Tested: Olympus RC flash system vs. Nikon CLS

Recently I acquired a Olympus E-PM1 as an experiment  to see if you would be able to shoot portraits on a budget. As you can read, my experience was quite good, but there as one thing in the menu of E-PM1 that made me wonder.

Apparently the bundled little flash included with the E-PM1 has a RC mode, meaning that it can communicate with other RC flashes and fire them. Canon has this as well (although I have to admit I never used it) as does Nikon. On my Nikon D800 I have used the creative lighting system, better known as CLS, quite a lot, so I was curious if the system of Olympus would work just as well.

Olympus RC system

Olympus Netherlands agreed to send me a kit consisting of an Olympus OM-D E-M5, a FL-600R flash and a set of lenses. My mission was to test if the RC system is able to deliver the performance that I was expecting from it.

Initial impressions

When I unboxed the OM-D, it surprised me a bit how small it is. As it is the top-of-the-line model of the mirrorless cameras of Olympus I was somehow expecting it was bigger. Size is almost comparable to the E-PM1 that I used earlier, except for the electronic viewfinder. Unlike the E-PM1 it feels comfy to hold, rather more like a serious camera than a high-end compact.

Olympus OM-D E-M5

I can bore you about the specs of the OM-D, but as the camera has been released for quite a while and there are many reviews already available concluding that the OM-D is a very good camera. It only leaves me to say that I agree with them.  Other things except for the size that surprised me were the IBIS. The sensor stabilization is remarkable, works exceptionally well and due to the low weight of the camera and lens it is possible to handheld the camera with shutter speeds that otherwise would require a tripod.

Since I have been using my D800 for quite some time now I consider it as the standard level of camera. I am not going to compare apples with oranges by comparing the full-frame beast against the OM-D, but it seems that Olympus marketed the OM-D to the same professionals that would require a professional SLR. Of course you are still limited to the different type of sensor, which results in more noise and less dynamic range, but this is manageable.

RC mode

The RC mode is the reason why I was lent an OM-D in the first case. As I am quite an experienced user of Nikon’s CLS I was eager to test if Olympus could offer the same performance as my Nikon DSLR. The CLS of Nikon has saved me on quite a few occasions as back-up triggers and for the occasional run-and-gun portrait it is ideal.

Olympus OM-D EM-5 and FL-600

Activating the RC mode on the camera is done in the menu. I used the little flash that is included in the kit to trigger the external flash.  Settings such as power and channels can be reached by pressing a single button, instead of going through a series of menus as you have to do with the Nikon.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 flash control menu

There are multiple flashes that support the RC system, but the one that I was given was the FL-600R, the flagship model of the Olympus flashes. From the exterior, it doesn’t look so impressive since the unit is rather small. It is much smaller than the Nikon SB-910, even a bit smaller than the SB-800, presumably done to match the form factor of the Micro Four-Thirds system cameras.

The menu of the of the FL-600R is not as advanced as the flashes from Nikon. I had to resort to the manual to understand all the functions of the flash, but fortunately for me, you only have to set  it to RC mode once. I am quite sure that with more experience the menu won’t be a challenge any more, but I would like to have seen less information crammed on this tiny display. The screen is one with fixed characters instead of a “dot matrix” made up of pixels.

Olympus FL-600

I forgot to mention that there is a LED light on the front of the flash as well, which can be used to shoot videos. At first you might wonder why it is important to know that there is a LED light when you just shoot portraits. I’ll tell you: it is annoying. Activating the RC mode on the flash makes the quite-bright LED light blink once every five seconds or so to inform you it is on. Other than taping up the light there is no possibility of turning it off. It distracting to me, annoying for my subjects and worst of all, very inappropriate when shooting events such as weddings and so on. The faint blinking red LED on the Nikon is much better.

First shoot

To test the RC system I was planning to use it in situations where I have previously used the CLS system. In order for the sensor to detect the infra-red (IR) communication light it is preferable to have less ambient light, so it does not have to overpower the already existing light. The worst-case scenario would be sunny conditions. I have used Nikon’s CLS in bright light in the past, which was not always reliable, but it did work. During the first shoot I wanted to check if the RC system could offer the same performance in bright sunlight.

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Maybe it was the positioning of the flash, or the strong ambient light but I didn’t manage to trigger the flash. In order to keep my model still happy I just gave up after 15 shots and used ambient light instead. This way I was also able to use the 75 mm lens wide open since I wasn’t limited to the 1/250 flash synchronization time.

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After relocating to a different spot I was willing to try it again, but with mixed results. Using the 75 mm lens meant that I had to stand away outside the range of the sensor, and when I was closer it wasn’t trigger reliable enough for me to continue working with it. At that moment I was very happy that I brought my triggers. Maybe a different location would increase the performance of the RC system.

Second shoot

For the second shoot I chose a spot with less light, in the basement of an industrial building. Even now I still had some misfires, but it was already much better than before. However the contrast autofocus was not so happy with the location I chose, since it preferred to focus on the background, as my model was backlit. Maintaining line of sight with both your flash and your model in a tight hallway is rather difficult and sometimes it limits the compositions you can make.

