A lighting conundrum

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The portrait and wedding photographers are all over their lighting gear – everything off camera is fair game to creating a look, and the more unique the look, the crazier the light, why not? Fair enough. Documentary photographers are mostly allergic to flashes because they can ruin the atmosphere and create the impression of something which perhaps isn’t necessarily accurate, or truthful. Product photographers just use what they need and quietly get on with the job. Amateurs will dabble and land up falling on one side of the fence or the other, usually staying away from the hassle of the weight and setup that comes with a ‘proper’ solution. Here’s my problem: I sit somewhere between the latter two points on the continuum, and finding a longer term, larger, lighting solution has been seriously overdue for me. I still don’t have a solution, but on the off chance somebody might find the logic and musings useful, here goes.

What I need is light that is firstly portable, given 95% of my work is on location or on the road or has to be done at client sites (watches are expensive, and insurance usually dictates they don’t leave the room). For this purpose, I’ve refined my kit over the last few years with the smallest/lightest possible gear I can get away with – light stands and modifiers are strictly ‘to size’ and capable of supporting what I need and no more; there’s no double overage for stability and stands because I don’t have to worry about the wind knocking things over, and at tabletop range, a single speed light is more than powerful enough. I usually need no more than three speed lights – frequently one or two – a couple of very small stands, and some flags/ boards/ diffusion panels. Including spare speed lights, tape, clamps etc. the whole kit fits into a standard check in suitcase, with the heaviest part actually being the tripod with geared head, geared rails and Cube.

Even for location portraiture, I can vary the kit only slightly and still get the results I want – substitute the boards, flags and diffusers for a Lastolite Ezybox or Wescott Apollo Orb. I’ve been using the Lastolites when I need larger size, and the rectangular box’s ability to switch between a strip and a square is useful – but honestly prefer the Wescotts because balance is much better; the whole thing sits on its centre of gravity with the light stand poking up inside the middle of the box. The Lastolites are more like conventional soft boxes which have most of the weight cantilevered off on one leg. The imbalance is of course made worse because I’m using triple or quad flash brackets inside all of the boxes for sufficient power at greater distances or smaller apertures.

And here’s problem number one: the only way to get enough power after all that diffusion material is often to use multiple flashes inside one box. I’ve got half a dozen Nikon SB900s and a few more other assorted flashes, but none of them have wireless power control other than with a Nikon body. This obviously creates some problems with the Hasselblad – I can trigger them, but the only way to change power is often to get on a step ladder and poke at the backs of them one by one; even then, you can’t always see the LCD panels because of the angle of the flashes.

Problem number two is with triggering – the SB900s are optical trigger only, which necessitates hooking up an octopus of cables to the PC sync port and subsequently to a Pocketwizard (I prefer the simplest Plus X). But this means a mess of cabling, and if you lose one of the special dedicated cables, or the contacts go on the fritz – common for PC sync ports – you’re fried. Sure, you could slave only one flash inside the box to the radio trigger and have the others in SU4 optical, but that’s messy.

Both of those problems can easily be solved by going to larger monoblocks, generator packs, or battery-monoblocks. I’m ruling out anything requiring a large generator or external battery simply because there’s no way you’re going to get one of those on a plane these days; and before anybody brings up rental, there’s always the risk that what you rent malfunctions or is in unknown condition and it’s too late to do anything about it. I don’t rent equipments imply because the risk is much too high; I’ve had failures and malfunctions in the past that have made me rather nervous. The main options – with a sufficiently complete or adaptable system of modifiers – are thus essentially the battery operated bigger heads; Profoto’s B1 or B2, and the Broncolor Siros L. The B1 and Siros are all-in-one mono blocks with wireless control, integrated battery packs, and 400/500/800Ws of power. They’re large and heavy: 3kg+ is the order of the day, and by the time you put any sort of soft box or umbrella modifiers on them, you’re looking at the 6-7kg range at least for weight. That means much heavier stands, and possibly sandbags if outdoors. Sure, you can use a bag of rice as the sandbag, but that still significantly increases the overall weight of the kit. And with the Profotos, there’s no way to see what the manual power settings are if you’re not operating the B1 in TTL mode. (The Siros L uses a wifi iPad or iPhone app.) In short: I liked the power, but added up the weight and realised that I’d have to buy another plane ticket most of the time – I’d be overweight even in business class.

