The FL-36 Flash Unit from Olympus

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System...

...or to to the C-5050Z, C-5060WZ, and C-7070WZ

...or to the Olympus E-10 and E-20 cameras


This article will be of interest to owners and users of Olympus E-1, E-300, E-500, E-10, E-20, C-5050Z, C-5060WZ, C-7070WZ, and C-8080Z cameras, with which the FL-36 is fully compatible. The flash may work also with some other Olympus models with partial or full compatibility, but I haven't verified that.


The FL-36 and its big brother, FL-50 from Olympus, are the only two flash units on the market supporting a full TTL automation with the Four Thirds E-System cameras on one hand, and offering a bounce/tilt capability on the other. Some flashes from other makers (in particular, Metz and Promaster) come close, but not all the way.

Before I go info details on the FL-36, let me briefly list the alternatives from Olympus:

  • The older FL-40 does not provide the TTL (through the lens) coupling with the E-300 and E-500 internals: you can use it only in the "Auto" mode, with the camera set to manual and the flash itself determining the light output. (The exposure accuracy is still good, though.)

    I am surprised why; the FL-40 should be capable of full TTL automation, except for the high-speed synch, and it works in TTL auto with the E-1! Omitting the support for that flash in the E-300 and E-500 is a questionable decision by Olympus.

  • The tiny, simple FL-20 integrates well with E-System cameras, but it provides much less of a light output and, obviously, does not tilt or bounce.
  • The FL-50 offers very good specs, but it sells at $400 or so — not quite your lunch money. Therefore the FL-36, at $200 seems to provide just the right combination of performance and price for most of the E-System users.

First impressions

Originally, I ordered an FL-36 for a friend from my usual source, B&H in New York City. After having tried it out, I bought another one for myself.

Right out of the box, within the first five minutes I knew I really like this unit, to say the least. Mounting in on a camera and trying its features only reinforced this first impression.

The quality of make, look and feel is as I've grown to expect from Olympus: flawless (if not posh). The controls are well-laid, with the amount of user control and preference setting being most impressive. The only thing I found not quite to my liking is the on/off button, requiring a hard press, and without a tactile feedback — but this is a relatively minor gripe.

I find it hard not to like this little sucker. It looks like this time the Olympus engineers did everything right — a rare statement, if you have read my other equipment reviews.

My more extensive experience with the FL-36 just confirmed the first impression. Details follow below.


(Promotional photo by Olympus)

Size and weight

The FL-36 is quite small — very small for the functionality it offers. Its dimensions (with the head straightened up at 75° bounce angle, as it is most portable in this position) are 150x64x50 mm. These are my approximate measurements; Olympus quotes 108x67x95 mm, which must refer to the unit in the bent position (head facing straight; that's not how you put the unit in your camera bag).

The net weight is about 210 g; expect the batteries add 50g or so to that value.

In general, I found the FL-36 fit nicely into a small-sized camera bag. After having tried six or so different options, I'm using the excellent Tenba Traveler P506 to carry a small E-300 outfit consisting of the camera itself, the bundled 14-45 mm zoom, and the Sigma 55-200 mm or ZD 40-155 mm telephoto. The FL-36 has its own compartment in this arrangement, and when I carry a backup C-5060WZ in the same bag (or if I add another lens), the flash fits into the side pocket, albeit without the padded-walls protection.

Mounting on the camera

The flash is mounted with a dedicated, four-pin Olympus digital hot shoe, which, in addition to the providing the triggering, is used for information interchange between the unit and a camera.

Once slid into place, it is secured with a threaded lock ring; a typical solution.

The unit's body leans forward over the lens. This reduces the possibility of the lens casting a shadow into the camera's field of view; no such effect was observed on the E-1 and E-300 with their "standard" zooms at the focal length of 14 mm (EFL=28 mm) and lens hoods in place.

