One of the problems with the Alpha 350/300 is that the Live View is linked to the settings when you use Manual exposure. It provides a form of metering, a relatively accurate preview of under or over exposure. This makes it impossible to use Manual with studio flash (AC mains strobe) setups. Currently, there is no menu setting to turn off ‘exposure preview with manual’ and enable ‘auto LV gain with manual’. But there is a solution.
The downside is that this solution depends, right now, on owning a Minolta/KM 5600 HS (D) flash or an earlier 5400HS or 5400xi model. It is possible that it may work with some independent or earlier flash models which allow manual power control as well. It does not work with the new Sony 56 according to Sony as the firmware of the flash has been changed from the 5600, to force auto flash operation unless the camera is set to Manual.
Here is how you do it:
Set the 5400/5600 flash to Manual (M); set the power to a low figure, suitable for triggering slave cell flash. I found that minimum power, 1/32nd, was sufficient to fire my Elinchrom RX600 heads in a studio-size room.
Set the Alpha 350 or 300 to Aperture priority auto – A. This is not the usual setting you would select for studio flash work. Normally you would select Manual – M. But if you use M, and set a typical combination of aperture and shutter (1/125, f/11, ISO 100 for example) the Live View is black. It’s several stops underexposed with normal brightness modelling lights, and the LV accurately reflects that.
With A selected, the camera will now switch to 1/60, 1/80, 1/125 or 1/160 shutter speed depending on how bright your modelling or existing light is. At the same time the Live View gain is detached from the settings. It no longer reflects the actual exposure your ambient light would produce! Auto gain kicks in, and you get a normal Live View. It does not matter what you do with the aperture – f/3.5, f/16, whatever. They all produce the same brightness on the LV now.
Set White Balance to the Daylight or Flash preset to avoid tungsten modelling light affecting auto WB.
The flash syncs any normal slave cell perfectly; there is no pre-flash because the 5400/5600 is set to M. Your Alpha 350/300 is now set up to work with mains power studio strobes and provide clear, bright Live View independent of the actual brightness of the modelling lamps. Of course, it’s better to have reasonably bright modelling.
The bad news is that the new HVL-F42AM flash, despite having manual power settings, is programmed to lock these out when attached to the Alpha 350/300 in any mode other than M on the camera. Although I have not tested it, Sony inform us that the new HVL-F56AM and HVL-F58AM will all behave this way too. You can set them before attaching the flash but the moment it connects with a camera in any Auto mode, the flash reverts to Auto. The 3600/36 has no manual settings and can not be used.
Third party compatible flash units may vary. The FS-1100 adaptor, used with earlier Minolta ISO hotshoe flash units, may possibly work but I don’t have a 4000AF or 360PX or anything similar to test. On its own, the FS-1100 does not ‘tell’ the camera that a flash is fitted and therefore will not switch Aperture Priority mode into auto gain LV and flash-determined shutter speeds.
The Flash Ready signal provided by guns is not a closed circuit or a voltage, it is a serial protocol handshake message between camera and flash. Therefore it’s not simple to rig up an adaptor to make it do the same job as the 5600/5400.
Unless Sony releases a firmware fix to dissociate LV brightness from Manual settings, switching it to Auto gain and enabling studio use, this method is the only one I know of so far to enjoy Live View in a studio environment.
Update July 23: the over-expensive (over £120 list price) Sony adaptor for studio flash, the FA-ST1AM Sync Terminal Adapter, does not set the camera to its flash sync speed despite having battery power and apparently being an ‘intelligent’ accessory. It therefore can not be used as a replacement for a 5600/56 gun for Live View studio triggering. My thanks to Derek at London Camera Exchange Colchester, Sony ACE dealers, for doing the necessary tests and confirming the nonfunctionality of the FA-ST1AM in this context.
Update August 6th: following my detailed description of the problem, Paul Genge of Sony UK is currently pressing Sony Alpha division, Japan, for a firmware fix to the A350 and A300 to allow Live View auto gain in Manual mode – or a new version of the FA-ST1AM which will provide a Flash Ready signal to the camera.
– David Kilpatrick