a jump to big lights

I'm a Nikon guy and I love speedlights. I love CLS and the built-in freedom we get as Nikon shooters to basically build an entirely wireless studio at no added cost. But sometimes you just need more power. Heck, even David Hobby agrees with that ;-)

With a shoot coming up involving largish group shots and mounting insecurity regarding my flash vs ISO vs aperture capabilities, I decided it was time to start looking at some sort of big light kit. Amazing what fear can do to a wallet isn't it?

Actually, I wasn't thinking "kit" at first. Just  a monobloc to add to my current setup when more kick was needed. But as I'm sure a lot of you know, when you start going down that gadget road...

The fact is I'd been playing with this idea for the past year, reading about the subject on various blogs, following photographers I admire  - like Zack Arias and John Keatley - and the way they work with strobes. Upon my return from the road trip, I finally jumped in.

don't fight the system

There are a lot of options out there but it soon becomes very clear that buying big lights is buying into a system. Yes, there are universal third-party accessories. But most companies offer complete lines of modifiers that just fit better and are made to work in tandem with the particularities of their lights. So it's important to think about long-term use and versatility. If you're interested in the subject I strongly recommend reading the Strobist's in-depth look. It's an amazing read that helped a lot in making my final decision.

I'm a big kid now

Light is light, but not all light is created equal. I'd been very interested in Alien Bees, mostly because of their pretty impressive price/performance ratios. They're just incredibly affordable for what they do. Paul Bluff is very aggressive  - in a good way - and offers an innovative range of accessories at equally low prices. But a couple of things made me hesitate:

  • Build quality: they're apparently not the sturdiest units out there.

  • Light consistency and refresh rate: most reports tend to be a little down on those points.

  • No canadian distributor: they do offer shipping and service in Canada, but it's not like you can go to your local pro photo store for support.

Mind you, some of those points might be completely off. But since I didn't have the luxury of testing them out, I had to look elsewhere. So what were the options? For me, it came down to Elinchrom or Profoto. I based my decision on quality of light, longevity and ecosystem. Profoto was out of my price range. Period. But lo and behold: Vistek were having a sale on Elinchrom gear. Talk about timing!

So I'm now the proud owner of the BX500Ri To-Go kit and so far, I'm loving it. The kit comes with two Portalite softboxes (which are ok, not tremendous), two 500ws BXRi heads with built-in Skyport (radio receiver) and an El-Skyport transmitter allowing remote control of up to four groups of strobes from the camera. I added two 21cm reflectors with 20° and 30° grids and a light stand (I needed one). Came up to around $1700 canadian.

Biggest difference with the speedlights? Power baby. I can shoot at F18 ISO200 without batting an eyelash. And the light is beautiful.

shot with a 30º grid, 1/250 F22 ISO200

No more speedlights?

Not a chance. Each has its place. For portability nothing beats speedlights, and the fact remains that an SB900 packs a lot of punch it such a small package. With big lights you also lose TTL (natively at least) and FP Sync which means you're down to 200-250 sync speed.

One huge caveat on this last point: don't get fooled by Elinchrom's claims of synced 1/1000s shutter speed. If there's one disappointment with this kit this is it -  it doesn't work. And I don't think it has anything to do with the new ELS-Skyport SPEED transmitter either since the manual for the El-Skyport lists that speed as well. I called Vistek about this issue, googled left and right and so far I've got nothing. What I do know is that as soon as I hit 320 I get the curtain call - nice and dark at the bottom of the frame. Great for a mock-up density gradient. Not so great for cutting down ambient outside. I'll let you know if I hear anything on this issue. One other thing: in my tests the flash speed doesn't make up for FP sync when it comes to freezing motion. At least not at the powers I'm using in the studio.

Another place where speedlights will still be indispensable is for wide apertures. These 500ws lights are way too powerful to use 1.8 or 2.8 apertures, even stopped all the way down with my D300 at ISO100 equivalent. I'm keeping an SB900 in a softbox for that.

mixing and matching

What about mixing all these together? A few options available:

  1. Use Skyport to trigger Strobes and SU4 on the speedlights.

  2. Use CLS to trigger speedlights and optical for strobes.

  3. Go all manual and optical.

I'll be using options 1 or 2 depending on the situation. Option 1 is straightforward: just switch the BXRis optical button on and shoot. Everything syncs. Option 2 is a bit trickier and I'm still doing tests. The problem with CLS is that in order to communicate with all the remotes, the commander unit sends out pre-flashes (very short flashes milliseconds before the actual flash burst). If your stobe is set to dumb optical, it'll trigger at the first flash it sees - a pre-flash - and you'll be out of sync (meaning the strobe's light won't be part of your picture). To go around this problem, the BXRis have something called smart optical that allows the units to learn the number of pre-flashes and set themselves up accordingly.

Needless to say I've been going through a crash course in Nikon's pre-flash language this past week. I was going crazy until I realized a few things:

  1. The number of pre-flashes change with the number of groups the commander is controlling. Makes sense but not that obvious at first.

  2. The strobes have no problem calculating the right number of pre-flashes when groups A and B were active but give an incorrect reading when adding group C.

  3. Adding group C messes everything up, big time.

I'm not quite sure what's going on with group C. Both groups A and B (or A+B) give out 3 pre-flashes. Once set, the strobes work every time. But for some reason as soon as you add group C, it changes to 5 pre-flashes but the strobes see it as 4. I had to set them manually to find that out since they simply weren't syncing properly. And even after setting them on 5 I get random off-sync problems. So for now, no group C in CLS. The joys of tech...

a nice surprise

Elinchrom use 7mm umbrella shafts instead of the more standard 8mm. So I thought my 46' Photek Softlighter II 8mm would be relegated to SBs, a pity given how much better the spread of light would be with a strobe head instead of a speedlight. Well, turns out it works perfectly - yay!

The 8mm model comes with a two-part shaft that can be unscrewed to allow for closer use of the Softlighter to the subject. But that removable part (the longest one) is actually 7mm (!). The trick I found works best is to unscrew the 7mm part, insert it in the strobe head from behind the unit and then screw the softlighter back on. The light is beautiful and much more even than with one speedlight.

46' 8mm Softlighter with BX500Ri head

a word about mobility

Elinchrom doesn't make a battery pack for the BXRis. They're marketed as studio strobes. To go mobile you're supposed to go into the Ranger Quadra units, like a lot of big photographers are these days. But there are ways around that here and here. I'm thinking Vagabond II eventually. Obviously I won't be getting Ranger performance but… we're talking $2500 cheaper here (!). Of course, if I hit the big time...