Where Hot Shoe Flashes Dare Not Go ::
There is a nagging question that haunts photographers…
“Do I have the right set of lights?”
This question is bugging me right now. I do not have an answer for you just yet. All this question has done for me in the past year is create more questions.
I’m going to get a bit nerdy on you here and take this post from looking at lighting systems to looking at camera systems. I really don’t nerd out about gear on my blog but you need to be warned… Total nerdom after the jump.
“Do I have the right set of lights?”
Even the Grand Poobah of lighting, David Hobby, has been asking this question of himself lately. He’s been testing Elinchrom, Profoto, and AlienBees systems. David and I both are big believers in the power of small hot shoe flashes. I have been able to build a career off the back of four AA batteries but there are situations you will find yourself in where those hot shoe flashes will leave you heading down that proverbial stream of excrement without a means of locomotion. As a working photographer you have to figure it out and make the most of it but you spend a lot of time cursing and praying for more light.
How I work around the lack of having more powerful lights has been a mixture of booking location shoots closer to dusk, flying scrims, working in the shade, etc. I can’t tell you how much the lack of power from lights effects how, where, and when I shoot.
A year and a bit ago I added an AlienBee B1600 flash with a vagabond battery pack. That’s been a pretty good set up so far. There are times I would like about one more stop of light from it but I figure it out and it works well. One issue I have with it though is the dang Vagabond alone is 18 pounds! I’ll be traveling more this year and I would love to find a system that provides more light and less weight. Another issue I have with the AlienBee system is how slooooooooow that flash duration is. Firing an AlienBee is like lighting flash powder. They burn slow. If I need to cover the entire frame of an image with light from the flash I usually lose 1/3 of a stop in shutter speed just to make up for the slow duration of the AlienBee. It is the only light I’ve used where I have this issue. Faster duration flashes do not give me the same issue.
If you are unfamiliar with how larger lights are rated let me break it down for you. The power from a hot shoe flash is typically rated as a guide number. This flash has a guide number of 130. That one has a guide number of 95. The higher the guide number supposedly the more light it can emit. Guide numbers are a tricky way to really figure out how much light one flash can produce than another and at the end of the day you are really just comparing a Camry with an Accord. More powerful lights are rated in “watt seconds”. Watt seconds tend to be a more honest way of rating the power of a flash. Guide numbers can be fudged to meet marketing demands. Watt seconds can be measured under a little more scrutiny. To be honest, I don’t know my watt second from my guide number but I understand how it works in the field.
When you double flash power you gain a stop of light. So let’s say a hot shoe flash is 100 watt seconds. (That’s being pretty liberal with ratings too.)
If you find a flash rated at 400 w/s then you know that will give you two more stops of light than your typical hot shoe flash rated at 100 w/s. 100 doubled is 200, and 200 doubled is 400. My public school education can handle that much.
So if you get f 5.6 out of a hot shoe flash at full power then you can expect to get f 11 out of a 400 w/s light. (Please note that this is just a hypothetical scenario you might find yourself in.)
100 w/s = 5.6 200 w/s = 8 400 w/s = 11 800 w/s = 16 1,600 w/s = 22
Since there are a number of options out there rated at 1,100 w/s or 1,200 w/s then they would fall (in this example) in between 800 w/s and 1,600 w/s. A 1,200 w/s light in the example above might mean you’ll get somewhere around f 16.5. The AlienBee 1600 is rated at 640 w/s so that will get you in the range of f 11.5 in the example above. AlienBees has this odd rating of “Effective watt seconds” and “actual watt seconds”. That makes no sense to me and when you meter the things you’ll find that it makes no sense in exposure. It’s like saying a car has 100 “actual” horsepower but when you drive it, it “feels” like it has 200 horsepower. At the end of the day, the thing has 100 horsepower.
