When I wrote my Macro Photography Lighting Tutorial, I had the opportunity to test a fairly popular product for my section on ring lights: the Bolt VM-110. I was happy with the quality of light from the VM-110 ring light, but I was unimpressed with its low strength. Since ring lights are so commonly-used for macro photography, I decided that it would be worthwhile to review the VM-110 and share some of my thoughts about how well it works for macro photography.
- Guide Number: 15 feet (4.5 meters) at ISO 100 and 50mm equivalent
- Effective Range: 5 feet (1.5 meters)
- Exposure Modes: Manual only, with seven brightness levels
- Supported Filter Thread Sizes: 49-77mm
- Number of LEDs: 48
- Estimated LED Lifetime: 50,000 hours
- Ring Dimensions (WxHxD): 4.5 x 4.3 x 0.8 inches (114 x 109 x 20 mm)
- Body Dimensions (WxHxD): 4.5 x 2.8 x 1.4 inches (114 x 71 x 36 mm)
- Weight: 7.1 ounces (200g)
The body of the Bolt VM-110 is made of cheap-feeling plastic, which is attached to a ring of LED lights via a spiral cord. To attach the flash to your lens, the VM-110 comes with adapters ranging in size from 49mm to 77mm. These adapters fit between your lens and the LED ring, securing the VM-110 in place. The body of the VM-110 attaches to your camera using the hotshoe.
The VM-110 comes with a few additional light modifiers, as well: a white ring diffuser that covers the LEDs, as well as similar attachments in blue and orange. The VM-110 is quite a weak flash, though, rendering these modifiers all but useless — you don’t want to lose any light through diffusion.
The VM-110 is quite simple to operate. Aside from the on/off button and the pilot light (which fires a test flash), the only options for the flash are its mode — flash or continuous light — and the strength of the LEDs. You can also set the flash to output on just half of the LEDs at a time, but I have yet to do so in real-world use.
The VM-110 takes four AA batteries, and it lasts for about 400 photos with the flash (less if you are on continuous lighting mode). The battery performance is adequate, but it’s not stellar.
The quality of the light from the VM-110 is good — the lighting is very even, although shadows are a bit flat. This is typical of a ring light. However, the strength of the flash leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Even at its absolute strongest, the VM-110 is not bright enough to allow you to shoot at apertures of f/16 to f/22, unless you raise your ISO to 1600 or higher. The VM-110’s guide number is rated at a measly fifteen feet (4.5 meters) at ISO 100 — for comparison, the guide number of the Nikon D3300’s on-camera flash is rated at forty feet.
It gets worse, though. The VM-110 has two options: flash and continuous lighting. The duration of the flash, though, is about half of a second!
This means that you can’t rely on the flash to freeze motion — instead, you need to adjust your shutter speed to compensate. And the faster your shutter speed, of course, the less of the flash’s light that you receive.
In other words, there is little benefit to using the flash instead of the continuous light. The only real reason to do so is to gain some extra battery life — a bit deceptive, in my opinion.
The main use I see for this flash would be night-time macro photography. You can leave the flash on its continuous mode, which works as a flashlight for nocturnal bugs. Although I certainly would prefer it to be brighter, having a continuous light is the only feasible way to take macro images at night. If the VM-110 has a strong point, night photography is it.
Ring lights are extremely popular, and there is no shortage of options on the market. However, even the most powerful options suffer somewhat in the strength of their light, especially when compare to traditional flashes.
One of the best ring flashes in terms of output is the VM-110’s older brother: the VM-160. This ring light is almost identical, but its guide number is 70 feet (21 meters) rather than fifteen. This is quite a large improvement, although this flash retains some of the VM-110’s other issues (for example, the duration of the flash also is too long to freeze motion). The VM-160 costs $109.
Another ring light worth considering is the Phoenix SmartFlash RF-46N ring light, which has an automatic exposure mode (unlike both the Bolt flashes). However, the RF-46N also is a fairly weak light — its guide number is rated at 46 feet (14 meters) at ISO 100. The Phoenix SmartFlash RF-46N is available for $87.
Although the Bolt VM-110 has significant issues, at least it isn’t priced as a particularly high-end product. Coming in at $79, it is less expensive than most of its counterparts, although not vastly so.
For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t buy the VM-110 for the flash mode — I would buy a traditional off-camera flash for that purpose instead — but you could make a case to buy it if you need a continuous ring light.
If you are doing macro video, for example, a constant light is almost a necessity. Also, as I mentioned above, you will want a continuous light at night-time so that you can focus on your subject. Still, if your needs are that specialized, you probably wouldn’t mind paying another $30 to get the VM-160 for its extra power. I just don’t see many scenarios where the VM-110 is the best light for the job, even taking price into account.
Bolt VM-110 Ring Light
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