Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Amazon Basics DSLR Flash Review - Is It a $27.99 Wonder or Dud?

Image © Amazon.com

Sometimes you just need to see if a deal that is too good to be true is really bad or if you find that diamond in the rough.  Here is another one of those, the Amazon Basics DSLR Flash.

I originally saw this on a news post advertised for $25 a few months ago.   I got around to thinking about picking one up to just see....and they were sold out.  A few days ago, I got a notification that they were back in stock.

I snagged 2.

So lets get into it!

Initial Impression

They arrived in a plain brown box with an Amazon Basics sticker sealing the box. Words in different languages reads "Electronic Flash for DSLR Cameras".

Opening the box, you get a manual with instructions in 8 languages, the flash unit itself, a ripstop-like pouch for the flash and a little hot shoe stand. Everything wrapped up in anti-static type plastic wrapping.

Image © Amazon.com

The flashes are big. A few millimeters taller and wider than a Nikon SB-26. My SB-28 and SB-600 are much smaller in comparison.

<pics of flash units lined up together>

It takes 4 AA batteries. I initially tested with Eneloop Pros the flash fired up almost instantly and just popped away, even at 1:1. Manual claims that it could take up to 3 seconds to recharge after a full power pop.  I did not notice this.  Recycle time seemed almost instant.  Another thing I noticed is the sound.   There was no capacitor charging "whine" that I'm used to hearing from other flashes.  Just a few very quiet clicks and that was it.

Guide number is listed as 33 @ ISO 100 at 1M. Power is rated from 1:1 through 1:128 in 1 stop increments.

The flash has a power port for external power, the standard one with 3 metal pins. It also has a PC sync port for off camera triggers. 

Image © Amazon.com
On the back part of the fresnel is a built in wide angle diffuser and a white bounce card.

It states in the manual that the flash will sleep after 5 minutes of inactivity, but can be woke by pressing the test button or by turning on the camera. I will have to test if this will power on by half pressing the camera or by waking the remote flash trigger.

A bit of a shocker, but the hot shoe is metal. I was expecting plastic. While we are on the subject of plastic...this is one of the small let downs of the unit. The plastic seems flimsy, but not sure if that is because of the quality of the plastic or if it is just not supported well with an internal frame of some kind.

Image © Amazon.com

All the buttons have a positive press and are labeled well.

Image © Amazon.com

There are 3 modes. Manual (M), Slave 1 (S1) and Slave 2 (S2).
Manual is what you expect it to be. You trigger the flash and it goes off. 

The slave modes are the interesting part. S1 is a built in optical slave. It fires as soon as it sees another flash fire off.

S2 claims to understand TTL signals and in theory ignores the TTL preflashes and only fires at the "correct" time. I did a quick test with my Ricoh GR II in TTL flash mode and it appeared to do as advertised. I will need to test this a bit more to see if it really does work.

The head does swivel and tilt, however, there is no lock. If you have a heavy mod on the flash, it will not be able to lock into an angled position or stay straight up and down while the whole unit is angled.

Image © Amazon.com

I tested the optical slave as well as remote triggers. Radio triggers of choice were the Radio Popper JrX. Flash fired every time with no failures, probably did 20 low power pops and 10 full power pops.

Full Test

We are going to run these through a full photo shoot.  I have a a few events coming up where people get portraits done.   Those sessions normally run between 100-300 shots depending on the number of attendees.

This will be a great initial stress test.

These test were done using the AmazonBasics Flash as a hair light.

Light quality

Light quality is generally more about the modifier than the light itself.  The important thing for the light is color temperature consistency a well as power output being consistent from pop to pop.

From what I can tell the consistency in both color temp and power is the true.

Here, we can see what the light looks like when the Amazon flashes are used as the primary or key light and secondary light.  The same umbrella boxes used in the three portraits above were used in this series below.  The flashes had no problem filling the softboxes fully with light.

Shooting info for those interested:
Nikon D700 and Nikon 50mm f/1.8D
Amazon Flash at 1/4 power (2 flashes)
1/250, f/5.6, ISO 320

Over the course of an hour and a half, I took over 100 images.  The lights were set at 1/4 power.  They never missed a beat and worked as expected.

