Part 1 of 2
You may be thinking, “What is this sacrilege?!” Especially if you know me well. I have a LOT of Canon speedlites. Like really A LOT. Like 11 or 12 depending on if any are in for repair. I love my speedlites. They’re my homies, my lighting in a bottle. But, you know, a guy gets the “wandering eye” every once in a awhile. Wonders if the grass IS really greener in another pasture. (Of course I mean this in a camera gear only context. Love you, dear! Mwah.) This wandering eye started to pop up about the same time I saw the Canon 580EXII disappearing from inventories as Canon made a full commitment to its newest flagship, the 600EX-RT. This new flash looks cool, but in my mind, it’s about 5 years too late. I wanted the radio transmitter back then. And I found it with the RadioPopper PX system. Now that I own almost as many PX receivers and transmitters as I have Canon flashes, I would need some serious coinage to make the transition to the new 600EX-RT. Cuz you can’t buy just one if you do OCF like I do. I’d need at least 4, which would ring in at about $2500. Yikes. Then what about the investment I have into the RadioPopper system? In addition to the PX system (which works superbly, by the way) I also use the RadioPopper Jrx system coupled with RP Cubes on my speedlites in the studio. (For those of you who don’t know, I run a 99.9% speedlite studio — nearly everything is lit with speedlites.) I could see potential trouble on the horizon as I needed to replace 580EXIIs in the future. Along about that time I received a phone call from Nissin Flash USA asking if I would like to test their flagship Di866 II flash, which coincidently was just upgraded to work with the RadioPopper PX system. Say what? Um, yeah. Send me some and let me play!
In addition to the firmware update Nissin provided for their flashes (which can be installed by just connecting the flash to your computer….are you listening, Canon?), RadioPopper also offered a free firmware update for all of their PX transmitters and receivers. So I bundled my PX gear off and sent it to RP for the update, which they handled very quickly and got back to me within a week. Then it was time to play.
One of my favorite models, Kj Lyn, contacted me to update her headshots. It timed perfectly with the arrival of the Nissin flashes (3 of them) and my updated PX gear. I devised test one for the Nissins: TTL portraiture in the studio. The setup included:
- Nissin Di866 II with a RadioPopper PX receiver set to Group A as my key. The flash was fired into a Larson 48″ Eyelighter on a boom and in line between the camera and Kj.
- Two Nissin Di866 II flashes with a RadioPopper PX receivers set to Group B as my edge lights; ratio compensation A:B set to 4:1 on the master. The flashes were fired into 1′x4′ Creative Light Strip Boxes with eggcrate grids set to either side and behind Kj.
- A Larry Peter Eyelighter curved reflector was used directly below Kj for fill and uplighting.
- The flashes were triggered by a Canon 580EXII flash set to Master/Do Not Fire on camera with a RadioPopper PX transmitter.
- All 3 images shown were captured with a Canon 5D MKIII with a 70-200L F4 IS lens set to 200mm on Manual at 1/160, f5, ISO 200. Flash output was TTL. The final two images were processed with my Feeling a Little Blue PS action. The final image also incorporated a Canon 480EXII with a Strobies grid on Group C as a background light.
- Large versions of all images in this post can be found in the lightbox at the bottom of the post.
I thought the TTL results were impressive! I was intrigued. So the next step was to take these bad boys outside to see what they could do on location. So I contacted another of my favorite models, Erin, to see if she wanted to shoot outside. Of course, being the middle of January in Wisconsin, it was a little chilly. Okay, it was downright cold. But it gave Erin an excuse to wear her new furry kitty hat.
- Shot 1: shows the setup
- Shot 2: Av mode, 1/200 @f4, ISO200, exposure compensation -1 stop, 127mm, Canon 5dMKIII with 70-200L IS F4. One Nissin Di866 II on camera as the master/did not fire. RadioPopper PX transmitter. Two Nissin Di866 II flashes off camera in a Westcott Apollo stripbox. RadioPopper PX receivers.
