Quick Hands-On: $100 "Polaroid" PL135 Bare-Bulb Flash
Has the venerable Sunpak 120J bare bulb flash been reincarnated? By a world-famous company, no less?
Well, no. Not exactly. It's no Sunpak 120J (doesn't have the extra stop of power) and, strictly speaking, it's not really a Polaroid flash per se. Keep reading for the bare facts (rimshot!) on the Polaroid PL-135.
UPDATE: Just a few days in, a significant defective rate trend is starting to emerge. See updates scattered below.
When a long-famous company gets into financial trouble, one of the assets that can be sold off is naming rights. In so buying, other companies cam piggyback off of the old company's reputation. (See also: Vivitar.)
In fact, clearly printed on the flash is, "Distributed by C&A Licensing" and the flash is made in China. Nothing wrong with that empirically. But I'd really rather see a company build a reputation of it's own rather than attempt to buy a pre-existing one.
I generally start out skeptical in these situations. (If you want the full convoluted brand-morphing story, it's here.)
The Sunpak 120J, long loved by skateboard photogs and the like, was so named because it packed an extra stop of power (oozing out of a bigger capacitor) and giving you the ability to better match full sun at a decent distance.
This PL135 is your basic garden-variety 60ws speedlight, with a twist. The tube is exposed. Depending on how you'll use it, this will make the flash more interesting—or less.
What It's For
This is a specialized speedlight. Which is to say it probably should not be your first flash, or maybe even your second. But it is bare bulb unit, which will allow you to do some nifty bare-bulbish things like evenly illuminating 3-d spaces, filling soft boxes more evenly with light or evenly lighting a backdrop.
In theory it might work better with beauty dishes. But I hesitate to recommend it as it may be short on power. The built-in reflector in most other speedlights costs you omni-directionality but gets you efficiency. Don't have a speedlight-fitted dish to test, but I am sure someone else will soon.
Short version: not great,
Build quality is not top notch, but at $100, you would not expect it to be. They clearly re-purposed some existing molds, which looks a little weird. Actually, from the neck up it looks like a cross between a pro and a DIY job.
• Manual, TTL (not eTTL or CLS, tho)
• Slave, PC jack (no 1/8th-inch)
• Uses 4 AA batteries. Recycle is ~4 secs with NiMHs.
• Full-to-1/128 power on manual. +-3 stops on TTL.
• There is a HV battery port, but there are already reports of the flash being fried by HV battery use. Sooooo... not recommended. (This is not a pro workhorse flash.)
• User interface is predictably clunky.
• User manual is human-translated—a nice change of pace from the usual lot of Chinese flashes.
• Locking metal foot.
• 360-degree head rotation
• Also, there is a zoom function, which appears to have come from the previous model the cannibalized to make this one. Because there is no zoom motor. You can, kind of, zoom the head though. More on that below.
• Warranty is one year (surprising, actually, and one of the reasons I am writing about it.)
UPDATE: Just a couple days in, it appears maybe the warranty was ill-conceived on the part of the distributer. We are still at launch and already the problems have started to trickle in:
1. Locking pin not disengaging, fusing the flash to a PW TT5.
2. DOA arrival, and...
3. Disconcertingly, seller forcing buyer to pay return shipping for a DOA. This is how the ultra-low margin import business often works: Bad QC, not enough margin to support it and spotty eBay distribution. (Triopo, the actual manufacturer, apparently has a not-great quality record.)
4. The screw-collar of the reflector is shoddily glued on, and breaks off with minimal torque. (This also happened on mine.)
It comes with a dish reflector, a diffusion panel (which as you can see above is not too diffuse) a stand/foot/quarter-inch thread adapter (typical kind) and a case big enough to hold everything. There is also a soft-pouch for the tube. (You should remove the tube when not in use.)
The reflector "screws" on rather than slides on. The effect being, you can effectively zoom the tube within the reflector. There is not a lot of range, however. But every little bit helps.
The internal "pebble pattern" on the reflector looks decent if not great, and produces pretty even lighting patterns. The balance here is always evenness vs. efficiency and you can go waaay down this rabbit hole when designing a reflector.
This is not a general purpose flash, and should not be bought as such. It is a specialty unit for people who need a speedlight-strength, bare-bulb flash. It's no 120J, but it will light evenly.
Replacement parts availability is unknown. In particular, the exposed tube is prone to breaking of course. Also, I'd love an flash tube "extension cord" to get just the tube into tight places. Wish in one hand, spit in the other…