I’m known as TTL speedlight guy. Heck, I even wrote a book on it (order yours now at Amazon!). So I’ve always been a little snobbish towards the cheaper, non-brand name speedlights. In many cases, I was justified as the build quality, features and overall performance just weren’t up to professional standards, in my opinion. Well folks, the times they are a changin’. There are some pretty nice off-brand flashes that have come out in the past couple of years. One, the Godox/Neewer v850, has me so impressed that I bought five of them and I’ve been using them heavily over the past month. In fact, the v850 is now my preferred speedlight for studio lighting setups. Following is my review.
Manufactured by Godox and rebadged by both Neewer and Cheetah (I own the Neewer version that is badged as the tt850), the v850 speedlight is a manual-only flash. Yawn, right? Wrong! First of all the v850 is a solidly-built flash crafted in the silhouette of the Canon 580EXII. In fact, all of my 580EXII accessories (my Stofen knock-off diffusers and Strobie grid spots) fit the flash head perfectly. With a guide number of 58, the v850 is almost as powerful as the Canon 600EX-RT. Both the build-quality and power are important features, but not nearly as interesting as the next four:
(1) the flash is powered by a rechargeable 11.1-volt lithium ion battery, so it doesn’t need an external power pack.
(2) you can remotely turn the power up and down in 1/3 stop increments using the very inexpensive ($34) radio transmitter/receiver combo.
(3) The flash has a high speed sync (HSS) feature that allows shutter syncing at speeds of up to 1/8000th.
(4) Street price on the flash is only $105
Lithium Ion Battery
The unique 11.1-volt battery gives the flash very fast recycle times and eliminates the need for the awkward and bulky external battery
packs that I use with my Canon flashes. Recycling at full power is rated at 1.5 seconds, and you can achieve 650 full-power pops on a full charge. The battery also powers the snap-in FT16s receiver for remote triggering, keeping the size and the cost down on the receiver and eliminating the need for expensive button batteries for the receiver as well. A special charger comes with the flash. Additional batteries are $32.
In my first major field test of photographing 116 headshots on location of the course of 6 hours, the batteries held up remarkably, with only the fill-light’s battery showing any considerable drain. The power setting was at ¼ +.3 for 428 pops.
This is actually the feature that first grabbed my attention. For the past four years I have used a Radiopopper Jrx + RP Cube system with my Canon speedlights in the studio. This system has allowed me to remotely turn the power up and down on up to 3 groups of flashes by leveraging the TTL system and manually choking the output up and down. Not elegant, but it honestly works quite well. However, I have felt hamstrung by being limited to 3 groups; I often wanted the ability to control 4, 5 or more. I also wished I could more precisely set the power levels. With the Jrx, you cannot set the power to “1/2” or any other precise setting. Instead, you turn the rotary dial power setting and test. With a little experience, you know approximately where to turn the knob, but the “approximate” part always bothered me.
With the FT16 transmitter combined with the FT16s receiver, you can precisely set the power on the v850 flash. Want ¼ .3? Punch it in. Need to go up 1/3 stop? Arrow to the right one click and you will see the power setting change on both the transmitter and on the back of the flash. With the FT16/FT16s combo you can set up flashes in up to 16 different groups. Hallelujah! I love, love this feature. Plus, you can turn on the audible beep so you can hear the power being turned up and down remotely, giving you audio confirmation. This came in extremely handy during a shoot at the Circus World Museum this past week. I fired all five speedlights throughout the day in all sorts of configurations: in softboxes, with MagMod grids, on booms, behind wagons and elephants. The only snag was that I kept losing track of which speedlight was in which group as we quickly moved lighting around, so I had to keep asking my assistants, Callie and Krystal, which speedlight was which (is that one “C” or “D”? “C” as in “cat” or “D” as in “dog”? Oh, “E” as in “elephant”…gotcha).
