Phoenix Dedicated TTL Ring Flash

The soft, halo shadow produced by the ringlight is evident around these two cups. It makes an excellent method of recording the detail of the design pattern we needed to show to the firm we hope will have replacements available for this long discontinued pattern. Canon EOS A2, 35-135mm lens at 135mm macro, program automatic on Kodak Gold 100 film.
Photos © 1999, Robert E. Mayer, All Rights Reserved

Extremely simplified shadowless electronic flash lighting is often difficult to achieve. This type of soft, diffused light is most suitable for a wide variety of tiny subjects recorded close-up and other nearby conventional objects. Typical subjects ideal for this type of lighting are small, highly detailed objects such as jewelry, watches, coins, stamps, electronics, etc. These are the typical types of items a single, harsh, direct flash unit just does not illuminate properly since they tend to cast strong, frequently objectionable shadows.

For really easy shadowless lighting with any autofocus SLR camera at distances of up to about 5' with ISO 100 films, try the new Phoenix RL-59C ringlight. The body of this flash unit looks like any conventional hot shoe flash and has a tilting top portion of the body similar to a bounce capability found on a regular shoe flash unit, but the flash head with its reflector is missing. Instead there is a heavy coiled connecting cord coming out of the top to permanently connect the body to lightweight, ringlight, flash tube housing.

The even, shadowless lighting produced by the ring flash accentuates the detail found in small coins and tokens, but you still have to be careful for unwanted reflections. Canon EOS A2, 35-135mm lens at 135mm macro plus Canon 450 CU lens, program automatic on Kodak Gold 100 film.

Four AA-size alkaline or NiCd batteries power the unit. The battery cover comes off easily, but you must press in on the outer two, then the inner two batteries slightly to allow the cover to slide back into place. I would have liked the markings inside the compartment showing the proper battery orientation to be a bit more legible, but in good light you can tell exactly which way the positive terminal goes.

The operational controls found on the back of the unit are sparse and simple. In the middle there is a power on/off switch; a ready light (that glows orange when the unit has recharged); and an auto check light (that glows green to confirm adequate exposure for the subject measured by the camera's TTL metering system). There is an open flash button on the base just above the locking shoe mount. That's it. There's a sliding scale on the rear of the unit just above the controls for setting the ISO film speed and determining the f/stop for any particular flash to subject distance. However, this scale is only needed for determining manual exposures. If you use the unit with a dedicated SLR, everything is preset for you in a program automatically with full TTL flash metering. You don't have to set or adjust anything. Since it automatically couples through multiple contact terminals in the hot shoe with the camera's electronics, the proper flash synch shutter speed is set for you as is the lens aperture. You won't find any accessory flash unit that's easier to use.

Small, intricate detail inside an old VCR was easily recorded with the ringlight. There are no bothersome shadows to obscure portions of the mechanism. Canon EOS A2, 35-135mm lens at 135mm macro plus Canon 450 CU lens, program automatic on Kodak Gold 100 film.

It's easy to attach the flash to the camera for use. Just slide the body of the flash unit onto the flash shoe as you would a conventional auxiliary flash unit, then lock it in place with the knurled locking knob. Now you must place the ring flash housing onto the lens filter threads. First place one of the supplied adapter rings (49, 52, 55, or 58mm) onto the camera's filter threads. Then fasten the ring flashlight head to the camera adapter ring by rotating a large knurled attachment disk that is permanently fastened to the rear of the light. The knurled edges make it easy to turn the disk which moves freely--totally independent of the flash head--so you don't have to be concerned about twisting the connector cord, which might become wrapped around the lens if you had to actually rotate the head. The ring flash head is easily held steady in one position with one hand and only the disk must be rotated to make the connection. You have to be careful not to cross thread the adapter rings, but if you keep the unit flat against the lens there is normally no problem.

