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Product Review: Sigma EF-530 DG Super Electronic Flash for Nikon

I picked up a new Sigma EF-530 DG Super Electronic Flash for my Nikon iTTL system the other day for a cool $200.  Today I am going to review this little unit for you today.  In summary, it has the potential as a replacement for the now discontinued Nikon SB-800.  As an on-camera flash unit it performs flawlessly.  As a wireless unit, however, it is a frustrating bit of equipment to try to use.

Sigma ef-530 flash gun

Specifications

All in, this unit is a viable substitute for most of the features on the now discontinued Nikon SB-800.  The guide number is a bit weaker than the rating for the SB-800 (56 @ ISO 100/m, 105mm head position), but not by much.  Let’s take a closer look!

Features:

Sigma ef-530 flash gun (1)

What is missing

Now, while I said that this unit has most of the key features on the SB-800, there are still some missing features which may disappoint a few users.  Here is what they did not include on the EF-530 DG Super:

Some operational idiosyncrasies

Unlike a dedicated Nikon unit, the Sigma EF-530 DG Super is not quite as smart.  While a Nikon Speedlight can be set up for wireless, for example, turned off and turned on, it remembers who it is and works right away.  The Sigma unit is a bit more involved for setup for wireless.  To begin with, the unit must be first attached to the hotshoe of the camera.  Once turned on, you need to depress the camera shutter release to send the camera information to the flashgun through the hot shoe.  (This is a slight modification to the procedure described in the manual, which suggests that you only need to half press the shutter button).  After this operation, the unit can be removed and used in wireless mode.  If the unit is turned off, however, it goes brain dead and must be re-attached to the camera and set up again.

Additionally, the absence of a sound monitor is important.  I find the sound monitor on my SB-600 is helpful in telling me if the unit was able to output enough light to properly expose the image.  If I get a warning beep, I know I need to check my image in the view finder and, if necessary, change something (usually the f stop) to improve the exposure.  The Sigma unit, having no such warning, does not help me out in difficult lighting situations, forcing more reviews of the histogram in the viewfinder to see if the flash put out enough light.

My verdict

First, for the price I paid for this unit, I should have no real complaints.  It costs less than a SB-600, and has many of the features on the discontinued SB-800.   However, the setup for the wireless is byzantine enough to become frustrating if not performed perfectly and routinely (so as to remember how it is done).

The recycle time is a bit slower than with a dedicated Nikon unit, but again, not a deal killer for my work.  The lack of the dedicated terminals is not an issue for me as I intended to use the Sigma as either a second wireless/slave unit or as a more powerful on camera flash than the SB-600.

As an amateur, I thought this had the potential to be an inexpensive alternative to the now impossible to find SB-800.  A professional or more demanding shooter would certainly not view this unit as one for dedicated work and would definitely need to go with the SB-900.  As it turns out, so did I.

While I was successfully able to set up and use this unit in wireless mode the day I brought it home from the camera store, with the instructions fresh in my memory, trying to set it up a few days later proved impossible.  No matter how many configuration attempts, variations, or returns to the manual, I never could get the thing to properly work wirelessly a second time.  I finally threw my hands up in frustration and returned it to the store.  I shelled out the extra bucks and now have a shiny new (more expensive) SB-900 that works easily and seamlessly with my system.

Being a Nikon shooter, I feel that in some ways this review is like a confession about cheating on a loved one.  I have a great admiration for the Nikon system.  The CLS is a fantastic system and as I become more involved with flash photography I find I want to push the edge and try new things.  Guys like Joe McNally have become my inspiration for learning what these little guys are capable of adding to my photography.  With my previous exposure to flash photography having taken place over 30 years ago, to say that I am impressed with the state of the art of the Nikon iTTL and CLS would be a severe understatement.

My only “problem” with the Nikon CLS is the cost of entry.  Nikon products are not cheap.  And these are not exactly booming times for my main business.  Being on a restricted (OK, a starvation) diet for acquiring new photographic technology the cost of the next logical flash unit , the SB-900 at around C$500 is a hard sell.  The SB-600 retails for about half that amount.  While I liked my SB-600, it was lacking in some of the features that the discontinued SB-800 and its successor SB-900 have.   (side note:  I did troll e-bay and craig’s list for used SB-800, but found the costs on them were not much savings over the full retail price of a new SB-900.   People like these units and they are hard to come by.)  I was intrigued when I discovered that The Camera Store (my most favourite place to shop) was selling the Sigma EF-530 DG Super electronic flash unit for a few pennies short of $200!

After a bit of online research I found several good reviews (and a couple of not-so favourable) of the capabilities and limitations of this Sigma unit.  For the most part these reviews were accurate, and the Sigma flash provided for me about what I expected at first.  My frustration at not getting the unit to perform consistently as a wireless flash, however, drove me to abandon any attempts at integrating the Sigma EF-530 into my camera bag.  While the documentation was adequate, though not entirely accurate, reviews online did hint at troubles and while the price tag was attractive, the unit failed to give me what I wanted.   I ended up upgrading to an SB-900 anyways.  Fortunately, I made my discovery within a few days and the place that I bought it at has a generous return policy if not fully satisfied within 2 weeks of purchasing, a very handy policy when shelling out a lot of money on hardware.

I hope this review has been helpful to you.  Feel free to add comments on your experiences with the Sigma EF-530 DG Super, if you have any.

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