Nova Wireless Flash Review: Star Trek Tech Meets Real-World Limitations

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Nova Wireless Flash

Last September, the Nova Wireless Flash earned a spot on my list of cool ways to geek out your wallet, even though it was little more than Kickstarter vapor at the time.

Now it’s a real product that’s shipping, so I’ve spent the last few days putting it to the test. This app-powered panel of LEDs promises to vastly improve the lighting quality of photos snapped with your iPhone. The gizmo is also compatible with Android devices, as evidenced by theNova Camera app in the Google Play Store. But for now the company’s app efforts appear to be focused squarely on iOS, as Android isn’t mentioned anywhere on the Nova’s product page. For the record, I performed my tests with an iPhone 5S.

Does it work?

If you’ve ever tried to illuminate a dark subject using your iPhone’s built-in LED, you know that the results aren’t always what you’d hoped. For starters, the proximity of the “flash” to the camera lens often results in harsh lighting that’s especially hard on skin tones. And though it might seem bright when you’re staring into it, that single LED doesn’t really generate much light.

The Nova measures exactly the length and width of credit card, though it’s about as thick as five cards stacked together. Inside that slim frame, a whopping 40 LEDs combine to provide extra light, with warm or cool tones depending on your preference.

Nova Wireless Flash

The idea goes like this: You’re in a restaurant or museum or cave, someplace where you’re desperate to snap a photo, but can’t overcome the poor lighting. Fwoosh! You whip the Nova out of your pocket, purse or wallet, tap your way into the Nova app and presto: You’ve got an off-camera flash.

The Nova relies on a Bluetooth connection to your smartphone, but in iOS at least it requires no manual pairing. Just fire up the companion app and it automatically finds and links to the flash. I didn’t realize this was even possible with Bluetooth, but it certainly makes for simple, novice-friendly operation.

Nova Wireless Flash app

The app itself, however, needs some work. For starters, it offers three presets — bright, gentle and warm — but the icon on the main screen never changes to reflect your choice; it always shows the Gentle icon (which, confusingly, looks like a tulip, an icon that usually indicates a camera’s macro mode).

Also, the custom setting provides two sliders that would seem to be at odds: “Warm brightness” and “Cool brightness.” As you fiddle with these, you’ll realize that the Nova Flash has 20 “cool” and 20 “warm” LEDs, and the sliders adjust the brightness of each bank. I suspect most will rely on the presets, but it would be nice if you could save a few custom settings to better suit your preferences. As the app stands now, you can’t.

A more serious issue is that the flash doesn’t always illuminate long enough to handle delays in the iPhone’s focus. For example, if you tap the shutter release, the Nova fires immediately, but the camera itself may spend a second refocusing (not uncommon in low-light situations) — and miss the extra light. Or, it may try to readjust at the last second based on the presence of additional light.

Whatever the case, I sometimes ended up with out-of-focus or less-than-flattering snapshots. Photographers who have more experience with off-camera flashes might have better luck, but ultimately I can’t say the Nova Flash improved enough of my photos to make it a worthwhile purchase. Ironically, the source for this issue might go to iPhone 5S itself, which is actually pretty good at handling low-light environments. The Nova’s benefits might seem more pronounced with older-model iPhones.

Nova sample no flash

A photo snapped without the Nova flash.

 

Nova sample warm flash

A photo snapped with the flash

It’s also just about impossible to use this as a selfie accessory, because you need two hands; one to hold the flash, another to operate the camera. This affects rear-facing shots as well, because you no longer have your second hand free to stabilize your phone. For the absolute best results, let your assistant hold the Nova. Yes, I’m kidding. Ideally the panel would come with a sticky pad for temporary affixing to the back of your phone.

I love the Nova Wireless Flash in principle, and I’m totally impressed with its design and portability. But the reality is that most smartphone snapshots are spontaneous, and using the Nova requires not only extra time, but also extra stability. Plus, it’s a hard sell at $60.

I’m not saying you can’t get better shots with it, merely that anyone who’s willing to spend $60 on a camera accessory is probably going to reach for a proper camera, not a smartphone. Your thoughts?

Photo credit: Rick Broida

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