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TTL mode worked well, the exposure was as you would expect it to be from TTL. However, for photoshoots I consider TTL inferior to manual, since manual gives more control over your image. I quickly switched to manual because of this reason.

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I was not completely happy with the performance of both the RC system and the autofocus, but I did manage to get some good results in the end. However, I had the feeling I could manage to get more performance out of the camera, so I gave the RC system one last chance to show its value.

Third shoot

As they say, the third time is the charm and this was the case as well with my third shoot.  Since the sensor is located on the front of the flash I adjusted the base of the flash in such a way that it would aim at me, while the head of the always was turned in the direction of the model. The performance I got was much better than the second time. Also the fact that I chose a slightly brighter location greatly improved the AF speed and consistency.

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It was the first time that I had the feeling I was not being held back by the OM-D and RC system. It worked, and rather well actually. Adjusting the power on the flash was a breeze due to the fact that the flash settings are just one button away. If aimed correctly, the RC system performs just as well as CLS system of Nikon, but both are still limited to the fact it relies on IR light and not on radio waves.

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Conclusion

In the end the RC system of Olympus works well, just like the one from Nikon does. The position of the light sensor is a bit odd since I was used to have it on the side. Also, it seems that the light sensor is a bit less sensitive than the one from the CLS system, since with the Nikon system I had fewer misfires when the sensor was directed to the wrong side. This could also be the case that the bursts of light to trigger the external flash are brighter with the CLS system, but this is merely a speculation on my side.

As with all systems that rely on IR, you are limited to line of sight and a certain range. With this in mind, having a system that can remotely control your flash by IR light is a great addition to any camera. Joe McNally solely uses CLS for his work, and see where that got him. With RC, CLS or any other system you sometimes have to solve problems you wouldn’t have with radio triggers, but it can be great for a quick portrait or as back-up for your radio triggers.

What I don’t like about the FL-600R is the LED that blinks when the flash is in RC mode. It is annoying and cannot be turned off unless you just gaffer tape over it. I am also missing the audible feedback to know if the flash fired correctly. The flash lacks also a AF-assist light, which I would expect for a high-end flash.

Positive

  • TTL exposure is accurate (if it fires)
  • RC Menu is easy and quick to access (similar on all camera models)
  • Small and light

Negative

  • Lacks AF-assist
  • No audible feedback
  • LED Light can’t be turned off in RC mode
  • Less range compared to CLS
  • Sensor location is odd to me

Concluding, if you have an M43 and considering an external flash the Olympus FL-600R is certainly something you should consider. At 300 euro it might not be as cheap as a Nissin flash, but in my opinion there should be at least one high-end flash in your kit. If you aren’t looking for a high-end flash but still would like to experiment a bit with the RC system the Olympus FL-300R (not tested) could be a better option.

  • Arthur Nazarian

    Regarding the “no direct access to the flash settings on Nikon” – you can set the “Commander Menu” as your top item in “My Menu” and then assign one of the customisable buttons to the “Top Item in My Menu” and you have your direct access. That’s how I do it at least…

    I’m using CLS for years by the way, and although I’m very happy with the controls, the amount of misfires outdoors really annoys me, so I’m considering every shoot to purchase some radio triggers every time.

    • Robbert Dijkstra

      I have done the same, but it still requires more buttons before you can change something. Having it under one button, even if you just changed something else in the menu is much easier. Its not a big annoyance, but it could be better.

  • Ranger 9

    Orienting the receiver so it faces the master flash is routine procedure with any brand of TTL flash, so the review devotes a lot of negativity to problems that essentially were caused by operator error. I can’t help wondering if some of his other problems also were caused by unfamiliarity with the equipment.

    Still, the review does highlight a drawback that Olympus can’t control: the lack of third-party radio triggers. The Aokatec system does work, but it’s rather janky compared to the fully integrated systems available for Canon and Nikon flash. Hard to believe there aren’t enough Olympus cameras out there by now to make it worthwhile for somebody to offer an Olympus version of an existing trigger system, but nobody does.

    • Robbert Dijkstra

      Yes, as you can read during the third shoot it went much better when I did adjust it. However, from my experiences with the SB-800 it triggers even when the sensor isn’t orientated towards to flash (in dark conditions like the second shoot), while with the Olympus this was not always the case. You are right that I am less familiar with the Olympus system, but when I used this system like I did with the CLS system it was less reliable in my cases.

      About triggers for Olympus, it is a shame and I thought that by now there would be enough demand for suppliers to make some. It could be that the TTL hotshoe protocol is kept secret or so, or its more difficult to figure out. The Aokatec looks great btw.

    • Leo @ Image Melbourne

      The only brand I’m aware of that puts the IR sensor on the side of the flash is Nikon. This is not actually a good place for it – hand the flash to an assistant and most will cover the sensor with their fingers.

