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Portable studio flash - choices

Tim Armes

New member
Hi all,

I'm looking to invest in a portable studio flash kit, as as such I've been doing a lot of research. I'm posting here for two reasons: firstly to share the results of my own research so that that may benefit others who are looking, and secondly to see if I can garner any feedback on the systems that seems, to me, to be the winners.

If there are any corrections that get pointed out I'll fix them directly in this post, so that it remains the reference.

A little background....


Currently, I own two Bowens Gemini 500W monoblocks that I use for indoor studio work. I originally chose these a few years back because they were well regarded, well priced, and potentially portable (battery pack available as an accessory). Also, there's a huge range of accessories available for the Bowens S-mount. They come with a convenient roller bag for easy-ish transportation. I believe that Bowens is commercialised under the Camulet brand in the US?

These lower-end Bowens have worked exceptionally well for me. They're well built and have great light quality. However they do suffer from one gross limitation that's affected my work - a relatively long flash duration - not helpful for freezing movement.

For most of my on-location flash needs I've gone the strobist route, using 3 Canon strobes to great effect. Most of the time this works really well, however I've now reached a stage where I often need more power on-location....

The options

There are a number of battery flash solutions on the market, with offerings from all the major players - Broncolor, Profoto, Bowens, Elinchrom, Hensel, Lumedyne, Dynalite, etc.

Based on my own needs I eliminated Lumedyne and Dynalite since they seemed more oriented to reportage than commericial photography - the kit's nice and very portable, but the flashes are less powerful and offer less potential in terms of modifiers. Also, they're much less accessible here in Europe.

I also eliminated Broncolor because they're far far too expensive.

That left Profoto, Bowens, Elinchrom and Hensel.

The frustrating thing about all this is that each company's offerings have some great advantages, but no company has it all. Even if money were no object, they'd still be compromises to make.

I'll look at each in turn.

Elinchrom

Elinchrom offer the Ranger system for portable flash, and the new Quadra. The Quadra's a very interesting new developement aimed at the photographer requiring "powerful" flash and lots of portability. Personally though, I'd like more than 400Ws for overpowering the sun.

The top-of-range "Ranger RX Speed AS" system is reasonably priced, has a fantastic range of modifiers, and offers wireless control of the flash output via the skyport radio commander. The flash heads can be used with the Quadra system, offering a more portable solution without having to reinvest in heads.

It offers 1100Ws of power, a 7 stop range, two head connections, 250 full power flashes and weights 8kg.

The shortest flash (at lowest power) duration is 1/5120s but they don't state the longest flash duration. The recycle time is 3s. The unit claims to be assymetric, but in reality it offers a fixed 2:1 ratio for each head, so not really as versatile as I'd have liked.

The biggest disadvantage seems to be the awkward mount. Many people complain about it being difficult to use, and I've read a few report about modifiers actually falling off.

Hensel


Hensel's claim to fame is that they use much newer battery technology than their competitors. The Lithium Ion technology they're using has a huge weight advantage.

The "Porty 12" is a 1200Ws unit, offering 250 full power flashes and a 2s recycle time in a 6kg battery. Very impressive.

Flash duration ranges from 1/1519 to 1/5100s when using the "EH Pro Mini 1000 P Speed" head.

The Porty 12 offers better asymmetric control than the Elinchrom with ratios of 1:1, 1:2 or 1:3, but still no fully independant control.

The biggest disadvantage to this system is price. The battery alone is neary 4000 euros!

Profoto

Everyone raves about Profoto, and I was expecting great things.

Profoto offers several battery options, ranging from the Pro B2 to the Pro 7b to the Acute.

The Acute system is smaller and lighter than the others, but less powerful and less well specified in terms of flash duration etc., so I haven't considered that. It would be very useful if you could use the normal heads with the Acute pack, but alas no - you can only use the Acute heads.

