Off-camera flash photography used to be the realm of DSLR and mirrorless shooters but now mobile shooters with supported phone models can get in on the game with the Godox A1.
The Godox A1 is a compact device that is billed as a smartphone flash but also functions as a remote control and wireless transmitter for other Godox lights. I bought one new for under $50 because I wanted to pop it into one of my LEGO buildings and wirelessly light the interiors with flash rather than using LEDs and long exposures. I already own a few Godox speedlights and have a compatible trigger anyway so adding the A1 was a bit of a no-brainer for me.
However, using the A1 as an off-camera flash with a DSLR or mirrorless camera is just a secondary use case. I wanted to see how well it performed its main function as a standalone smartphone flash.
For this review, I’ll be taking the A1 through a real shoot with a phone camera to see how it could change a LEGO photographer’s mobile setup.
Using the GodoxPhoto app
To use your phone to take photos with the A1, you need a phone model supported by their GodoxPhoto app (iOS and Android). Most iPhones work but only a handful of Android models from Samsung and Huawei are compatible with the smartphone flash feature. So instead of using my Pixel 3 for this review, I was reduced to using an old iPhone 6.
Setting up is easy — just pair the A1 with the phone over Bluetooth via the app. For LEGO photography with a mobile phone, I set the flash to manual and dialed it down to the lowest setting possible, 1/16. There’s little point setting the A1 to auto and having the camera meter the scene to determine the proper light intensity because 1/16 is already more than enough light as I explain later in this review. Setting the flash to manual just reduces any surprises.
The experience falls apart when you start using the GodoxPhoto camera app. It’s terribly lacking in advanced features like a manual focus control, focus peaking or a macro mode setting, making it difficult to get precise focusing on a minifig. Grid overlays, histograms, and levels are also absent.
Autofocus is a bit laggy but once the camera has achieved focus, you can lock it by holding after tapping the focus point.
The easiest way to achieve focus is to either turn on the phone’s flashlight within the GodoxPhoto app or turn on the modeling light on the A1. A modeling light helps you see where the light from the flash will fall but I rarely used it, perhaps out of habit since I don’t have modeling lights on any of my other speedlights.
I just plugged the iPhone into a power bank and used the flashlight to help the camera focus instead. You can turn on the phone’s flashlight from the GodoxPhoto camera app and it will automatically turn off when you shoot so none of that hideous frontal light will be in your photo.
The app also lets you pick from several white balance presets, change the ISO from 32 to 1800, and slow down the shutter speed from a maximum of 1/25 to 1/5.
If you know your exposure basics, you know that 1/25 is a slow shutter speed and that the corresponding effects are the presence of ambient light, motion blur and noise in your photo.
Unfortunately, 1/25 is the native sync speed for the iPhone 6 so it’s not the fault of Godox’s app but rather a limitation of the phone. Sync speed is the fastest shutter speed at which your camera can use a normal flash. For smartphones, this will hover around 1/25 and 1/40 because of the way the electronic shutter works.
A slow sync speed of 1/25 coupled with the wide open apertures of phone cameras means you won’t be able to get black backgrounds or fully control all the light in your photo with camera settings alone. To eliminate ambient light with a slow sync speed, you’d have to shoot in the dark. One of the biggest benefits of using flash though is being able to use higher shutter speeds to prevent ambient light contamination so this may render the A1 no better than bright LEDs.
Using the flash
Flashes are capable of putting out a lot of light and the diminutive A1 is no exception. Measuring with my light meter, I found that at its lowest power setting of 1/16 at a distance of about 6 inches away, I needed to use an aperture of f/4.5 at my Sony a6500’s native ISO of 100 and native sync speed of 1/160 for the photo to be correctly exposed. Translating that to most camera phones with fixed apertures between f/1.8-2.2, lower native ISO settings and sync speeds means that the light from the A1 is about 2 stops too bright for a phone camera and will result in an overexposed photo.
However, this isn’t a dealbreaker since you typically want to soften the light of any flash anyway with a light modifier. There aren’t any light modifiers made specifically for the A1 but simply putting a piece of white copy paper between the flash and the scene you are shooting will effectively cut the intensity and diffuse the light nicely. You could also turn the flash away from the scene and bounce the light off of a white surface for a similar effect.
