Hobo Merlin 300 studio flash review

There are a lot of affordable monolight options out there, but if, like many photographers, you also want wireless remote control of your flash, the cost ramps up quickly. We evaluate the £170 Hobo Merlin 300Ws remote-controllable studio flash.

Hobo Merlin 300

A few months ago I bought a Hobo Merlin 300Ws remote-controllable studio flash. This review has been a long time coming, simply because the Merlin integrates so neatly and easily into my lighting that you almost don’t notice it’s there. Please note that I paid for this flash with my own money and have received no discounts or perks for evaluating it.

There are a lot of affordable monolight options out there, but if, like many photographers, you also want wireless remote control of your flash, the cost ramps up quickly. Here are the UK prices of the cheapest remote-controllable monolights from different manufacturers:

BrandSeriesModelHeadRemote
BowensGemini R250R£380£53
ElinchromBXRiBX500Ri£300£73
Hobo LightingMerlinM300£170£40
iShootShiningLCD400£200included
MultiblitzProfilux Plus200W£509???
Rime LiteXB PrimeXB500£550£285
StrobeamStrobeamEID500£450£59

Naturally, the table above can’t be taken just at face value. European-made lights will tend to be better built. Elinchrom and Rime Lite have state-of-the-art triggering systems which include the ability to control your lights from a computer. Some of the remote controls are hand-held while others will also synchronise with your camera. The iShoot Shining might look like the cheapest option, but you have to order it from China and it uses the obscure Comet bayonet, making it not worth the trouble.

Other enthusiast-friendly lighting brands such as Lencarta, Interfit, Elemental, Lastolite and Bessel don’t offer any remote-controllable flashes at the moment.

With this in mind, could the Merlin studio flash from Hobo Lighting be a breath of fresh air for the market?

Hobo Merlin 300

Manufactured in China, the Merlin is made by Ocaso, the same firm behind Elemental’s award-winning Trinity series. The Merlin and Trinity share the same outer shell, but have different rear controls. There are three buttons on the back of the Merlin, making the interface less intuitive than the Trinity Mark II which has nine. However, the RM1 remote more than makes up for this and I now rarely use the control panel on the Merlin itself.

Specifications

ModelMerlin 300Merlin 600Merlin 1000
Energy300J600J1000J
Guide number568298
Recycle time0.2 - 1.0 second0.2 - 2.0 second
Flash duration1/800 - 1/1200 second
Modelling lamp150W250W
Colour temperature5600 ± 100K
Power adjustmentFull to 1/32 power in 1/10 stop increments
VoltageAC 220 - 240 Volts (50Hz)

Aluminium-bodied but coated in a strange poly-resin, the Merlin head feels durable but not too cold or industrial. The finish does sometimes make the light stand mount difficult to tighten or loosen, however. Tilting the head is also a two-handed job, the same as for most brands. I would have preferred a one-handed tilt adapter, but we can’t have everything!

The clear and easy-to-read screen tells you the following vital statistics:

  • Operating temperature, in degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit
  • Flash power – from 1.0 to 6.0
  • Modelling lamp power – can be proportional or independent of the flash power, or switched off
  • Optical slave mode – set to fire on 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th flash
  • Warning indicators – e.g. for overheating, incorrect voltage or other errors
  • Wireless ID for RM1 control
  • Flash Count – analogous to mileage

Hobo Merlin LCD control panel

On the handheld RM1 remote you will find all the same information, along with more buttons making adjustments easier. Since it operates over 2.4GHz (Bluetooth) you can change all of your flash settings however high up or inaccessible the head is in your lighting setup. Once you get the remote you may never go back to making adjustments on the flash head itself – it’s just so much easier having everything in the palm of your hand!

One thing I don’t quite like is the way the 150W modelling lamp and flash power are controlled. You have to cycle through modes for Proportional, Independent and Off, and can’t select them directly. The Merlin will forget your independent modelling lamp setting as you pass through proportional mode, which is annoying. On the other hand, most other flashes in this price range don’t even have independent modelling lamp control, so count your blessings.

Hobo Lighting Merlin 300 and RM1 remote

In testing, the 1/10-stop power adjustment is deadly accurate. From full to minimum (1/32) power, the colour variation was not as small as with a Bowens Esprit 500 but came pretty close, and under 100K. When reducing the flash power, the unit will automatically dump the excess energy in the capacitors.

Recycle time at full power was as specified, under 1 second. At minimum (1/32) power recycling was almost instantaneous. When powered by the Innovatronix Explorer XT SE, the recycling time at maximum power climbs to around 2 seconds. Also, the screen will flicker slightly during recycling when powered by the Explorer, presumably due to a drop in voltage. This doesn’t cause any practical issues. Overall the Merlin is pretty quick.

There is no perceptible shift in flash exposure at different shutter speeds from 1/60 up to x-sync, showing the flash duration of the Merlin is short and suitable for everyday applications. We did not have the means to test the exact flash duration, but this is not designed to be a super-quick IGBT flash like the Photoflex TritonFlash.

The Hobo Merlin has a Bowens S-bayonet, which is the most common accessory in the marketplace. You’ll have no trouble at all finding reflectors, softboxes, snoots, fresnels and so on from big brands and generic sellers. This makes the cost of ownership much more affordable than for, say, a Profoto light where modifiers are much more expensive.

Example photo using the Merlin in a large softbox
Lit with the Merlin in a softbox to the left & an Aurora Firefly boomed overhead

Conclusion

In summary, the Hobo Merlin 300 is an excellent all-round flash at a ridiculously low price. It has more features than many other more expensive lights, making other companies look bad. It’s both durable and easy to use with a wireless remote that makes your workflow that little bit more efficient. I highly recommend this light.

You can buy the Hobo Merlin exclusively from CotswoldPhoto, who ship to most of Europe.

I also recently bought their three-head carry case, which does exactly what it says on the tin and is great value.

David Selby
Based in Paris, France, David Selby is editor of Lighting Rumours, a part-time photographer and a quantitative analyst.
selbydavid.com