The remaining option, the Profoto B2, was interesting because you get one small battery/generator pack that can sit on the floor somewhere, taking weight off the stands, which is good enough to power two heads. The heads themselves are light and small and not much heavier than normal speed lights, but can deliver up to 250Ws – one battery pack powers two heads that delivers 250Ws total. Unlike the other mono blocks, you can charge and shoot at the same time – which means fewer spare batteries and less weight. But, 125Ws is really not very much power at all – bear in mind a speed light at full is somewhere between 60 and 80 Ws, and you can cheat that a little bit by properly setting the zoom head so there isn’t any light wastage. In effect, you’re better off with two speed lights. I’d probably have gone with the B2s if they delivered a bit more power – 250Ws each would be perfect – and lived with the cables and manual control (but at least you can put the generator with the power outputs right next to your feet, and just reach down to turn the knob). Instead, I’m left still climbing ladders.

Instead, I’m left evaluating a rather odd solution at the moment: Chinese brand Yongnuo makes a SB900-equivalent (the 560 IV) that has both a built in radio transmitter, and full wireless control from a remote (imaginatively, the 560TX) that works with any platform – including two way feedback for zoom head, power and trigger mode – and on top of that will give you TTL with your choice of Nikon or Canon (depends on the pins you select at purchase). I can slave them optically to the Nikon speed lights for extra power when I’m using the Nikons; or I can do the opposite with the SB900s for when I’m using the Hasselblad. Sure, there is no question that the European products deliver excellent light quality; the problem is really one of weight and portability. But with these things, it’s hard to argue with $70 for a flash and $45 for a trigger; at that price, you just buy a spare in case something goes wrong.

Until I really, really, really need bigger light for bigger objects…then it’s Broncolor Para time. 🙂 MT

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Comments

  1. Seems like, if you have a dealer who stocks them, you should give the Cactus V6 triggers a try – remote power control for 4 zones and works with most all major models of speedlight and will work on all your camera bodies . Very affordable and very reliable, unlike the TT5 system. Plus they share AA batteries with your Speedlights. The MKII is more for HSS applications.

    If your needing more power I suggest either the Elinchrom ELB400 or older Quadra – nice thing about these is they will ‘learn’ triggering from your Speedlights too. I use these plus 4x SB800s with V6s for interior/Arch/Product/Food work . Godox also do a speed light holder with an Elinchrom mount so can share softboxes/etc around strobes/speedlights on location. Stupidest thing about Elinchrom is that 7mm umbrella limitation. The Profoto B2s are great too – less power but slightly more robust build.

    Biggest issue for you seems like lack of dealership support which is the most important thing for working pros – trying products out and getting them fixed/replaced ASAP. Good luck with your search!

  2. Ronan Palliser says:

    Regarding “I’ve got half a dozen Nikon SB900s and a few more other assorted flashes, but none of them have wireless power control other than with a Nikon body.”, I’m not sure that’s true if you have or are willing to invest in the Nikon-friendly wireless triggers… e.g. I have Pocketwizard FlexTT5s (Nikon flavour) and the PW AC3 Zone Controller and can wirelessly adjust flash power from the camera even when the camera is a Fuji X-T2. As long as the flashes are in TTL mode (off camera) but teh AC-3 is setting power in manual mode, it works.

    • Useful to know, thanks – I wasn’t aware of this (everything I’ve read about the TT5s suggests you need to use the Nikon version on a Nikon body for remote control etc.)

  3. Malcolm Patrick says:

    Elinchrom ELB 400 great kit. 420 something output. Flash duration primarily dependent on what head you use. Radio trigger. Just played the airline game with them, London to Bangkok via Dubai. Fitted a Nikon D750, 24-120 lens, two elb 400’s two heads, plus bits and made the 7kg carry on weight. Sneaked my mac book pro in as well. Just had to find a bag that was sub 1kg. Used an insert for a hard case.
    Elinchrom even provide a download of the airline battery conformity certificate should you get questioned. Great kit.