On the E-300 the FL-36 leaves just enough room for the built-in flash to be raised and used as a fill light. (On the E-10/E-20 the camera's flash is moved forward, so it also can be raised and used.) Unfortunately, this is not an option on the E-500: the built-in flash will not raise at all, being bechanically obstructed. Too bad.

Bounce and tilt

The flash head can pivot vertically providing a tilt angle between -7° and 90° (straight up), with intermediate position at 0°, 45°, 60° and 70°. The position is locked, a side button has to be pressed in order to change it.

The negative angle is supposed to compensate for the flash-to-lens parallax, significant at working distances below one meter or so.

The tilt is also locked with a button (this time on the unit back, just below the head), and allows angles up to 90° to the right and up to 180° (straight back) to the left.

Directing the head upwards or tilting it disables the flash head zoom feature as described in the next section, which makes perfect sense.

Head zoom

If the angle of the beam of light produced by a flash is larger than that of the taking lens, some (often most) of the light output is wasted on illuminating objects outside of the image. Therefore it is handy to have a way to adjust the output angle to your focal length (with a proper margin, of course). This is usually done by means of a Fresnel lens placed in front of the flash burner; varying the distance between both adjusts the angle.

The feature is implemented in the FL-36 in an exemplary fashion. When working with all supported cameras (see Compatibility), the flash gets the lens angle information from the camera and adjusts its own angle appropriately with means of an internal motor. The user may override this with use of a dedicated button on the flash unit, and set the coverage by hand.

As soon as the flash is bounced or swiveled (i.e., no longer facing forward, except for the -7° tilt), the head zooming is disabled and the unit reverts to the default bounce setting of 50 mm EFL.

The corresponding focal length is shown on the FL-36 display. The user can set this to be shown in terms of the Four Thirds system focal length (actual FL on the E-1, E-300, and E-500), or in terms of the 35-mm film camera equivalent focal length. (The latter option comes handy on non-4/3 cameras, as the C-series.)

The widest coverage (without use of the diffuser, read on) corresponds to the EFL of 24 mm (the actual 4/3 FL of 12 mm), which is slightly wider than the short end of both Olympus "standard" zoom lenses. This is better than for most flashes I've used which provide the wide angle corresponding to 35 mm EFL. The narrowest one is 85 mm EFL (42 mm in 4/3 terms), just a tad wider than the long end of the "standard" zooms. The adjustment is performed in six discrete steps, an improvement from the FL-40 which had just two positions.

Wide-angle panel

Many flashes offer a wide-angle diffusion panel; when attached to the flash head it is supposed to provide a wider coverage than the flash head alone. Usually this is a 25-cent worth piece of semi-translucent plastic, which gets the job done, but can be easily misplaced (I never remembered to carry mine along).

In FL-36 Olympus improved upon the idea by having the diffuser built in, hinged and hidden in a tiny slot above the burner. Interestingly, the diffuser covers only the central 50% of the flash head (which actually may make sense not just because of purely mechanical reasons).

This not just a matter of convenience (which already would have been an improvement); the unit actually senses the panel being deployed and adjusts all relevant displays and functionality accordingly.

With the panel in place, the flash coverage can be set to 16 or 20 mm EFL (8 or 10 mm in 4/3 terms), with the display showing these values as needed. This is not an essential feature, but a neat one anyway.

Guide number and range

The guide number (GN) for a given flash unit is the maximum value of the product of the aperture setting (F-number) and shooting distance for which the flash provides enough of a light output. It is usually defined for ISO 100, and the value increases as square root of the ISO setting. For example, at ISO 200 the GN is 1.41× higher, while for ISO 400 it doubles. Obviously, the GN may be expressed in meters or feet (having lived in the U.S. for the last twenty years I am surprised we don't do it in rods; after all, we measure wheat in bushels and oil in barrels).

The GN is strictly related to the unit energy output (to which some people refer as "power", wrong! did you take any physics in high school?). Actually, a flash with GN twice as large provides four times the output; this is a square dependency.

