The bad news is, it’s not an E-TTL flash unit.
The good news is, it’s not an E-TTL flash unit.
In a quest for a more consistent flash system than Canon’s E-TTL, and a desire to explore off-camera possibilities ala Strobist without a second mortgage, I decided to invest in the Sunpak 383 Super Auto Shoe Mount Flash. My review follows.
First, the basic specs:
This is a manual/automatic, non-dedicated shoe mount flash unit. It uses decades-old technology to meter its own light and is not compatible with any of the TTL or E-TTL systems of modern film or digital cameras. There is no communication with the camera, and use of any flash unit of this type requires manually setting the camera’s ISO and aperture to match the automatic setting of the flash. Manual flash can be utilized with the Sunpak 383 Super in a similar manner to modern flash units, using the distance scale on the back of the unit as a guide.
Cost: $79.95 US (B&H, plus shipping)
Coverage angle: 35mm (covers 22mm lens on a 1.6x camera), no zoom
Guide Number: 36 meters/120 feet at ISO 100 (same as 580EX at that coverage angle)
Manual settings: Full power, ½, ¼, 1/8, 1/16
Auto settings: f/2, f/4, f/8 (at ISO 100)
Sensor acceptance angle: 15 degrees
“Auto OK” light to indicate successful auto flash exposure
Bounce: 0-90 degrees
Swivel: 180 degrees right, 150 degrees left
Recycle time: 8.5 seconds with 4 AA alkaline batteries
Includes power socket for Sunpak’s AC adapter or high voltage powerpak
Sync socket (2.5mm sub miniplug) and PC cord included.
I measured the trigger voltage at 3.8 volts. No worries there. The guide number seems to be accurate within reason, based on my measurement shooting a gray card at a measured distance. This unit is certainly not lacking in power. Recycle time with NiMH batteries is just over 6 seconds after a full power burst.
Build quality seems pretty good for an $80 flash. The bounce and swivel pivots have no locking mechanisms, which is fine by me. It has reasonably strong detents at each 15 degrees of bounce and each 30 degrees of swivel. The flash head will stay where you put it. I can attach a Lumiquest 80/20 and swing the camera around without worry of flash head floppage. It is not built with the mechanical precision of the Canon Speedlites or even the Sigma Super, but it has a reasonably solid feel and there are no mechanical shortcomings that would hinder its function.
There are three sliding switches on the back of the unit. One for on/off and selection of the power source, one for adjusting the power output in manual mode, and one for the mode setting (manual or one of the three automatic settings). Additionally there is a slider to set ISO according to your film or camera ISO setting (This merely moves the aperture scale to match it with each automatic setting and the distance scale.). These four sliders are rather difficult to move, which I guess I prefer to sliders that would get inadvertently bumped out of place. The sliderule system attached to these switches is cleverly designed and easy to read. Anyone who has used an automatic flash before will have no trouble deciphering the apertures and distances. You can even switch the distance scale from feet to meters if you like. Minimum distance is about 1/9 the maximum distance for each of its automatic settings.
I fired the flash several ways - on the hotshoe of my 20D, with the included PC cord, and with an optical slave attachment connected both ways. All of these methods worked fine. One method that did not work was attaching it to the end of my Promaster TTL cord. I tested it at the camera shop with a Canon Off Camera Shoe Cord 2 and it worked fine. Perhaps my only real disappointment with the whole package is that the supplied PC cord is only 11 ½ inches long – too short to allow vertical camera use on my Stroboframe bracket (longer versions are available for around $10).
Metering performance: I did not test the automatic metering of this unit in controlled conditions. Limited use in a typical indoor residential setting yielded pleasing results, and when used within its range limits every shot was within ½ stop of perfect. While no flash metering system is fool-proof, the Sunpak 383 was noticeably more accurate and more consistent than previous experience with E-TTL flash in similar conditions. Again, this observation is based on limited “real world” testing and should not be interpreted as conclusive. But for now, I prefer this flash over my Sigma E-TTL unit for indoor situations where an AF assist light is not needed.
So here’s the long and short of the Sunpak 383 Super, compared to the popular E-TTL flash units.
*Cost (For the price of a 580EX, you could buy four of these puppies and have funds left over.)
*Plenty of power
*Very versatile as auto flashes go, with 3 automatic and 5 manual settings, bounce & swivel.
*Consistent exposure within the limits of its range
*Adapts easily for off-camera use via PC cord, radio slave or optical slave attachment
*Self-metering in auto modes even when used off-camera
*No preflash when used as master, allowing use of optical slaves
With the Sunpak 383, you will need to learn to live without several features of dedicated E-TTL flash units. These include FEL, second curtain sync, high speed sync, AF assist light, and a flash ready light in the viewfinder. Additionally, your selected aperture/ISO combination must match the flash setting. Use of Tv mode with this flash would not be practical.
Further, the Sunpak 383 Super lacks a zooming flash head and will not enjoy the additional range that zooming units gain when used with long lenses.
Minimum distance is from 2 to 8 feet in the automatic modes. Use of large apertures at close range will require some sort of diffusion device such as a softbox or Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce to avoid overexposure.
Through-the-lens flash metering is particularly advantageous with macro photography or the use of telephoto lenses, as the sensor of an automatic flash unit has a fixed angle of coverage and can’t always be aimed to meter the correct scene. Use of extension tubes or filters that result in light loss would require a compensating adjustment of aperture or manual flash power.
One other potential drawback worth mention is that the recycle time is significantly slower than the 580EX Canon Speedlite and other popular E-TTL units. High voltage power packs are available from Sunpak and Quantum that provide much faster recycle times for those who need to flash fast.
If you are familiar with automatic flash units from the days of yore, know how to use them (or are willing to learn) and understand their limitations, you will enjoy the consistent exposure from the Sunpak 383 Super in situations where it is well-suited. It offers the simplicity of vintage flash units without concerns over trigger voltage. If you are a Strobist devotee and are looking for a cost-effective way to fire off-camera flash units, the Sunpak 383 will be an economical and highly practical choice. Its sync cord socket makes it readily adaptable to several remote triggering methods, and its built-in sensor allows automatic metering when used off camera, even if the flash head is pointed in some other direction for bouncing.
I plan to continue to use my E-TTL flash unit for outdoor fill. E-TTL seems to perform best when the background is distant, and the ability to use Tv mode and high speed sync are definite advantages when the ambient light level is high. In very dark environments, the AF assist light of a good E-TTL flash is a must-have.
But in most indoor situations, the Sunpak 383 Super offers the power, versatility and consistency to make it my flash unit of choice.