Working With Olympus FL-600R Flashes
I’ve had two of these small, but fully functional FL-600R flashes pretty much since I started shooting with Olympus full time and have done a fair amount of work with them, including small product photography and portraiture as well as some event coverage. To follow is a basic overview of how the flashes work and also how I use them.
After previously using a couple of Nikon SB-800 and SB-900 speedlights, getting these little things was quite a shock. They are minute compared to standard speedlights from Nikon and Canon. One of them is probably about half (or less) the size of an SB-900. However, in spite of their diminutive size, they offer much the same functionality of the Nikon CLS system.
The heads zoom according to the focal length of the lens you are using, they tilt and swivel too, allowing for bounce flash, plus there is also a wide angle diffraction panel built in along with a very small white bounce card (too small to be meaningful).
On the back of the unit is an LCD panel showing the various settings. This also has a backlight, but it needs to be activated manually - it doesn’t turn on when the flash is activated by the camera, which I think is something they should fix in firmware. There is a rotating selector wheel with directional key pad built in.
The units come in a nice nylon case and included is a plastic stand for remote use. Missing is a clip on diffuser. I’m not sure if you can buy one to fit these small units. Maybe somebody in China is making them?
The one feature that this flash has which I haven’t encountered on any other portable unit is a built in LED for video. It can be set up to shine at various strengths from 1/1 down to 1/16 of its power. I can tell you that if you have this thing set to shine at 1/1 you are going to blind people. It’s very bright!
The flash has several modes you can set it to:
A mode - auto mode operates much the same as it does on any other portable flash unit. The sensor in the front of the unit reads how much light is being reflected back to it from the subject and when it thinks it has pushed out enough power it cuts itself off. It works pretty well with the OM-D cameras and provided you have it properly set up on your Super Control Panel (as fill-in flash, not Auto) you should get a decent exposure for snapshot type photos.
M mode - the FL-600R has full manual mode which is good news for any strobist. You can adjust the power from 1/1 all the way down to 1/128.
FP-TTL A mode - like most advanced flash units this one has the FP mode, which lets you sync flash up to the maximum shutter speed of the camera (1/8000s in the case of the OM-D range). This mode also passes full control of flash output to the camera, hence the TTL.
TTL - A mode - as per above, except that you are now limiting the flash to the max sync speed of the OM-D.
FP - M mode - full manual control but with the ability to sync at any shutter speed.
RC mode - remote control mode lets you set up the flash so that it is completely controlled by the camera when it is standing free. This is the equivalent of Nikon’s CLS mode where you can have several flashes working in three different groups. I’ll go into more detail on this later in the article.
SL - A mode - this is the slave mode combined with A mode (mentioned above). Not to be confused with RC mode, slave mode is where the unit waits to receive an optical trigger from any other flash unit and then pumps out light based on what it gets back from the sensor in the front of the unit.
SL- M mode - this is your quintessential “strobist” mode where the flash uses its built int optical slave and lets the photographer decide how much power it should dump out with each burst. Nikon users will know this as SU-4 mode on their speedlights.
Flash compensation is possible either from the camera or manually from the flash unit. This has a pretty wide range going from -5.0 all the way up to +5.0 stops.
The zoom can be set to change automatically or manually from 12mm up to 42mm.
The LED light can be set up to come on automatically to assist with auto focus acquisition in low light, or you can toggle it on or off manually. It’s also possible to set the strength of the light in the custom functions of the FL-600R.
Just on the LED settings; it can be very confusing to set this up to operate as an AF assist light because you have to co-ordinate settings on both the speedlight and the camera. Buried deep in the Olympus menu labyrinth is a setting for AF Illuminat. You have to set this to on. Then you have to go into the FL-600R’s custom settings by holding down the OK button for 2 seconds, find the setting that reads ILL and make sure that says A. Then, once you have done those two things you need to adjust the LED settings on the back panel of the flash to the A setting too. Only then will it automatically shine the LED to assist with auto focus.
And before you do this you really need to make sure that you have turned the power of the LED down to a reasonable level otherwise your subjects are going to be squinting horribly at you. Trust me on this - it’s not pretty! It’s a better idea to use the orange AF assist light of the OM-D than this thing, although that may also frustrate you as it can be distracting. I suppose once you are used to changing these settings in their respective places it isn’t as complicated as it sounds, but I have switched this “feature” off and set the flash to manually turn the LED light on or off. I find that at a lower power setting this is far less distracting to a subject and also provides enough illumination when you’re in a dark room. The downside is that when you turn it on what you’re doing suddenly becomes the centre of attention, just like shining a spotlight on a stage.
Working With On Camera Flash
The FL-600R compliments the OM-D cameras quite nicely. It’s well balanced and once you have decided which mode you want to use, you can get good results on a consistent basis. It’s getting to the comfort level of operation that takes a bit of getting used to. As with anything, practise makes perfect.
Regular readers will know that I was a huge fan of Nikon’s iTTL metering with SB speedlights. Put one of the SB units onto any Nikon camera, stick it in iTTL and your results are going to be spot on, 99% of the time, which takes the stress out of using on-camera flash completely. While the Olympus FL-600R also offers through the lens (TTL-A) metering the results are nowhere near as consistently good as Nikon’s. I find that the exposures in TTL A mode are usually under exposed by at least a stop and they also don’t respond well to bounced flash. I get widely varying results in this mode.
