So I bought a $5 flash

Recently I found myself at a shop with some old, used camera gear – and one of the items on display was an external flash (or speedlight). I had no idea if it worked or not, but the price was just $5 so I figured… why not? I’d always wanted to try out using an external flash, and I figured this might not be a bad way to get into it.

Sunpak MZ440AF-PT on a Panasonic Lumix GX7
The flash mounted to my Lumix GX7… I think the flash is actually bigger than the camera!
Rear controls of a Sunpak MZ440AF-PT
These controls on the flash/speedlight suggested to me that this was an older flash… maybe a very old flash… from the days of film cameras.

From the controls on the back I could tell that this was an older flash – probably meant to go on an older film camera. So, I didn’t have high hopes that it would work perfectly with my camera – or even that it would work at all! But once I got it home (and got the batteries put in the right way – the markings on the inside for battery orientation were not easy to see) I attached it to my camera, turned it on and… it worked!

exuberant keith holding his camera and flash

Well, sort of.

It turned on – which was the first good sign – and the flash fired when I pressed the shutter on my camera. My camera knew that a flash was attached… but it didn’t know anything about it, nor could it control it in any way.

At this point I decided I should probably look up some instructions or better information. The model of speedlight I had was a “Sunpak MZ440AF-PT,” which I learned was an old flash for Pentax cameras. A bit more research on the connectors for various flashes and camera models revealed that, basically, only the connector for “fire the flash now” was compatible – everything else is manufacturer specific (even if the pins line up – which is annoying). So I would be using this flash in full manual mode.

camera hotshoe connectors
The flash I had matched the “Pentax” hotshoe connector pattern.

Unfortunately, this particular model of flash doesn’t seem to actually have manual controls – even though it looks like it on the back. There are sliders for ISO and for focal length, but I think these are more of a guide than actual controls – as the flash output does not seem to change no matter what I select.

I did some test shots (in manual mode on the flash as well as on my camera), trying out different combinations of settings on the flash while keeping my camera settings the same, and I found that the flash never seemed to vary its output in any way – the photos were identical.

Now, I may just be using this flash wrong – I was not ever able to find the manual for it – but it seemed to me that it would only be able to vary its light output if controlled by a camera – a Pentax camera, not my Panasonic Lumix GX7.

So, at the end of the day I’m probably just going to donate this flash back to the same store I got it from (or to another used camera store) since it’s basically of no use to me. But still, it was an interesting learning experience… and who knows? Maybe in the future I’ll find a flash that actually works with my camera and can learn some more. But for now, it’s back to nothing but natural light for me!

By Keith Survell

Geek, professional programmer, amateur photographer, crazy rabbit guy, only slightly obsessed with cute things.