The 7b is used and highly rated by many professionals, but the specifications are uninspiring:

1200Ws
250 full power flashes from a single battery cassette
0.09–2.8 s recycling time
1/1400–1/3000s flash duration
7 f-stop range in 1/6 step adjustments
Asymmetrical or symmetrical power distribution (fixed 1:2 ratio)
100 W modeling lamp
11.5kg

So, it's heavy, expensive, and no better specified than the Elinchrom but with worse flash duration.

The B2 is a more impressive beast:

200 full power flashes from a single battery cassette
ultrafast recycling: 0.04–1.8 s
very short flash durations: 1/2200–1/7400 s
full 8 f-stop range in 1/2 or 1/10 step adjustments
asymmetrical or symmetrical power distribution (fixed 1:2 ratio)
up to 250 W modeling lamp
continuous modeling light or timer
12kg

The fast recycling and short flash durations are a great boon. However, it's very, very expensive, and still heavy.

Profoto do however have one very big advantage over the other makes - the mounting system is simply awsome. The reflecters can be moved back and forth along the flash, thus changing the light quality. Very nice indeed.

Bowens

On paper Bowens offer an outstanding battery generator - the Explorer 1500:

1500Ws
3.8s recycle (3 secs at 1200W, for the sake of comparison with the others)
1/2130 - 1/5700s flash duration
Two *fully* asymmetric heads PLUS two Bowen Geminis monoblocs for a total of 4 lights.
7 stop range
10.8 kg

To put this into perspective, it equals or betters the Profoto 7b on all fronts, and costs half the price. In terms of flash duration, it's nearly twice as fast as the 7b and at 1500Ws it's pretty much equivalent to the B2 at 1200Ws!

Furthermore, the Explorer achieves it's shortest flash duration at 1000Ws, and it increases at both higher and lower power levels. This is a very unusual feature, and for overpowering sunlight and stopping action it could be a very useful feature.

Conclusion

I wish there were a decisive winner here, but there isn't.

The Elinchrom is possible the weakest offering - the skyport being it's only saving grace.

For pure purformance the Profoto 2B seems to be the champ, with a very short minimum flash duration and the fastest recycling time. There's a caveat however - the Bowens achieves it's 1/5400s at 1000Ws, whereas the 2B is at it's best at the lowest power. At 1000Ws the Bowans is much faster than the 2B!

For portability the Hensel wins hands down with the 6kg pack!

Pricewise Profoto and Hensel are ludicrously expensive. The worse value for money is the Profoto 7b. Very expensive with very mediocre specifications that aren't any better than the others. The flash duration is awful.

Profoto does however have the outstanding mount and excellent modifiers that are very highly regarded.

The Bowens Explorer 1500 seems to be an excellent comprise. Middle weight, well priced, short flash duration, fully asymmetric and 4 lights (2 heads + 2 monoblocs). From a personal view point the fact that I can use my existing heads is a massive plus. If it had a 2s rather than 3s recycle time it'd be the undisputed winner.

I'd like to know more about the Explorer, read a few hands on reviews etc, but I can't find much at all. It's had to win the prize for the most understated battery flash generator. Do any of you have any experience with it?

Despite all that the Profoto modifiers so lovely that I'm pulled that way to - even though it's not reasonable.

Tim
 
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Asher Kelman

OPF Owner/Editor-in-Chief
Hi Tim,

What is your timetable for buying your new portable system. Also, what is the max W/S you would like? How fast do you need to recycle and what is the duration of flash, t 0.5, that you are hoping for? What would be unacceptable. I ask this because I have learned of a new head. however, I'm seeking permission to describe it. I have not tested it yet.

Asher
 

Jack_Flesher

New member
Tim:

While I agree that Profoto has the best modifier mount and in fact are my choice for studio AC strobes hands-down (I *LOVE* the D-4 packs and heads), their battery portables have *HUGE* disadvantage and why I went with Elinchrom Rangers.

The disadvantage to Profoto B's is they are not weatherproof -- in fact it's even worse, they aren't even heavy-fog drizzle resistant. A drop of moisture -- and I'm not exaggerating, really just a drop -- in an open head port and they snap, crackle, pop and die, a dead, done, cannot be repaired dead.