  4. Very well done as usual. I do have a couple of thoughts. Lighting systems are like energy shells on electrons. Each electron level cannot accept a random number of electrons at ones whim. The rules of physics dictate this.

    Lighting is a bit the same. What you may want is a 1000 w/s instrument but in order to put down your speedlights and do that there is no small bit of attendant baggage. Strobes either mean powerpacks/generators or monolights. Lithium Batteries are harder to fly with now but you can still check an absorbed glass mat lead/acid battery in the states. Monolights mean heavier stands. It means more to fly with. Easier to knock over. Go with Kino’s or HMI’s and they too come with a load of items many of which are essential to get the light and modify the output. This of course all runs into a trough at the bottom of the floor labeled “crew” and “budget”.

    I will note that the most profitable (I did not say best) editorial/celebrity I know is always in a studio in a major city like LA, NYC, London etc. The only personal camera he owns besides his phone is a small point and shoot.

    I own the B2 set from Profoto currently and like it very much. My needs are also less demanding than yours. I would ask if one of your sponsors can lend you a set. The are sweet, easy and portable.

    Or better yet come to NYC and will put them through the paces. As always your work is jaw droppingly tight.

  5. I had all but given up on speed lights, preferring my PCB Einsteins for most work, until I bought the Yongnuo’s. They definitely have their issues, they occasionally misfire or don’t fire, the build quality is not the most solid, they eat batteries, and they overheat quickly, but considering that you can usually buy 5 of them and a wireless trigger for the cost of one SB900 things begin to even out very quickly.

  6. I once built the perfect system by hot-rodding three different brands to work with the Paul C Buff batteries. After buying, selling, swapping, and soldering dozens of components I had it licked, everything fit into a roller and provided me with enough light to do 4×5 portraiture and accomplish what used to take 3x the bulk.

    Then I wheeled up to the airport security and realized that my batteries were illegal.

    It does baffle the mind that not one company has figured out how to do a solid professional AA-powered flash with a robust stand and umbrella mount, soft box brackets, and radio remote control, like a pro moonlight without the huge battery pack.

    • Lithium powered would work too. We need a) say 250-500 W/S, which is about 3-4x single speedlight power. Then add battery commonality with a camera and ability to run off mains. Wireless power control with feedback on the camera side – TTL isn’t require, but changing and knowing what the power level is when the lights might be 20m away and 5m off the ground is certainly useful…and yes, it’s amazing nobody makes this. There must be something we’re missing or not understanding, I think…

  7. I use Pocket Wizard’s TT5 Flex (one on camera, with an AC-3 zone controller, and one for each flash) for triggering and remote control of the power on my Nikon flashes and my Profoto B2s (the older, non-TTL solution, with 600Ws – just trigger, no remote control). When I use my Nikon camera I get TTL, but I can use the setup for remote control and triggering on any camera – I have used it many times with my Olympus EM-1 and with a Sony RX100II.
    It’s true, the TT5s are not cheap, but they give important flexibility and reliability via radio communication. And the AC-3 zone controller has the easiest and most intuitive way of adjusting power of the solutions I have researched and used (Profoto, Elinchrom, Phottix, etc). Hope this helps.

    • Do you mean you can control the speedlights from any camera brand, I mean set power uotput and zoom for each group? I understand that TTL won’t work if it’s a Nikon specific Pocketwizard. Does it allow TTL pass through by any chance? And why do you need the extra gadget AC-3 on top of all the other stuff?
      Pls Excuse if dumb question.

  8. Since you are commited to Hasselblad, have a bunch of Nikon Speedlights and need full remote control of your flashes, the Phottix Odin II seems to be the most appropriate remote. It even seems to be more flexible than the PocketWizard MiniTT1. You can even control the zoom of the flash heads. The only drawbacks are that you cannot use an on-camera flash — but I doubt you use that anyway — and the price. If you still need additional Speedlights, the LumoPro LP180R has a built-in Odin receiver.

