Sunday, December 16, 2007

Review: Sunpak Auto 383 Super Flash

I realized recently that I never did a full review of the Sunpak Super 383 Flash. I did briefly talk about it at the beginning of my Nikon SB-20 Review but I think it deserves its own page. For convenience, I'll quote some of the (updated) information here:

Popular Shoe-Mount Flashes for Off-Camera Use

The standard for low cost off-camera flash (learn to light at Strobist!) is the used SB-24 ($70+ including S/H on eBay) or the used SB-26 ($90+ including S/H on eBay). Many have written about these, so I won't spend any time on them (especially since I've never even touched one).

But, if you want to get a new flash with manual capabilities and not spend a lot, the Sunpak 383 ($80 including shipping on Amazon) and Vivitar 285HV ($95 including shipping on Amazon) are your main options. All of these have a safe sync voltage for modern digital cameras, including the Canon 350D/Digital Rebel XT. Please note the Vivitar 285 (non-HV) does not have a safe sync voltage, so don't buy a used 285 and then get mad at me because it fried your camera!

If you have $80+ to spend and some time, get an SB-24 or SB-26 on eBay. It might take a while to find a good deal on a flash in good condition, but it is an excellent way to start.

If you have $80-$90 to spend on your first flash and you want a new one (or don't want to struggle with auctions), I say get the Sunpak 383. The Vivitar 285HV is a really close second, but the swivel option on the Sunpak 383 is worth it. The swivel option gives you a lot more flexibility with stand placement, allows ceiling bounce in portrait orientation (or wall bounce in landscape), and the ability to turn the sensor to face the subject when using an umbrella.

Both the 383 and 285HV are powerful, reliable, and can take a sync cable for off-camera flash. Be warned that the Sunpak has a proprietary sync connector (an extended 2.5mm phono jack), but I've found the standard length plugs from RadioShack work if you use a rubber band to hold the plug in. The 383 also lacks a zoom function, but I don't find that to be a big problem since any time I really want to control light spill I use a snoot.

Both flashes also work in auto mode: a photocell measures the reflected light from the subject and quenches the flash when a threshold is reached based on the aperture of the camera. This allows the flash to automatically compensate for a varying distance without depending on special circuitry in the camera. Both also have manual controls (switches) and no LCD screen, but sometimes I wonder if that is a problem or an advantage.


What brought all this up again was a desire for a third flash (to join the SB-20 and Sunpak Auto 383 Super I already have). I've been finding that it'd be really useful to have a third flash for a background light or to add more hair light or rim light. I'm still on a tight budget (arguably tighter than before!) so I want to get the best quality for the least cost. And, naturally, it makes sense to get another Sunpak or SB-20 to let me reuse light modifiers.

If cost was no issue, I'd just get a Canon 580EX II or Canon 430EX for full E-TTL II (through the lens) exposure automation. Granted, I'd probably still mostly use it off-camera in manual mode, but at least now I'd have the option to slap it on the camera and let the camera balance my bounce or fill flash.

So, that leaves me with the Sunpak 383 or SB-20. I'll probably just nab another SB-20 off eBay (approx $30 including shipping) but first I need to figure out how to reliably snoot and reduce spill on it. Sunpak 383s go for $60+ including shipping on eBay, so I'll probably just go the new route at Amazon (see eBay widget and Amazon quote below). Although I'm a bit disappointed that the Sunpak is no longer offered directly through Amazon with free shipping, the price is still $5 cheaper than B&H.

The Sunpak is currently my go-to flash. It is always the first one I grab for, and while I love the SB-20, it isn't quite as useful (but it is half the price).

Full Review:

The 383 is just a useful flash with everything you need if you like to shoot manual. It has manual settings from full to 1/16, tilts, swivels (many other flashes don't), recycles quickly, and is durable.

Swivel: In particular, the swivel option I find super useful. The ability to pop it on my light stand and face the head towards whereever I want the light yet put the controls (and/or an optical trigger) facing another direction is great. It also makes adjusting the angle of light very easy. When you tilt or swivel it it has very nice detents that hold it at the desired angle (but be careful, it won't swivel all the way around).

The main drawback of the Vivitar 285HV is the lack of a swivel. It does add a zoom, but after using the zoom on my SB-20, I'd much prefer the swivel. You can always get the zoom functionality with a silvered snoot, but you can't add a swivel!

Below you can see the flexibility of the 383 on a light stand.

Manual Mode: While the manual controls are all ... manual, I don't really miss an LCD. Everything you need is at your fingertips when you are using it. Sometimes the switches are a bit hard to trigger move, but not too bad when you get used to them. About 98% of the time I use the flash in manual mode. The controls (with the flash in manual mode) are below -- just set the left switch to M, then set the slider to your desired power. The control panel is below.