Because the light output (total energy) is directed within a beam of a varying angle, depending on the head zoom setting, the GN will depend on that angle. To compare two units it is best to compare the numbers at the 50 mm EFL. At this setting, and ISO 100, the FL-36 guide number is 28 m. This is a respectable value: about six times the energy output of the built-in flash in the E-300 (GN 11), twice that of the FL-20 (GN 20), and about half of the FL-50 (GN 40).

Actually, Olympus flash names are derived from ISO 100 metric guide number values for the narrowest angle on a given unit: for EFL of 85 mm FL-36 has the GN of 36 m, while FL-50 — 50 m; FL-20 and FL-40 follow the same rule.

Here is a table of the GN values for different head settings, quoted from the FL-36 Instruction Manual:

Focal length, mm 8 10 12 14 17 25 35 42
GN, m @ ISO 100 12 14 20 22 26 28 32 36
Max. distance at F/4, m 3 3.5 5 5.5 6.5 7 8 9

(The first two settings use the diffusion panel.) Keep in mind, that the focal length here reflectd the zoom head position, not necessarily the FL of the lens being used. It just so happens that when this flash is used with compatible cameras, both are the same.

The minimum shooting distance in all cases is about 0.5 m.

Integration with Olympus cameras

The FL-36 can communicate with all hot-shoe-equipped Olympus cameras (digital, that is) I tried it with. These were: E-10, E-20, C-5050Z, C-5060WZ, C-8080Z, C-7070WZ, and any Four Thirds models ranging from E-1 to E-620. I am convinced it will also work with some others I haven't tried it with (please do not ask me for details on these, as I cannot provide any).

This indicates that the data interchange protocol used in the FL-36 and FL-50 is a superset of that used in the older FL-40, as the latter flash will not communicate properly with the E-300 or later SLR models.

Full compatibility with the older '5050 and '5060 is a welcome news. These cameras, although no longer in production, are still enjoyed by many photographers, and the FL-36 is an excellent option with these cameras, and when the camera is replaced with a newer model, the flash is still usable — as long as the new model is also from the Olympus stable.

From the onset of the digital era Olympus was an act to match for other manufacturers, regarding their flash/camera integration. Although some of the other makers in recent years improved their flash systems considerably, with the new system Olympus raises the bar again.

Shortly speaking: plug the flash into the camera's hot shoe (or use dedicated flash bracket), and both work as one whole, sensing and reflecting each other's settings. In most cases the system also protects you from some trivial errors, although if you really try hard, you still can do something stupid.

  • Exposure automation. This works in the most transparent fashion, depending on the camera's auto exposure mode used: program, aperture/shutter, or manual. The system may override your decision here; for example, if the flash is set to a non-FP mode (i.e., not using the multi-burst mode), the shutter speed cannot be set to anything faster than 1/160 s.
  • Head zoom: adjusted as needed along with the camera's zoom lens, just fine.
  • Power on/off: The flash enters a power-saving sleep mode when the camera is turned off, wakes up when the camera is turned on again within a certain time (fifteen minutes? I was too lazy to check how long exactly the timeout is).
  • Status display light: On cameras with top LCD display which can be illuminated (E-10/20, E-1), activating the illumination on the camera also does the same on the flash. Small but neat.
  • Autofocus assist: The unit has focus-assist light, providing some detail for the cameras which need it (read: E-300); see a separate section below.

All in all, it is difficult to think of anything missing in this scheme of integration.

Older Olympus models

With some of those the FL-36 will switch to the (non-TTL) Auto mode, using its own light sensor for exposure information, but still receiving the ISO and aperture information from the camera. I'm not sure which cameras support this mode of operation, so don't ask me.

Exposure automation modes

Switching between these is done by pressing the dedicated button on the unit back. The following modes are available (some will not be accessible with cameras other than E-1 or E-300):

  • TTL Auto: Full integration with the camera in program, aperture/shutter priority, or manual mode. The camera circuitry defines the settings and flash light output.

