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Popping open the generic black carrying case of the Polaroid PL-190 TTL flash is an unimpressive endeavor. Not that these things ever are of course. The flash which slid smoothly out into my hand looked unremarkable as well; an LCD screen and a series of buttons below. The lens had the typical integrated bounce card and diffuser. But when I slid the sizeable flash onto the hot shoe of DSLR, the un-remarkability ended. In use, the PL-190 TTL was far more impressive.
Equipped with an 18-180mm zoom, swivel/bounce head, TTL, and wireless remote capability, and it started to look pretty comparable to the high-end flashes available from Canon and Nikon (though much, much less expensive).
As a largely Canon shooter, I’ve always been a bit disappointed by my brand’s flashes. Designed to be so closely integrated into the operating system of the camera, they can produce great results. But making swift changes to settings, power, and TTL exposures can be a slow, button-pushing, menu-searching process. Then, of course, there is the cost of the Canon flashes. The higher end can run close to $500, which is almost five times the cost of the Polaroid PL-190 TTL flash, which I held in my hand.
In part due to the fiddly nature of Canon flashes, I’ve often defaulted to using basic, inexpensive, manual control lights. Plus I can buy two, three, or even four for the price of a Canon 600EX. So I was excited about this new offering. The specs of the Polaroid PL-190 TTL flash are similar to that of Canon’s high-end ones (the Speedlite 600EX II-RT), though perhaps not quite as capable, and as a third party offering, the integration with my standard operating system is not quite as smooth. This flash is capable of TTL, but also easily adjustable through manual power settings. Basically, the flash seemed like a great compromise, and much more affordable.
In using the flash, that pleasure continued. Frankly, I love this thing and didn’t want to return the demo I’d received on loan from Polaroid.
The controls on the back are simple, a pleasant change from the various wheels and menus required to Canon’s 580ex. It’s powerful too, lighting up distant objects even under fairly bright conditions. The zoom capability, which was automated, to correspond with the focal length of the camera’s lens reached to nearly 200mm, throwing a light cone that worked nicely with my 70-200mm (one of my favorite lenses).
Since the TTL functionality worked well with my camera, I could take advantage of that one shot then quickly switch over to full manual functionality the next. I could zoom manually as well, allowing me to focus the beam narrowly while shooting with a wide angle lens on the camera, highlighting a single portion of a much larger frame.
Now I want to note, that since I was primarily interested in the basic functionality and usability of this flash, I tried it only briefly off-camera, making a few images of flowers. Off-camera, I used the manual settings. As I noted earlier, the simple adjustment of power makes this a breeze. With a simple radio trigger on board, I was set to go. The Polaroid PL-190 TTL flash does have wireless slave capability and although I did not test this, given the smooth operation of the flash in general, I’m sure this too would work well.
In short, I think the Polaroid PL-190 TTL flash is a great lighting tool. It worked flawlessly in the brutal cold of an Alaska winter day when I played with it outdoors, and it has easy to use controls with some helpful camera integration. In fact, I liked its simplicity and ease of use so much that as my Canon 580ex ages, this Polaroid flash may be the replacement. With a $109 price tag (at major online retailers) I can buy four with change for the price of one Canon 600ex. Guess that means I can quadruple my creative lighting options…now, where did I leave my credit card?