By contrast you can run Rangers in a downpour with no worry. Yes, the reflector mount is frustrating at times -- it's main disadvantage is it requires two hands to mount and lock it in place. You mount the reflector and twist it over the pins and it's on, but then have to spin the lock ring to lock it firm -- and the lock ring won't spin if your reflector isn't mounted properly. But at the end of the day, once you get the hang of it, it's no big deal. The only modifier you're likely to damage due to improper mounting is a big Mola or beauty dish, so you just take the extra 4 seconds to make sure you mounted AND locked it. An advantage of the Elinchrom mount is it is less bulky and makes for more compact, lighter-weight reflectors than Profoto's.

I run the RX A/S Speed packs with both A (short duration or speed) and S (normal) heads. Another overlooked advantage of mixing A and S heads is since the A's fire in half the duration of the S's, by mixing them it cuts the S's duration in half too, effectively cutting the S's output by 1 stop. In this fashion, you can mix them across A/S ports for equal output or 2-stop differentials, or use them on a regular non-A/S pack to get a 1-stop differential across the symmetrical ports.

For whatever reason, the Elinchrom battery life is amazing. I regularly get over 200 full power flashes out of a single charge, and if a pack sits for a month unused, the charge stays full.

Also, I *really* like working with Skyports over the Pocket Wizards. They are much smaller, and far less prone to fussy issues.

PS Edit: A point folks should be aware of is the A heads are significantly louder than the S heads -- they really POP when they fire. Also, the tubes are twice the cost to replace as the S head tubes, and while I have not yet had to replace one, I understand they have about half the life.
 

Asher Kelman

OPF Owner/Editor-in-Chief
Jack,

Since you mentioned rainproofing, I wonder how Hensel stacks up? I like these because the asymmetrical distribution is really left to the user. The pack electronics are above the ground.

Asher
 

Jack_Flesher

New member
Hi Asher:

The 'new' Hensels came out after I bought my Rangers and I have not used them. A friend of mine sold his Profoto's and went to them as soon as they came out, and loves them. I think they certainly appear a very viable pack, but as Tim pointed out they are expensive relatively, and have fewer modifiers and accessories available. In use, the power distribution option of my Ranger's has never presented me with a light-balance problem I couldn't adjust for or overcome.

In my experience, brand choice in lighting is not nearly as significant as brand choice in camera systems -- at the end of the day, it's all just light and knowing what to do with it is more important than what got it there ;-)
 

Tim Armes

New member
Great info Tim, thanks for this :).
Cheers Cem. I've made a couple of modifications. In particular I was wrong about needing a special adapter to charge and use the Profotos at the same time as they're used. You can plug it in and use it, but the flashes need power in the battery to work, so if it's completelt dead then you'll have to wait a bit.

The special adapter bypasses this - useful for the modelling light.

Hi Tim,

What is your timetable for buying your new portable system. Also, what is the max W/S you would like? How fast do you need to recycle and what is the duration of flash, t 0.5, that you are hoping for?
Well, as soon as I've decided I'll buy. I'm still deciding. I'll rather wait for something better if it's around the corner...

Hi Tim!

Just curious, what exactly are you shooting that you need such a short flash duration?
Commercial shots involving sports. However, even if flash duration were not an immediate need, I'd rather know know that it'll never be a problem.

All these systems are very expensive. The Elinchrom with a head is £2520, and the Profoto B2 with a free head (at the moment) is £3350. There may be £800 pounds difference, but when I'm spending a lot in any case I'd rather pay the bit extra now so that later on I don't regret my choices.

Right now, for example, the long flash duration of my Bowens has been a real issue for one of my shoots. I don't want that do happen when I'm spending this much money.

Tim:

While I agree that Profoto has the best modifier mount and in fact are my choice for studio AC strobes hands-down (I *LOVE* the D-4 packs and heads), their battery portables have *HUGE* disadvantage and why I went with Elinchrom Rangers.

