Sunday, August 30, 2015

AD-360 Review

Before I get on with the review, I want to mention that this page is not going to be completed in it's entirety all at once.  As I use the unit and find more things to discuss, I will add them here.  For now, let me share with you a bit of my very brief history with it and how it performs for me so far under various conditions. 

So, that said, here is my small review of the AD-360.  As mentioned, normally, I don't do many hardware reviews, so before I feel the need to do one, that piece of hardware has to impress me in some manner.

The Sigma 35mm F/1.4Art lens impressed me with it's incredible sharpness, as well as many other traits.

I am a big fan of the PW ControlTL units and the AD-360, for a start, impressed me with how well it likes to work with these triggers (amongst other things).

Before I get to that, let me just give a few first impressions I had of this flash.

I had been reading about and researching this flash for quite a while, probably over a year, before making the decision to get it.  Advertised as a 360W/s flash, in reality, it is something closer to 300W/s (a few internet sites rate it at 307W/s output).  Close enough if one is looking for a flash in that power range.  I was going to make the purchase late in the 2015 season, likely late fall, early winter, but a couple of events led me to get it a touch earlier.

First, I found the Godox FT-16 trigger online for about 1/2 price ($15US delivered to my door).  Normal local prices for this trigger are in the $40 range.  I really did not need this trigger (preferring to use the PW ControlTL units), but it's main advantage is that it lets one control the power settings of the AD-360 wirelessly (this is something the AC3 cannot do as the AD-360 is not a PW supported flash). 

Since I use a lot of softboxes or place the flashes far from me, it is a nice advantage to be able to change the power setting without needing to walk across the room, lower the flash, set the power setting and raise the flash on the lightstand again.  So, one can use their trigger of choice, either the FT-16 or one can use 3rd party triggers.

The 2nd little event that finally pushed me over the edge to get this flash, was that I found the Godox 2-into-1 "Y" cable, again, for a very cheap price ($8Cdn, again, shipped to my door).  Normally this cable is in the $20-$25 range.  This cable cuts the recycle times by 50%.  It links the 2 power ports of the PB-960 and channels them into 1 connector that the AD-360 plugs into.  If you have or plan to get this flash, GET THIS CABLE!

I suppose the final thing that had started me looking in the first place, was the fact that about 20 minutes away from my home was the cheapest place in North America where I could get the Godox AD-360 (at $470+tax, Canadian funds)... so I went and bought myself one to test out and play with.

First impressions are that it's meaty and taller than a speedlight, but lighter than I had been led to expect via other online reviews.  The PB-960 battery... same thing.  So, it worked out well, did not die on me during the first week of testing and playing (so that I could get used to it and use it in an upcoming wedding).

Well, I am not going to bore you all with how well it worked, how it was reliable and lived up to it's 307W/s power output rating.  I will say that I had an idea as to the quality of light to expect from the bare bulb experience because I had been playing with a Sunpack 120J, but the AD-360 is just much stronger and better.

The first thing that I am going to show here, is not the basics, but (oddly enough for some), how it works in bright sunlight and the HyperSync results that one can expect.  Let me kind of insert a spoiler here for you... this flash is the best flash (to date), that I have found that gives me excellent HyperSync results.

The quick way to tell if it is any good with this technology is to shoot at max sync speed (1/250th) and small aperture (typically F/16), set that as the bar for the photograph and then open up the aperture 1 stop and increase shutter speeds by 1 stop (to 1/500th) and then measure the differences between the 2 shots.  This difference, if the 2nd (1/500th) shot is darker than the 1/250th shot, is the amount of light lost.

Traditionally, I would use my light meter, but I found that testing via applications gave me more accurate difference results, mostly when using Lightroom and transitioning back and forth between the 2 photos and raise the exposure on the 1/500th shot until the histogram and what my eyes saw in the two pictures, matched.  In the case of the AD-360, well... I saw no loss in light output!

Let me briefly explain... If I have a good ambient exposure at a certain shutter speed, let's say 1/60th at F/4, by moving to 1/125th and F/2.8, that exposure *should* be the same, and indeed normally it is.  However, where flash is concerned, changing shutter speeds will NOT affect the flash side of the exposure... and here is where this rule changes.

