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FORUMS General Gear Talk Flash and Studio Lighting 
Thread started 22 Nov 2006 (Wednesday) 15:12
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Sunpak 383 Super auto flash unit (my review)

 
Curtis ­ N
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Nov 22, 2006 15:12 |  #1

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 (external link) without a second mortgage, I decided to invest in the Sunpak 383 Super Auto Shoe Mount Flash (external link). 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.

Observations:
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.

Pros:
*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

Cons:
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.


Conclusions:
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.


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FlashZebra
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Nov 22, 2006 15:34 |  #2

Curtis,

Thank you for such a nice overview of this flash. On paper this flash looked very interesting and a grand bargain. Now I have reason to expect that the "on paper" specifications actually deliver a product consistent with the specifications.

Is the 2.5mm sub mini plug end of the sync cord that goes into the Sunpak 383 a mono version (two conductors) or a stereo version (three conductors). I know that only two conductors (mono plug) are needed, but I have found that sometimes stereo plugs are used.

Again, thanks for such a nice review.

Enjoy! Lon


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Curtis ­ N
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Nov 22, 2006 17:31 |  #3

Lon,

The sync socket is indeed the 2.5mm sub mini plug as you surmised. I have made the correction. The supplied cord has a mono sub mini plug male on one end to fit this socket and a PC male on the other end.

Here's a photo of the cord (dime not included).


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"If you're not having fun, your pictures will reflect that." - Joe McNally
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Lotto
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Nov 22, 2006 19:40 |  #4

Thanks for the hands on review. Couple questions:

1. What's a recycle time at manual 1/2 power with rechargablel batteries?

2. Auto mode works with flash head in bounce position?


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Curtis ­ N
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Nov 22, 2006 20:34 |  #5

Lotto,

Recycle time at 1/2 power is about 2 seconds with NiMH rechargeables. At 1/4 power the ready light doesn't even turn off.

Yes, the auto settings work regardless of bounce position. I have bounced it off the ceiling, bounced with a white Post-It note stuck to the back side, and used it with my Lumiquest 80/20. I have also used it off camera, turned the head around backwards and fired it into a silver umbrella while keeping the sensor aimed at my subject. All in auto mode. The possibilities are endless.


"If you're not having fun, your pictures will reflect that." - Joe McNally
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Lotto
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Nov 23, 2006 05:28 |  #6

How exactly the auto mode works? Dose it based on distance, or overall brightness according to iso/aperture? I am thinking at a scenario of placing the 383 at different subject distance to the camera position.


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Curtis ­ N
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Nov 23, 2006 08:10 |  #7

In the picture above, you'll notice a small green circle on the front of the unit, near the bottom. There is a hole in the casing there, and behind the hole is a light sensor. This sensor is always facing forward, even when the flash head it tilted or swiveled.

When the flash is fired, it measures its own light that reflects off the subject/background and hits that sensor. When sufficient light is seen, it turns off the power. Flash units with this sort of technology have been around for 30 years.

When you use this kind of flash unit with a digital camera, you have a wide range of possibilities in terms of matching the camera's aperture/ISO settings with the flash. For instance, the medium automatic setting on this unit will give you proper exposure for f/4, ISO 100. The same setting also works for
f/5.6, ISO 200
f/8, ISO 400
f/11, ISO 800
etc.
If your camera has ISO settings in 1/3 stop increments you can use the in-between apertures as well. And all you need to do is move a slider on the back of the unit which is connected to a sliderule to give you the various combinations that will work.

Like all forms of metering that work by measuring reflected light, it can give false exposures if your subject is very bright (white wedding dress) or very dark (black tuxedo). Rather than using FEC, you compensate for this by adjusting your aperture or ISO. For example, if the flash is set to f/5.6, ISO 200 and you're shooting a very dark scene, you may want to set the camera at f/8, ISO 200, or possibly f/5.6, ISO 100. This would be equivalent to 1 stop negative FEC.

I hope I'm not making this sound complicated, because the scales on the back of the flash make it ingeniously simple. When you select an automatic setting, it will tell you the distance range and the aperture/ISO combination for correct exposure.

If you're bouncing or using a diffuser, the distance range will be reduced (and sometimes require some trial and error), but the correct aperture/ISO will not change.