If I am shooting events I opt for M mode and using a bounce card attached to the flash I shoot in full manual mode, using a shutter speed and ISO rating that will allow ambient light to bleed in at a wide(ish) aperture. I’ll set the flash to a power setting that feels right and then I will adjust aperture until I am happy with the balance between subject and the ambient. It’s a little more primitive than using TTL mode, but once you get the hang of it you will feel a lot more like a real photographer. If I’m in a rush and I don’t have time to do any tests I will most likely use A mode with a bounce card and this works fairly well too.
Above is an example of using manual flash settings in manual mode on the camera. Below is an example of using A mode where shutter speed was slowed and ISO boosted to allow more ambient in. Click to enlarge.
Working With Off Camera Flash
Using the FL-600R off camera is where the home strobist will begin to enjoy the flexibility of these little flashes. As with the Nikon CLS system it is possible to set up an unlimited number of flash units that can be controlled from the camera in three groups, A, B & C on a common channel. From the camera you can use the little clip on flashes that come with the OM-D (or the pop-up in the case of E-M10 and certain PEN models) to act as the commander for the FL-600R. Or you can use another FL-600R as a commander.
Each group can be set to fire in any of the TTL, Auto, Manual or FP modes (TTL and M), so you can have a mix of these modes in different groups. For example, if I have a couple of the FL-600R’s on a white background I can set those to be in group A and have them firing in manual mode to keep the power on the background constant. Then I could have another FL-600R set to Auto or TTL mode on my subject in group B or C. The advantage of this is that I can control all the flashes from the Super Control Panel on the OM-D as well as adjust power settings for each group. It’s very cool.
The image below is an example of the outcome of such a set up but using only one FL-600R for the background and another for the subject. Click to enlarge.
From a practical stance this setup works quite well indoors in a smallish studio, but in larger environs or outdoors you may battle to get the remote flashes to see the commander pulses as the sensor is in the front of the unit. A workaround is to swivel the heads all the way around so that the sensor is facing the commander. This works fine in TTL and manual modes but will confuse the A mode as the flash will not be getting the proper bounce back from the subject that it uses to determine when to stop sending out power.
Before I invested in a couple of sets of studio strobes I used the two little FL-600R units to produce my usual run-off-the-mill 2 light small product photography setup. If I want to do a very quick basic setup I still use the Olympus flashes in a small light tent cube I have and I am quite happy with the results using manual mode in remote control. It saves me having to set up the big lights with all the stands and softboxes, etc.
Above we see a single FL-600R used to illuminate the edge of the knife. Below a second FL-600R is added to produce the main key light. Click to enlarge.
Slave mode is different to the RC mode in that you are effectively turning the FL-600R into a dumb unit that fires only in A or M modes and is triggered whenever it sees another flash. This means it can be used in conjunction with any other kind of flash units that are firing simultaneously. Strobist stuff. I sometimes use them on clamps with spigots for setups where I might need another light attached to a part of the set that doesn’t allow for a light stand to be set up. They work well like this.
Above shot shows how I sometimes use an FL-600R to light a white background (or other things) for product photos.
The problems that present themselves with small flashes come down to power. These units are fine for general snapshot type, on-camera photography, but if you are looking to light up an entire room with a single flash you’re going to have to push your ISO up or invest in a fair number of these units to make it all work. Price might be an issue with that idea as these sell for $300 each. Sure, while these units are a bit cheaper than the Nikon and Canon flashes that offer the same degree of flexibility, they are more expensive than equally capable Chinese brand flashes such as the Yongnuo’s. Granted those units will only work in manual mode and don’t offer the RC mode but therein lies most of the fun in strobism - manual mode.
The only thing that these FL-600R units don’t offer is a sync port, so attaching radio triggers that only offer cable connectivity to remote units for outdoor use means you will have to invest in a hot-shoe adapter that has a sync port built in.
Recycle time is pretty good. I use the GP Recycko AA cells in mine and unless I have forgotten to charge them up before a shoot, I get good recycle times. If you have an older Olympus E-series camera you will be happy to learn that this flash is fully compatible with those cameras too. I used it on both the E-3 and E-30 when I had them.
Improvements I would like to see are a simpler interface with the camera and also easier controls to use on the flash itself. The custom settings don’t make a lot of sense unless you have them memorised. Olympus could also provide a much better user manual for such a complex device. Another thing that could be improved is to provide some kind of audible sound to show that the light has recycled when it is off camera. In remote mode the LED blinks when the flash is ready to fire, but this can be distracting so I would prefer to have a beep (that can also be turned off when it isn’t wanted).
As mentioned at the start of this article, the FL-600R compliments the OM-D range quite nicely and gives you a lot of flexibility to get creative with bounce flash and also off-camera flash. They are very small and light so they don’t take up a lot of space in a camera bag either. If you have an OM-D and are looking for something better than the clip on flash (or pop-up in the case of the E-M10) this FL-600R should suit your needs very well. It may take a little getting used to, but once you have the hang of it you wil be able to use it quite creatively. All in all these units show that the Olympus micro four thirds system is very well fleshed out and mature. There is little you can't accomplish with it.