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Canon Speedlite 380EX

by Javier Henderson, ?


The Speedlite 380EX is a dedicated flash for the Elan II and Elan IIe (known outside of the USA as the Elan 50 and Elan 50e, respectively). It offers several nice features, including a tilting head, automatic zooming between 24 and 105mm, high speed synch all the way up to 1/4000, and auto shutoff after 90 seconds of non-use.

The rest of this article assumes that you are familiar with the Elan II camera, considering that you'll need to get one of those to go with this flash.

It's powerful

The guide number is 102 at 50mm (ISO 100), which is not too shabby. The recycle time at full power is rather longish: even with fresh batteries (4 AA cells) it seems to take about 20 seconds.

It's weak

You get full power up to 1/125. Beyond that, it achieves sync by firing a rapid succession of flashes as the curtain shutter moves across the film plane. The effective guide number goes all the way down to 14 at 1/4000. But even such a small number can be enough to stop action.

It's versatile

You can insert the flash on the hot shoe, turn it on, set the camera in one of the autopilot modes, and start shooting. You'll get that deer in the headlight look you can get with a $20 disposable, but at least you'll look professional. On the other hand, you can also select Av (aperture priority) or Tv (shutter priority) mode, and the flash turns into a fill-flash. The shutter speed in Av mode (or lens aperture in Tv mode) will be set by the camera to correctly expose the background for the lens aperture (or speed) that you selected. The flash will fire long enough for the foreground subject to be properly exposed, and then it'll be quenched.

The AE lock button on the back of the camera can be used to lock the flash exposure. If you press it, a brief flash is fired, and the exposure is measured and set for up to 16 seconds. If you wish to change the exposure for the background, simply lock the flash exposure first, and then dial as much exposure compensation you need to darken or lighten the background using the wheel in the back of the camera.

It uses the second curtain flash sync feature, if it's enabled, which is nice. The unit also has a more powerful AF assist beam, though it's only used by the center spot. Still, it extends the reach to about 30 feet.

It has some idiot lights

There's a green light that comes on for two seconds after exposure if the camera/flash combo decides that the exposure was correct. There's the usual red pilot light that comes on when the flash is ready to use, which doubles as a manual fire button. There's also a scale that indicates, with a red light, the focal length that the flash sets itself to. There are discrete stops at 24, 28, 35, 50, 70 and 105 mm. The flash auto-sets itself to match the focal length of the lens. If it's a zoom, it'll auto-adjust when you half-depress the shutter release button. If the flash head is tilted at any angle other than 90 degrees, the flash sets itself at 50mm, regardless of the focal length of the lens on the camera.

It's not expensive

It sells for under $160. Compared to the cost of the camera and everything else that goes along, and considering its features, I think it's a good value.

It actually works as advertised, more or less

After having used my 380EX for about six months, I can say that I'm pleased with the results. The automagic metering is fairly accurate most of the time, though if there's a single object that's much brighter than the rest of the scene (or that can reflect more light), then the flash ends up quenching a bit too soon, which results in an underexposed background.

For example, I recently shot a few rolls at the Mission in Carmel, CA, and in a couple of cases some brass ornaments that were fairly well polished came out perfectly well exposed, but the rest of the frame is pretty dark, even though the ornaments were fairly small.

Outdoors, I used it many times to fill in shadows, pointing the flash directly at the subject. It worked great, producing pleasing catchlights in the subject's eyes.

The user's manual claims a recycling time of up to 7.5 seconds. In my experience, after about a dozen shots with a fresh set of batteries, the recycling time can be as long as 20 seconds if the flash is delivering full power. As a fill-in flash outdoors, however, it recycles very quickly, sometimes within less than a second, even.

The tilting head feature is nice, and except when used as a fill-in flash, I always tilt it. It seems that about 30 to 40 degrees provide the most uniform coverage for rooms with average (about 7 feet) ceilings.

Don't get the smaller unit

A smaller unit, the 220EX, is now available. The price difference is so small that it's not even worth considering (about $20 at B&H).