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Test Drive: Mystery Meat 400ws Chinese Flash

Ever tempted to look to the east for a less expensive option on a bigger flash? Not an unreasonable thought, considering many name-brand flashes are made there anyway.

A couple weeks ago I got a chance to play with one of the new Chinese flashes that are designed to compete with the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra.

Short version: Several good surprises -- and one very bad one. Hit the jump for the full test drive, and to find out whether one of these money savers might be for you.

First, Some Ground Rules

I'll start out by saying that I do not have any kind of special equipment to test things such as light color temperature, flash pulse duration, actual power delivered in a flash pulse, etc. But you can infer a lot of these specs by shooting at various settings and looking at the results.

But it is for that reason that this review will be necessarily generic -- no brand names. And to be honest, 99+% of you would never have heard of the manufacturer anyway. Nonetheless, I thought some seat-of-the-pants observations might be useful to people in a general sense if you are considering saving some money by opting for one of the off-brand "in-between" flashes. (I.e., not speedlights, nor full-blown studio workhorses.)

If you recognize the brand from the name-redacted photos above, well, please keep yer yap shut about it in the comments. Since I am not benchmarking this stuff with full-blown testing equipment, I do not want to point fingers anywhere in specific.

The Backstory

I was evaluating the flash for an unnamed camera retailer based in central Ohio. They wanted me to take a look before seriously considering carrying the flashes. The Reader's Digest version is, for some of you this flash would be a screaming buy. And for some it would just send you screaming into the night.

What You Get

There is a lot of variability in price on these flash packages , and in what is included in the kit. The latter is important, because one of the downsides is that the typical support gear (different reflectors, additional batts, etc.) are not nearly so widely available as with the brand-name stuff.

So here is what was in my tested kit. Oh, and there was a really cheesy "rock and roll" style square silver case that you would probably end up not using.

But right off of he bat, first impressions are excellent on the supplied accessories. First and most important, the battery doubles as a turbo battery for your speedlights. It felt pretty lightweight and I was not prepared to be impressed with the capacity. But it turned out to be a lithium battery with frickin' insane capacity. More on that later.

They are very wise in that they included high-voltage cords for Canon and Nikon (SB900 and generic SB-800/etc.). Brilliant. Save me money and supply me with the nickel-and-dime-me-to-death cords? Me like.

Also -- a charger (duh) and a VAL-grip, which is pretty darn cool, IMO. (Are they reading this site?)

Answer: Nope, and I doubt that they could. The instructions are machine-translated into English from Chinese and are so hilariously bad that I could not publish them without looking like a culturally insensitive clod. (Not that I didn't think about it…)

A standard reflector is included. It is shiny, efficient, quasi-parabolically shaped, and pebbled. Short answer: A lot of the power is converted to lumens on target. The pattern looks pretty clean and even, too. But the falloff, well, let's just say the beam ends pretty abruptly at the edges.

Actually, the reflector juices the output a little, like a sports reflector. And I would not use it with the umbrella as the beam spread would not allow full coverage. But no worries, as the flash works great with the built-in tube/reflector in an umbrella. You just remove the big reflector a use it bare into the umbrella. Coverage is just right and very efficient.

The mount, BTW, is apparently a Bowens mount. Which would seemingly allow you access to some cool lighting mods. This kind of stuff is important, as you can be left hanging out to dry for modifiers with many off-brand flashes.

Give Me Power

Like I said, I do not have fancy-pants power-output measuring devices in The Cave. I thought about firing a full blast into Ben's face and counting the minutes until he could see again. But his mom was home. So I went with familiar territory. I set it up and fired a full-power blast through a Westcott double-fold.

Verdict: A solid f/16 at ISO 200 from six feet away, even tho diffused by the umbrella. That there is serious, sunlight-defeating power. They say 400ws, and I believe them.

And speaking of full-power, the controls are thus: One knob that you can walk up and down from 1/1 power to 1/64th power -- a respectable 7-stop range. But all you get is those full stops, as there are no partial-stop adjustments. That's an easy fix with partial-stop ND gels, but it would be nice to have that built into the controls.

There is a built-in slave, in the back of the head, which is sensitive but also pretty directional. I would have liked to see the receptor either on the batt pack on on the top of the head rather than the back. You can turn the slave off, too -- nice touch.

There are other modes that, to my eye seem to be almost comically useless. They are pulse modes, which I do not think can be adjusted for power levels. I say, "I think," as this part was machine-translated Chinese to English and I was laughing too hard to figure it out.

How Many Flashes?