More power means more weight, and more importantly, more money. Below, I’ll list the lights I’m looking at. I’m going to add a Nikon SB-900 in the list so you can see where it falls in the line up ratio of power/weight/price. If your jaw drops to the floor when you start seeing prices for these systems get close to $3,000 I want you to consider this…
A Nikon SB-900 costs $460 and gives you, more or less (mostly less), 100 w/s of power. Let’s look again at our hypothetical situation above. At full power the best you can get out of that SB-900 is f 5.6 but you want to shoot at f 16 so that you can overpower ambient light. Just picture this flash in a 50″ softbox that is five or six feet from your subjects. As you double flash power you gain one stop of light. From 5.6 to 16 you have to double your power 3 times.
1 SB-900 = 5.6 2 SB-900’s = 8 4 SB-900’s = 11 8 SB-900’s = 16
Eight SB-900’s cost how much? $3,680. That’s how much.
If you are asking why you can’t just increase ISO in order to increase aperture remember that as you increase sensitivity to your flash by raising ISO you also raise the sensitivity to ambient light and there you go… right past your sync speed. You may ask about high speed sync. Well, as cool as that is and all, I can tell you that you can not get f 16 from a 50″ softbox with a hot shoe flash and high speed sync and all the rest of the voodoo you do. There are all sorts of tips and tricks and doodads that can squeak out a bit more sync but at the end of the day, if you can not natively sync at higher speeds then you. need. more. power.
You could also ask about neutral density filters. ND filters cut the amount of ambient light but they also cut the amount of light from your flash. If you are in a five stop range between flash and ambient and you need that to be a three stop range then ISO change or an ND filter situation isn’t going to change that lighting ratio for you. You either need to increase shutter speed to cut ambient or introduce more flash. If you are at the limits of sync then your next option is to increase light from the flash.
So, seeing as how eight SB-900’s are going to cost more than a decent used Honda, looking at a light that is $1,500 to $2,500 is a walk in the park. But $1,500 to $2,500 of cash outlay is NOT a walk in the park. I think the commitment level to buing into a system of lights is just under the commitment level of getting married. Once you buy into a system you’re in it and you can plan on spending a lot more than $2,000’ish dollars for the life of your lighting kit with whatever rig you decide on.
Let’s look at the kits I’m considering…
Nikon SB-900 • 100 w/s • 1 lb • $460 (just here for comparison)
Elinchrom Quadra • 400 w/s • 4 lbs • $1,540
AB1600 w/ Vagabond • 640 w/s • 23 lbs • $659 (already own it)
Elinchrom Ranger w/head – 1,100 w/s • 19 lbs. • $1,755
Hensel Porty 12 w/head • 1,200 w/s • 16 lbs • $3,895
I’m not looking into Dynalite, Lumedyne, Speedotron, Norman, Photogenic, Broncolor, Comet, etc for a number of reasons. Some are price. Some are scalability. Some are for no other reason than I don’t like how they look. Yeah, I can be that shallow. All of these lighting systems have their strengths. What I find interesting is how David and I have come to the same three companies to look at for bigger lights. That’s not saying the other’s that I just listed suck. Far from it. My buddy Marc shoots with this 400 w/s Lumedyne kit and swears by it. It just isn’t the kit for me.
Let’s look at this photo again…
Hanging on that light stand is the Elinchrom 1,100 w/s Ranger. When you fire that thing off at full power it allows you to get this…
Side by side… Available light vs. Lit.
That is some ambient light killing strobe right there. The kind of light you can walk into just about any situation and be in total control of the final image. You can turn day into night with that kind of light.
That modifier is an AlienBees 86″ para. It’s massive. It needs a lot of light. It also had to be rigged onto the stand with an Avenger D230 Super Clamp Grip Head because Elinchrom, for whatever reason, uses a 7mm umbrella shaft size on their lights. Yes, yes, the Ranger has this doohickey thing-a-ma-jig on the big heads to accommodate larger shaft sizes but it’s a two person ordeal to mount any umbrella shaft larger than 7mm to those heads. One person could do it easily provided they have three arms. That’s almost a deal killer for me on Elinchrom lights but dang it all, they are amazing rigs.
So if that’s 1,100 w/s poppin’ off imagine how much 100 w/s would not even begin to be enough light to get me to where I want to be. High speed TTL? It would not result in the photo that the 1,100 w/s light gave me.
