Late last week, before all the Sony excitement, I wrote a piece about the Profoto Acute B 600 flash system. It's an elegant 600 w/s electronic flash system that provides the user with about 150 flashes. Recycles at full power in about three seconds and is simple and straightforward to use. The interesting feature is that the system does all this while running off its own internal battery. Go back and read that review here.
So, electronic flash units aren't the same kind of bling that makes forum dwellers salivate, like a cool new camera body or a Zeiss or Leica lens. You can't wear one around your neck (comfortably) and no one ever asks about them at meet-ups so why would any serious photographer drop serious cash on something like that? And who in his right mind would own two different battery powered high output electronic flash systems?
Apparently most people in their right minds don't. But I do. When I'm out shooting by myself and we're going fast from location to location I usually default to my Profoto Acute B system but when I get really serious I turn to the big daddy of photon thrashing, the Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS. What does it do that the Profoto can't? How about 250 full power, 1100 watt second flashes with short durations and a fast recycle time from shot to shot? How about pushing power through two heads? And for all the people who drool over the idea of weather sealing...how about....weather sealing?
The Elinchrom Ranger RX series is Elinchrom's big entry into the world of self-contained electronic flash units. It's built to industrial standards and it's made to take a lot of crap and keep flashing. But since it's also Swiss made it's built to do all of this without accidents, like frying photographers who do stupid things with high voltage lights.
The main unit weighs about 18 pounds and is, in fact, weather sealed. Every port and socket on the top has the flash equivalent of screw down crowns to keep water and dirt out of the sockets. Notice also that every cap has its own "minder cable" so they never get lost.
Before I go any further I wanted to show you a fairly typical use (for me) of the flash. We were basically in a mud pit the day we took this image. It was a hot, humid summer day in a week that saw sun and then torrential rains and then sun again. We were shooting on a highway project north of Austin. The Elinchrom pack was overpowering direct sun and shooting through a softbox type modifier that was placed six or eight feet away. If you look at the soft transition to shadows and the smooth tonality you'll see that the modifier was pretty big. The head was on a stout Lowell stand with a leveling leg and the stand was sandbagged with forty pounds of weight. We stuck the end of each leg on a bit of board so they wouldn't sink into the soft ground. The Elinchrom box sat on wet ground and just flat out worked. We probably shot 60 or so shots before I got exactly what I wanted. And every one of those frames was absolutely consistent when it came to flash output. After we got this shot we nailed five or six more, in different locations, using the same basic set up. I didn't worry about running out of power. I had an extra, fully charge replacement battery ready to go. Could I do this with a bunch of speedlights? Sure, give me a long enough lever and a place to stand and I can move the world. But is it efficient, effective and smart to do it that way? Probably not. Would clients be impressed if I spent precious time rigging up eight or ten or twenty speedlights, setting them all up with radio slaves, rigging them so they all could fire into the same diffuser? Definitely not. It's classic: Hobby vs. Work.
Disclosure: This is not "borrowed" equipment. I'm not reviewing a weekend loaner. I bought this unit and the accessories with my US dollars about three years ago. I am writing from the perspective of having used it over and over again for paying work and for producing images for books. I am writing to praise and demystify the tools rather than to convince you to rush out and buy them for your child's piano recital or to use to augment the light in your quest to capture birds in flight..... I am not being paid by Elinchrom or any other entity to write this! End disclosure.
The only thing that is less than elegant about the Elinchrom set up is their use of a proprietary sync cord plug. It's a screw in affair that is hard to find in a quick pinch. The box has a built in optical slave and you can also get a "Skyport" radio trigger that will offer a lot of controls beyond just triggering the flash. But I tend to be old school so I've bought five or six of the Elinchrom cords, just in case, and an adapter (shown below) that will allow the pack to be triggered by a conventional quarter inch plug sync cord. This and the use of the 7mm diameter for umbrella shafts are the only two problems with buying state of the art Swiss and Swedish lighting equipment. That and the price....
The top panel is sexy and utilitarian at the same time. The entire control system is touch activated and the entire top panel with the touch buttons is one sealed interface. You could leave it in the rain but I don't recommend using it that way because you'll have to figure out how to waterproof the heads and that is problematic. Note also the black lug on the right side of the unit just under the sync adapter. It's there so you can attach a carrying strap. The strap is for your assistant when you find just the right location about a half mile from any navigable roadway...
The Ranger RX has a seven stop power range and it's shown on the LED panel on the top of the box so you can always go back to a fixed output setting. There's an audible alert signal, a fast/slow recycle control (more shots per battery at the reduced recycle speed setting), an optical slave on/off button and an "auto off" button that powers down the unit after five minutes so you don't waste your battery in case the unit is accidentally activated during shipping. The smaller port to the right of the flash head sockets is the charger socket. But batteries can also be charged outside the box.