I did get a chance to test the flashes in sleep mode.  Half press of the camera does not send a signal through the remote triggers, so that did not wake the flashes.  What does, though is getting a signal from the transmitter.  So, when the flashes went into stand-by mode (the power light flashes and all the other indicator lights go off) I just tapped the test button on the transmitter to wake them up.  Easy as can be!

I know this is but one test, however, this one test was a very successful one.  I plan on continuing to test the flashes out on more jobs here in the next few weeks.  If they work as well as they did here, I'll continue to highly recommend them.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Ricoh GR II Review

 © Ricoh Imaging USA


Always on the lookout for the perfect fixed lens camera, we've been through a few.   Hoping that the Fuji X100 series would be it, we've owned and tested the X100, X100S and the X100T.  While the X100T was the best iteration we've had...it still fell a little flat in system and AF performance.  The optical viewfinder was great and Fuji does put out some good JPGs.

Ultimately, those cameras were sold.  The just didn't "do it" for me enough to want to keep it.

The other big players in the fixed lens compact were the Nikon Coolpix A and the Ricoh GR.

As luck would have it, a recent trip to a local camera store had a reasonably priced Ricoh GR II.  Snapping it up, we run it through the paces.

Is it something worth keeping?  Is it better than the Fuji?  All that and more on this episode of Best Light Photographic Review!

© Ricoh Imaging USA


Small and light, but there is enough of a grip to be able to hold it comfortably, even one handed.  Handling is also enhanced by the roughly textured materials that the body is composed of.

Throwing this into a coat pocket...it disappears.  It even does well in the back pocket of your jeans.

The dials and controls are in a good place.   The mode dial can only be moved when the button next to it is pressed.  No accidental turning.  My one complaint is the location of the exposure compensation rocker.  It sits right by your thumb and can be bumped accidentally when carrying the camera about.  I've done it several times while walking around.

© Ricoh Imaging USA
One thing you will notice is that this is a rear LCD only display.  No OVF or EVF comes with the camera, but Ricoh does make a $200 optical viewfinder add on.

The rear LCD is quite good and somewhat usable in full sun.  I do plan on getting some kind of viewfinder setup for this camera, for those times when the LCD gets on my nerves.  I think it could be a decent, low cost option for these compact fixed lens companies to either bundle in or sell for low cost an old type sports finder.  For those unfamiliar, a sports finder was used on older film cameras that is essentially a wire or metal frame that gave you an approximate field of view.  This was an option to use instead of the ground glass back or the optical tube common on cameras of that age.

I'm thinking of making my own or perhaps plunking down $40USD on eBay and getting a low cost viewfinder.

Image Quality

A16mp sensor is at the heart of the GRII.  It performs very well.  I've no qualms shooting this up to ISO 6400.  The Ricoh JPG engine is pretty robust, but you can pull a lot more from the sensor shooting in RAW.  Even so, if you just wanted to shoot JPG, most people would be very happy with the output.

The three images below were all shot in JPG and minimally processed in Lightroom.

1/40, f/2.8, ISO 400

1/40, F/2.8, ISO 400

1/40, f/2.8, ISO 280
in camera cross process effect used

Auto Focus

Don't expect DSLR or even mirrorless interchangeable lens camera performance, however it performs very well.  In good to moderate light you get excellent performance.  Solid locks, and a quick acquisition.  You do get that signature "pump"at the end of the focus typical of a contrast detect AF system.

In low light, speed slows down quite a bit, but I found the accuracy was still very high.

Moving the AF point is not the best either.  The rear direction pad cannot be re-assigned to be something else.  I like to have my direction pad be a direct button to move the AF point.  On The GR II, only the left pad is setup for initiating AF pointer movement, after pressing it the other direction buttons allow for moving the point.  Fuji did address this in newer X100 iterations to allow for these direction buttons to be full time AF point selectors.  Not a deal breaker on the GR II, but definitely slows down the functionality of the camera in some situations.