- Shot 3: Same flash and camera setup. Av mode, 1/100 @f4, ISO100, Exposure compensation -1 stop, 138mm.
- Shot 4: Same flash and camera setup. Av mode, 1/40 @f4, ISO200, Exposure compensation -1 stop, 200mm.
- Full size images can be see in the Lightbox at the bottom.
So the Nissins passed this test. The next major test would be the ultimate one…can they handle high speed sync? While the weather was cold and gray in Wisconsin, fortunately it was bright in sunny in Orlando where I was heading to present at the Senior Photographers International conference. I packed up my Nissins, a couple of Canons, and the PS300 battery packs that I had just received to test out — more on these later.
As advertised, the sun was blazing in full glory when I took my shootout class outside to teach them how to deal with full sun. Of course, being the slightly cocky (slightly?) guy that I am, the first thing I demoed was how to shoot in full sun while including the sun in the shot. To me, this is the ultimate test of a TTL flash; how does it handle an extremely backlit situation while negotiating with the camera on what the settings and flash output should be. I took Cody out by the pool and put him in a nasty backlit situation with sun hitting a fountain of water spraying behind him. I used two Nissin flashes in high speed sync to camera right and triggered them with my on-camera flash, which fired and acted as fill. The camera was set to Av mode, ISO 100, f4, -2/3 exposure compensation. The TTL system read the situation and gave me a shutter speed of 1/1600th. The first image shows the full frame and the second shows a tight crop with the light on Cody’s face.
A student had asked how to get a “spiky sun” so I switched off of my preferred Av mode when working outside (I find it’s faster) and flipped over to manual with my normal “spiky sun” setting of ISO 100, 1/200 @f22. I also like to use my Canon 15mm fisheye for this type of shot; it gets me a nice wide view while providing an appealing spike on the sun because of the aperture blade design. [Note: place your subject in the center to minimize distortion, then correct for distortion in Lightroom or Photoshop and crop to taste.] I had a student lean out over the pool and angle two Nissin Di866 II flashes back at Cody, my model, to provide some dimension to the light. The flashes are just barely out of the frame. I also had my on-camera master fire to provide some fill. One shot and we were good:
I showed the shot to my students and they were hooked. The downside was I didn’t get a chance to shoot any more as they wanted to test this for themselves.While I worked on coaching my class, my compadre, Landon Day, was working with the Nikon version of the Nissin flashes. Students were blown away by what could be created. So much so that we’ve been asked back for a repeat performance at SPI this coming January 2014.
After the morning shootout, I set up a 3-light studio using the Nissins in a shooting bay inside. One key fired into a prototype parabolic umbrella created by inventor John Shirilla, and two edge lights fired into Firefly small stripboxes from Denny Manufacturing. Denny also supplied the awesome backgrounds for our bay. The bay was setup for TTL shooting using the Nissin Di866 II flashes and the RadioPopper PX system. This time our model was the lovely Blair, one of the winners of the SPI model search.
An interesting side story to all of this was the performance of the Nissin PS 300 battery pack. It’s superb! Lightning fast recycling and the ability to power two flashes at once. I can see using this extensively for outdoor shots during the sunny senior and wedding season in the summer. Plus it makes for a heck of a nice all-around battery. I recently completed a commercial shoot on location with 10 models. 1700+ shots, all with flash, and no problems with recycle times. That’s amazing.
So what’s the bottom line? These flashes are for real. At $200 less than the 580EXII and 600EX-RT (street price is around $349), I think they are a very capable add-on or replacement for your current Canon speedlite lineup. The overall build quality is good and more comparable to the 580EX than the 580EXII, but there are some features and functions that I actually like better than what Canon offers. Soon I’ll be posting a more technical overview as a follow up to the post where I can go into more detail. Check back soon!
Interested in purchasing the Nissin Di866 II flash or the Nissin PS300 power pack? Click on the links below.