Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Minolta Program 3500xi Flash

I will write this post to share my knowledge of the use of this flash with Alpha cameras.

Minolta released back in 1991 the Program 3500 xi flash. The flash was meant to be used with the xi series of cameras released back then (like the 7xi SLR).

Now, Ive seen some people asking about this flash and if it will work in a Sony Alpha DSLR (me included).

To begin with, the 3500xi CAN be used with the Alpha line. The flash uses the Minolta hot shoe mount, the mount has its years of service, and luckily for you, the Sony DSLRs also use this hot shoe mount.

The 3500xi has a Max. Guide Number of 35 and of 29 at 50mm. The zoom range is of 28 to 105mm. Manually you can set the zoom to 28, 50, and 105. It has a tilt of 90 degrees, which means it will go from straight to the subject to pointing at the roof (to bounce the light), it doesnt swivel.

It's fed with 4 AA batteries (alkaline or rechargeable), counts with a AF lamp which overrides the AF lamp in your camera (at least in the A700).

This flash has no option of manually setting the intensity released in the burst. However, it does have a button (Lo) which will allow you to reduce the total light emitted to an aproximate of 25%.

One function that will surely trick you its the wireless capability of the flash. You will pop it in the hotshoe mount of your Alpha, set the flash to wireless, half press the shutter to set the flash, remove it from the mount, place it somewhere in the room, do the communication test if you know how (press the AEL button, the camera built in flash will release a test signal to which the flash will reply) and fire..........just to realize the inbuilt one fired but the flash didnt.

Now, why this happens? Why it wont work if it says it can fire wirelessly and the Alphas have the Wireless mode? Why it doesnt fire EVEN IF THE COMMUNICATION TEST IS SUCCESSFUL?!

I had to ask around to get an answer to this question, I asked in the DPR Sony SLR forum and a group of savvy users cleared the issue for me. Gary Friedman also explained this in great detail in his user guide for the A700 (which I recommend you get, or for the A100, A200 and A300-350).

There is one thing you need to know and understand in order to understand why the 3500xi wont work wireless in an Alpha DSLR.

Back in the days of film, wireless flash worked different than today. Since the camera had film instead of a digital sensor, the metering was done differently, in what is called Through-The-Lens-Off-The-Film Metering or TTL-OTF Metering. In these days, the metering is done TTL or with ADI (Advanced Distance Integration). Read the link that says Flash Metering modes explained in order to understand the differences if you dont know them.

Wireless flash in a nutshell works like this:

The in built flash fires a series of bursts of low intensity light. The bursts vary in length, some are long and some are short. This acts like a kind of Morse code the flash (or flashes if you got more than one in wireless) interprets, the bursts tell the camera what intensity they should fire and when.

I may be oversimplying it and leaving a lot of details out the explanation, but I will provide links that will explain the subject in full extent.

The difference is that the protocol for wireless is not the same for film as is for digital. This is because the digital sensors are highly reflective, therefore the triggering mechanism is different. Gary Friedman explains this in his website (first link on the bottom)

So, back to the 3500xi, the flash was designed for FILM, not DIGITAL. Therefore the wireless function wont work with your Alpha, only in a xi series camera (or compatible Minolta SLRs).

The flash can be used as I already said in an Alpha DSLR. But youre limited to 100% or 25% output. The flash detects when you zoom in or zoom out and will adjust itself accordingly (this was tested with a A700 and a SAL 18-200).

The problem of using this flash on a DSLR is that you cant do much with it, basically because its not designed for digital. In order to get good shots with it, you need to control shutter speed, f number and ISO. In my personal opinion, using this flash on a DSLR is like having a high power inbuilt flash, theres a limit to what you can do with it.

If youre using a DSLR (Sony or Minolta), its better you stick to the flashes designed for digital. And same goes for SLRs, stick to film designed flashes, digital wont work properly.

So there you have it, you can use the 3500xi flash on your Alpha DSLR, but be aware of the limits of it.

I HIGHLY recommend reading the following articles, it will give you a comprehensive understanding of wireless flash and how cameras meter when using it.

Wireless flash explained (both film and digital)

Info about the Minolta 3500xi flash

Flash Metering Modes explained

DPR Sony DSLR Forum thread


  1. Is it then possible to have a Minolta 3500xi flash mounted on a Sony A200 DSLR and also at the same time having a sony flash used as a wireless flash? If so how is this done..

  2. Hello Anonymous user:

    As far as I know/understand about the wireless protocols between film and digital cameras, you can not use a 3500xi flash to trigger a Sony flash made for digital.

    The 3500xi will fire if its mounted on a A200, but its burst wont trigger a Sony flash due to the following reasons:

    1) Even though the Alpha DSLRs can do a communication test between the flash and themselves, the signal to make it fire is not recognized by the 3500xi since it requires a specific signal for film cameras that the Alpha DSLRs simply do not have.

    2) If a 3500xi does fire while mounted on a A200, it will be the normal burst of light needed to illuminate a scene, and that one isnt recognized as a signal by a Sony flash in wireless mode.

