Why I like my Sony a6000 more than my Olympus E-M1 (Part 3: The flash system-page 1)

To be fair there are also reasons why I like my Olympus better than the a6000.  They are both great systems but each has its pluses and minuses.

In this third part of "Why I like my Sony a6000 more than my Olympus E-M1" I am writing about the awesome way (IMO) Sony handles flash. I'm not talking anything fancy here. I'm talking about single, on camera flashes. I'm not talking about multiple flashes, wireless flashes, or remote flashes,or radio triggers or the like.

I've not read anything anywhere about using Auto ISO with a flash. But I'm a big fan of Auto ISO, and on the Sony a6000 (and the NEX 6 I owned before it) the flash plays very well with Auto ISO. This capability is what I like best about using a flash in the a6000.

I was delighted with how the Sony behaved when I first used the pop-up flash.  But because it's a bit under-powered (very noticeable when bouncing off a higher than normal ceiling or when using narrow apertures), I bought the little but handy HVL-F20M (guide number 20) flash.  This is
 my favorite flash. Ever.

Pop Up Flash.  I never use it facing forward like this.
The results are way too ugly.

It seems I frequently use a flash indoors, taking pictures of the family or food.  I like the challenge of using a flash to create a better image without it being obvious that a flash was used. I never aim the flash directly at my subject. That ends horribly: the classic deer in front of the headlights photo.  Instead, I bounce the flash off the ceiling.  The angle is up and forward a bit with both the in-camera flash and the F20M.  Unfortunate there is no option on either one to turn the flash left or right or rearward.

Operating the in-camera flash is a bit tricky if your want to bounce it.  The flash pops up easily enough, but to bounce it you must use your right forefinger to pull the flash back so it aims upward. It would be nice if it somehow clicked into place.  But because it doesn't, you must hold it back with your finger while triggering the shutter with your second finger.  That's what I mean by being a bit tricky. Having long fingers help.

My fingers are a bit contorted here because I am holding the Sony with my right hand,
while taking this picture with a Panasonic LX5 in my left hand.
But you get the idea:  the forefinger pulls the flash back to bounce light off the ceiling
and the second finger is on the shutter button.  It's awkward at first.

The F20M is a very well thought-out accessory, in my opinion. I've never seen a flash quite like it. It's rather small in size.  It requires just two AAA batteries. I use rechargeable batteries. There is no/off switch. The flash slips into the hot shoe, and turns off when you fold it down and turns on when you flip it up. This feature makes it very easy to alternate between flash "on" and flash "off". On the side is a slider adjustment that rotates the flash head into the bounce position.

Flash off.

Flash on.
You can direct the light forward or upward.
I always choose upward.

One criticism I read about on the Internet is that because the guide number is only 20, that you need to shoot with a high ISO. That may be true, but I do not see this as a disadvantage. Just the opposite. I like using a high ISO because this allows for a nicer balance between ambient light and flash. The resulting images look more natural, albeit with a bit more (but manageable) noise.

Here's how the Sony flash system works with Auto ISO (awesome):

Let's say that you are indoors and that with no flash your exposure is 1/80 sec at F2 at ISO 640. There's nothing wrong with shooting without flash in this situation as the camera can handle ISO 640 with no problem. But let's say you decide that the quality and direction of the light is less than ideal and that a bit of flash could help. Just flip up the flash. Be sure to bounce it. The camera will automatically adjust the ISO down approximately one stop, to about ISO 320 in this example.  This effectively underexposes the ambient light by one stop. In other words the ambient light is cut in half.  The flash then adds the other half of the light needed to make a decent exposure. The result is a nice mix of light as well as a higher quality photo because of the lower ISO. I love it.

If it seems that the result is over- or under- exposed, just use your EV compensation.  I suggest setting up EV  in the menu so that it moves both exposure compensation and flash compensation together (see image below). That way the 1:1 balance between ambient light and flash light can be maintained.

For the three images below I turned on the floor lamp (see gold tube on the right) which had a 100 watt incandescent bulb. This is on our screen porch and there was natural light coming in from behind me on a cloudy day.

No Flash.  F2, 1/80 sec, ISO 640

In-Camera flash pulled back and aimed upward to ceiling
F2, 1/80 sec, ISO 320
Note: ISO is cut in half resulting in less noise,
and the color is better IMO than without flash.

F20M flash bounced off ceiling
F2, 1/80 sec, ISO 400
Again, color is better than without flash and ISO is almost cut in half

How the Olympus would work with flash and Auto ISO (terrible (IMO)):

The Olympus doesn't work as well in Auto ISO. In the same example as above, as soon as you slide a flash into the hot shoe the ISO moves to the base ISO of 200.  This means very little ambient light will register in the image. The flash then must make up the difference. The result is an image that is mostly flash exposed. This is horrible lighting. The use of flash will be very obvious. As best as I can figure out, auto ISO will come into play only after the flash has reached maximum output. At that point, if the flash can not supply enough light, the ISO is increased. It is nearly impossible for the photographer to balance ambient and flash light using auto ISO with Olympus. This does not mean that one cannot take great flash pictures. You absolutely can; it merely means that one must manually set the ISO.  In this case that would be 320 or 400.


Andres C. said...

Your are incorrect about the E-M1 only selecting base ISO. The display will ISO 200, but the actual shot will have the metered ISO. Try out and you will see. I too thought the same until I looked at the metadata of my pictures.

Peter F. said...

Hello Andres. Thanks for posting a comment. You are correct and I am correct. I will add some additional words to my text so as make my thoughts and observations clearer. It is not until one compares the Oly with the Sony that the difference in autoISO handling while using a flash is realized. I did not write that the E-M1 only selects base ISO. When you plug in the flash it will show ISO of 200, yes. It "may" go above 200 when you actual take the flash image. However it rarely does. The way Oly works is it will only raise the autoISO when there is not enough flash power to give a "correct" exposure. After it give a full flash blast it will raise ISO if needed. It will not balance ambient light and flash like the Sony does. For example, just to be sure of things before writing my comment today, I took both cameras into my living room. Without flash the exposure was 1/30 F2.8 and ISO 2000. Add a flash to the Sony and you get ISO of 1000, basically cutting ambient light in half and the flash providing the other half for a nice 1:1 ratio. Add a flash to the Olympus and autoISO give 200, and the exif showed 200 as well. This means that the image was about 1/8 ambient light and 7/8 flash. Ugly.

Peter F. said...

Actually, Andres, I went back to my post and I believe it is completely correct as is. Auto ISO on the Olympus will provided increased ISO above 200 only if there is not enough flash power to provide "correct" exposure. This will feel completely normal for anyone coming from a film background.