    (Yes, the TTL Auto will still adjust the flash output to provide the right exposure even if the camera is in manual, i.e., both aperture and shutter speed are set by the user.)

  • FP TTL Auto: the same as above, but allows for focal-plane shutter synchronization at speeds higher than 1/160 s (hence "FP"). At such speeds there is not a single time instant when the whole focal plane is exposed to the light (you know how a focal-plane shutter works, don't you?), therefore the flash provides a series of short light pulses covering the whole time when the shutter slit travels along the "film plane". In my estimates, at least 200 such bursts are needed to provide a uniform exposure of the whole image; this boiled down to a lower effective illumination (lower guide number), greater energy use, and more heat dissipation in the unit.

    The FP (high-speed) synchronization is actually needed only when you use flash with a high shutter speed; this is typically when providing fill-in flash in strong ambient light with fast-moving subjects. (When the ambient light is low, the effective exposure time is defined by the burst length, not by the shutter speed, so why bother.)

    Obviously, with cameras using in-lens shutter (any except the E-System) this feature is not applicable (or needed).

  • Auto: This is like the Auto mode of flashes from twenty years ago or so. The light output is measured and adjusted by a sensor built into the flash (this sensor is not used at all in TTL modes), based on the information of ISO and aperture (F-number) used. With some Olympus models (including the E-1, E-300, and E-500, if you choose to use them in this mode) that information may be passed to the flash by the camera; with others it has to be entered manually.

    This mode is not accessible when the flash is used with the C-series Olympus models, or the E-10/E-20. It can be, however, used with cameras providing no data interface at all.

  • Manual: The flash fires off without any sensor being used to measure or adjust its output. The latter can be manually adjusted to a given fraction of full output (which can be shown on the display as the fraction value or the reduced GN), and it is your responsibility to use the aperture proper for that GN, subject distance and scene brightness. This is useful when you think you know better — for example, when using an external flash meter, or when shooting under well-known (and tested) conditions.

    If you use the manual mode, you most probably do not need my explanations here.

  • FP Manual: Like manual, but with the multi-burst feature, assuring synchronization at high shutter speeds.

TTL exposure compensation

As good as the TTL flash control may be, flash exposure often needs adjustment, different for different subjects. Most Olympus cameras provide two ways of doing that: by setting the overall exposure compensation, or by setting the flash exposure compensation; in these models (E-500, the C-series) the total light output is adjusted by the sum of these two; on others (E-300) only the flash compensation is applied. (I've never checked how this works on the E-1.)

The FL-36 adds a third way to adjust its output: via a dial (control wheel) on the back of the unit itself. I find this very handy: while on some camera models (the C-series, E-500) the on-camera adjustment is done externally, by pressing two buttons and turning a dial, on the E-300 (aargh!) it requires going through the menu system. With the FL-36 I can access this feature in a convenient fashion; more useful than you may think. It is easy to miss, being available only if you set one of the options appropriately. The on-flash intensity adjustment is applied in addition to the one chosen on the camera.

Autofocus assist light

The FL-36 has a red focus-assist light. It projects not just a beam or red light, like the '5060, but three circular beams, each with a striped pattern, so that a camera supporting this feature will focus properly even on a white wall. These circles roughly correspond to locations of AF sensors in the E-300 (at least when the zoom is near the wide-angle range); the central one has vertical stripes, the side ones — horizontal. (Makes sense: in the E-300 the side sensors are sensitive to horizontal lines only; the central one is cross-pattern.)

I found that the E-300 AF system works significantly better (faster, more reliable) when using this feature than when using the built-in flash as AF illuminator. While writing this article I took a series of E-300 full-aperture pictures of my toilet bowl in a completely dark bathroom (let me spare you the samples), and all ended up being in good focus. With the built-in flash providing the AF illumination, the system sometimes had to repeat the process two or three times.

This may be one more reason to use the FL-36 with you E-300 instead of a third-party alternative.

