A little flash can go a long way. Often referred to as ‘the most available light’, a flashgun can deliver much needed illumination for almost any shooting scenario, from the dead of night or dim interiors, to filling in unsightly shadows in sunny-day portraiture. But just how much flash do you need? Sony’s four flashguns are very up front about their power ratings, with the Guide numbers quoted in the titles. But how does that work out in practice?
The Gn (Guide number) represents the maximum power output of a flashgun, quoted in meters at a sensitivity setting of ISO 100. Divide the Gn by the aperture that you’re using and you’ll get the effective reach of the flashgun. Larger numbers therefore signify greater power. For example, shoot with a Gn 60 power output with a lens aperture of f/4, and you’d have an effective reach of 15m. Stop down to f/8, and the distance for the same amount of flash illumination will drop to 7.5m. In ascending order, Sony’s flashguns have power ratings of Gn 20, 32, 45 and 60.
Greater power is preferable when using a diffuser or bouncing the flash off a ceiling or wall, which can soften the quality of light. That’s good news for portraiture in particular, as softer light gives more flattering results. The most inexpensive HVL-F20M only has a rudimentary bounce mechanism which enables you to pop the head up by 75 degrees but there’s no tilt facility, so you can’t bounce the flash off the ceiling when shooting in portrait orientation. All of the more up-market models come complete with bounce and swivel facilities.
Another way of boosting power is to illuminate only the area of a scene that’s actually reproduced in the image frame. Again, the entry-level HVL-F20M has a basic push-pull mechanism which changes the beam angle to correspond with 27mm or 50mm focal lengths, in full-frame terms. The next two flashguns up the performance ladder have 24-105mm motorized zoom mechanisms that can automatically track the focal length or zoom setting of the lens in use. The range-topping HVL-F60RM has a class-leading 20-200mm motorized zoom function. Let’s take a closer look at what all the models have to offer, so you pick your ideal Sony flashgun.
• Read more: How to use flash for your photography
Best Sony flashguns in 2020
1. Sony HVL-F20M
A remarkably slim-line, pocketable flashgun
Gn (ISO 100, meters): Gn 20 | Bounce / swivel: 0/75 degrees, no swivel | Zoom range: 27/50mm (manual) | Wireless master/slave: Master IR (no slave) | Dimensions (WxL): 62x114x24mm | Weight: 105g
First the good news. The HVL-F20M makes a great travel companion, as it’s small and slim enough to fit in a spare pocket and runs on just two AAA batteries. It’s not massively powerful but can provide sufficient illumination for most eventualities, especially if you don’t mind bumping up your camera’s ISO setting a bit. It has a rudimentary bounce 0/75-degree facility but no swivel, and a similarly basic 27/50mm manual zoom mechanism. However, there’s no high-speed sync option, which limits you to the maximum shutter sync speed of your camera. This can be awkward when using the flashgun to fill in the shadows under direct sunlight, where you might prefer to use a faster shutter speed, especially if you also want to use a wide aperture to shrink the depth of field.
There are no onboard controls nor an LCD information screen, so all adjustments need to be carried out via camera menus, which can be more laborious. Back on the plus side, the flashgun can work as an infrared wireless master to trigger other Sony flashguns but, strangely, there’s no wireless slave mode.
2. Sony HVL-F32M
Affordable but sturdy and robust, with useful features
Gn (ISO 100, meters): Gn 32 | Bounce / swivel: -8-90 / 90-180 degrees | Zoom range: 24-105mm | Wireless master/slave: Master/slave IR | Dimensions (WxL): 66x119x82mm | Weight: 235g
Despite its competitive selling price, the HVL-32M shoehorns some impressive features and useful power into its diminutive yet tough, weather-sealed build. The Gn 32 power rating is significantly higher than in the entry-level HVL-F20M, despite the more up-market model still running on only two batteries. This time they’re AA instead of AAA. Along with extra power, there’s greater versatility enabled by the bounce and swivel head. Indeed, there’s -8 to 90 degrees of bounce on offer, with 90 degrees swivel to the left and a full 180 degrees to the right. Motorized zoom is also featured, with a range of 24-105mm in full-frame terms.
Other bonuses include onboard controls and an LCD status screen, so you can make quick and easy adjustments without resorting to in-camera menus. The HVL-32M also adds a high-speed sync mode, so you can shoot with flash up to and including your camera’s maximum shutter speed, albeit with reduced maximum power output. And this time, there’s slave as well as master wireless infrared connectivity.
3. Sony HVL-F45RM
High-end performance with a reasonable price tag
Gn (ISO 100, meters): Gn 45 | Bounce / swivel: -8-150 / 180-180 degrees | Zoom range: 24-105mm | Wireless master/slave: Master/slave IR/RF | Dimensions (WxL): 69x114x88mm | Weight: 317g
A properly grown-up flashgun, the HVL-F45RM is relatively chunky, runs on four AA batteries and packs some seriously high-end features. Unlike the less pricey flashguns in Sony’s range, this one has an additional LED lamp which can be useful for close-range stills and is even better suited to movie capture. It’s not overly bright, however, only supplying sufficient illumination for shooting at a distance of one meter, using a sensitivity setting of ISO 3200 and an aperture of f/5.6. Another bonus is that the LED light can supply illumination to assist autofocus in dark scenes.
There’s certainly no shortage of power from the main flash tube, which has a Gn 45 rating and a motorized zoom range of 24-105mm, plus a generous -8 to 150 degrees of bounce and full 180-degree swivel to both the left and right. Another enhancement over the lower-end Sony flashguns is that this one features RF (Radio Frequency) wireless master and slave functions as well as infrared. The RF mode boosts the connectivity range from five to 30 meters, and doesn’t require direct ‘line of sight’ between master and slave flashguns.
4. Sony HVL-F60RM
Sony’s range-topping flashgun is a bit of a beast
Gn (ISO 100, meters): Gn 60 | Bounce / swivel: -8-150 / 90-90 degrees | Zoom range: 20-200mm | Wireless master/slave: Master/slave IR/RF | Dimensions (WxL): 78x140x105mm | Weight: 449g
If you want to come all flashguns blazing, the HVL-60RM is a real quick-shooter. Even at the top of its mighty Gn 60 power scale, it has a recycle speed of just 1.7 seconds on NiMH AA batteries, accelerating to an amazing 0.6 seconds when using Sony’s optional external batter pack. As you’d expect from a range-topping flashgun, it’s not short on features either. There’s a monster 20-200mm zoom range (full-frame) and a -8 to 150-degree bounce facility. However, the unconventional swivel mechanism is less generous, limiting movement to just 90 degrees to the left and right. On the plus side, it unusually enables use of the pull-out reflector card when bouncing the flash off the ceiling in portrait orientation shooting.
Like in the HVL-F45RM, there’s both infrared and RF (Radio Frequency) connectivity, enabling master and slave linking for up to five and 30 meters respectively. And whereas an infrared link can’t ‘see’ through obstacles in its path, that’s no problem for RF. The LED constant lamp is also brighter than in the HVL-F45RM, doubling the range at ISO 3200, f/5.6 from one to two meters. Fully pro-grade build quality includes weather-seals and an optional rain cover is also available.
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