Let’s be honest…I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t seen a hammerhead flash like this in a while. Likely the last time the majority saw a photographer using one of these recently was during NWA’s press conference in the movie Straight Outta Compton.
More commonly on the top of cameras these days are speedlites (or speedlights, strobes, hotshoe flashes, based on which branding we’re talking about). The popularity of speedlites make sense as they are lightweight, easy to toss in a camera bag and typically have enough power to get the job done.
Speedlites are not without their limitations. Functions that should be simple to access are hidden across a series of press/hold dials and obtuse menus. While the clumsy lock button on the head is useful when using modifiers, it makes pivoting a chore. Most of all, their power is very finite: high guide numbers on speedlites are often fudged by the manufacturer basing the power on the flash zoomed narrowly to it’s furthest range. In situations that requires a LOT of flash, photographers will often double or triple (or more!) up the amount of speedlites for a single light source. (Syl Arena made it an art form.)
I can think of two main situations for needing that much power: one is outside in the daylight when you’re needing to “outpower the sun.” That phrase is a bit of a misnomer, but simply describes the tricky task of properly exposing the subject with flash while underexposing the ambient daylight. The other situation would be when bouncing your flash: shooting at a nearby reflective surface to create a bigger directional light source. The distance and height of walls and ceilings are frequently different in fast-paced scenarios like events, and having more power gives you more versatility at lower ISO speeds in larger spaces and tricky conditions. Better to have too much flash than not enough, I say.
Enter the Metz 60 CT-4
Which brings us to the discontinued Metz 60 CT-4. A German-made hammerhead flash truly a testament of it’s time, the CT-4 model dates all the way from the mid 80s through the end of it’s production run during the mid-2000s. I think the Metz has been a hit with event and wedding photographers over the years for one big reason: this workhorse was BORN to bounce.
The guide number for this flash is 60 meters (period), putting out an incredibly clean, pleasing light that can range up to several stops over the average top-of-the-line speedlite. The CT-60’s flash head is very easy to position at will throughout your ever-changing circumstances: it pivots, tilts and rotates in all directions you need and lacks the annoying lock button that gets in your way.
The Metz has a TTL mode, but not the same kind that digital cameras use today and will be of little use. Not to worry: the flash’s auto mode is more than capable and puts out surprisingly consistent and pleasing results, often better than the TTL on my other flashes. Using auto couldn’t be simpler: set your camera to the aperture and ISO you want, set the dials on the back of the flash head to match those same settings…and that’s it. Fire away and bounce with confidence: the Metz will take care of the rest.
If you’d rather do things the manual way, just spin the aperture dial past “TTL” to “M” and use the large dial on the top of the flash head to set the power anywhere from 1/256 to 1/1 of power. The only issue with manual adjustment is that the controls are much less convenient to access on top of the flash versus the auto controls on the back handle.
The head connects to the camera via the classic PC sync cord and the CT-4 is voltage safe (5V) on modern DSLR cameras. If you so desire, there is a cord that will allow you to connect a Pocketwizard (or any trigger with a mini-phone jack) and use this as a portable strobe of sorts. (Like many Pocketwizard cables, this cord will cost you.)
The power pack
Typical rechargeable AA batteries certainly won’t cut it when powering the Metz 60: an external power pack is needed which may be foreign to photographers used to traveling lighter with Speedlites.
The power pack contains both the flash capacitor and a rather heavy Dryfit cell battery, neither of which like sitting around unused for extreme amounts of time. If you’re not using the Metz on a frequent basis, it’s a good practice to power on your battery pack(s) at least every few months and fire off a few flashes to keep the capacitor in good condition.
The battery is indeed rechargeable but has a strange system for doing so: after about six hours, the red light goes out…but this only means you’re charged at 80%. It will take a few more hours to fully reach 100% and you probably don’t want to over or under charge these kinds of batteries.
Fortunately, better battery options exist now. A third-party lithium-ion battery sold online from Malaysia has been making buzz with Metz users. The battery is a little different as it has it’s own AC adapter jack and charger (do NOT charge this via the power pack like the Dryfit) but the entire system works more like we’re accustomed to: red while charging and green when finished. Not only does the battery charge quicker and lasts longer, but it weighs considerably less than the Metz Dryfit and makes a big difference on carrying around the power pack.
Do some Googling to find these batteries: they’re most commonly available on eBay and cost about the same amount as the Metz Dryfit batteries after shipping. (On that note, I’ve also see odd accounts of photographers using low-cost batteries from Batteries Plus in modded power packs, but I’m not the one to ask about this.)
(Update 4/28/17: I’ve noticed that the price of the Li-ion batteries on eBay have increased dramatically in recent times and the shipping can be upwards of $25(!). As the Dryfits are still available on sites like B&H for more reasonable shipping costs as of this writing, they may now be the more cost-effective solution. But this is for you to decide based on the pros and cons of both batteries.)
Easily the Metz’s biggest Achilles heel is the bracket that attaches the flash head to the side of the camera body…it flat out sucks. It’s incredibly basic and is prone to failure if you’re not careful. In a complete moment of lunacy and stupidity on my part, I gripped the camera/flash combo by the Metz handle alone while my other hand was getting something out of a bag and the bracket ejected itself and caused the camera to hit the ground. As it was one of the few times I was working without a strap, the impact caused damage to the lens and required a pricey repair.
Never trust the bracket and I would chuck it in the garbage…like the battery, better options exist. Custom Brackets sells options for all kinds of flashes (some lightweight and low-profile) that are not only more sturdy, but allows you to rotate the flash based on your orientation. I highly dislike using flashes in portrait mode so this option is very compelling.
Otherwise as I said, carrying around a battery pack can be a bummer. But the lighter Li-ion battery helps a lot and the pack can be tossed into a camera bag to make things easier.
Who is this for, and how do I get one?
As said, the Metz 60 CT-4 is most intended for event or wedding photographers. It’s not nearly as practical for model / studio photography as there aren’t a whole of of light modifiers that conveniently attach to the large flash head and some may be too much weight for it. Speedlites are far more versatile in this regard, and there are other flashes like the Godox Witstro AD360 that has it’s own ecosystem of light modifiers and also bests Speedlites in the power category.
So why buy an old Metz today? The best reason to get a lot of power more affordably than even mid-ranged Speedlites. Your best bet is eBay or the online camera stores in the used gear section.
There are catches I should mention if you plan on buying one used, however. You’re on your own with product support: In the past I had contacted Bogen / Manfrotto (who handles distribution / customer service for Metz) and they informed me that they no longer offer support for the Metz 60 units.
Many of the batteries and power packs sold with the flash head that you’ll find have likely been sitting in a closet gathering dust for a good while (maybe years), which is not good on the components. I’ve had a battery pack from B&H blow a capacitor on me, fortunately they took it right back and I’ve had better luck with other sellers. I would absolutely bet on the battery being either ineffective or dead, so factor in the costs of a replacement. For these reasons and the lack of support, this may be enough to dissuade you from the Metz and invest in more modern options instead.
On the other hand, owning a well functioning unit is rewarding. The Metz Mecablitz 60 isn’t for everyone and you’ll likely get funny looks from those wondering what decade you’ve come out of, eager to inform you that smaller options are out there. But bear the weight and attention and you’ll be afforded with portable lighting opportunities that the small units may not be cut out for. Sometimes the classics are the best.