With the C-5050Z, C-5060WZ, and C-8080Z, the camera's built-in (non-patterned) AF light was overwhelming the flash beams (I haven't checked this feature with the '7070). My experiments indicate that when the camera's AF assist is disabled, both these models use the flash beam assistance, although autofocusing is much slower than in the E-300 (which generally is the case).

Don't try to find more on this in the manufacturer's data: camera manuals refer you to flash instructions, and the latter — to the Olympus Web site, where all you can find is a general (yes/no) compatibility information. Instead, Olympus treats you to an animation of a flying butterfly; that's exactly what most people are looking for, one would think.

With the E-10/E-20 the AF assist is not activated; these cameras seem to rely in the built-in (infrared) beam source.

Controls

All controls are placed on the unit back. The layout is clean and functionality obvious. Here is the full list.

  • The [MODE] button, used to switch between various exposure automation modes, or to activate preference setting;
  • The [LIGHT] button turning on the status display backlighting. (On the E-1 and E-10/E-20 the camera's illumination button will do the same.)
  • [ZOOM] to adjust the illumination angle when the flash is used on cameras without data interface/. Irrelevant for cameras discussed here.
  • [POWER] — needs to be pressed for two seconds or so; additionally recessed to avoid accidents;
  • [TEST/CHARGE] button, duplicating as charge indicator light. You press it for a test flash in the (non-TTL) Auto mode, and the unit will check whether the output is sufficient (blinking the Auto check light if yes). Not applicable to cameras discussed here
  • Control dial — used to set exposure compensation in TTL Auto (or just AUTO) mode, fractional output in Manual mode (see also Preferences below).

There are also two mechanical buttons unlocking the two degrees of freedom of the head angle.

Preference setting

Olympus chose the right approach, offering a direct access (buttons or control wheel) to functions frequently used during a shooting session, while hiding the rarely used ones in a setup procedure; the latter are user preferences, which you usually set just once and forget about.

To enter the preference setup, press and hold the Mode button. Now pressing that button again switches between various kinds of settings, while turning the control dial changes the setting choice of the selected one; that choice itself is shown in the LCD display on the unit back. Clean and consistent: no secret button combinations, nothing to memorize.

A number of things can be adjusted to suit your needs and/or taste; here is the full list.

Parameter
[Shown as]
Values Remarks
AF Assist Light
[ILL]
A (auto)
OFF
Applicable only to E-System cameras (E-1, E-300, E-330, E-400, E-500). "Auto" means that the camera decides whether to use it.
Flash on-camera
[CLP]
ON
OFF
ON means the flash uses the hot shoe, OFF — a flash cable. The setting is confusingly named ("Flash Cable", with "ON" meaning "no flash cable"), and inadequately described.
Head zoom display EFL
4/3
The illumination angle can be displayed in terms of either the EFL, or actual (4/3 System) focal length; the choice is shown by presence or absence of a dark "Four Thirds" mark.
Distance units ft
m
Oh, well.
Flash exposure compensation ON
OFF
When ON, turning the control wheel adjusts the flash light output; see Exposure Compensation above. When OFF, the wheel just does nothing.
Wide Panel sensor ON
OFF
The sensor detecting the presence of the wide angle panel can be disabled. Olympus: "Use this setting when the wide panel is damaged [...]".
Guide Number display
[GN]
ON
OFF
In modes other than Auto TTL the display may show either the light output fraction as dialed with the wheel (OFF setting), or the corresponding Guide Number (ON setting). While the former is more traditional, the latter is my preference.
ISO and aperture transfer
[ISO F]
ON
OFF
Enables ISO and F-number transfer from the camera to the flash to be used in the Auto (non-TTL) mode. Usable only for cameras supporting the transfer, but not Auto TTL.
ISO setting
ISO
value Manual setting of the ISO value for the Auto (non-TTL) and Manual modes. Usable only for cameras not talking to the FL-36 automation at all.