The batteries are substantial. They weigh around ten pounds each. They are sealed lead acid batteries which is great. They don't have a memory effect and can be charged and re-charged without having to be totally drained first. Batteries have two natural enemies, freezing temperatures and high temperatures. I store them in my studio and they've lasted and kept their potency for three year's now. If you look at the image just above you'll see a round, black circle on the lower part of the box. There's one on either side. These are actually release buttons for the battery packs. The releases are covered with a rubberized substance that maintains weather-proofing. You push on both buttons simultaneously and lift the body of the box straight up. Replacing the battery is as easy as putting the box back down on a fresh battery and making sure the release locks click in.
Shown with a shoe mount flash for scale.
The Ranger RX system comes in two flavors. One version, the AS, is asymmetrical. With one head plugged in the range of power options runs from the minimum right up to 1100 watt seconds. With a second head plugged in the power is divided asymmetrically between the two heads. One head gets 66.7 percent of available power while the other head gets 33.3 percent of the power. If you power the system up or down the ratio between the heads doesn't change.
A second version of the pack is just the plain vanilla RX pack. It features two flash head capability but the power with two head plugged in is equally divided between the two heads. I prefer the asymmetrical arrangement because I often use a gridded, direct light on backgrounds and it always needs less power than my main head which is nearly always in a light-hungry modifier.
There are also two different flash heads available for the system. The "A" heads are distinguished by their fast duration and the "S" heads are the standard duration heads. If you want to freeze action then the "A" heads will get you there....quicker. With an "A" head plugged into the lower powered socket on an AS pack you can get flash durations of 1/5000th of a second with a fast attack time and a short "burn" time. If you don't need that capability (for ballet leaps, freezing champagne cork splashes, etc.) then you can get by just fine with the "S" heads.
All Elinchrom flash heads and monolights come with the same retainer ring collar which snaps into place and then locks with a bayonet ring. The unit above is a Creative Lighting speed ring made out of heavy, cast aluminum and capable of holding up my favorite extra large Octabank.
All of the heads come with a 100 watt, peanut style, tungsten modeling light. Unlike the Profoto units there's no additional power source to run the modeling lights. They are engaged by pushing the modeling light touch switch on the control interface. Push once and you get fifteen seconds of illumination followed by automatic shut off. Push twice in rapid succession and you get thirty seconds of guiding light.
The bottom line is that professionals see advantages in using professional tools. The heads are robust and well designed. For people with special lighting requirements the ability to choose a head designed for fast flash durations is rare and valuable. The ability to use this pack in bright light, close in, at half power and fast recycle means being able to shoot hundreds of flashes with short recycling times. Almost a must for fashion work. The ability to change out relatively inexpensive battery packs in the field means being able to work through long days without ever having to look for a plug. The weather-sealed pack design means not fearing splashes or puddles.
People ask if there is a difference in the quality of the light output between expensive and finely designed systems like the Elinchroms and the Profotos. The engineers would tell you "of course." It's really all about precision. Bigger and more expensive capacitors means better power filtering. That means more duration and color temperature consistency. Shorter flash durations yield crisper results. Faster T.01 and T.05 times means less color variation over the burn time of the exposure.
I spent a few years convinced that I could do my work with a set of Alien Bees units and a couple of Vagabond batteries but it's just not the same. The work I do with the Elinchroms has fewer color shifts as I reduce or increase power. The flash tubes seem less prone to causing UV excitation and the general quality of the hardware means I never have a broken stand adapter or detached speedring at an inopportune time.
Am I suggesting that everyone rush out and buy a set? If you want to spend years shooting ads and portraits on sun drenched locations then you should really consider the advantages. If you do this for a hobby and your aren't in the 1% you'd probably be considered crazier than me for buying them. It all depends on what you have in your mind when it comes to lighting stuff up.
I do know this, in situations where you need f11 or f16 at 1/250th of second at ISO 100 shooting into a 4 foot by 6 foot Chimera softbox from about eight feet away you can't do much better without a good extension cord. You'll certainly spend more trying to do it with many multiples of shoe mounted speed lights and handfulls of radio triggers. You'll outperform the Speedlighters and DIY'ers on the number of flashes and the frequency of flashed every step of the way. And you'll have a better quality of light into the bargain.
I find myself using the Profoto Acute B and the Elinchrom Ranger as studio lights too. They are so familiar to me know that I barely need to think about them while I'm setting up and shooting.
Final interesting note: The quality of the light between the Profoto and the Elinchrom is very, very close. That means on really big shoots I can use the Elinchrom for my main light and the Profoto for a background light. It's good to have reliable tools when your livelihood depends on getting everything just right... miles from nowhere. And each, packed into the Honda, can serve as a ready back-up for the other. Buy once, use often.