I don't want to get super technical here, but some minor tech-speak is coming... prepare yourself. 

Changing shutter speeds does NOT affect flash exposure... as long as you are at your maximum sync speed OR LESS.  Once above your sync speed, your curtain starts chopping off parts of the frame leaving you black bands or heavy gradients.  When using supersync or superior technologies (like the adjustable HyperSync), you can eliminate those black bands as long as the flash duration is long enough to stay open long enough to fill that frame.  Yes, that means that the flash duration of the AD-360 is looooooooooooooooooong... at full power.  This is why it is such a great flash to use with the ControlTL units. That said, when shooting above max sync speeds, under ideal circumstances, a 1-stop increase in shutter speed will drop the flash exposure by 1 stop as well.

Let me show you the results of my very unscientific methods and results.

 First, let's define the baseline.  We need to see what ambient is on a "standard" bright day here where I live in Canada.  Using the camera, I "chimped" in a manual setting of ISO 100, 1/250th and F/8.  At this setting, I was about a 1/2 stop too bright, but it doesn't matter... close enough for my needs, and just something to keep in mind:

Moving the settings to what is commonly called "The Sunny-16 Rule", I needed to set the camera and see if the flash was capable of meeting those levels, so here are the results of that shot.  You can tell that I am underexposing the ambient by around 2.5 stops:

Next, I set up the tripod to a distance of 10-12 feet away from the model's position, marked that spot and set flash power to full (1/1). Doing some fast testing on my hand, this was the result... again about a 1/2 stop too bright:

Ok, now I needed a baseline shot of what the flash does at max sync speeds before falling into HyperSync, so I reused the same camera settings of F/16, 1/250th and ISO 100.  If anything, I wanted to be consistent, and the subject below is again overexposed by about a 1/2 stop, and here is where things start to get interesting:

My next step would be to move to a shutter speed that is 1 stop above my max sync speed and see just how much light was lost on the "subject".  I now set the camera to the following settings... since I increased shutter speed from 1/250th to 1/500th, I want to open the aperture 1 stop.  ISO settings stay the same. 
Camera settings were F/11, 1/500th, ISO 100:

Ok... wow.  First off, the exposure did not go down... it went UP!  I am about 2-tenths of a stop higher than in the base photo, so right here, the ControlTL units are letting me use a brighter part of the flash than when we were at our max sync speeds!  This is a pretty good start, but if I do the same thing again (open up the aperture and increase the shutter speed 1 more stop), do we gain again, lose or stay the same? 

Camera to F/8, 1/1000th and again, use ISO 100:

Ok, so from what the histogram and my eyes tell me, nothing has changed, we see an exposure that is near identical to the previous photo, which is good!  What this means is that so far, we are NOT loosing any light moving in to super-sync speeds... but can I go higher? 

Camera settings now get pushed to F/5.6, 1/2000th, ISO 100.

Again, from what the histogram and my eyes tell me, nothing has changed, we see an exposure that is near identical to the previous photo, which is good!  This means a couple of things... first, my HyperSync settings are pretty much close to perfect (though to be honest with you, all I did was totally GUESS at what I thought the best settings would be), and left it at that.  I will discuss what those settings are a bit later in this article.  I have only 2 stops higher left to go on my camera to test out, so lets do it! 
Camera settings are changed to F/4, 1/4000th, ISO 100:

At 1/4000th, F/4 and ISO 100, I again see no changes to the exposure in my frame, this flash and these triggers are just rockin' it!  One more to go!

Camera settings of  F/2.8, 1/8000th and ISO 100:

There are again no evident differences in the exposure and nowhere in the set of pictures from 1/250th to 1/8000 do we see any banding, evidence that the combination of a Nikon D4, PW ControlTL units and the AD-360 are pretty much a match made in heaven.

So now we know that the AD-360 is a very good match to the PW ControlTL units, but wait, here is another small surprise... it can do HSS too!

