Big Bang for the Buck: Flashpoint Zoom Li-on Flash
By Don Chick, M.Photog.Cr., CPP
The price of adding a flash to your DSLR equipment collection can be rather hefty with top-of-the-line Canon and Nikon speedlights costing around $550 and the Q-flash Trio (QF8 basic) around $650. The Flashpoint Zoom Li-on, available exclusively from Adorama, on the other hand, is priced at a very reasonable $180, but how does it perform?
The Flashpoint Zoom Lion appears to be well constructed with a weightiness to it (slightly less than one pound with the battery), and it looks a lot like its more expensive competition. It has many desirable features found on more expensive flashes such as ETTL, multi-strobe capability, high-speed synch, rear curtain sync, and manual. If you are using more than one, you can program one to function as a master and another as a slave unit. The published guide number for the flash is 110 when zoomed to the 105mm setting and the units I received performed to that specification.
The first unusual feature about the Flashpoint Zoom Li-on is its use of a proprietary rechargable battery instead of four AA batteries. The manufacturer publishes the life of one battery at 650 full-power flashes, and a spare is only $50. In my testing over a 6-hour span I got 467 full-power flashes. I found that with the battery at full charge and triggering a full power flash the recycle time was a approximately 1.5 seconds, meeting manufacturer claims. At one point during testing I triggered the flash for 30 consecutive full-power pops. When I tried for more flashes the over-heat sensor had kicked in and slowed the triggering to approximately 10 seconds between pops. I let the flash sit for about 10 minutes before the over-heat indicator turned off. Once the safety feature was off I could again trigger the flash quickly and the recycle time was back down to around 1.5 seconds. For my portrait work, I almost never use a flash on full power, so using less than full power most of the time could possibly yield close to 1,000 flashes from one battery charge.
One discovery I had to find out the hard way was that out-of-the-box, Custom Function #1 is set to “auto power off.” I decided to try the flash units at an event I was attending. I put one on a light stand off to the side of the subject to cross-illuminate the scene and I had a second flash unit on camera to light the overall scene. With CF #1 set to enable, the flash kept powering itself off after 90 seconds. This would be a great way to save the battery, but I could not get the unit to turn back on with the remote, so it’s not a great way to learn about a new piece of equipment.
I hadn’t brought the manual with me, so I didn't know which custom function needed to be changed. Once I returned to the studio and discovered the root issue I disabled the auto power off function. Unfortunately, in a subsequent attempt to test the flash I arrived on site to photograph the subject only to find that the batteries were completely drained. I was perplexed because I had completely charged the batteries after the previous job. My conclusion was that I had accidently forgotten to turn the units off when I was done, and because they never auto-shut-off they drained the battery completely. So my caution to you is to consider disabling the auto-power-off feature, but be careful to shut the unit off or remove the battery when not in use.
For an additional $40 you can purchase a Flashpoint Commander Transmitter and Receiver set for the flash, and it looks to be well worth the investment. The receiver plugs right into the side of the flash unit (see below) and can be programmed for a specific channel and group. This will allow you to control up to 16 units per channel.
The transmitter can be hot shoe mounted or attached through a PC connection. While this configuration allows you to adjust power settings and trigger the unit from a distance of up to 150 feet, you cannot change between the various modes (ETTL, Manual, Multi). Personally I preferred to use the flash unit in manual mode, and the transmitter enabled me to control the flash output power in 1/3 settings from Full power to 1/128 power or off.
The controller for the Flashpoint StreakLight 360 did not have the PC cord capability, so I could only use it mounted on the hot shoe of the camera. The transmitter I received for the Flashpoint Zoom Li-on had a 2.5mm jack, which enabled me to have one flash on my Canon hot shoe and to attach a cable from the controller and plug it into my Canon’s PC input. This setup allowed me to have one flash on camera and control a second flash mounted off camera. The image of Abbye (below) was taken with two flashes. The main light was off to one side to provide modeling to her face, and the second was behind her to provide separation for her hair from the background. The unit that was illuminating her hair had a Rogue Flash amber gel to color the light.
I really liked the wireless controllability, but I did have two issues that the manufacturer could easily remedy. The big issue is the ease with which you can accidentally change the group setting dial on the receiver to a different group. I don’t know how many times I accidentally changed the setting while using the flash. It’s especially frustrating when you are in a time crunch and you set the strobe and return to camera position thinking everything is all set only to find you can't trigger the flash.
The second issue I had was with the transmitter going through batteries. When I would finish a job and forget to turn the unit off, the batteries would be dead by the next day. I use rechargeable batteries, but if you are on a job and don’t remember to bring your spare batteries you’ll have a problem. I found the best solution was to remove the batteries when I finished the job rather than try to remember to shut the unit off and hope there was battery power for the next job.
The images below from a commercial shoot for a local casting company. You can see the two-light setup in the first image and the image taken of the craftsman in the second. The umbrella provided a soft quality of light to control overall scene contrast, while the bare flash provided directionality to the light.
Above you'll see the lighting setup and the final image. One Flashpoing Zoom Li-on used with a shoot-through umbrella gave a soft quality of light for overall contrast while a direct light from a second unit provided directionality. ©Don Chick
With the Flashpoint Zoom Li-on from Adorama, the value for your dollar is very high. Yes, there are a couple issues that the manufacturer could address, but even taking them into account the cost/benefit makes it worth taking a serious look.