At 1,100 w/s we are talking about 19 lbs of gear. Throw two of those into a Pelican case with chargers and all that and we are near 60 lbs of gear to throw into a belly of a plane or lug around on location. 60 pound extra baggage fees? Don’t talk to me about that. It sucks.
What about the 400 w/s Quadra?
It’s a good 1.5 stops less than it’s big brother, the Ranger 1,100, but at four pounds for the whole rig that would fit in my camera bag… Are you kidding me? I rented one last weekend and I might just be in love.
I could take this review into all sorts of measurbating f-stops and meter tests and side by side reviews but let me just say this…
The Quadra system is a thing to behold. It’s so small. It’s tiny.
(Image courtesy B&H)
One of these kits with a batter and a head could fit in a shoulder bag. You could throw four of these kits in a case and have 1,600 w/s of power for the same weight as one 640 w/s AlienBee head with a battery. Four Quadra kits are going to run you $6,000 though. Gads. At that point you might as well start looking at something like Mamiya’s new medium format system married up to one of their new leaf shutter lenses that can sync up to 1,600/th of a second.
Pfffftttt. Digital Medium Format. Who needs that?
You’d be surprised.
You thought this post was going to just be about lighting systems didn’t you? So did I.
In my quest to start looking at new lights I began looking at medium format systems for the exact same reason editorial photographers the world over used medium format in the days of film. So far in the digital revolution the cost of MF backs and systems were out of the range of many of us. $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 for a medium format digital system when a $2,000, $3,000, $4,000 DSLR would do the job? The choice was simple. Now that Mamyia has dipped below (just barely) the $10,000 mark for an out-of-the-box MF system then you need to take a look at what is going on in the MF world.
You know why medium format ruled the world in the film days? Final image quality is a great reason but dang it all… it was sync speed that really pushed MF past 35mm. When you start looking at killing ambient light by a stop or two and you realize how much money and weight that takes to do the job with light you start to wonder about the fact that all you really need is a faster sync speed to do the job. A faster syncing shutter weighs A LOT less than more light… but it costs a lot. Well, more light costs a lot too.
250th/sec @ f 16 = 500th/sec @ f 11 = 800th/sec @ 6.3
Some will ask about new triggering technologies that allow you to hyper sync your camera’s sync speed. You only catch a fraction of the light coming out of your flash so you can’t hyper sync at full power. For every compromise there is a …. compromise. Faster sync but less light you get capture. Fast sync at FULL power… that’s something.
To be honest with you, this is a conundrum I have yet to figure out myself. What if I could find a balance between a faster sync and less powerful lighting system? I’m in love with 4 pounds of 400 w/s. What would that look like married up to a faster sync speed? That is where my next demo is going to go I think.
I’m going to drop something here as well. I would love to get back into medium format. It’s been more than eight years since I’ve shot that format in film and I’ve never shot it digitally. I have three specific reasons why I want to move back to MF.
#3. – Image quality.
#2. – Sync speed.
#1. – _________
Can you guess what the number one reason is? It ISN’T having a better camera on the job then the client / photographer down the street owns. When I really put thought into this I have found it has nothing to do with lighting.
With a sub $10k medium format camera now on the market you better believe we are going to see a shift back to that format. As soon as the sub $5k back hits the market then MF is going to be back where it was in dominance.
Or maybe the Scarlet is going to own the world. Who knows? All I know is a search for a new lighting system has not only left me with more questions about lighting systems but it now has me thinking about a different format of camera.
At the end of the day, it all doesn’t matter. You do what you have to do with what you have. That’s the long and short of it. But at some point in your career you’ll find that the vision you have in your head requires a different set of tools and damn it all if those tools aren’t a bit more expensive and require a lot more thought.
More thoughts will be coming on this as I work my way through rentals and demos. I just wanted to get the initial thoughts down first. I apologize that this blog post doesn’t really have a ton of value or direction but I know some folks like to see the process as much as the result. I’ll answer my #1 reason….
Medium format will slow… me… down…
Am I convinced the Quadra is the answer I am looking for? Nope. When you marry a girl you marry her family. Same goes for lighting gear. You buy into one light rig you are buying into the system. There are are many things to consider going into it. The next pack I’m renting is the Profoto. Looking forward to that test.