has a new flagship in its compact flash fleet, the Mecablitz 64 AF-1—and it’s a serious light thrower. With a guide number of 64 at ISO 100 and 200mm, this is one of the most powerful on-camera flashes you can buy.
It boasts a newly developed motorized zoom with full-frame coverage ranging from 24 to 200mm. You can get a wider (12mm) angle of illumination with the built-in reflector and wide-angle diffuser, both of which slide out easily from the top of the unit. Beyond its range, it has the full complement of features you would expect from a high-end flash unit, including master/slave settings for off-camera flashes, a modeling light, a power pack connection and a built-in secondary flash tube with variable output settings for adding fill light.
The Mecablitz 64 AF-1 is available in five versions to support TTL and wireless TTL (where applicable) for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus/Panasonic/Leica, and Sony cameras (sorry Fuji shooters). There’s also full-manual, 12-stop automatic, servo, strobe, high-speed, auto-fill and bracketing modes. The head swivels vertically from -9 degrees to 90 degrees and horizontally at 300 degrees.
For our test we called on the skills of David Patino
, a professional photographer, director, artist and self-professed gearhead based in northern New Jersey. We tested a Canon- compatible 64 AF-1 on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. We also toyed with non-TTL settings on a Nikon D610, just for fun.
Beyond its extensive feature set and flash range, the big selling point on the AF 64-1 is its touchscreen interface. There are only three buttons on the back of the unit: a power switch, a menu button and a flash trigger. Patino’s personal preference is to avoid touchscreens whenever possible. For him, physical buttons and dials are the express lane to the features you want. The AF 64-1 failed to convince him otherwise.
The menu system on the flash is straightforward—in fact, we’d venture a guess that many will find it quicker to grasp than the button-and-LED approach favored by its competitors. It’s very easy to get a quick read on your flash settings by glancing at the display, and additional information is only a touch away. That said, we hit a few snags when navigating the menu.
When you enter into a menu setting, you’re presented with a list of options. The screen is large enough to list about three of them at any one point, and you’ll instinctively want to press the option you want to select it—but you can’t. Instead, you’re forced to use a pair of up/down arrows to first highlight your selection before the menu recognizes your touch selection.
There’s a scrolling bar on the right side of the menu screen and you’ll instinctively slide your thumb over it to scroll down through your options. But you can’t. Only the up/down arrows will advance you down the list of settings.
When you do make a selection, the menu will automatically loop you back into the main screen (not the main menu page). On the one hand, this could be a valuable time-saver if you simply need to make a single change, but if you want to make several changes, it’s circuitous. You’re always starting back at square one. One workaround is to use the unit’s four user-programmable settings to quickly access your preferred settings, and those are quite easy to save.
Unfortunately, you don’t have much time to ponder your menu choices. You’ll have about 5 seconds of idle time before the menu kicks you back out to the main screen. Several times while we shot we would start to make a settings change, pause for a moment, only to look back and see that we had been bounced back into the main screen again, causing Patino to shake his head.
The touchscreen did hold up well in the harsh noonday sun, proving easily legible at a variety of angles, though your fingerprints will rear their greasy heads outdoors. The smudges weren’t enough to obscure menu settings, but they were enough to prompt Patino to occasionally give the flash a few gentle scrubs with the underside of his shirt.
“Another reason I’m not a fan of touchscreens,” he said.
SHEDDING SOME LIGHT
When it came time to shoot, the Metz shone. Using e-TTL with the 5D Mark II in continuous shooting mode in a shadowy alley, the 64 AF-1 was able to fire rapidly with consistent illumination between shots before needing time to recycle. Patino was impressed. “I can see a wedding photographer standing in the aisle and just firing this off as people walk in,” Patino said.
Indoors, aimed against a bare purple wall and in continuous mode, the flash produced consistent lighting across a six-frame burst.
Curious to see just how much light the 64 AF-1 could produce, we stayed up past our bedtime to photograph in the dark. Putting the flash in manual mode at full power and the full 200mm zoom, we took a series of shots in as near to pitch darkness as suburban New Jersey can provide. The flash produced more than enough light to illuminate the entire frame. It unsurprisingly over-exposed objects in the foreground (roughly 10 meters away), but easily illuminated trees that were approximately 45 meters in the distance. The moral of the story: Outside of a black hole, this flash will give you terrific reach.
At full output, using alkaline-manganese dry-cell AA batteries, the 64 AF-1 is rated for 140 flashes, but you can push the output to 290 using lithium batteries, or 360 flashes using Metz’ external power supply (Power Pack P976). Recycling times will vary based on the power source, but Patino was very happy with the performance using four Powerex 2700mAh Ni-MH rechargeable batteries. If you’re shooting at full output at very quick intervals, the 64 AF-1 will manage 20 flashes before needing at least three minutes to cool down.
Curious to see how the AF 64-1 would fare with alkaline AA batteries (the kind you’d turn to in a pinch on the road, perhaps), we switched it into servo mode and fired off 12 rapid flashes at 1/16 power before it needed less than a second to recycle—color us impressed. Subsequent bursts were significantly shorter, however—the output dropped to six flashes before recycling on a second try, then down to five by the third attempt. Pushed to full power, the alkalines really showed their weakness, as recycle times edged close to 3-4 seconds.
The Metz Mecablitz 64 AF-1 delivered consistent lighting when called upon. It’s a powerful flash that can illuminate distant subjects with ease, and has plenty of features to make it compelling for use in small studios, too. Also nice: the $499 price tag is about $50 less than flagship flashes from Nikon and Canon.
The touchscreen interface is more of a mixed bag. On the plus side, it’s easy to read and simplifies the presentation of various settings. However, navigating the menu is often counter-intuitive and can, in some cases, slow you down. There may be a light, if you will, at the end of this particular tunnel. The unit has a micro USB port for future firmware upgrades and we hope menu improvements are on the short list. Until then, we’d recommend getting some quality hands-on time with this Metz and its menu before you reach for your credit card.
PROS: Powerful, consistent flash output, great feature set, fast recycle time, easy-to-read LCD, less expensive than other flagship flashes and generally easy-to-use.
CONS: Frustrating touchscreen operation.