Over this passed winter I made a transition from my prized collection of SB-28s to the Lumedyne system 244. Winter is a slow season as far as cashing checks is concerned for me, and at the time I was really in need of more w/s so the Nikon flashes went on ebay. Fast forward another couple of months and I was jonesing to update my studio lights, so out went the Lumedynes. So come the summer months and I was starting to miss the ease and portability of the small lights. Don't get me wrong, I love busting out that 7' octa any chance I can get, but there is certainly a place for the shoe mount flashes when speed and portability is key.
The first time around, I acquired my flashes one at a time, adding one or two when I had the cash or found a particularity good deal on ebay. This time however, I was looking at buying a whole kit all at once and even at $100 a pop, those Nikon flashes can add up fast.
I started to look around for alternatives and I found the Vivitar 283. I had a few of these when I first started out but I sold them because they lack a real manual power control. The Main advantage of these flashes is that they are plentiful used, and they are cheap, so putting them in harms way is not a big deal. By any ones standards the 283 is very outdated and unlike it's big brother the 285, there has been little resurgence in demand with the recent popularity of off camera flash. The reason for this of course, is that pesky lack of power control.
Now, vivitar did make a little plug in unit to replace the auto one, but it was overpriced at $20 and is now discontinued meaning that the used price today is now even higher. The good news here is that there are quite a few good articles on the web about how to diy your own manual power control. They range from "duct tape and tin foil" type hacks to fairly intricate self contained solutions that will blend in seamlessly with the rest of your kit.
Most of these mods use a potentiometer (think volume knob) to do the job. The problem with these is that there are no hard stops for specific power settings, and depending of which type of pot you used it became very difficult to repeat your settings especially when you are dialing the power way down.
I came across what, in my mind, is the perfect solution to this problem a while ago before I had even seriously thinking about modifying the 283. I searched high and low to find the original site to link to, but as of right now I cannot find it. The idea came from a guy who was into microphotography and had built a control unit for a 283 to use for that purpose. The unit was simply a multi-position switch housed in plastic box. Each position of the switch connected a path with a specific resistance value that coincides with a specific light output. Basically, its a discrete variable resistor, the perfect solution for a manual power control. I found the resistance values by trial and error using a light meter and a big bag of resistors, I will post the numbers at some point for those who are interested. I do remember that the numbers were in the original article that I found, those numbers are probably more accurate then mine if you can find them.
The unit that I ended up with is 1"x2"x3" and offers a 5.5 stop range in half stop increments. This is based off of a 12 position, single pole switch. This is the largest switch that I could find. This offers a range from 1/1 all the way to half a stop past 1/32. The 283 can actually be tuned down past 1/128, but I wanted the half stops so mine has lightly less range.
The unit plugs into the port where the thyristor usually goes. I actually took apart the original thyristor module to steal the plug from it. The rest of the construction was fairly simple soldering and drilling a couple of holes. I printed a little colored power value dial on my inkjet and glued it on the front for now. I ordered a few sheets of water slide decals for a more finished look.
In the photos you will notice that the unit is not attached directly to the flash but is mounted on the light stand via an extension cord. This cord has several versions (sc-1, sc-2, sc-3) and can be purchased online for $10-20 depending on availability. I got one of these cords along with one of the flashes that I got on ebay, and I promptly ordered several more. There are several advantages to having the power control mounted remotely, first several modifiers (the Westcott Apollo softboxes come to mind) require you to mount the flash inside where it is not easily accessible, using the cord allows for easy power adjustments. The other reason has to do with sync. The 283 comes with the standard vivitar sync port, to utilize this would require carrying another species of cord and probably a few spares as well. The other option would be one of those little hot shoe translators, but that adds another inch of stack height and another flimsy junction between the stand and the strobe. The sc-1/2/3 solves this problem by adding another hot shoe at the control end of the cord where a Pocket Wizard or other trigger can easily be attached and adjusted along with the power control. You can see a close up of the whole control in the photo below. I have attached it to the light stand with a super clamp and an umbrella swivel but I have a much smaller and simpler solution in the works, stay tuned.