About Me

Wells, BC, Canada
Richard is a working photographer and writer in B.C. His camera focuses on natural history. archeology, travel, and documentary photography. His photography blog may be found at: http://richardtwright.blogspot.com/

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Testing the Better Beamer Flash extender - a review


The Better Beamer Flash-X-tender - projecting your flash/strobe light

Using flash in nature photography offers several advantages, from adding that elusive catch light in an animal’s eye, adding a fill-light to a shadowed subject perhaps in the canopy of trees, adding light on a grey day, increasing your depth of field with a small f-stop to increasing your shutter speed to reduce camera shake or subject movement. Usually you will try to do this with your on-camera flash, and often, depending on the camera to subject distance and the power of your flash, this will work. An example is shown here from a visit to the Reifel Refuge near Vancouver, B.C.

Without flash.

With on-camera flash.

However, you may well find that a built-in flash does not have the power you need. Unless you are very close this will likely be the case, although I have found that many of the modern built-ins are surprisingly effective. So now you add a larger output flash, like the Nikon SB series or the Canon speedlights, to the hot shoe of your camera.
Pintail with on-camera flash, SB600.

Now you can reach out further, perhaps as far as 30 feet with a flash like the Nikon SB-600 if you have zoomed the flash head to say 85mm, or 60 feet with the SB-900 (a much heavier, larger, more versatile and more expensive unit).


Black squirrel. He/she was there for seconds so not sharp, but indicates red eye.

Now you can reach out with a short telephoto and light small animals and birds. You will now get that catch light and unfortunately maybe even the dreaded red eye. However, red eye is now easily removed or altered with most basic image handling software programs such as iPhoto for Mac, and certainly Aperture 3, Lightroom or Photoshop and even with some in-camera editing systems such as on the new iPhones.

However, if you crank on a 300mm or larger you will find that the flash no long has the power or intensity you need to reach your subject. So now, finally, we get to subject of this blog.  Beyond the range of a 300mm you will need either a very powerful flash or some way of focusing the light of the flash. This could be for wildlife or for shooting sports such as rugby on a dull day.

The way to focus the light is with a fresnel lens. A fresnel is a lens design with a thinner and larger aperture than a regular plano-convex lens.  Glass fresnels are used for lighthouses, traffic lights and theatre lights, while plastic versions are pressed into RV back-up lenses, cheap hand-held magnifying glasses, and, a flash accessory.  They degrade the image but not the quantity of light.

The fresnel lens of the Better Beamer.
So to extend your flash range you want to mount a fresnel lens at a specific distance in front of your flash. This narrows and focuses the beam of light from your flash. Sounds tricky but Walt Anderson came to photographer’s rescue some years ago when he came up with what is now known as the Better Beamer Flash-X-tender.  It is an inexpensive accessory that you mount on your flash.  They are easily found online with a quick Google search on Better Beamer or Flash Extender.  You should be able to get one in the neighbourhood of $35-$40 dollars. Most larger camera stores will have them. The Better Beamer comes in five sizes depending on your flash so be sure to get the right model. Test it in the store. Be careful. I did not pay attention when I bought one in a Vancouver camera store and paid $65. Ouch!

The Better Beamer on a Nikon SB600. This also shows a DIY lens support I built
for  the 300mm plus 2x extender, more on that later. Amy Newman photo.

Should you have a long lens such as the Nikon or Canon 600m you may want to move the flash and beamer forward onto the lens with an accessory mount. In this case you will need to attach the flash to your camera hot shoe with an extension cord.
The Beamer has the effect of increasing your flash by the equivalent of about 2 f-stops, but it also reduces the flash recycling time, thus saving batteries. With the fantastic Nikon TTL flash metering system you will not need to make any exposure adjustments, unless you want something outside the range of TTL.
            The Beamer is basically two, light, pressed metal arms that Velcro to the sides of your flash and hold a fresnel lens in front of the flash, again with a Velcro fastening. Another small tab of Velcro fastens to the flash head to give more stability.
It seems a little flimsy at first glance but I found I could walk around with it attached with no problem. It quickly folds in a small flat package. The lens should be protected in a supplied envelope. The whole thing comes in a ziploc bag but it would be better to find a sturdier perhaps more rigid case for it. Stick it in your camera bag and it’s there when you need it.


A wood duck, lit with the Beamer. Not as tack sharp as I would like because I was following the
duck with the equivalent of an 850 mm lens (300mm x 2x ext on 1.5 sensor.) Richard Wright photo.


I did some rudimentary testing in Vancouver’s Lost Lagoon duck pond in Stanley Park on a cold and grey winter day and it worked well. It is good idea to try and point the fresnel lens or beamer so it focuses light where your lens is focused.  Usually this means pointing it down a little. Also, there is a slip inside the packaging warning you to set your flash head zoom (if your flash has a zoom) to the wide angle setting, and, that the beamer is only meant for lenses 300mm or longer. You can use it on shorter focal length lenses if you want an effect similar to a snoot, a cone of light that does not fill the frame.  If you use the Beamer too close, say within 20 feet, however, you may get some over exposure. And, while that 2-stop increase will get the flashes light out there further once it drops off it drops off quickly. Remember all those early lessons on light that you may have taken and the Inverse Square Law. “The intensity of illumination is proportional to the inverse square of the distance from the light source.”  Twice the distance equals ¼ the light, not ½ the light.
Goldeneye duck with Beamer. Same issues as the wood duck. Richard Wright photo

The only issue I had was that I was testing too many things at once, never a good idea. So when I had issues I was not sure if it was the tele-converter, the flash extender or something else.  However, from all I could see from my photos and the metadata files it worked well. For the price you can hardly go wrong. For the price of six coffees you can definitely get light out to the range of your 300-800mm lens. As for the tele-converter, that is another blog. Stay tuned.
CU of a Mute Swan, with all of the above equipment.
Note how the flash highlights the water drops. Richard Wright photo

"Like water off a 'swan's' back." Richard Wright photo.



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