  9. I Have to vote for the Godox AD360 II . I use the vI and they have been superb performers for over a year with almost daily use. 360WS with a dead reliable trigger that permits remote power adjustment. The vids use a 2.4 Ghz trigger system and now support TTL I believe.
    I have had nothing but mediocre performance from my Pocket Wizards ( I used to own as many as 25) with failures at critical times.
    The Godox has never let me down.
    The receiver attaches to the flash with a USB connector and uses on board power thus freeing you of the worry of battery condition.
    The latest models have the receiver built in. The X-1 trigger being very full featured.
    Also, the Li-ion batteries have enabled me to shoot all day on a single setoff batteries. I have never had to change batteries.

  10. Stephen Scharf says:

    I’ve been using the Yongnuo setup you’ve shown above now for the last several months, and I find it works a treat! I shoot product (including watches; remember those, Ming?) with two 560IIIs and the 560-TX and am very pleased with the results. I paid $65 for the speedlites, and a whopping $37 for the transmitter. Ridiculously good value proposition.

  11. Call me old school because I spent twenty years traveling with them for corporate assignments but two small quality AC packs, four small air-cooled heads, and lots of accessories in Lightware roller case a few pounds under the limit, a second stand/cargo bag roller… no plastic shoe mounts to be found. No batteries to scare the airlines. No TTL, we used these things called flash meters. Robust, consistent light. Man up and have the client pay for the extra case like a professional?

    • I think you’re missing the point entirely. Firstly, TTL isn’t the problem, it’s remote controlling a head on a stick that may well be out of reach and not easy to move down when set up. Secondly, you can’t always use AC packs on location when there’s no power socket to be found: back to batteries. Next, have you tried to check in lithium packs on an airline lately? You are forced to carry batteries yourself, and with the weight, you then cannot carry anything else. ‘Man up and have the client pay’ – for what, to check in your cameras which have a high chance of theft or damage when out of your immediate care? Insurance is useless since it doesn’t solve the problem of broken gear on arrival before your job. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly here: I’m explaining my though process for the benefit of the readership.

  12. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with Yongnuo – I was disappointed when Nikon didn’t commit to a Canon-style fully built-in (radio) wireless system with the D5/500 and SB5000 (I’ve heard some dubious things about the build quality of the latter, too).

  13. I use some Yongnuo 560 II and III since a few years and I am very satisfied. The 560 II I use with an external radio trigger receiver and the 560 III with its built in receiver. The optical slave triggers I usually don’t use because radio is much more reliable.

  14. Have you considered led panels? They are light and cheap, lots of sizes, etc. I will be retiring my Photogenics early next year and replacing them with an led set up.

  15. janhettenkofer says:

    Thanks, I’m on the same train of thought right now. The Westcott Apollo Orb was exactly what I was looking for and it’s not even very expensive (unlike certain other portable octaboxes… Looking at you, Rotalux).

    • The orb unfortunately seems to eat a lot more light than you might think, and by the time you grid it, bye bye one more stop. The triple bracket is a must, and even then…let’s just say I’m back to the Lastolites.

      • janhettenkofer says:

        Uh Oh, thanks for the info. I might have to look at that speedlight shaped strobe for that then, it’s supposed to have an output of around 400Ws

  16. Hello Ming, the Yongnuo flashes are pure manual, but you have remote Control via 560tx over power in 1/3steps and lighting angle. The different hotshoes for Nikon or Canon only give Auto power up, no ttl-Funktion.

  17. Hi Ming – have you taken a look at Godox? The AD360 may be of interest. No TTL, but a speed light size with studio light power.

  18. Bill Walter says:

    My biggest drawback as a photographer is that I absolutely hate using a flash. I try to avoid them at all costs. I never like the results I get with them, and like you say, they tend to ruin the atmosphere. For those who use a flash on a regular basis, I wish the best of luck working around these issues.

  19. plevyadophy says:

    Ming,

    The Profoto B2 is essentially a “copy” of the Elinchrom kit and the Elinchrom system is VASTLY superior. A few months ago I sent you a number of very detailed comparison reviews.

