The RL-59 consists of two main pieces, connected by a coil cord. The control unit mounts in the camera’s hot-shoe, and looks much like any hot-shoe flash unit, except there’s a cord coming out of a black plate where the flash tube normally would be. There’s even a tilting “bounce” head and a red AF-illuminator window, although neither serves a function with the RL-59: They’re there because the control unit shares a body shell with another Phoenix flash unit. The ring flash head measures about 3.6×4.5 inches, and screws into the adapter ring on the front of the camera lens.
Specs include an ISO 100 guide number of 59 (in feet), an auto distance range of 1-10 feet, a flash duration that runs from 1/1000 at 10 feet to 1/40,000 at one foot (great for freezing skittish insects), a color temperature of 5600 K (daylight), and a recycle time of 0.5-6 seconds. The unit operates on four easy-to-find AA alkaline batteries, and provides 120-2000 flashes per set, depending on shooting distance. The wide (and symmetrical) 80 [degrees] angle of coverage illuminates the entire area seen by a 28mm lens (on a 35mm camera), and covers all but the very corners in a 24mm lens shot.
Using The Thing
The RL-59 is very simple to use. To set up, just slip the control unit into the camera’s hot-shoe, screw the adapter ring into the front threads of the lens, then screw the ringlight into the adapter ring. Switch the unit on, and it works just like the camera maker’s automatic TTL flash units. Use the camera in program AE mode, and everything’s fully automatic. If you wish to shoot at a specific aperture for depth-of-field considerations, set that aperture in aperture-priority AE mode, and the TTL flash system will automatically adjust the flash duration for proper exposure. There’s a handy sliding scale on the back of the control unit that shows you the maximum shooting distance you can use at each aperture, with film speeds from ISO 25 to 1000. (Like the AF illuminator and bounce head, the scale is a holdover from the flash unit whose body shell the RL-59 shares, so it’s not exact, but gives you a good idea of shooting distances you can use.) The ISO settings on the scale are for the scale only; the flash automatically receives film speed information from the camera for TTL exposure control.
We tested the RL-59 with a Minolta Maxxum 9 AF 35mm SLR with a Minolta AF 70-210mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom lens, and found it simple to use and effective. In program mode, it was point-and-shoot simple – just stay within 1-10 feet of the subject, and it’s automatically properly exposed. In aperture-priority AE, we were able to stop the lens down for increased depth of field, and again, exposure was automatic and precise. The green auto check lamp to the left of the on/off switch glows after each shot to confirm that exposure was correct (i.e., that the subject was within range for the f-stop being used). The amber ready light to the right of the on;/off switch can on almost instantaneously after each exposure – the unit is very efficient at conserving energy when used at close-up shooting distances.
One nice thing about a TTL ringlight is that the lens can’t get in its way. With built-in and on-camera flash units, a long or large-diameter lens can block some of the light from the flash. But when the flash unit mounts on the end of the lens, the lens can’t get in the way.