The last two settings are applicable only to cameras incompatible (or partially compatible) with the FL-36, and the users of the fully supported ones can safely ignore them. The others should be just once set to your liking and forgotten about.

The flash remembers the preferences while batteries are being changed (I'm not sure for how long; at least a few minutes).

Power

The FL-36 is powered by two AA-sized cells (alkaline, NiMH or NiCd); Olympus recommends the NiMH type for which it says the circuitry is optimized. A single Li-Ion CR-V3 can also be used, although these are quite expensive. According to Olympus, you should expect about two hundred average-condition shots from a pair of freshly-charged NiMH batteries, but this widely varies, depending on conditions. I've got about 120 out of a pair of quite old, 1500 mAh AA's, which still is respectable.

Using a set of four batteries would provide more flashes at the expense of increased size and weight; you can't have it both ways. If you want more capacity, spend double the price and go for the FL-50.

The newer Olympus cameras: C-5060/7070WZ and E-System use proprietary BLM-1 Li-Ion batteries. This means that if you go for a trip with a camera and flash, you have to take along two chargers, a major pain. Sometimes I wonder if biting the bullet and switching to the BLM-1 batteries wouldn't be better, but there would be pros and cons to that decision.

Olympus quotes the average recharge time with NiMH batteries as 5.5 seconds; when the flash fires at full power this is rather closer to 10 seconds or so.

Low battery state is signaled by the blinking Ready light; hard to miss. Another omen is when that light does not go on within 10 (NiMH) or 30 (alkalines) seconds from turning the flash on.

Documentation

The included documentation consists of a manual; a nicely printed, well illustrated and laid-out, and not-too-well written booklet in four languages (on the U.S. market: English, French, German and Spanish). Combining four manuals into one saves Olympus maybe 40 cents in printing costs, at the same time causing inconvenience to the user: clearly, first things first. Actually, I could squeeze all the non-trivial information from this booklet on two sheets of letter-size paper, fine print.

The writing style (English, I mean) is not as bad as in most previous Olympus manuals I've read, but still not good. Mind it, English is only my second language, so if I can see something is bad, it must be really bad.

Anyway, once you go through the manual, you will probably never need it again. This only shows that Olympus employs better engineers than writers.

Performance and test results

Although I was able to try out and verify the functionality of FL-36 with all cameras listed in the Compatibility section, most of the testing was done on three models I'm using at the moment: the E-300, E-500, and C-5060WZ.

Exposure: The exposure was always OK (I'm using a -0.3 EV general compensation in most of the shooting), and the light intensity sufficient for bounced flash of a ceiling about 12 ft high in a middle-sized room. The bounced-light effect was very pleasing.

Vignetting: At EFL of 28 mm (the widest setting on the E-300 standard zoom) there was some clearly visible vignetting in the corners. Although not very bad, it was not negligible either. For most subjects this is not objectionable, but for some it may. Slapping on the built-in diffuser helped in removing the effect. It is also gone at EFL of 35 mm. I haven't tried any wider lenses.

White balance: Interestingly, the auto-set white balance was slightly bluish (if still OK) on the C-5060WZ, but quite warm and pleasing on the E-300 and E-500. In the latter case I have used the camera both with the Auto WB setting and set manually to 5300K (which is my preference in general daylight shooting).

Conclusions

The FL-36 is a solid, well-designed, well-made and well-performing piece of gear, easy to use and providing all controls we may need, plus perfect integration with the supported cameras. Its light output is sufficient for most uses (if you need more power, go for the FL-50 which has all the features but twice the punch of its kid brother, but costs twice that much). Its only flaw is some degree of vignetting at the widest claimed angle (28 mm EFL).

At the reasonable price of less than $200 (in Europe: 250 or so) I consider it to be a very good buy.


My other articles related to the Olympus E-System...

...or to to the C-5050Z, C-5060WZ, and C-7070WZ

...or to the Olympus E-10 and E-20 cameras


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Posted 2005/07/22; last updated 2005/12/18 Copyright © 2005 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak