Photographers have been using light modifiers on their external flash guns and strobes for a long time now. But the lowly on-board flash has always been regarded as useless. It’s low power and close proximity to the lens makes it less than ideal for creative photography. It’s become more of an “it’s there in-case” tool, rather than something useful. You can usually tell when the on-board flash was used. The subject is harshly lit, a large shadow is cast and everything is overly bright and has a flat quality to it.
Over the years, people have come up with all sorts of ways to modify the light coming from the on-board flash. There’s the DIY methods using an old film canister or cigarette box. There are also commercially available ones from the likes of Lumiquest. But the one that really caught my attention was the Gary Fong Puffer.
If you’ve seen a pro-photographer with a big tupperware-like device attached to the top of his/her flash gun, it’s most likely a Gary Fong Lightsphere. He changed the game with the Lightsphere and it’s become a standard in the industry. Gary’s light modifier designs are very innovative and the Puffer is no exception. The design of the puffer is simple: use the existing hot shoe as a mounting point for a bracket that holds a opaque diffuser in front of the flash. It’s an elegant design that is far superior to the other attempts I’ve seen. It works very well in those times when you need fill flash and you don’t have a flash gun with you. My only complaint is the price. I know photography is an expensive hobby/profession. But for something your not going to rely on all the time, $25 seems like an awful lot of money for a few pieces of plastic.
So in my search for alternatives, I came across a similar device at China based electronics discounter Meritline.com. Part number 169-251-001 looks exactly the same as the Puffer and it even comes with two other color diffusers…all for $2.29! I immediately placed an order! It took about two weeks to arrive, this was expected as it’s coming from China. It’s packaged in plain clear cellophane bags. The Gary Fong was packaged in fancy retail packaging. I really don’t care how it’s packaged, but it’s probably part of why there’s such a huge difference in price.
As you can see in the picture to the right, the two are essentially identical. On the left is the Gary Fong and on the right is the one from Meritline. The most obvious difference is the number of adjustment holes. The Gary Fong has eight holes and the Meritline has five holes. The Gary Fong is slightly more adjustable in height but I didn’t notice any difference in terms of usability. For the most part, I could get both of them to easily center on the flash. The next thing I noticed was the difference in apparent opacity and color. The Meritline seems a little more solid and more white in color. But when you hold them up to the light the difference becomes less obvious. Also of note is the slight difference in dimple pattern on the face between the two. In terms of build quality, the Meritline has better fit and finish. The plastic of the mount has less tooling/mold marks than the Gary Fong. Both easily mount onto the hot shoe but the Gary Fong fits a little more snug. Not that the Meritline was loose, just not as snug.
So the big question is whether one was better than the other…or if there is any difference at all? The easiest way is to take some pictures in a controlled environment and compare the results.
Both of these images were taken with a Nikon D50 using a Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3. Settings were JPG Fine, large size, AWB, f/6.3 @ 1/60 sec. There is a definite difference in color between the two. The Meritline is slightly warmer and not as harsh as the Gary Fong. The colors with the Meritline are closer to what it looks like to the eye. With the decreased harshness, it also seems that the Meritline doesn’t throw as much light as the Gary Fong. It must be the difference in opacity that accounts for all this. In practice, the difference in power can be adjusted for with flash compensation. Overall, I slightly prefer the effect of the Meritline over the Gary Fong.
I also tried the two other colors included with the Meritline. I can see where this can be fun to use, similar to a Lomo Colorsplash. Unfortunately, my flower subject just doesn’t work well with the colored diffusers. I’ll have to revisit this at a later time when I have a subject better suited to the colors. I’ll keep playing with them and report back later with my findings.
I have no real complaints with either of them other than the Gary Fong being over priced. I think the Meritline Diffuser is a very good alternative. It’s much cheaper and works as advertised. For a measly $2.29, the Meritline is a no brainer. Also, as some of you know, I am a Minolta/Sony shooter. If I was to have one request of both manufacturers, it would be for them to make a Minolta/Sony mount version. The hot shoe on Minolta/Sony DSLR’s are not standard. I’m sure many Minolta/Sony users would buy this if it was available to them. I suppose one could get a standard ISO adapter, but that would cost much more than the diffusers. Maybe they could include a small piece of molded plastic to act as an adapter. I think I’m going to try a DIY solution involving a hot shoe cover and some J-B Weld.
So if your a camera has a standard hot shoe, you can’t go wrong with the Meritline. It’s cheap enough that you can just toss it into your bag and not worry about it. Come to think of it, you should pick up a couple as this would also make a great gift for your photog friends!