The FT16 transmitter is powered by two AA batteries and fits into the hotshoe with a standard screw-down tightener. It also features 16 channels to choose from.
The rectangular FT16s receiver snaps into a dedicated slot on the side of the flash. As mentioned previously, the receiver does not need a battery as it runs off of the flash’s lithium ion battery.
In my first major field test, the transmitter system worked almost flawlessly, with only 5 misfires/nonfires
out of 428 pops during 6 hours of corporate headshots on location. This was with the flashes enclosed in Westcott Apollo softboxes. I would have been happier to have no nonfires, but to be honest, this is better than par for the course when comparing to other systems I have used, and well within the acceptable range of performance, IMO. It works out that it fired accurately 99% of the time. Yeah, I’m good with that.
In a session where I photographed the lovely Ellie Sarmadi for my next book project, the transmitter system did work flawlessly in triggering over 300 images, many of which were fired quite rapidly in a fashion-shoot style. Impressive!
High Speed Sync
High speed sync with a $105 flash. Are you kidding me? No, actually, I’m not. The system for this is a little clunky, but it works. You do have to set your flash to HSS manually on the flash (this cannot be set using the transmitter, but how cool would that be if they added that in the future?). And while you can still use your FT16 transmitter to turn the power up and down, you need to purchase a separate Cells IIc transmitter to fit into your hotshoe in order to transmit the shutter speed and timing in order to accurately sync your flash to your camera. The Cells IIc is another $53ish. I have only tested this aspect of the flash a couple of times as it has been cloudy, rainy and cold for the past month. However, the few times I’ve used hss it has seemed to work pretty well.
I was able to create some lovely images of Kasey during my demo at Twin Cities PPA in April. I should also mention that I went against all conventional wisdom by testing out new equipment in the field in front of a class as this was my first time using the v850 in hss mode. But I managed to survive, LOL.
I more recently put two v850s inside an umbrella-style 30” octabox I found for $30 on Amazon (nice!) and photographed a senior outside in the mid-afternoon with slightly overcast skies. The flashes were attached to a Phottix multi-boom, which I just got and am digging. Again, the system worked very well as is shown in the accompanying images. My only beef is that the thermal shut down on the flash kicks in after 15 – 20ish hss pops, forcing you to slow down, take a break, or turn the flashes off and on. Also, I find TTL hss a little quick to use, probably because I have such a streamlined workflow with that. That doesn’t discount the usability of hss with the v850. It’s just my personal reflection.
- Radio-based remote power control in up to 16 different groups.
- 11.1v lithium ion battery = no battery packs and no batteries for the receiver.
- Powerful GN58.
- Form factor means I can use existing accessories (diffusers, etc.) that fit my Canon 580EXII.
- Build quality.
- High speed sync.
- $115 price tag for the flash and $39 price tag for transmitter/receiver combo. Incredible value.
- The FT16s receiver fits into the side of the flash, but it wouldn’t take much to knock it out. I would like it to be more secure.
- The need to add on the Cells IIc transmitter to achieve hss. I could see combining the Cells IIc and the FT16 transmitter into one, do-it-all transmitter. So what if it costs a little more…it would be worth it.
- How quickly the thermal shut down kicks in when in hss.
- The battery charger has a whine when plugged in. It gets annoying if it is nearby.
- Availability. I can seem to find the flashes easily enough, but the FT16s receivers were a challenge. I ended up ordering mine from Hong Kong on ebay.
I like these flashes. A lot. Enough so that I they are now my studio portrait flashes of choice, meaning that all of my standard portrait-style lighting in studio and on location will be captured using the v850 flashes. My total investment for 5 flashes, 5 receivers, and 2 transmitters was about $700…or about $200 more than a single Canon 600EX-RT flash. Add in a couple of backup batteries and a Cells IIc transmitter for hss, and I’m still under $800. That’s just crazy. Huh, a tremendous value in photography equipment…who’d have thunk?