Sony HVL-F42AM External Flash Review – Lot of Money And Hassle For Not Much

by Mike Holman

Warning – this post is very long and most of it has very little to do with my Sony external flash.  If you want to just read the low down then skip to the Sony external flash review.

Last year we bought our first DLSR camera – the Sony A350 which is a pretty good camera.  It wasn’t cheap but it takes great photos and is super fast which was a key criteria since one of the main motivations for buying it was to take pictures of our very active kids.  A friend of mine has a similar type of camera which he had bought about year before I bought my Sony A350.  One of the things he told me was to buy an external flash since he found it made a huge difference in the quality of photos.  I was ok with the photos we were getting so I didn’t bother with the external flash at first, but last fall I started thinking about it and ended up pulling the trigger on a Sony HVL-F42AM external flash.

How and where I bought the flash

First of all – I’m not a really shop-around kind of guy.  For some reason I like to think that the electronic markets are relatively efficient so it shouldn’t really matter where you buy your electronic product since the prices shouldn’t vary all that much.  In reality that is not the case.

I ended up buying the flash from an American company called Click 4 Digital which is basically an electronics wholesaler.   They had the cheapest price I could find at $229 US.  This seemed pretty good considering the other companies I looked at were all about $299.  Future Shop here in Canada was the only place I found the identical item and it was $385 there ($435 including tax).  Even with the exchange I was saving about $205 compared to Future Shop.

I can’t complain about the price but it turns out that they charge $50 US to deliver to Canada (they phone to tell me this).  Ok, so now the saving is only $150 which is still pretty good.  However, the guy on the phone pointed out that I needed batteries for the flash and said they had some rechargeables – either $49 or $69 for the extra-long-life rechargeable batteries and recharger.  I opted to go with the $69 batteries – this cost didn’t affect the savings from buying in the US however it did add to the price of the flash.  Instead of the $230 price tag I was comfortable with – I was now looking at $229 + $50 (delivery) + $69 (batteries) = $348 US which is about $370 Cdn.  Had I known it would cost this much I would have done a lot more thinking about whether to purchase or not.

I later on looked up the rechargeable batteries and recharger and it turns out that Amazon has the same recharger for $14  (I paid $70).  That should teach me to do an “add on” over the phone.  I assumed since the flash was cheap that everything else was cheap too!  I was sitting at my computer when he phoned so I could have easily looked it up.

The UPS ground delivery

I’ve heard before that UPS ground should be avoided at all cost when receiving a package from the US and I wasn’t disappointed.  UPS left a notice in my mailbox saying they tried to deliver the package and would try again the next day.  There was also a $41 COD (cash on delivery) charge which is why they wouldn’t just leave the package.  Needless to say I wasn’t pleased with the $41 charge which now meant my (not very expensive) external flash was up to $390 which is more than you would have to pay for my Canon 200sx (awesome) camera.  The other problem was getting the delivery – the next day the same thing happened where they tried to deliver but nobody was home so another notice.  I checked the UPS website to see if I could just arrange to pick it up somewhere but it didn’t look like I could do that.  Normally my wife is home during the day but for some reason she wasn’t there for those delivery times.  On the UPS website it indicated that after three attempts the package would be sent back to the company.  Needless to say I didn’t want this to happen since I’d probably be looking at a whole pile of new delivery and custom charges.

I phoned a local UPS store and he told me I could just leave a note on the door with instructions to deliver to the UPS store and then I could pick it up at the UPS store later on.  The only catch was that because money was owed, I had to pay the money to the UPS store first before they would accept the delivery.  So the next morning my wife went to the UPS store – gave them $41 on a credit card to make sure we could get the damn thing delivered.  As luck would have it, my wife was home to accept the delivery so we ended up cancelling the $41 we paid to the UPS store – but it was still a big hassle!  Avoid UPS ground delivery if you can.

The Sony external flash review

Now that I’ve finished the exciting story of how I purchased the flash – maybe it’s time to actually give an actual review.  To put it simply, I was quite underwhelmed.  I had expected great things from this flash – as my friend had put it – his flash made a difference like “night and day”.  My flash didn’t make that difference for the shots I like to take.  Most of our shots are in our house or outside in good light.  Either situation means that the external flash doesn’t usually add much to the picture and in fact often made the indoor shots look worse because it put more light behind the subject.