"If you're not having fun, your pictures will reflect that." - Joe McNally
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Jim ­ M
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Nov 23, 2006 08:55 |  #8

I used to have to shoot an annual event in a very large church involving a large group of children. To get enough light to do the job, I used two Vivitar 283s on two camera brackets with both set on automatic at whatever aperture I thought I needed to get adequate depth of field. Believe it or not, it worked great. I still have and occasionally use those 283s firing them with a radio remote and powering them with a home made battery pack. Nice to know there is a modern equivalent.




  
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Nov 24, 2006 01:46 |  #9

Curtis - great review, thanks. You've got me thinking I've got to give my Sunpak 555 more use. I've used it for years with no problem with film and I use it as a slave for shoots but I've got to try it on the bracket. And I'll probably have to add a 383. The price is excellent and the performance looks to be pretty good.


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Emenresu
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Nov 24, 2006 12:27 |  #10

I was very interested in purchasing one untill i saw the recycle time, thats pretty long.


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Nov 25, 2006 10:17 |  #11

Emenresu wrote in post #2307706 (external link)
I was very interested in purchasing one untill i saw the recycle time, thats pretty long.

You'll pay a lot more to save those seconds. The least expensive monolight appears to cost $20-$40 more than the Sunpak, and external batteries are two or three times as much as the flash you're trying to power. :(




  
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Curtis ­ N
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Nov 25, 2006 10:50 |  #12

Emenresu wrote in post #2307706 (external link)
I was very interested in purchasing one untill i saw the recycle time, thats pretty long.

Just to put things in perspective, at 1/2 power its output is similar to a 430EX at full power. And as I mentioned above, recycle time at 1/2 power is about 2 seconds with NiMH batteries.

Recycle time of the 430EX at full power is also 2 seconds, but it costs three times as much.


"If you're not having fun, your pictures will reflect that." - Joe McNally
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Dec 01, 2006 13:08 |  #13

Curtis,

I am curious as to why these cords with the male 2.5mm sub mini plugs from Paramount, and for sundry Sunpak flash units, indicate they are not for the Sunpak 383 (links below).

I see that the physical plastic plug you grasp to insert and remove the the male 2.5mm sub mini contact looks rather large on these particular Paramount sync cords.

Is there any possibility that because of this large plastic part, it somehow mechanically interferes with some geometric feature on the Sunpak 383 frustrating accommodating use?

I looked at your pics of the Sunpak 383 in your review, and others I found on the web, but I could not find any that show the area of the 383 where the sub mini jack plugs in.

I think it is just above the bottom of the fried SPAM on the side that has the "OFF AC BATT" switch.

You have that spiffy new Sunpak 383 to look at, what do you think?

http://paramountcords.​com/proddetail.asp?pro​d=SP (external link)

http://paramountcords.​com/proddetail.asp?pro​d=SP%2D1S (external link)


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Curtis ­ N
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Dec 01, 2006 14:35 |  #14

Lon,
The location of the sub miniplug sync socket is indicated on the attached image. It's near the foot, on the left side as viewed from behind.

The plugs pictured in the links you provided appear a little different from the plug that came with the flash. The tip contact appears longer and they have a wider insulator between tip and shaft on the paramount cords.

Here are some links to Sunpak brand cords at B&H which I think should work.
2 ft. cord (external link)
5 ft. cord (external link)


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"If you're not having fun, your pictures will reflect that." - Joe McNally
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Dec 01, 2006 14:49 |  #15

Thanks Curtis,

Any possibility that the diameter of the larger part I mention in my previous post might collide with that angle "overhang" just above the arrow in your diagram?

The geometric differences you cite in the sub mini plugs are sort of routine differences in those devices and typically do not inhibit electrical contact (note the key word typical).

I don't really need cords, I am just interested in why those Paramont cords do not work.

I may need to just email Paramount.

The reason I am really interested is in the possibility of converting the jack on the Sunpak 383 (or other similar Sunpak flash units) to the slightly larger mini plug so the very inexpensive Alien Bee flash cords will work. So, the gross dimensions in that area are of interest.

That same plug is used on several other Sunpak flash units, so Sunpak may have chosen the sub mini plug even though there was enough room for the the slightly larger mini plug.

Thank you for you help.

Enjoy! Lon


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Sunpak 383 Super auto flash unit (my review)
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