Triple aces here. The battery pack, which feels like a Toys-R-Us joke, delivered -- big time. I sat down to watch an episode of Lost and fired it ten times a minute on full power (with a very respectable, ~2-second recycle time) and then rested it for a few minutes. Rinse, lather and repeat.

I got bored and finally quit after 300 flashes. No let up in recycle, either. That thing just kept going like the Featherweight Champion Energizer Bunny or something. It was not even starting to strain yet.

And after all of that, I hooked up my SB-800 to it and was getting ~0.7-second, full-power recycles. Damn. I would love to pick up a few of these packs just for turbo-batts for my SB's. Short answer, I do not know how deep the hole is because I ran out of rope. But suffice to say that I think it would be sufficient for most uses.

So far, so impressed. I am mentally clearing space in the gear closet for a couple of these things. It's like a blind date who turns out to be witty, gorgeous -- and even interested in you. Until you notice she has, like, a third arm growing out of the back of her head.

Meet the Third Arm

So let's look at flash duration.

What are the t.5 and t.1 times for our mystery unit? Who knows. I do not have a scope to check it. But I do know how I would use this flash -- to overpower full sun for outdoor people shots. So I set up a test to see if the thing could handle a 250th of a sec sync, which is how it would be used outside.

Time for a little Kentucky windage. If you do not have the necessary testing electronics, here's how to see if your flash is giving you full power at your max sync speed. Get in a darkish environment where you can completely kill ambient with your max sync speed and the aperture of your choosing. Low ISO helps to bleed the ambient out, too. Take a test pic without flash. If it is black, you're there.

Now set your flash on full power and close down your aperture until you get a proper exposure at your full sync speed. My sync speed on a Nikon D3 was 1/250th. If you have a Canon 5D, that might be a 1/200th. (Or less, and you should know if that is the case.)

Take a shot at your full sync speed. Then open your shutter a third stop (to a 1/200th, or 1/160th, respectively) and check to see if there are any differences between the two pictures in the histograms. If so, that is your camera telling you that the shutter speed at full sync truncated some of the flash pulse at full power. Open up the shutter another third stop (to a 1/160th or 1/125th) and try again. Still some difference? Then you are still truncating the tail of the pulse.

So, how far did I have to walk the shutter down until I saw (virtually) identical histograms? Try 1/60th of second.

That can't be right, I thought. So I did a secondary test. Remembering that this is all flash -- no ambient in the exposure -- I shot at a 60th of a sec and tripped the shutter while panning the camera at moderate speed. It was blurry. A full flash shot - streaked.

And not smoothly streaked, either. There was a frozen component and a streaked component overlaid. This makes perfect sense if you realize the peak of the pulse (including most of the flash energy) happens very quickly, say 1/250th of a sec, and then the tail of the pulse continues its downward slope.

It is hard to tell for sure, but I think the pulse hits well within 1 250th, then the tail of the flash sits down, has a cup of coffee, reads the paper and maybe even has a short nap before finishing.

(Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?)

This does not bode well for a flash which would be most valued for its portability and use outside in full sun.

Who would like this flash? Well, if your shooting was mostly indoors (portraiture, events, etc.) you may not need a fast flash pulse at all. And for the afore-mentioned 5D shooters, the pulse is sort of negated somewhat by the fact that your flash cannot sync at 1/250th anyway. Either way, it is an important consideration.

Is It Consistent?

Not to end on a bad note, I will say that the flash is both consistent and appears to put out clean, white light. Again, seat of the pants testing: I locked everything down, shot ten frames or so, and cycled through them on the back of the camera noting changes in the histograms and the images themselves. Any inconsistencies will pop up right away. That's an easy way to test out your own gear, too.

Final conclusions: This flash hits nearly every mark, save one. Build quality, power, capacity, consistency, portability -- all great. But that one miss is a big miss for some.

The overall impression is that the Chinese are getting closer with their self-designed flashes. The pulse thing is just some extra engineering to be done. As they tighten up the pulse, they are going to run into the laws of physics on the color and consistency, too. That's why the Einstein was designed as a convertable, so you can choose which is more important at any given time.

But for those looking to save money by buying off-brand, there are still caveats.

UPDATE: I hear you in the comments. But I am still not naming names or pointing to sources, for a couple of reasons.

One, the actual company making these is not the same brand as the rebranded flashes that are being sold. And two, I do not see any established dealers who are standing behind them with warrantees, etc.

I have no idea of the average defect rate, availability of spare parts (important) or the actual safety level of these kinds of units (very important). Especially considering that they have voltages steep enough to kill you.

After all, your spouse will have to know who to sue, right? Having a source who is willing to stand behind a piece of gear like this is sort of a critical feature, IMO.


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