There is a large single LED AF assist illuminator on the front of the flash unit that is activated when the shutter release is pressed halfway. It has an effective range of 3.3-10' with a 50mm normal lens. The heavy coil cord that connects the flash head to the unit body can accidentally get in the way of the illuminator light path, but I found my EOS A2 autofocusing to be consistently on target even when the cord partially obstructed the light.

There is only one caution about using this ringlight. It should not be used with any lens shorter than 50mm focal length or the corners of the frame will be vignetted. You can use it with a zoom lens, just be sure the range in use is longer than 50mm. I used it with 35-135mm and 35-105mm Canon zoom lenses with no problem at all. I purposely tried a few exposures at focal lengths shorter than 50mm and got the anticipated vignetting--a white cropping of the corners.

These yellow tiger lilies were in open shade, so the ring flash provided nearly all of the light for this shot. Since the light falls off rapidly, the background went dark helping accentuate the blossom. Canon EOS A2, 35-135mm lens at 135mm macro, program automatic on Kodak Elitechrome 200 Select film.

Although there is a test flash button on the unit, this merely fires the flash for checking glare or coverage while looking at the subject through the SLR viewfinder. The output is a weaker flash than the normal TTL metered output would be; thus it cannot be used with a flash meter to check the exposure for using the flash on manual. When I wanted to make some bracketed exposures, I just switched the camera over from program automatic to manual, referred to the guide on the back, then extensively bracketed the exposures to get an idea of the units output. It would have been nice to have a method of setting the flash on manual so it could be used other than TTL metering, but the metered program automatic exposures of nearby objects up to about 5-7' were so consistently good that totally automatic seems to be more than adequate.

The GN scale on the back of the power unit gives the approximate exposure at various distances in feet and meters. The distance range is from 3-60', which I personally found to be not of much use since most of my close-up exposures were made at distances of less than 3'. The scale does provide you with some "ballpark" apertures to use from which you can bracket your manual exposures.

Practical Use Test Results. The ring flash was simple to attach and use with either model of Canon SLR cameras. The ringlight is only slightly larger than a lens hood and does not weigh much more, so the camera handled and balanced nearly the same as without the flash attached. Even the shoe-mounting portion of the unit is relatively light and small leaving the camera very hand holdable when everything is attached. The fact that the top of the unit can be tilted down makes it easy to maneuver the connecting coil cord to a position where it does not bother you. There is more than adequate length on the coil cord (it easily stretches out to arm's length), so the ringlight can be positioned anywhere around the lens and even used with a quite long prime telephoto or tele-zoom lens if desired.

The extra weight of the flash head and heavy coil cord attached to the front of one zoom lens (a Canon EOS 35-135mm) caused the lens focal length to change by itself when used with the lens pointing down. Other zoom lenses probably don't move as easily when zoomed, so this should not be any problem with most zoom lenses. Besides, it only happened when pointing the lens up or down at extreme angles. When used relatively horizontally with this zoom lens there was no unwanted focal length change.

My practical use testing was done primarily with slow speeds of chrome films including Fujichrome Velvia 50, Agfachrome 50, Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100, Ektachrome Elite II 100, and new Kodak Elitechrome 200 Select. All of my E-6 chrome films were processed at Accu-Color Labs, Inc., Fort Wayne, Indiana. I also exposed a roll of Kodak Gold 100 color negative film.

The sample Phoenix RL-59C ring flash I received was dedicated for Canon SLRs so most of my tests were made using a Canon EOA A2 AF SLR with a 35-135mm Canon lens. But I also exposed several rolls in my older Canon T-90 SLR with a 35-105mm zoom lens, which also has program automation but no autofocusing. To enable more detailed close-ups closer than the macro settings available on these two zoom lenses, I also used a Canon 1800 (weak, 1/2 diopter) or 450 (strong) close-up lens placed on the zoom lens before attaching the ringlight to permit considerably closer focusing. Close-up lenses do not require any exposure adjustment, but even if extension tubes had been used, since the metering is TTL, the exposure factor would be compensated for automatically.