I did a quick test diffusing the light using a white paper bag I had laying around:
Straight out of camera, the diffused light looks nicely spread with smooth transitions in the shadows:
But what about a more low-key scene with controlled light?
In the test shot with the driftwood, it was easy enough to light the entire LEGO scene with a diffused A1. For the real shoot, however, I wanted to capture light streaming into a dark cave.
To create the cave, I used a rock wall build in the background and placed a BURP in the foreground to create the cave opening on the left where the light would stream through. I set up a white card on the opposite side using helping hands to bounce some of that light back onto the caveman’s face.
Because I couldn’t get the tighter framing I wanted using the iPhone and the fact that the ambient light would illuminate the brick wall, I had to use a larger sheet of black foam to hide the background. I knew I would be cropping the photo in post but to reduce the amount of editing of the background later, it was easier to just cover it.
I put a cardboard box on the right of the scene to block most of the window light and to cast a shadow over the cave.
The A1 was set to the left with a piece of copy paper tented over it to reduce the intensity of the light. Since there aren’t any modifiers like barn doors or snoots available for the A1 to control the spread of light, I propped up half a sheet of that same black foam I used to hide the background. I also slightly angled the A1 away from the foreground so the BURP wouldn’t have to block much light.
Shooting with mobile
A tripod probably doesn’t figure into most mobile shooter’s workflow but I like using one for most LEGO photography regardless of the camera I’m using. It’s important for me to keep my hands free to make minute adjustments here and there to lights, wires and the stage as well as to add atmosphere with sprays.
I also usually use a timer to prevent any camera movement from my fingers and to get the atmosphere element ready. For this shoot, I spritzed some Atmosphere Aerosol to the left to accentuate the light streaming in.
I wasn’t really sure if the shutter speed was sufficient enough to capture it but I’m pleased to see that it worked!
Phone photography with off-camera flash is new territory, and the design limitations of phone cameras present obstacles for doing it well. A slow native sync speed means you won’t be able to eliminate all the ambient light in a scene and a fixed aperture means you can only control the intensity of light to get a correct exposure.
In this regard, dimmable LEDs might be a better lighting solution for mobile shooters since they are generally much lower powered than the Godox A1. LED panel surfaces are much larger than the tiny flash window of the A1 so they already have a softer quality of light for LEGO photography too. But the size also means they take up more space on set and the light spill is harder to control.
LED panels also have another advantage over the A1 for phone photographers: you’re free to use your phone’s native camera or install a more advanced camera app with manual controls.
So who’s the A1 for?
1) If you shoot with a DLSR or mirrorless camera, already use Godox flashes in your LEGO photography and need to wirelessly fire small flashes in tight spots, the A1 is a neat little light to have.
I choose speedlights over LED panels because I like the control they afford. Apart from the availability of light modifiers to control the quality, direction, color, shape and intensity of the light, speedlights let me shoot more quickly and efficiently because I can work with faster shutter speeds.
I try to avoid using long exposures in my photography because it makes the shoot longer, photos noisier, and the chances for mistakes higher. A long exposure with minifigs perched on wires in a dark room is a nightmare; it’s a re-do if you accidentally touch your tripod, a car passes your window with its headlights on, or one of the putty holding the minifigs in place starts to lose its grip while your shutter is open.
2) If you see yourself leveling up from a phone camera in the near future and want to get into lighting, the A1 might be a good fit since it has a modeling light to help you visualize how the flash will illuminate your scene.
That’s an advantage that LED panels and expensive studio strobes have over normal-sized speedlights and one of the main reasons why people go for LEDs in the first place. The A1 removes this advantage.
As you improve your lighting techniques and get into more complicated lighting scenarios, you can use the A1 to control and trigger other Godox speedlights such as the compact TT350.
When you upgrade to a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can add Godox’s X1 or XPro transmitter to control the A1 and many other Godox flashes including studio strobes and speedlights.
But before buying the Godox A1, check the app store to see if your phone model is listed as compatible in the description! Then download the app and launch the camera to make sure you don’t get the “Your smartphone model do not support this function temporarily!” screen I got on my Pixel 3.