RAW Images Processed in Lightroom below:

1/40, f/2.8, ISO 1600

1/40, f/2.8, ISO 400

1/40, f/4, ISO 3200

1/40, f/4, ISO 640

1/40, f/4, ISO 640

Battery Life

Much better than I expected.  I was able to shoot with it for most of a day and not deplete the battery fully.  The big rear LCD does use up a bit more power than I would like, but that is not a major concern as after market batteries for this camera can be found for under $20.


Nothing really special here.  A typical 1080p offering in a camera like this.  It would work in a pinch but not something you would want to use as a main camera for a video project.  As with most cameras like this, the video specs are most likely there to tick the spec sheet.

Other Misc. Items of Note

Shutter Sound:
The shutter sound is quite, plus you get the all electronic shutter modes.  Quiet is good.

Snap Focus:
I'm not a big fan of zone focusing, but I know a lot of people are.  My way of shooting is a bit more dynamic, so I've not really used this feature.  For those that like to have your focus set precisely at a specific distance and then get your aperture setup to have a "ribbon of in-focus", then this is definitely something that you'll love to have available.

Built-In ND Filter:
Great to have if you are pushing the 1/4000 shutter or want to shoot the very usable f/2.8 lens wide open.  It can be set to on/off/auto.

Bottom Line

While not having the pleasure of using a Nikon Coolpix A, it would be a hard road for the Nikon to beat out the Ricoh GR II.  This little camera can slip into a pocket and be there with you when other cameras cannot.

The fixed 18.5mm lens at 28mm field of view may not be for everyone, also, not having any viewfinder of any kind may not make the camera suitable for every application.

What the Ricoh GR II gets right, and there is a lot that it does in handling and IQ is well worth your consideration.

I know this is a keeper in my book.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Pentax Q7 Review

© Ricoh Imaging


There are TONS of cameras out there...some you might not even realize.

One of these relative unknowns is from a relatively well known camera maker, Pentax.  The diminutive Q series cameras.  At the time of release, the Q series camera was the smallest interchangable lens system on the market.  Not sure if that is true anymore...but this camera system is tiny.

I have seen a few online friends that used this system and was impressed by the IQ coming from this small 1/1.7" sensor.

Initial cost of these cameras new precluded me from experimenting then...but with some online sluething and patience, you can now get this system for a fraction of what it cost new.

I was lucky enough to find a whole system for sale.   The Pentax Q7 in black and silver with 4 lenses will be the focus of this review.

Follow along to see what we thought of the IQ, the handling, the good/bad of this little system.

Here we go!

© Ricoh Imaging


This is a small camera.  Captain Obvious has just entered the room.  We already covered that in the opening of this article...but it bears mentioning again.   I've got some pretty meaty hands and I need something to grip.  My smallest camera that I feel I can hold comfortably for serious photography is an Olympus EM5 style body.

So, even though I knew there was a risk that I might not be able to handle this camera body well, I gave it a try.

Yes, it is very small.  My basic grip on this camera body is index finger on the shutter release with the thumb on the small bump on the back.   My middle finger fits into 90% of the front grip, ring finger barely sits at the bottom.  Most of the time it slips off the bottom.  I wish they made an add on grip for it.  Another inch or 2 at the bottom would be just awesome.

It's almost too small to hold with one hand if you needed to do that.   I end up using a wrist strap and my left hand.

Even with the small camera, the buttons are in a good location.  The rear dial is easy to get to with the thumb.  The mode dial has enough resistence that you will most likely not bump it out of position.  I never did so far through my testing.

Here are some camera dimensions for you:
Body dimensions: 4x2.3x1.3 inches
Weight 7.1 ounces (200g) with battery

As compared to an Olympus EM5 Mk II
Body dimensions:  4.9x3.4x1.8 inches
Weight: 16.5 ounces (469g) with battery

and a Nikon D500
Body dimensions:  5.79x4.53x3.19 inches
Weight:  30.34 ounces (860g) with battery

front view of cameras (camerasize.com)

Top view with kit lenses (camerasize.com)
Pentax 5-15/2.8-4.5, Olympus 14-42, Nikon 18-55 AF-P

Pentax had a great idea when it came to the battery and SD card door.  They are both on the side of the camera, each on the opposite side of the body.  SD card door is on the right, battery on the left.

