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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