 MZ-3i) might serve you better than a handle flash and would greatly increase your flexibility using a flash in Auto mode. Both of the the Metz units have an enormous range of settings in Auto mode. IIRC, the aperture settings span f/1 through f/45 in one-stop increments. Unlike every other flash I've used, this doesn't shift with film speed setting. Both also have tilt/swivel zoom heads, *and* a secondary low power flash tube under the main one that does not tilt/swivel. The secondary can be turned on or off as needed. This allows using the main head for bounce and still getting catchlights and eliminating shadows in the eyes using the secondary. All the significant settings are displayed on an LCD panel on the back, and settings are made using pushbuttons just under the panel. I can very rapidly change settings on the Metz units. For use on a bracket there are several methods for mounting cabling them to the camera.

The easiest is using the Metz SCA-307A remote cable. One end replaces the removable foot on the bottom of the flash and has a standard size foot of its own (without any trigger contacts). The SCA-301 foot is attached to the other end and slides into the hot shoe onto your camera. The cord is coiled and fairly heavy duty.

The SCA-301 foot also has a sub-mini phone jack on the side, similar to the one on your 383. A cable similar to the one that came with your 383 plugs into the foot and has a PC plug on the other end to connect to the PC socket on the camera. When the cord is plugged into the SCA-301 foot, the flash contacts on the foot are disconnected so they don't short out if it's mounted in a solid metal shoe (such as the one you have on your Stroboframe).

There's one more method that isn't documented much, even in Metz's literature that uses an SCA-300E foot and an SCA-300A cable. A little more expensive because of the foot and cable, it ends up being very similar to using the SCA-307A remote cord, which is likely why it isn't documented in Metz's literature. Had to figure this one out on my own after becoming familiar with the Metz system of SCA modules, cords and flash feet.

If you ever decide to switch to an AF Nikon, or some other brand, you can create a "dedicated" TTL controlled flash out of either one for whatever camera you purchase. Metz makes an enormous number of SCA-300, SCA-3000 and SCA-3002 series modules that cover nearly every make and model of 35mm SLR manufactured within the past 20+ years.

I use the Sunpak 544 on a Custom Brackets flash bracket with a medium format Mamiya M645, and a Sunpak 120J TTL on another rotating bracket with the 35mm OM bodies indoors. However, for outdoor events I put the Metz units on the brackets. Their flexibility and very wide range of settings enable coping with the very wide range of ambient light encountered outdoors.

You may have to be a little patient in finding one of the Metz flashes. They're not rare, but it took a couple months of checking B&H and KEH used stock periodically to find the second one so I could have one for each camera bracket.

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7/5/2003 1:54:30 AM

Linda Kessler   John,

Thanks again for your prompt response. Yes, the fireworks were exceptional tonight. Where do you live?

In regards to the diopter. I went this route already and it doesn't work for my vision. I am inbetween two of them. My progressive lenses work fine, I have had them for years and adjusted to them. They have prescriptions for reading, mid and far. For the reason you mentioned, as far as finding the 'sweet spot', the optometrist made me a pair of distance glasses just for photographing. It works fine. It is just that the detail I need to focus on, reflections in eyes using a 90 macro lense, super close portrait, is diffcult for me to focus. This is the reason I am thinking of the Nikon 80 with autofocusing. I miss having my eye into the viewfinder. I loved that but needed to adjust. I have tried everything else short of an autofocus. As mentioned I will see how the last few rolls of film did. I cannot use an eye cup with the glasses. I thought I couldn't use an eye cup with the diopter either as I recalled as I used to use the diopter until my vision worsened.

I need to research the flash situation as all of what you mentioned is new to me. I didn't know about the 1/4 output nor that the flash is controlled by duration only. Why are there f stops on it then it that doesn't make a difference? And, is the only advantage to your method the fact that I will have a slight (1stop) increase of brightness? Yes, I do not want to light situations. I have used it for when it is dark (subject and and background) but also want to use it for when sunlight is shining on someone's face to prevent dark shadows. However, I do not have time to make many adjustments as when I do my professional shoots I need to be fast, fast, fast. I need to set up a system so I could just put the flash on the camera or bracket, set the shutter, f stops on camera and flash and shoot away. My experience when using 60 on the shutter is that the background is too dark for my liking. I like the scene to look as I see it. Perhaps using a longer shutter would be better. And, perhaps using your method with my Sunpak would work fine except that I ultimately change the shutter from 30 to 60.

And, yes I have the flip-flip strobofrome I can shift it for vertical shots. However, I have done test where it doesn't make a difference whether I use it or not, so for simplification on the camera seems to be best. Red-eye, from my reading, should not occur as it is still high enough above the lense. And, for using the flash outdoors or indoors in not formal, lighting situations I think the flash on the camera would be fine. What are your thoughts. However, I will look into the Metz thing. Again, do you think getting the TTL flash for the Nikon 80 solve my problems, with autofocusing, etc.? I know ultimately I need to test it out and will see. Being in NYC I will go to B&H. If need by I can return it within 2 weeks for a full refund.

Thanks again

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7/5/2003 5:08:58 AM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
Central Indiana, north of Indianapolis. About seven inches of rain in as many hours. Major flooding . . . worst I've ever seen here. The local man-made show ended just in time. It was eclipsed by a much more spectacular one provided by Mother Nature throughout the night.

The switches on the back of the 383:

Mode Switch:
This one has a manual plus three different auto settings. In the manual position, the flash puts out the amount of light determined by the power level switch. In the three auto positions, it sets the sensitivity of the auto sensor on the front of the flash, not the flash power level. In all three auto mode positions, the position of the power level switch is disregarded and has no effect.

Power Level:
Allows setting flash output level when flash is used in Manual mode and has no effect on flash output if the mode switch is in one of the three Auto settings. It also moves the distance scale across the lower window, but it does not change the position of the lens apertures in the upper one. If the flash is in one of the three Auto modes, the only relevant position for this switch is in the "full/A" position . . . the distance scale in the lower window will show the correct flash range (minimum and maximum distance) for an auto setting only if it's in the "full/A" position.

Film Speed:
This is not really an electrical switch. All it does is move the lens apertures back and forth across the upper window to show what aperture to use for a particular auto mode setting and film speed . . . or in manual mode to show what aperture to use based on film speed, power level setting and focus/subject distance.

I'll get to the rest of your questions tommorrow . . . getting late and need to put a dent in a pillow for a while. :-)

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7/6/2003 12:51:36 AM

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