Notable Features 1
The Front Dial

Similar to what you might see on the Olympus PEN-F, there is a front dial with 5 positions.

The front dial can be used for a few functions.  You can have custom image modes like B&W , portrait, bright, etc. set to the 4 positions.  If you create a user defined custome image mode(you can save 3), you can use them here too.  Other options are toggling the built in ND filter, aspect ration, focus method, focus peaking.

Unfortunately, those options are not allowed to be mixed together.  For example, I cannot use the first 2 positions for custom image and the last 2 to toggle the ND filter off/on.  It's either all custom image settings or all ND toggles.  This is a shame that you are limited in this way.  A great idea, but not taken to a logical conclusion.

Not 100% sure what I will settle on for this feature.

Notable Features 2
Bokeh Control

On the mode dial, there is the lettering "BC".  This is for bokeh control.  There are 3 levels of control, each blurring more and more.   I found through my cursory testing that 2 and 3 are way too much.  1 worked just fine.

Basically you have 24-211mm field of view covered here in this little kit.

Notable Features 3
RAW In The Buffer When Shooting JPG

This one shocked and delighted me.  WHY IS EVERYONE NOT DOING THIS?! 
Basically, what this camera does is when shooting JPG only in camera, the Q keeps the last images RAW data in the buffer.  It is accessible to you where you can go in, save it, do in camera RAW processing on it.

Think about how awesome and cool that is.  Say you are shooting JPG and the last shot you took is pushing the capabilities of the sensor and JPG bit depth.   Press the image review button check out the shot.  Look to the right and you'll see that by pressng the exposure comp button, you have the option to save the RAW file.

Image Quality

The 1/1.7" sensor can get a lot of heat from some people.  Yes...it is small.  Yes, it doesn't have the dynamic range...it is "only" a 12mp sensor.

However, Pentax has done quite a good job in processing from this little camera.   Shooting JPG and for color images, I don't like going over ISO 1600  For monochrome, I'm OK all the way up to ISO 3200.  Even with that, the processing that Pentax does is not really for me.  The colors are not to my liking and even with sharpness turned down some, there is some artifacting that just looks bad.

RAW gives you a lot more latitude and you can run the Adobe DNG files in Lightroom or your processor of choice and really get the most out of those files.  I experimented quite a bit and found  good recipe in Lightroom that I feel gives me superior IQ over the in camera JPG engine.

We'll provide plenty of sample images in the lens section below.  Bottom line - I'll be shooting this camera in RAW all the time.  It's the best way to get he most quality that appeals to me.  You can get way more quality out of this camera than it has any business producing.

Shake Reduction

This tiny little camera has in body stabilization.  Pentax calls it SR for shake reduction.  It works fairly well.  Not in the same league as an Olympus 5 axis IBIS or Nikon's newest VR....but it will save your bacon in a pinch.  It's just nice to see it included.

I'm not sure if it only kicks in when you depress the shutter or not.   On longer lenses, the LCD seems shakier than I think it should...but I'll have to do more research into it.

Auto Focus

I found that the other reviewers of this camera were right.   In good light, the AF is effective and relatively quick.  It is not going to beat a current Micro Four Thirds camera, but on the whole it will not disappoint for most applications.  Stick to S-AF and you are good to go.   I'd ignore C-AF.

You have multiple focus modes.

Face - face detection
Continuous - AF tracking of subjects
Spot - the AF is locked to the middle of the frame
Auto - you select the size of the focus area, of which there are 3 sizes, and the camera determines what in this area to lock onto.  It actually does a fairly good job at this.
Select - the AF box(small area) can be moved by first pressing the OK button and then using the direction buttons on the back to move it.  The AF array does not cover the whole sensor, so you will see your boundaries by a thin black box on the back of the LCD.