The Sony flash works very well – it can literally light up a room and is quite impressive in that respect.  The problem is that for the photos I like to take, it just doesn’t add much.  In fact sometimes it makes photos look a lot worse.  It’s the right tool for someone else’s job.   Part of the problem might be my lack of expertise – perhaps a more advance photography nut could make better use of it.  I did a number of tests to see if it was helping my photos and it appeared that the only time it really was making  a difference was in poorly lit rooms.  If I turned the dimmer lights most of the way down in our kitchen for example then the picture with the external flash was far superior to the picture taken with the normal flash.  This proves the flash works but why would I take a picture in my kitchen with the lights down so low?  Maybe if there was a burglar having a snack and I wanted to get photographic evidence? I also  suspect the flash would also work fairly well if you are taking pictures outside at night but this is not something I normally do.

Another thing I figured out was that the flash worked quite well when taking pictures of certain objects but not others.  People pictures (which is all we take inside) did not do very well with the flash, in fact using the flash often made the picture look worse.  For some photographers this flash would probably be a great tool but for us, it just doesn’t do the trick.

Here are some test pictures which show the good and bad sides of the external flash

This is with the normal flash. The lights are turned down quite a bit so it is a bit dark.

This picture is with the external flash. There is more light but because some of it is coming from above, it can create more shadows. This is quite obvious with human subjects. Lots of extra shadows.

Why did my friend like his flash so much?

I have a couple of theories as to why my friend liked his flash and why some people would benefit from an external flash.

  • The built-in flash on your camera is crap.  If this is the case then adding an external flash might make a huge improvement.  Buying a better camera might also make an improvement.
  • You like taking pictures in poor lighting.  I’m sure there are lots of times this would come in handy but I haven’t encountered them myself other than then on the odd power outage.  I imagine there are a lot of professions who could use this flash such as insurance adjusters, accident/forsenic investigations, stripper scouts, ghost busters, anything to do with vampires etc.

What to do with my flash?

The reality is that we don’t use the flash. It’s a bit of a hassle and most pictures don’t look any better with it.  If I could do it again, I would have preferred to not buy it or have bought a local option so that I could return it.  I may try to sell it and see what I can get.  I’m thinking that if I can get at least $200 then selling it is probably the best choice.  I’d rather sell for say $300 (and a $100 loss) and not have the flash over owning the flash and never using it and being out $400.

What do you think?

In the unlikely event anyone is still reading this incredibly long post – what should I do?  Sell for whatever I can get?  Learn how to use it properly?  Start taking pictures of cemeteries at night?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Traciatim

Stationary objects at night are far better with a good tripod and no flash, especially if you want to see things at different distances.

Instead of a stationary object like that try something moving inside like people talking in a group with someone telling a story who likes to use wavy arms. Try one with no flash, one with the on board, one with the external direct, and one with the external bounced. (you could to this with something that travels at a constant speed like a remote control car, model train, one of those magnetic statue things that wiggle back and forth forever . . .)

2 Jess Valenzuela

Hey Mike,

We were on the same boat but the good thing about me is that I have a brother who is a professional photographer who can teach me some pointers and where to buy it. He usually go Kijiji or Craiglist for any photography needs before going into an actual stores. If he can’t find it at Craiglist or Kijiji, he goes to Henry’s Outlet.

External Flash works well at night when you’re trying to take a still photos. But For the average use, you don’t use it that much.

3 Mr. Cheap

Definitely sell it, if it’s going for $435 at Future Shop, I’m sure you could get $300. Even $200 sounds like it’d be better than a flash you’re not using. With tech like this, it depreciates quickly, so sitting on it and trying to sell it in a year or two will probably lose you a lot of money.

Apparently some online discount camera stores make money by offering expensive stuff at cost, then putting the hard sell on you to buy upgrades (going so far as refusing to sell to you if you won’t buy their overprices addons). Don’t beat yourself up about buying the battery, you might have run into other problems if you hadn’t. http://news.cnet.com/2010-1071-281473.html

4 Four Pillars

Jess, I think you are right. This equipment just isn’t necessary for our use.