      Canon, Pentax, Sigma, Olympus, Yongnuo etc all put the sensor on the front where most shooters expect it.

      User error is not a design fault.

      The tests should be redone with the flash pointing in the correct direction. The comparison against Nikons CLS is invalid as the reviewer did not try CLS in the exact same environment… its performance also varies dramatically with relatively small changes in direction especially if the sensor is pointed incorrectly.

  • vchaney

    I have had reasonable success with the clip on flash but the reality is its too weak for decent sunlight. You can use the fl600r as a commander which is much better. The top of the range is actually the fl50r which is more powerful but older. Also, the led should act as a focus assist lamp, it does with the flash mounted on the camera.

    The biggest downside of the Olympus system is that there aren’t any ttl radio remotes as there are for nikon, canon and Sony. I don’t know if this is due to the third party manufacturers or Olympus keeping the protocols secret. If its the latter it’s a real own goal.

    • Pappy

      I beg to differ, I use the Yongnuo RC triggers very successfully with my E-P and E-M cameras, using one control and three remotes.

      • vchaney

        Which triggers are they? All hotshoe radio triggers will work in manual but as far as I’m aware none work in ttl (I.e. control the flash power etc from the camera).

        • Pappy

          As you rightly say, there are no triggers which will function properly in TTL and in my experience that applies to any camera maker. Once the flash unit has been removed from direct contact with the camera, exposure becomes a bit hit and miss.

          I opted for the 600 series from Yongnuo and using them in manual mode gives me something like a 97% success rate, which I found to be far higher than any TTL system I know of.

          As a point of interest, I use 3 x FL50R, 1 x FL50 and a Metz 48 AF-1, the Metz was purchased new all FL’s used.

  • Malcolm Sales

    I would agree that the white sensor light with the FL600r is extremely annoying.
    I also find the Olympus RC isn’t a patch on Nikon’s CLS.
    I use Calumet remote triggers with very consistent results.

  • Fab

    1.) You say “Lacks AF-assist” is negative. But your logic is a bit flawed: With contrast AF of the OM-D it wouldn’t help to focus.

    2.) But more important: You used the mini-flash on the OM-D as a trigger. I think this makes your comparison to the Nikon system completely invalid: Or do you use the Nikon system also with such a tiny extremely weak commander flash?

    Sorry, I like your work – but this review is flawed.

    • Robbert Dijkstra

      On the Nikon camera I have used the pop-up commander as well, so in essence they should be almost the same (the Nikon has a slightly higher guide number). Or am I doing something wrong?

      I don’t understand your first point, since there is no light, there is no contrast. Adding a AF illuminator increases the light which the OM-D uses to focus on.

  • Gary

    I agree the visible light to control the Olympus flashes instead of IR or radio is really annoying, hopefully PocketWizards will provide radio support soon, or Olympus follows Canon’s example.

    Your problem with AF on your model would be significantly improved if you chose face detection AF with closest eye AF – works incredibly well as long as you wait the extra half second for it to lock on, and the model is facing towards you. I have never needed AF assist light with the E-M5.

    Also did you set your RC flash range to highest setting on the menu?

    Lastly, the menu system on the earlier Olympus flashes (FL-36R and FL50R) are very simple indeed, much simpler to use than the Canon flashes – I have not used Nikon’s so I can’t compare.

    • Robbert Dijkstra

      With the full body shots I made the camera had trouble locking on the face since the model was only backlit. I do like the face detection very much, but it is not 100% reliable.

      I have played around a bit with the RC range settings, but I did not notice change from going from MID to HIGH, other than that it now was contributing to the actual exposure on the photo.

  • Albert

    Great review. I was a Nikon user before I switched system to m43.
    Currently I have EM5 + FL600R + FL50R. However, I still keep SB900s for portrait/prewed shoots when I think I may need additional light sources.

    Without doubt, Nikon CLS is superior than Olympus system as you’ve mentioned. Misfires and inconsistent TTL exposure are my major annoyances. However, I applaud them for simplicity in their flash menu.

    Another feature I miss from Nikon is FV (Flash-Value) lock that seems to be omitted by Olympus. It’s quite useful to have for shooting events like wedding.

    I’m curious to know why the AF failed in your second shoot. So far, it’s quite reliable for me even when it’s backlighted. Did you try the face-detection feature?

    • Robbert Dijkstra

      Yes I did, but it would not recognize the face of my model. I think the large dynamic range of the scene (no light on the model, bright light in the back) confused the contrast based autofocus.

      For the FV lock, it is a shame that they dont have it, but I prefer manual anyway when shooting a series of photos. I can understand that in a fast paced situation TTL is too unreliable and manual is too slow, but I don’t find myself in these situations often.

  • TTL

    Try Aokatec wireless TTL, it works for Olympus. It’s not as easy to setup like Phottix Odin, it’s more like the early Radio Popper TTL; you have to use the cable receptor stick it in front of the IR light but it does carry TTL info.

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