Manual Focus

Your typical focus by wire affair.  I'm not  big fan of this and the very small focus rings don't help it much here.   However, MF is there should you need it.  Pentax also included a menu option to allow for full time AF override just by turning the focus ring.  I had to turn this off as I found just the slightest of touches would throw you into MF mode.

Battery Life

With the body being so small, you have a limited space for a big battery.  CIPA ratings on this camera body are 250 shots.   I doubt most people would get that, having to rely on the rear LCD for everything is going to churn through some battery pretty quickly.  I recommend getting a few extras.

During a day long shooting session, I made it through 3/4 of a day and came home with 280 images.  That was shooting RAW+JPG, image review and changing camera settings.   Technically one could say thatit took double that number, one RAW and one JPG.   I'm going to run the camera another day and shoot just RAW to see the number of shots I can get.  All in all, for the size of the battery and the fact that it needs to use the 3" LCD for everything, not that bad.


Nothing really special here.  An standard 1080p offering.  This would not be my first option, and to be honest a modern cell phone will probably do just as well if not better since they do 4k.  The benefit of this system is the ability to use lenses, which a cell phone lacks.

The Lenses

The Q7 has a "crop factor" of 4.7, so multiply the focal length by this number to get the approximate field of view (FOV) of these lenses.

The lens numbers denote the order in which they were released, field of view on a 135 equivalent is in parenthesis below.

8.5mm f/1.9 - The 01 Standard Prime  (40mm)
5-15mm f/2.8-4.5 - The 02 Standard Zoom (24-70mm)
15-45mm f/2.8 - The 06 Telephoto Zoom (70-212mm)
11.5mm f/9 - The 07 Shield Lens - body cap lens (55mm)

The real jewel here is the original kit lens, the 8.5/1.9.  Sharp and fast.  What fits into the theme...it's tiny.   The 07 Shield lens is smaller, but not in the same league.

So let's get into the images from these lenses.   Most of these shots were shot wide open as well.   Diffraction is going to hit pretty quickly if you go much past f/5.6, so shooting from f/1.9 through f/4.5 is where I stayed most of the time.

We'll start with some images from the 01 Standard Prime, 8.5mm f/1.9.  This lens is excellent optically.  Very sharp even wide open.

8.5mm f/1.9 lens (01 Prime)
1/60, f/2.8, ISO 250
8.5mm f/1.9 lens (01 Prime)
1/80, f/1.9, ISO 200
8.5mm f/1.9 lens (01 Prime)
1/2000, f/1.9, ISO 100

8.5mm f/1.9 lens (01 Prime)
Higher ISO Example (B&W conversion in On1 Effects 2018
1/60, f/1.9, ISO 2000

Then let's move to the 02 Standard Zoom, the 5-15mm f/2.8-4.5.   Given some of the online reports, I was expecting this lens to be quite a disappointment.  On the contrary, it is rather quite good and a bit better than I anticipated.  It is true that it is weakest at 15mm, but very good up through 12mm.

5-15mm f/2.8-4.5 (02 Standard Zoom)
1/500, f/2.8, ISO 200 @ 5.5mm
B&W processed in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 from RAW

5-15mm f/2.8-4.5 (02 Standard Zoom)
1/250, f/3.5, ISO 200 @ 9.5mm

5-15mm f/2.8-4.5 (02 Standard Zoom)
1/60, f/4, ISO 125 @ 8.2mm

5-15mm f/2.8-4.5 (02 Standard Zoom)
1/200, f/4, ISO 100 @ 9.8mm
5-15mm f/2.8-4.5 (02 Standard Zoom)
1/200, f/3.5, ISO 100 @ 9.8mm

The shield lens, 07 - 11.5mm f/9.  Not sure when I would ever use this lens outside of this testing.  I was not fond of this lens.   Unless you are super into lomo type photography I'd skip this lens.  Here are some samples.
11.5mm f/9 (07 Shield Lens)
1/60, f/9, ISO 125

11.5mm f/9 (07 Shield Lens)
1/60, f/9, ISO 320
11.5mm f/9 (07 Shield Lens)
1/60, f/9, ISO 125

11.5mm f/9 (07 Shield Lens)
1/60, f/9, ISO 250
11.5mm f/9 (07 Shield Lens)
1/125, f/9, ISO 100

The constant f/2.8 Telephoto Lens, the 06 15-45mm f/2.8.  Not the optical equivalent of the 01 Prime, but very good.   The constant f/2.8 is a great option to have for this 70-200-ish FOV lens.