For HyperSync to work well, the flash needs to be at full power, and this flash is powerful enough that there may well be times that we just don't need full power, but may want to get something like 1/500th or 1/1000th shutter speeds in a condition that is not full blown Sunny-16 conditions.

Ordinarily, if you wanted to use the HSS feature, you would need a 2nd specific Godox trigger (called the Cell II), just to get HSS.  What gets me is that the Cell II trigger cannot control the flash output like the FT-16 can, so even then you would need to carry around the FT-16 trigger in your pocket, but this is still a proprietary trigger, and if you are like me, someone that has some 3rd party flashes, but mostly use Nikon speedlights, mixing and matching is a pain, unless you use something like a PW to trigger and control your Nikon speedlights and other flashes and the FT-16 to control the output of your AD-360's.

So how does it all work, HSS and HyperSync?  Quite well, thanks for asking!  For those that are ControlTL knowledgeable, you know that you can set the triggers to use the camera HSS tables to trigger all flashes, and if that remote flash happens to be a flash that is not directly supported by PW, one can still get that one remote FlexTT5 to use the HSS timing tables along with a P2 port offset to get things all aligned properly. The results are perfectly lit frames at any shutter speed above max sync speed at all power levels from 1/16th to full power with the AD-360 HSS feature enabled. Massive black banding without it under the same circumstances (except when the flash is on full power, of course!).

How to do it:  At all shutter speeds from 1/320th to 1/8000th where the flash is at any power between 1/16th to 1/1, all one has to do is to activate the HSS feature on the AD-360.  This is done by pressing the MODE and SET buttons at the same time.  To exit HSS mode, just press the MODE button once by itself.  Of course anytime you are in HSS mode, there is a loss of power because the flashes have to be pulsed, and so it drops around 2 stops in output (I will verify exactly what the amount is via my meter once I get a new battery).

Just a note, HSS mode uses a LOT more battery power, so use sparingly (some say more than full power pops!).  It is possible to not only get the flash to fall into thermal protection mode but the battery itself as well, so be careful!  Since we are talking about it, just because it is possible to get the flash to recycle in under 3 seconds at full power, that does not mean you should do it over and over without realizing that there are potential consequences.  If you want to take care of your equipment, don't be too abusive of it, be that with HSS or straight full power pops.  The manual says it can handle around 75 full power pops then mandates a 10 minute rest period.  When using HSS, that drops to 45-50 pops before needing a 10 minute break.  Here is a better idea... just don't push it that hard, ok?
Oh, almost forgot to mention!!  What were the ControlTL settings that gave me these great results?  Easy.  On the trigger side, start HSS at 1/320th.  On the FlexTT5 remote side, set the P2 port to a setting of 5... that's it, that's all.

One final comment about HyperSync... How well it works is not just flash dependent, but it is the harmonious combination of PW ControlTL units properly configured, a flash with long durations and a camera with a fast/efficient shutter. I have been very lucky in all my camera choices in that the D200, D700 and D4 all offer me outstanding performance with my equipment. Your results may be different. I make no promises or claim that you will get similar results with your equipment.

August 20, 2015

Interesting... the more I use this flash, the more I tend to like it and want to use it over my speedlights.  Maybe because it's so new, maybe because it is just such a lovely quality of light along with a LOT of power for something the size of a speedlight, but no matter what the reason, this is a manual power, non-TTL flash lover's dream!
In particular, I've been using it (understandably) with my larger modifiers like the 60" umbrella with great success to light large areas, perfect for large groups (samples to come down below).  However, it's not just about brute power, but it's ability to work with smaller modifiers and give very pleasing results.  Set up properly, this flash give excellent results in my 24"X24" Lastolite Ezybox.
Let's take a look at a few photos and share a few thoughts, some challenges and how I dealt with them.
The first time I used this setup, the photo below shows how I had this working.  The flash was sitting high in the lightstand adapter and the head of the flash pointed down as far as it went.  Because of the barebulb design, one has to choke the umbrella back and up close to the flash head so that when looking sideways at the setup, the edge of the umbrella just covered the bottom of the bare bulb.  This assures maximum umbrella fill, giving you the biggest light source (something that a flash simply could never do anywhere near as effectively!).
Looking at this setup directly from the side, one can tell that the flash is far up from the ideal center point, and now, another option becomes quite obvious... because this huge umbrella is choked up so close to the flash head, it can be tilted only a very small amount, limiting how this setup could be used.  Fear not good friends, there is a very good and affordable fix to this dilemma.
Here is another trait that is a result of the flash head sitting so high, the light is not centered in the middle of the umbrella.  Now, when using this setup, you don't see any obvious artifacts on the subjects, neither when close, far or anywhere in between, but the visual proof is there... that there is more light coming out the top of the umbrella than the bottom.  This results in something interesting that can work both against you as well as for you. 
Knowing this is everything, and lets you address or take advantage of this trait.  This is how I can take advantage of this... when taking photos of groups where the depth is more than 1 or 2 people deep, proper adjusting helps maintain an equal amount of light on all the people in the shot.  It can also result in a gentle vignette when used up close darkening gently from top to bottom.  This can be nice if you want it, but an issue if you don't want it.
A clear indicator that this is happening is when you take a photo from the front and you can see the umbrella shafts and shadows:

Though this effect is neither good nor bad, it is an effect that once is known about, can be dealt with or used to your advantage.  Like I said, it can shoot a more even swath of light over a deeper area or offer you a nice gentle vignette to the shot, but what if you want to minimize this?  The answer lies within the design of the AD-360 itself.  integrated into the side of the flash head near the top is a 1/4-20 hole, perfect to accept a stud that lets you mount the flash much lower to the center of the umbrella.  The effects are obvious (as you will see later) and do address the potentially unwanted vignetting.

Now, in my setup, I am using a double stud which raises the flash an extra inch or so that is not really needed, but since I don't have a single stud laying around, for these pics and tests, it will just have to do.  A more close-up shot shows the location of the stud hole better.

The results of this show that the light is much closer to the center, as evidenced again by a shot taken from the front:

One challenge that is still not addressed is the inability of this setup to tilt very much, as evidenced by this following picture.  So, what is the fix?:


This is the fix... the Paul C. Buff Mini-boom.  This pushes the umbrella adapter and everything above it forward by 8.5" and gives you a ton of place now to tilt this huge modifier.  Challenged resolved!

So, how does this setup work?  Let me show you a photo taken with this setup... recently, my dojo where I practice BJJ at had a very special event, a seminar with Royler Gracie, and I was glad to have been commissioned to be the only person permitted to take photos at the event.  Here is a group shot that I took using the AD-360 that was a good 30 feet back, but because it was such a huge light source, the shadows were still slightly diffused and what I really wanted, because the light was bouncing from the front and back, practically lit the entire dojo!:

Another modifier that I really like using with this flash is the aforementioned Lastolite Ezybox.  This modifier, placed up close to the client like when doing head or head/shoulder shots, offers an incredible quality of light on the subject.  I recently was asked by my lady to give her portrait shots because where she works, the shots that they gave her were pretty uninspiring to say the least.  My setup gave her some great shots for her to use on the website and business cards.

The fit of the flash to the lollipop adapter works quite well:

If I was to get all anal and mod anything, it would be to add a small square of black foam core with a round cut-out in the center that would totally block any light from exiting the softbox, however, it fits well enough and blocks things off well enough that it made no detrimental effects in my shooting session:

Just slap on the Ezybox to the provided lollipop and one is up and running.  Add the PCB Miniboom, and you get ridiculous versatility!

The softbox is filled completely to perfection of course and even though it is not needed, this shot was taken with the dual diffusers in place:

The effects of this softbox show in the two pictures below, however, this was basically a multi-flash setup, the AD-360 used as the main, a remote snooted SB-900 used as a slight rim/hairlight and an optional 3rd light to add a splash of background colour on the shots when I wanted it:



August 23, 2015

Had the chance to pick up a couple of batteries today for the Sekonic meter, so I guess that means that we can now get some real world numbers as to how strong the AD-360 really is... no fudging with guide numbers, approximate W/s output or any such nonsense... just irrefutable F-stop numbers from a known distance and identical meter settings in all the measurement shots!
This is the meter I used for the test, it's the Sekonic L-358 and it has the integrated PW/Sekonic RT-32CTL transmitter.
First let's discuss the parameters of the test:
1 - As mentioned, I am using the Sekonic L-358 meter.  It was set to ISO 100 and a shutter speed of 1/250th.  This was never changed at any time for the duration of the test.
2 - I decided to add a little spice to the test by testing the numbers of a well known speedlight so we could get some real world comparison numbers between it and the AD-360.  The AD-360 obviously has no zoom, we just used a bare bulb with nothing in front of it and also left the factory reflector in place.  The SB-900 can zoom, and we tested it at two zoom levels... 24mm and 200mm.  This is the flash I decided to use.  At full power, the SB-900 has metered out to the same power levels as a few other flashes, like the SB-910, SB-800 and Canon's 580EXII in side-by-side tests using this same meter.
3 - The distances from either the tip of the bare bulb or the front plastic element of the speedlight were carefully measured out to 10 feet, give or take a 1/16th of an inch.  I placed the tape measure on the front of the light source and placed it 10 feet and 1 inch away.  Why that added 1 inch?  That is the approximate thickness of the Sekonic meter, so there was no way I could get different results in different tests.  I just pressed the meter against the far wall and pressed the button to get the light measurements. 
4 - I also took special care to make sure that I placed the meter at the center or brightest part of where the flash would hit the wall, to make sure I got the best possible results and then repeated the results 5 times with each test.  If there were any differences in the results, I would post them here... but they were always identical for all 5 retries of all tests.  These flashes were surprisingly consistent as long as they are given enough time to fully recycle.  I waited about 5 seconds in between full power pops, which is more than enough for either of the light sources used in the test.
Let's start the test off with the SB-900!
The first configuration was with the SB-900 in full manual mode, the power set to full (1/1) output and a zoom of 24mm, which is the zoom setting one gets after doing a reset of this flash.
(SB-900 settings at 24mm zoom)

At these settings and distances, this one flash performed admirably and gave me a Sekonic meter reading of F/9, which is excellent for this category of speedlight.

(SB-900 results at 24mm)
At this point, I zoomed the SB-900 to it's maximum of 200mm because when the flash head is zoomed, there is more light shot into a much narrower and shorter area. 

(SB-900 settings at 200mm zoom)

The results were an excellent F/14 at the same 10ft distance.

(SB-900 results at 200mm)

Ok, now time for the AD-360.  It only has one "zoom setting" since it is a barebulb design with a reflector and I left it with the reflector on and in it's factory setting, no pushing it forward to try to fudge with the numbers.  What I got, anyone should be able to get as long as they have a properly working AD-360.  It pounded out an amazing F/22!
(Godox AD-360 results)
 I noted that with this reflector, it covered a noticeably larger area than the flash did at 24mm, and at the SB-900's 24mm level (so we can kinda compare apples to apples), it ended up being a full 2 and 2/3rds stops more powerful than the SB-900, which makes the AD-360 only 1/3rd of a stop short of being as powerful as 8 SB-900's all clumped together!
Hey, those of you paying attention, saw that I hinted that I could get a higher number... what is that number and what did I do to get it?  Well... the AD-360 does kind of have the ability to zoom... well not really but yeah... lol.  I first saw this trick on the Sunpack 120J where their reflector and design is actually made to do this (the AD-360 is simply not designed to do it, but it does have a little "in-out" movement).  The reflector head can be moved in and out about 3/4" and this slightly causes the light to focus down ever so slightly tighter.
(AD-360 "un-zoomed)
(AD-360 fully "zoomed")
So, what does "zooming" the AD-360 head add?  It increases the measurements from F/22 all the way up to F/25... an increase of a whole 1/3rd of a stop!


Granted a 1/3rd stop increase is in most cases not even worth the effort as it will be near invisible in most shots, but it is a consistently measurable increase for those times where the very maximum amount of light output is needed.
So that's about it for now... as I get more experiences with this flash, I'll be adding more to this blog post, so if this is something that interests you, come back and check for updates now and then.
Hope you've enjoyed this post!