    Now, I may be wrong and it may actually help to fire out a wireless flash. You can always test this on your own, the worst thing it can happen is that the wireless flash wont do anything and you have to use the in built pop up flash on your A200.

    Wireless flash works like this: The in built camera flash sends small pulses of light that act as a morse code to the wireless flash, the flash interprets this signals since they contain the exposure data and how much light the flash must release when the shutter is pressed. A normal burst of light released from a flash doesnt contain any information in it as far as I know, therefore it can't act as a triggering signal (unless you used those slave flashes designed for P&S cameras that fire when they detect a flash going off).

    The signal protocols between film and digital wireless flashes vary because they are different formats.

    Imagine two teams of two people in a photo session. On both teams there is a person with a walkie talkie and the other person is operating the camera and has another walkie talkie to listen to the recommendations of the first person.

    Team A speaks english, Team B speaks Japanese, now, if both teams do not exchange partners, they will understand what they say to each other and work fine, but if you put the japanese person with the walkie talkie to talk to the person operating the camera that talks in english, they may be able to hear each other, but they wont understand a thing they say to each other.

    Same case with film and digital flashes as far as wireless goes. For the A200, its best to use a Sony flash for digital cameras and use the pop up flash to trigger it.

    Like I said before, you can test if the main flash burst from the 3500xi works to trigger the Sony wireless and let me know. In theory there shouldnt be any problem that could cause damage to your equipment as long as you dont do anything that the flashes arent made for.

    Thanks for visiting Alpha Sight.

  3. Hey just saw your blog. I do mostly indoor shooting. I have a sony a300. and theres a guy on craiglist selling a 3500xi flash for $25. I dont have 200 to 300 to spend on a flash at this point but i do need more power than the built in flash because it doesnt travel far. Basically i take my shots about 5 to 10 feet from the model and I am trying to shoot in manual at F8 1/125 with a 50mm 1.7 as I noticed it gives me a sharp pic, but I just need a better flash.

    Do you think the flash will work for me?

  4. Hello stranger :)

    The 3500xi will surely be an improvement of power and range over the inbuilt flash, but beware; like I said in my article, using that flash on a DSLR will mean that the output will be of 100% or 25% the very least. The problem is, in most situations its either too much power (leading to overexposures) or too little (leading to underexposures).

    If youll shoot that close to a subject with a prime lens, the flash will surely blow out your pictures.


    One simple, cheap and easy way to avoid this is to wrap a sheet of paper around the flash head and use the restrained flow of light to illuminate. Just dont point the paper tunnel that will be created straight to the subject.

    This method will cut a lot of light you wont use but will still illuminate your subjects with a nice touch.

    You will have to test this with the exposure values youre planning to use though, f/8 and 1/125 is a combination that may lead to underexposures if you dont control the output well.

    If you dont have the money to buy a flash for DSLR, try this one, it will surely serve you well, you just will need to learn to harness its power output.

    Let me know if you got any other doubts.

    Thanks for visiting Alpha Sight!

  5. Cac I use 50mm 1.7 lens without a flash and still get good pics?

  6. This is kind of a broad question. I'll give you some facts aimed to answer your question from different points of view.

    The primary reason for getting a fast lens is to use available light, which means you will be skipping the use of a flashgun. A f/1.7 lens will surely let you take pictures without a flash at the expense of a very thin DOF.

    Keep in mind that a 50mm lens on a APS-C DSLR (that is, every Alpha DSLR but the A850/900) will become a 75mm lens. This may pose a problem if you're working in interiors due to the fact that the lens will be a sort of a telephoto lens, therefore, too long and will make you back up a lot in order to frame properly. However, this may not be a problem to you and/or you can live with that fact, but some people can't. If this is a problem to you, I suggest you check out the Sony DT 35mm f/1.8 lens. Inexpensive little lens with great quality optics.

    However, learning the flaws of your gear and how to get around them gives you more control over it and in the long run, makes getting the shot you want easier without necessarily spending money on another lens.

    Finally, a good photograph doesn't depend THAT much on the gear you're using but on your skills and eye. You can have good gear and get mediocre shots and you can have mediocre gear and get great shots. What determines how good or bad a shot is your skill as a photographer and how capable you are of getting the shot you want with what you've got.

    I hope all this helps to answer your question. If you got any more doubts, don't hesitate to post them.

  7. Just found your blog and I've got to say thanks for the brilliant and extremely detailed information. The best I've found on this subject! Thanks :-) Phil

  8. Thanks a lot for clear, precise, and quite pedagogic informations on this subject.

    Congrats for your work.

  9. have you any idea can i use this flash with canon EOS 1000D? :)

  10. You need to use a hotshoe adapter. Look for a Minolta/Sony to standard hotshoe adapter. I think Sony sells one, but there should be others from other brands.

    Do keep in mind that if you find one, the flash will fire at full power all the time, since it's not communicating with the camera completely. It just receives the firing signal and that's it.

    In order to have complete communication between the flash and camera, you need to 1) get a proper Canon flash or 2) get a proper Minolta SLR.

    I hope this helps.