Mr. Cheap – great article (and scary). I only got ripped about about $50 on the batteries so not the end of the world – even with that, the flash was still cheaper than anywhere else. I think you are right about selling it quickly.

5 Sampson

Hey Mike, congrats on the new addition to the growing family ;) I think I’ve got about 4 external flashes…

One of the most difficult lessons to learn when using external flashes is that you shouldn’t be pointing it at your target. You’ll want to bounce it off a wall or use some sort of device (diffuser) that makes the light seem larger. We are normally used to looking at scenes where there are giant light sources, like the sun in the outdoors, or indoors, light is reflected off your walls, ceiling etc.

Check out these two blogs when you get a chance. There is a tonne of info on them, but I find them quite enjoyable to read.

http://strobist.blogspot.com/
http://www.planetneil.com/tangents/

Oh, and I fully concur, UPS ground sucks butt. They also charge brokerage fees, often very hefty. The problem is they are the cheapest option most the time and us frugalites are suckers from low price tags. Next time try an air shipping method. It’ll get to you faster AND no additional brokerage amounts are added.

6 Shaynepathum

Mike
I am a photography nut and have been paying more attention to indoor shots using flash lately. I have an older Canon flash model that is working fine for my use (though I would prefer more manual control than it provides). I find that it is not that hard to use it to give far superior lighting than the on board flash. So a couple of things that I find helpful; (1) Not sure if you do this since you have not mentioned but I always use bounce flash indoors to give more diffused lighting. I never ever use direct flash on people since it tends to light up faces in a very unnatural and harsh way. Your flash model if capable of bouncing (2) with bounced flash I adjust the flash intensity up or down until I get desirable,natural-looking skin tones (3) you flash has a retractable panel. Is this white? If so, use it when you are bouncing the light off the ceilings. It will throw some light forward and help eliminate some of the harsh (downward) shadows that are cast by the light bounced from the ceilings. My flash does not have any panels, so I use a rubber band to hold a square piece of white cardboard in place and it does the same thing. Since you went into all this trouble to get the flash, why not give yourself some time to test it out fully? I think you will like the results once you know what sort of settings (camera and flash) will result in better pictures. I really cannot see myself taking any indoor shots without my flash gun. I want to upgrade, but not until I have a good grasp of flash photography. One last thing, it is very difficult at first but learn to take all your pictures in camera’s full manual mode. You will end up with much better pictures, whether you use flash or not. A book that helped me immensely was “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson which should be available in your library.

7 lb71

I second the Peterson book. In fact, buy it since it will be a valuable resource you can always reference.

You need to play around with the flash more before deciding to ditch it. After some time, you’ll realize its potention. It also prevents red eye.

8 badcaleb

I agree with the others who’ve mentioned bouncing the flash. I think you need to learn to use the equipment before you give up on it. You’ve already gone through a lot to get it so keep it for awhile longer and if it still doesn’t suit your needs. The Peterson book is most excellent.

9 Photographer5

Hi Mike, I’ve got the clear answer to your problem!! :)

The key is to use a flash diffuser which is a plastic piece (super cheap) that fits over the flash. This gives a soft light with little shadows and it makes a HUGE difference. I’ve been hired to take professional photos of babies, weddings and events and I always use the diffuser.
Also note that you don’t have to always face the flash at the person, bouncing off say a wall to your right, slightly angled upwards is a good start. Each angle will give slightly different effects in lighting.

I hope you try this!

10 Photographer

Little late on this but yes, bounce the flash indoors. That flash which I also have does not have a bounce card. So point it up at the ceiling when you can. Outdoors try bouncing with a white business card attached to the top at a 45 degree angle or so with the flash pointed upwards. As previously mentioned, diffusers are great. The simple plastic cheap ones are good. I like my Gary fong diffuser but that’s a lot more. People hate it or love it, two camps. The ttl on Sony isn’t the best IMHO so consider setting the flash manually which you can only do on “m” mode of the camera. Get to know your equipment and you’ll have amazing pictures. The auto mode on entry level Sony slur cameras isn’t great but when you get comfortable with manual settings the pictures are rewarding!

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