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Minolta Macro Flash 1200AF Review

Minolta Macro Flash 1200AF Review - Peter Bargh looks at the Minolta Macro Flash 1200AF

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Minolta Maxxum Macro Flash 1200AF and Minolta 1200AF Control Unit
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Minolta Macro Flash 1200AF in Portable Flash and Lighting

Over the years camera manufacturers have worked to improve flash photography, first with auto guns, then dedicated models and then multifunction, TTL-auto-everything products. The on camera flash guns from the likes of Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Minolta are so sophisticated these days that you don't have to worry about anything just point and shoot and the gun will balance the exposure even as a fill-in source for daylight.

MinoltamacrokitOne area that hasn't had too much attention, though, is the macro area where flash can become overpowering and produce harsh unrealistic light. Minolta took the lead in producing this piece of kit, introduced in February this year, and Canon followed about six months later. Straight out of the box it looks complicated, but according to the spec sounds really intriguing.

pluginThe system has a 200 Controller that attaches to the camera's hot shoe. It has the unusual Dynax fitting shoe so users of other cameras would have to buy a Dynax camera to benefit from it. The controller houses four AA size batteries (Nicad's and NiMH's can be used) to power it and has all the usual buttons that you'd find on a conventional flash unit. It even looks like a Dynax flash with a bounce head, but the main difference is a selection of sockets where the flash tube would normally be. It's here where you plug in the flash set, which comes in two forms - either a Macro Twin flash unit 300 or Macro Ring Flash 200.
Choosing the right one depends on the light style you want.

 The Macro Ring flashIt is the sort of product that would be used by dentist and jewellery photographers who want good even lighting for macro ranges and don't need anything other than direct shadowless flash.
This type of flash is normally less versatile in terms of lighting style than using off camera flash, but the Minolta unit has the advantage of having four independent tubes that can each be turned on or off giving far more control of the light.

Spring release connection Minolta Macro Flash 1200AF Twin Flash Unit
The Twin flash unit has two tubes with extending arms that are mounted on a bracket around the lens. These can be extended, angled and varied in position to give much more control of the light. You'd choose this set if you want to photography insects, flora and fauna and still life sets. Both units have a spring release connection to an adaptor ring that screws onto the lens' filter thread.

Having the 245gram controller on the body ensures the lens doesn't have too much weight placed on the filter thread and in use it proved to be well balanced in the hand.
Menu Option ButtonsThe back of the controller has all the menu option buttons, which have different functions depending on the unit that's connected. When using the Twin Flash, for instance, the A.B button switches flash tubes from A to B or both, while the same button powers up the modeling lights on the Macro Flash. You can also set to auto, TTL flash or manual.

The Macro Ring
Let's look first at the 200 Macro Ring flash. It weighs 120g, but still feels light on the front of the camera. It provides a guide number of 12 when a single tube is activated and 10 when all four or firing.

The Macro RingThe coverage is 80 on both planes so it's fine for all kinds of macro work. As well as having full auto, using the camera's TTL metering, you can rack right down to 1/64 power of you prefer to work out the exposure and adjust the balance of daylight to flash. I kept things simple and used it in program...anything for an easy life, and let's face it, that's why you're considering shelling out 400 anyway. In our tests the exposure was spot on using the Dimage 5 digital camera. And, using the individual tubes, allows a degree of control over the illumination. It also has a modeling light feature that lights up the tubes so you can see the effect of the lighting.
  Guide number of Ring Flash in meters using ISO100 film
Power Level 1 tube 4 tubes
1/1 12 10
1/2 8.5 7
1/4 6 5
1/8 4.2 3.5
1/16 3 2.5
1/32 2.1 1.8
1/64 1.5 1.3
The macro system on the Dimage 5 activates at the telephoto setting, so you are made to stand further away from the subject. Having the front of the flash about 11cm from the subject means that you can't be quite as creative with the lighting as you could be with extension tubes where you might be around 5cm from the subject, but nevertheless you can see a difference as the sample test pictures show below.
Example Old Toy Car  
For this example our subject is an old toy car which has lots of nooks and crannies that would cast shadows when the flash comes from different positions. The picture to the left is with all four tubes firing and provides a well balanced illumination, but one that arguably lacks depth. To overcome this we can select any combination of the four tubes. Below are six of these combinations.