15-45mm f/2.8 (06 Telephoto Zoom)
1/2500, f/2.8, ISO 100 @ 45mm

15-45mm f/2.8 (06 Telephoto Zoom)
1/200, f/4, ISO 160 @ 45mm

15-45mm f/2.8 (06 Telephoto Zoom)
1/2500, f/4, ISO 100 @ 15.1mm

15-45mm f/2.8 (06 Telephoto Zoom)
1/125, f/2.8, ISO 320 @ 22mm

15-45mm f/2.8 (06 Telephoto Zoom)
1/400, f/2.8, ISO 200 @ 15mm
Through some dirty coffee shop glass
Other Misc. Items of Note

Shutter Sound:
The shutter sound is quiet, mainly because for most of the Q lenses, the shutter is of the leaf variety and found within the lens itself. The leaf shutter handles everything up through 1/2000 of a second and any shutter speed higher than that is handled by an electronic shutter to 1/8000 of a second.

A second benefit of the leaf shutter in some of the lenses is that you get flash sync up to 1/2000.  You can go full electronic if you wish or the camera can determine when to use the either.

Built in Neutral Density (ND) Filter:
Some lenses contain an ND filter built into them.  Useful for when you run out of shutter speed or if you do not want to use the electronic shutter above 1/2000.

Quick Menu:
If you are familiar with Fuji's Quick menu, Olympus' Super Control Panel (SCP) or the Nikon MyMenu...this is the Pentax version.   Just about any shooting option you want to get to quickly is here.  Just press the INFO button on the back of the camera when in shooting mode to bring up the grid.

Option 1 is the custom image selection.
Here you can pick the type of jpg you want like natural, monochrome, cross process and tweak them.
Option 2 is Digital Filter.
Options here are things like Toy Camera, high contrast, tone expansion, fish eye, etc.
Option 3 is in camera HDR.
Option 4 and 5 are highlight and shadow control respectively.

Option 1 is metering - matrix, center and spot weighted.
Option 2 is toggling on/off the in built ND filter(if the lens has that).
Option 3 is toggle between AF and MF.
Option 4 handles the focusing methods.  Face, continuous, auto, select (movable single AF point) and spot (single center focused AF point - not movable).
Option 5 is the focus peaking toggle.

Option 1 is toggle for lens distortion correction.
Option 2 is aspect ratio.
Options are 4:3, 3:2, 1:1 and 16:9.
Option 3 is image save format.  JPG, RAW or RAW+JPG.
Option 4 is the JPG quality.
Option 5 toggles shake reduction.

Bottom Line

This is not a camera for everyone, and you may be thinking why on earth would I even get one.   I saw some good things from it from the online forums and the price is so low now, when you find a bargain that it is a good time to experiment.

I'm a big proponent of viewfinders and I'm not really falling in love with the rear LCD.  Not because it is horrible...but I just prefer the view and stability of a optical or electronic viewfinder.  I might find an alternative to it in some way.  Not sure what that looks like at the moment.

So why use this when there is so much on paper that is against it when looking at other small, interchangeable lens camera systems?

Honestly, it is a bit of fun.  It is something different and I've not been exposed to a Pentax anything before.  There are some really well laid out controls and menu functions as well.  I always say that you can learn something from everyone...and gear is no different.   All technologies have a contribution.

I'm very happy with what I'm seeing up through ISO 1600 and in good light the files hold up well when shot in JPG.  You can eek out a bit more quality if you shoot in RAW.  With the 01 Prime, you can put this thing in your pant pocket, it is that small.  It is something you can keep with you ll the time with little hassle.  You will be a bit more limited with it...but just remember that and shoot to the strengths of the system.

It would not be my first or favorite choice for very dark, low light shooting unless I had the ability to shoot on tripod and at base ISO.