This is one area where the Vivitar 285HV might have an edge on the Sunpak because it has a variable power setting (meaning you can rotate it however you want). I'm not sure how important that would be -- I've never found myself wishing for 3/8 power or anything like that. I do wish it had a 1/32 and 1/64 setting -- often, especially balancing against ambient at close range, the 1/16 is still too powerful. My usual trick in that case is to cover the end of the flash with white copy paper to eat some light.

Auto Mode: Initially, the auto mode was a real selling point for me when I bought the flash. But now I never really use it, and I've never had much success with it. I don't know if it is just my flash (maybe the sensor is mis-calibrated) or what but it never seems to get the exposure right. It also may be that the area sensor in front of the flash (inside the green circle in the picture at the top of the page) covers too much or too little area. It does work, but it always seems to overexpose by a stop or two and doesn't do a good job deciding what to expose on.

If you're looking for an automatic exposure flash (for instance, wedding photography) don't get this flash. It's great in manual mode, works like a champ for off-camera lighting, but the automatic mode is mediocre at best and useless at worst.

Connectivity: A major annoyance of the Sunpak 383 is the proprietary 3mm phone jack for external sync. The Sunpak jack takes a plug about 5mm longer than standard mono plugs. This means the plug I picked up at Radio Shack and attached to my eBay wireless trigger doesn't stay in by itself... But, if I wrap a rubber band around it as shown below, it is super reliable and I never have missed trigger problems. FYI, the PC sync cable included with the 383 is a piece of crap and I had lots of trouble with it using an eBay PC adapter that goes in the camera hot shoe. That may be an indicator of the quality of the PC adapter, but you've been warned.

Again, 98% of the time this is how I use the 383. I've also put it on the cheap eBay optical triggers and it works like a champ, or on my camera. I've never had triggering problems with it, and it is safe for low voltage hot shoes, unlike the Vivitar 285 (non-HV).

Another part of connectivity is light modifiers, and again, I have no problem attaching snoots, gels, computer paper, macro flash adapters, etc. to the 383.


As far as I'm concerned, the Sunpak Auto 383 Super is the best deal out there for a new, powerful, and flexible off camera flash with manual settings. If you want to go used, you might be better off getting a flash with a zoom mode and more settings (like an SB-24 or SB-26) but for a new flash, the Sunpak can't be beat. Just make sure you get a shoe adapter or make yourself a custom sync cable.


Dennis D. said...

Thanks for the info. I have been thinking (struggling) about what flash to buy for off camera use. I have an old Sunpak flash that is similar to this that I originally purchased for a Nikon 6006. It has a couple of additional features like autofocus assist (no pc sync though) The trouble is it will not work on a D70 even in manual mode. Or at least I have not been able to figure out how to make it work.

I ended up buying a cheap hotshoe slave and have started experimenting with off camera flash. I was thinking of adding another flash (also for off-camera) so it is good to know that these are available and have a nearly identical interface.

I was thinking of buying a new Nikon flash for on-camera use but the only advise anyone seems to give is to buy the "expensive" one. You can't figure out the pushbotton interface on that just by looking at it.

The problem with the camera's built-in flash, is that it casts a shadow when you are using superwide and long zoom lenses.

Anyway thanks for the review.

Jonathan said...

I'm highly familiar with the Vivitar 285, inside and out, and was curious about the its Strobist arch-nemesis, the Sunpak 383. Thanks to this review, I'm now 100% set on changing over.

So thank you very much for such a thorough write-up.

One thing that I did want to correct - and in so doing swing the game further over to the 383 - is that despite the circular, rotational appearance of the Vivitar's Vari-Power module, power cannot be selected in arbitrary increments.
In fact, for some reason bizarre and unknown to me, 1/8 power is missing, so it can have 1/1, 1/2, 1/4 and 1/16 output only.

Sean said...

Thanks, Jonathan.

Yeah, I was tricked by the vari-power setting on the Vivitar. I wonder if it is possible to modify it to be continuously variable? Probably wouldn't help much anyway, and the lack of 1/8 could be annoying.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info!!

Peter said...

Thank you for this great review, I bought the flash 4 days ago from B&H. It should arrive soon. I'm excited to try it out.
One question, what exact model/company is your "eBay trigger" from?

Sean said...

Re: "What exact model/company is the flash trigger from?"

Heh, heh, that's kind of funny. While I don't have the triggers with me right now to check in depth, I'm not even sure there's a company on the cases. They're generic triggers from a company in Asia.

The four channel models I have are marked RD604 (that's the receiver, the transmitters are RF604). The same company/supplier also makes RD616 and RF616 (a 16 channel model). From what I've heard, you can't mix and match 604s and 616s.

I've been quite happy with mine after doing a few modifications (including the antenna mod). Or, to put it another way, you tolerate an occasional glitch for the price of the things!

Sean said...

Oh, forgot to mention: to find them on eBay, just search RD604 or RD616. I've used the seller magic_trigger in the past.