The Twin Flash
300 Twin Flash Unit The 300 Twin Flash unit is a completely different story. The centre ring has four bracket points to accept the two flash arms so you can arrange them from above (each at 45 degrees) or one above one below, or one to each side. The tiny and lightweight flash tubes sit on the end of the arms and have hinges on the head so you can adjust the pointing position. Each arm can also be extended to double the distance of the flash tubes from the mount and they swing forwards to a 45 degree angle so you can really surround your subject with light. Everything adjusts well except the swinging arms, which feel as though they are going to break when you move them. The instructions suggest you only use them in one of two positions to prevent excessive wear, but even in those two position there seems to be a positive resistance to adjustment.
Light Quality  
To increase the versatility and light quality the two tubes come with plastic panel diffusers and also tiny fold out soft boxes. These clip over the lens and are made from a heavy duty translucentmaterial and really do a grand job of diffusing the light. Trouble is they are fiddly to set up and make the unit quite cumbersome.
You also have to be confident to use them outdoors. I was on my knees in a wood photographing a toadstool with the whole bag of works set up and I probably looked like I was testing for radiation or something! A group of teenagers came passed and were laughing at me...still, it took their minds off mugging me! They were probably too scared thinking I may zap them with some kind of radiation!
The head of the controller has two dials to adjust the output of A and B tubes. Both can be set at full power or racked right down to 1/64 power. It would have been good if these could be used when the gun is on auto to make it easier to calculate full-in, using one tube as the main and the secondary as a fill-in.

Guide number of the Twin Flash based on ISO100 film
(wide-angle adaptor and diffuser GNs are for one tube)

Power Level 1 tube

2 tubes

Wide-angle adaptor Diffuser
1/1 17 24 11 17
1/2 12 17 8 5
1/4 8.5 12 5,6 3.5
1/8 6 8.5 4 2.5
1/16 4.2 6 2.8 1.8
1/32 3 4.2 2 1.3
1/64 2.1 3 1.4 0.9

The pictures above illustrate how well the exposure system works in daylight. The picture on the left is without flash The one on the right is just flash and although the background is typically darker the gills in the mushroom have been given much more depth, creating a more pleasing result. You could select a slow ambient shutter speed and balance the daylight with flash if you prefer a brighter background.
lemons Effects      
In this lemon photograph we show the effect that different combinations of the flash have. Top left is normal direct flash. Look how the harsh light has caused all the detail to disappear. Top right is with both tubes firing from the sides and is a more pleasing exposure. Then bottom left and right are shot with just one flash firing from the left and right respectively. This gives a shape with more form and could be the preferred option.
lemon Effects 2  
sprouts2       Example  
Another shot using the flash arms fully extended and at each side of the lens. The left hand unit is on 1/4 power and the right on full blast. Both heads have the softboxes attached.
The dark background is the only giveaway for the fact this shot has been taken using flash. There are no signs of burnt out areas or harshness that you would normally associated with flash.
Once again beautifully well balanced flash.
This flash system is outstanding. Great flexibility and full automated control. The ring flash is as versatile as you can get from a ring flash and the Twin flash is the answer to most macro photographers prayers. There are times when switching to manual will be favourable, but generally you can leave it to the components to ensure your flash pics are spot on. At 500 it's expensive, but most macro kit is as it's not mass produced.If you're considering this for indoor work your money would be far better spent on a studio flash outfit, especially now Minolta have announced a studio flash adaptor for their Dimage cameras. If you intend shooting daylight flash outdoors, it's well worth considering.
Test by Peter Bargh
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