The disadvantage to Profoto B's is they are not weatherproof -- in fact it's even worse, they aren't even heavy-fog drizzle resistant. A drop of moisture -- and I'm not exaggerating, really just a drop -- in an open head port and they snap, crackle, pop and die, a dead, done, cannot be repaired dead.
Thanks for the info Jack. It's annoying to think that you'd want one make for the studio and another for location work, but your point is an important one.

The one thing the B's are missing is the remote power control... :(

Tim
 

Jack_Flesher

New member
Thanks for the info Jack. It's annoying to think that you'd want one make for the studio and another for location work, but your point is an important one.

The one thing the B's are missing is the remote power control... :(

Tim
Tim,

Note that I sold my entire Profoto D4 outfit right after I got the Rangers since there was virtually nothing additional the Profoto provided in a studio setting other than a bit of added convenience.

Re the remote adjustability from the Skyports. While it is a cool feature to be able to adjust power output directly from the Skyport on the camera, the reality is it isn't that much more difficult to do it from a pack near your feet. Where this feature really comes in handy is if say you're using a mono up high in a softbox where the controls are harder to reach...

If money were no object, I would consider having some Profoto B heads wired up to mount to the Ranger packs -- that way, I'd have the best of both worlds. But the reality is the inconvenience is minor compared to the cost of custom Profoto heads.

Another very compelling option -- but expensive -- is the Broncolor Verso. Basically a 25-pound AC pack that accepts a 25-pound battery base for portable use when desired. Heavy, but full-on AC power and convenience with battery power. I rejected it for its cost, and the fact I do occasionally schlep my Rangers to the beach or into the forrest for location shoots and the weight would simply not allow that use.

Cheers,
 

Asher Kelman

OPF Owner/Editor-in-Chief
One point no one has addressed, AFAIK, is the number of jacks. I guess one can make a Y cable to split one of the two Elnchrom cables for another head.

No one mentioned Lumedyne which are inexpensive on eBay and can be resold when one has something better.
 

Will Thompson

Well-known member
Right now, for example, the long flash duration of my Bowens has been a real issue for one of my shoots.
How long a duration are the Bowens that you consider slow?

How short a duration do you consider to be fast enough?

Specifically what duration range do you consider to be good (min to max power)?
 

Kathy Rappaport

pro member
For me

I did an extensive search on studio lighting when I first started; I looked at all the lights mentioned and even had an opportunity to test many of them via a workshop and at the WPPI tradeshow. I am not by any means well versed in all the statistics when it comes to techinical stuff. But one thing that was important to me was a system easy to to add to, with high quality modifiers and that could grow with me as I grow and what I ended up with were Profoto monolights and modifiers. I don't have a portable pack system but I do have Sunpak 622's and a portable battery system for those with a couple softboxes.

The Profoto monoblocks have built in Pocketwizards on them (the newer ones) but the softboxes, reflecters, beautydish, snoots, grids and barn doors I have will grow with me when I am ready for any of their pack systems. The accessories can be more expensive than the light system in the long run and replacing speed rings etc can be quite costly in the long run. The money I laid out for all of those items will last me many many years and are wll built. Comparing them with other brands hands down are much higher quality than some of the other brands.

I think you have to look beyond just the cost of the lights and packs.
 
Alien Bees?

Have you considered Alien Bees?

I have not used them, but many people do. Those that do rave about them. I nearly bought a set earlier this year but decided to upgrade my Quantum set up when I found some bargains. Of the pro lighting manufacturers, AB's seem to be the most affordable, with a good set of features, great reputation, and great customer service. Paul Buff (the owner/designer) also continues to be involved with adding to his line and making the product better.

Best of luck!

Matthew

-----
www.mdkauffmann.com
fans.mdkauffmann.com
 

Tim Armes

New member
Hi Matthew,

I didn't consider Alien Bees personally since they aren't available in Europe. From what I've read they seem like an excellent system for those on a budget. They don't have state of the art light consistency, flash durations etc, however for the price you can't go wrong.

Tim
 
I've heard critique in consistency...but the rumored Einstien system is supposed to eliminate that concern. Then again, the Einstein's have been rumored for quite a while - which is Buff's other downfall: loves to announce stuff, can't always deliver it in a timely fashion.
 
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