I've been playing with macro photography for quite some time now and I've lingered for a ring light for ages. Canon's flashes (using plural as I refer to both MR-14EX but also MT-24EX which is not ring in shape but still targeted to macro work) were too expensive and no name solutions were too.. no name (to be read: absurdly cheap in price and design, lacking functionality and so on).
Lucky me, an awesome deal passed by my ears a few days ago and now I have it before my eyes. What I'm talking about? The new Nissin MF18 Macro Ring Flash. It's supposed to directly compete with the Canon MR-14EX II or not so directly with the Nikon R1C1.
First things first.. the box! Besides the usual card board box, there is a nice.. fabric like box inside. Don't know how to put it better into words but it's a neat thing that adds a nice touch to it, pretty handy when it comes to storing photo gear as the box is quite big and once you remove the foam there's room for a lot more stuff in it. I could easily throw inside the MF18, an 580EX II flash, 50mm f/1.4 and 18-55 IS version and still have room for lens adapters, flash diffuser and other small stuff.
The build quality of the flash is quite high, I don't know what I can whine about. It's black mate plastic, thick, with no sounds of cracking when pressed or that feeling of cheep in your hands. The lens adapters are probably anodized aluminum, also great quality. It does have a metal hot shoe but I would have also liked the fancy lever locking mechanism found on 580EX II. After power up I did notice that hissing sound which I thought was only common to old time flash units. From what I found out it's a normal operation sound and I hope it won't be a problem in the long run.
The connectors cover is rubber. Beneath it there's the USB plug, a decent quality PC Sync and a power pack plug. What's nice is that the plug is compatible with Canon's system so you don't have to worry with different power packs for different systems.
The LCD is.. square.. so the info on the display can rotate to 90 degrees either way if you shoot portrait. Not such a big deal but nice to have. The refresh rate isn't spectacular at power up or screen changes but it doesn't have to be. Commands processing isn't an issue anyway and runs smoothly, I even like it more than the Canon system with lots of buttons and "fixed" screen. You can even lock the keyboard after doing your settings, another not such a big deal but nice to have feature.
Flash has a energy saving double power off feature. What does that mean? Well.. on one hand it can turn off the back light of the LCD after 5s or it can put the flash in stand by mode after a preset time. It's a little tricky but easy to figure out how this work. So.. after the last user input (either a shot taken or keyboard activity), once the 5s passed, the LCD's back light turns off, just the back light as you can still see the info on the display if you squint enough. At this point the unit is still working in the background as you can see from the pilot lamp which is still lit green. After the preset time passes, the display turns off, the internal supply stops and the flash is in stand by mode. The pilot lamp blinks green. Once activity is resumed (either a shot taken or keyboard activity), the unit wakes up from stand by but not from back light power save. In order to do that you need another keyboard activity.
The cable connecting the main unit with the light head is thick and solid with reinforcements at both sides. I don't have any worries about twisting it to much or breaking it. The light head has two positions with the flash tubes closer or further apart . To get an idea, it turns from 67/120mm to 73/134mm, diameters of the inside and outside of the light head when no lens adapter is used. When used on the "small hole", the inner shape is more like a rounded rectangle. The modeling LEDs are only helpful when shooting wide open, if stopping a lens down to f16 lets say then things get too dark to handle without extra light. I'm talking here about cases when using manual aperture lenses or reversed lenses where you can't focus wide open and stop down just for the actual exposure. It would have been awesome to have maybe just two LEDs if not four, but the high power type with at least 3 light levels. One major problem with this flash has to do with these modeling lights, when using tube ratios other than 1:1, the modeling lights change their intensity accordingly as stated in the manual. The problem is that this change in intensity is done by a PWM mechanism that has a too low frequency, so low that the dimmed light flickers.
The cool USB feature is pretty much useless so far as Nissin didn't release any firmware upgrades nor do they document it a lot. From what I found so far, my unit came with firmware version 09.01.02.01. From the firmware menu entry you can enter in USB Update Mode. Once connected to the computer, Windows detected an ATm32U4 DFU V1.0.2 device but couldn't install the driver for it. That device code does point out an ATMEGA chip lurking in this flash which makes this unit very hacker friendly.
After using the flash, there's only one thing bothering me. As stated in the manual, "the modeling LED lamps brightness reflects flash power ratio setting of side A and B; therefore, the desired effect can be previewed". The problem is that the method used for brightness control is PWM modulation from what I can tell at a too low frequency, thus resulting a bothering flicker on the lower brightness lamp. If this cannot be fixed in with a firmware update, then at least it would be super useful to be able to disable this power ratio preview feature through a setting in the menu. The modeling lamps are needed most for focus help so the flicker is quite annoying.
Product and demo pictures at http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.345249542187137.85060.104050826307011&type=1