Before I start the review about the actual device itself, I want to take a step back and talk about why you may want an external flash for your smartphone (iPhone or Android).
The importance of Flash in photography
Every hobbyist and professional photographer knows and understands the technical fundamentals of a camera (ISO, Shutter, Aperture, etc). But even with a solid understanding of the fundamentals of photography, your picture will only look Mehhhh!
Truly beautiful photos are works of art and are snapshots of how the photographer sees the world. One of the most the most powerful and useful tools a photographer has is the use of light (natural or artificial).
This is why Apple spend a lot of time and money developing their True Tone flash.
The Apple camera system takes a quick snapshot of the scene and measures the ambient color to produce a flash colour that is more pleasing (the Apple True Tone flash can produce up to 1000 different colours to perfectly match the target). But..
Let's talk about some important facts regarding photography :
1 - Don't be afraid of the flash
Many people fear the flash because they believe it will produce harsh unpleasing pictures. Sure but that is like saying you don't want to drive because you may hit someone. It all comes down to how you use it. The proper use of flash can be a beautiful artistic expression. The improper use of flash can produce mug-shot like snapshots.
2 - Your built in flash sucks
Whether talking about a point and shoot, dSLR or smartphone, your device's built in flash should only be used as a lighting of last resort. Ideally you want a flash that is bigger and that can be positioned in different ways.
Nova: Even though the iPhone 5s/6/6plus flashes are amazing, they are still close to the camera which makes them a flash of last resort. If you want great pictures, your flash has to be farther away which is what the Nova does.
3 - Bigger is better
You want the strongest and largest flash that is practical for the situation you are in. Strongest also means it has to have a mechanism to someone throttle the output power but that the power is there if you need it. Plus having a larger flash area means light will be more distributed (less concentrated) and will therefore look more natural.
Nova: The Nova is several times larger than the built in flash which means it produces a softer more pleasing light than the built in flash.
4 - Bounce that flash
You want the flash surface to be as big as possible so one very cheap and commonly used technique (with an external flash) is to bounce it off a wall or ceiling.
Nova: Because the Nova is a portable unit, it allows you to bounce the light of a wall, ceiling or any other object.
5 - Use light to paint your subject
A newbie thinks the purpose of the flash is to get perfect well balanced exposure but a true expert sees light as a paint brush with which he can decorate his canvas. Just look at the above picture taken in an abandoned factory. The way Jason used light is incredible.
6 - Use colour gels with your flash
Photographers use flash gels to ensure the light from the flash matches the ambient light they are working with. As an example if you are taking indoor photos under incandescent light (which is more warm) you don't want to use a cold blue-ish light.
Nova: Because Nova allows you to play with the colour of the output light, you can get really creative. In addition to these settings, you can tape thin colored plastic to the flash (instead of expensive photography gels) and get cool artistic pictures.
7 - Use flash to supplement natural light
In most cases, start with the available natural light and then supplement with your flash. Learn how to master natural light first.
Introducing the Nova Photos Smartphone Flash
So why did I spend the time to write the above general photography recommendations? Because they ALL apply to smartphone photography and this is why any serious iPhoneographer or Androidographer should consider purchasing one (or a couple).
The Nova Photos flash is a credit card sized self contained unit with 40 LEDs and is controlled by their iPhone app (android coming too). The device is powered by a built in USB rechargeable battery.
When charged, it automatically connect to their Nove photos iphone app via bluetooth (no power switch to toggle) and is ready to serve in seconds.
Since this is a portable device, it can be used for normal photography ( using the high quality back camera) or for annoying selfies (using the lower quality front facing camera). Now you can annoy your facebook friends with selfies taken in the dark.
The Nova Photos iPhone App
Its a pretty basic app for taking pictures. No filters or advanced photography features.
Basically it is used to connect to the flash and set the flashes colour temperature and output power. All pictures are saved to your "normal" camera roll.
They have opened up the flash to developers and I'm hoping the fine folks behind Camera+ add support for Nova in a future release.
The device is all plastic but doesn't feel cheap. It feels relatively well built and you should get years of use with proper care. The internal battery is not user serviceable which means when the battery starts to die, you will need to buy a new Nova. Most common rechargeable batteries give you 300-500 full charges so you should get 2-3 years of good use before the battery becomes an issue.
On a full charge, I was able to get about an hour worth of casual shooting (about 100-150 pictures). You can't charge and use the device at the same time. As an example, I would have loved to connect the flash to an external battery with a long USB cable and continue using it (but this is not an option).
The flash doesn't have a 1/4 20 mount which means you can't use it with any of the iPhoneography rigs available. The only option I found was to use it with a smartphone clamping system like the Joby GripTight (link) , Glif Adjustable (link) or the ShoulderPod S1 (link). You can use these to prop up the Nova flash in any desired direction.
The Nova Photos flash does allow you to change the power output and change the colour of the flash. The warm LEDs do a great job but I found the cool ones not blue enough.
I wish the cool setting was more cool (aka blueish).
I wish their app had a feature to "measure the brightness and color of the light" to automatically tune the flash output (similar to how TTL works on a dSLR.
After testing this thing for 2 weeks, I say get it. At $59 its pretty easy to justify for almost anyone that spent $800 on a smartphone (link).
- It is better than the built in flash
- It is more versatile than the built in flash
- It works with your Facetime camera (aka selfie camera)
It isn't perfect... I made some recommendations that I hope Nova listens to. One other recommendation is the ability to use multiple Nova flashes at the same time for more creative options. I would like their app to be able to control multiple flashes (ideally each with its own settings).