When photographing any highly reflective or mirror-like surface such as jewelry, coins, electronic circuit boards, etc., you still have to be careful about reflections back into the camera lens that would cause highlights or glare. The weak, test flash feature is very necessary in judging whether this type of reflection will be a problem while looking through the SLR viewfinder. Since the ringlight is attached rather permanently to the camera lens, it remains constantly parallel to the film plane, so it cannot be adjusted or angled to minimize this bounce-back glare. The only solution is to tilt or angle the subject slightly, so it is not completely parallel to the film plane and thereby decreases the reflection. This is very simple to do and neatly eliminates bothersome reflections. For several images of printed circuit boards and shiny coins simply tilting the subject slightly, while the camera was fixed in position on a copy stand, effectively minimized the bothersome glare.

My totally automatic exposures made with TTL program automatic internal metering were consistently well exposed at an aperture of f/5.6. At the farther ranges of the flash range (7' or thereabout) they tended to be darker and underexposed, but the fact that the confirmation check light on the flash did not glow green warned me of this. The color balance visible on my MacBeth Color Checker and an 18 percent gray card was excellent. I made comparison exposures using the ring flash, the camera's built-in flash, a Canon 540EZ shoe mount flash, and an AC powered studio flash and could not detect any visible difference when viewing the color chart chromes on a GraphicLite standard illuminator.
If you want to use an aperture smaller than f/5.6 to obtain better depth (and this is usually best for most close-up subjects), you can switch the camera over to aperture priority automatic and use whatever aperture you desire. Exposures will still be totally automatic since the flash unit/camera electronics will set the correct shutter speed in aperture priority mode and you adjust the lens aperture yourself.

Several shots of a model using the ringlight had mixed results. As anticipated, the soft, wraparound lighting was pleasing for female features, but it showed every blemish and detail vividly. Around the head and shoulders there is a halo-like soft shadow. I anticipated finding a vivid round ring reflection in her eyes similar to the large round reflections seen in eyes when using a translucent shoot-through umbrella, but this was not evident on even tight face close-up views.

The 6 sec or less recycle time is adequately rapid so you can make exposures in quick sequence. Even if you use the test light often to check for glare, the recycle time remains rapid since the test light is at a weaker output, so it does not use much of the stored charge.
I found the Phoenix RL-59 ring flash to be a very handy and accurate accessory for close-up shots of all types of small subjects. It would be an asset for anybody who frequently photographs small items and it would be helpful for certain types of female glamour subjects if they are relatively nearby--about 5' or closer. I found the TTL metered automatic exposures on sensitive, color slide film to be very accurate and consistent, if you stay within the recommended flash range and don't try to use the unit at focal lengths shorter than about 50mm. If you want to be able to use smaller than f/5.6 apertures on the lens for more depth of field, simply switch the camera over to aperture priority and you will have complete control of the lens opening.

For further information about the new Phoenix RL-59 continuous circle ring flash see your local dealer or contact the importer: Phoenix Corporation of America, 112 Mott St., Oceanside, NY 11572, (516) 764-5890, fax: (516) 764-5970. The suggested list price is $200 and it's available in mounts compatible with Canon, Nikon, Minolta, or Pentax AF dedicated flash cameras.

Technical Specifications
Guide Number: 59 (ISO 100 in feet)
Color Temperature: 5600°K
Flash Duration: 1/1000 sec in manual mode; 1/1000-1/40,000 sec in auto TTL mode
Recycle Time: Approximately 0.5-6 sec (with alkaline batteries)
Auto Setting: Varies
Auto Illuminator Range: 0.5"-10'
Applicable Lens: Focal lengths longer than 50mm
Power Source: Four 1.5v alkaline batteries
Battery Life: 120-2000 flashes
Mounting: Hot shoe
Dimensions: 6x2.5x1.8" (flash unit w/o ring flash)
Weight: 8 oz (without batteries)
Compatibility: Models available for use with Canon, Nikon, Minolta, and Pentax AF cameras