    Unfortunately, as I understod it, and correct me if I am wtong, your region doesnt have much in the way of support for the Elinchrom brand. But given your complex conundrum wouldnt it just be better to take the risk of buying the Elinchrom gear anyway ( its VERY reliable) and maybe keep the Chinese gear on hand as backup?

    When next in London you could go to The Flash Centre near Russell Square to try out and get advice on the Elinchrom ( the were the original distributers of the kit, have supported it for years, and REALLY REALLY know their stuff).

    Just a few thoughts.

    Regards

    • Can’t speak to how good a copy it is, but yes – support is problematic here. In the end I’m back to SB900s – it seems Hasselblad is moving towards Nikon TTL (and remote control) anyway. For anything bigger I’m looking into Broncolor gear.

      • plevyadophy says:

        Why Broncolor and not Profoto? Just curious

        • If I go big, I’ll go really big – and only Broncolor and Briese have those parabolic reflectors.

          • And don’t forget Elinchrom for big modifiers… Their bigger light modifiers are simply wonderful, including both their Lightmotiv parabolic and the much softer Indirect Lightmotive are my favorite softboxes. I have the big Broncolor Parabolic and never use it. The Elinchrom Indirect Lightmotive is much easier to use, and I am thoroughly addicted to the soft, even light. It’s the best big softbox I’ve used—and I’ve used most of them from Profoto, Broncolor, and Elinchrom (among others).

            For flash, I use Profoto’s B4, D4, D1s, and B2s—all for a variety of applications. I’ve also contemplated getting a B2, but like you, feel underwhelmed by its power. My strong sense, howvever, is that the B2 would provide a better, more flexible solution over the Yongnuos. It certainly would work much better with a whole host of much better modifiers. Take this with a grain of salt because I am recovering light Nazi, or at least a light snob.

            I mount the Elinchroms (as well as Profoto and Broncolor modifiers) to my Profoto gear, which I use exclusively, via adapter. I love the Profoto B1s for locations shoots where this is no power, and have no issues at all controlling them from the shoe-mounted remote, and the newer Air System remote does indeed have power settings visible on the remote.

            See it here: https://profoto.com/int/products/air-system-wireless-sync-remote-control

            The quality of the light via the Profotos so exceeds any flash system I’ve used, though I’ve not used the Yongnuo (have used the Nikons). Also, the Profoto mount system, and the flexibility of the mounting system allows unprescendanted lightshaping control. It seems fascinating to me that you’re willing to lug the Hassy around and then skimp on lights. But again, take this with a grain—I’m only on step five in my Strobaholics recovery program…

            All that being said, I rarely have any need for true portability. Remote power and batter—yes. Portability, not so much. So the overarching factor for me is the quality of the light and the quality of the modifiers.

  20. Ming, do you find TTL support to be essential for shooting with one or several off-camera flashes? Just a a newbie question.
    In my case I was thinking of controlling my SB-800 via Cactus 6 II devices.

    • Nope, I run manual most of the time since it’s easier to achieve consistency. What I want is remote communication so I can change power from the camera (especially important if the flashes are physically somewhere difficult to reach). Usually this two-way protocol tends to mean that you’re going to get TTL anyway.

      • Cactus say their V6 II remotely controls power output.

        • From the on-camera unit, that is. May be worth a look-up?

          • Bruno Almeida says:

            They do actually – I´ve bought two of Cactus RF-60 speed lights two of the V6 (mark I) to use in conjunction with a Canon EX 430II. Not a bad solution for me, but one of the RF-60s died on me after a couple months. I´ll stick with de V6´s I have since the can work cross brands with whatever I throw at them (I´ve been using an old Nikon SB 28 WITH the Canon and the Cactus speed lights) since then.

            Here in Brazil there´s no sort of support from Cactus so in the future I´ll probably go the Yongnuo way – cheap and “easier” enough to replace around here if I have to.

          • Yes, this might be very useful…

  21. The Yungnuo’s are excellent quality for the price. I have had a set of the same 560’s and the trigger for around 8 months now and they have not had even one hiccup. I originally bought them for use with a Sony setup. For them to work I had to buy the canon version of the trigger but have since moved back to a Nikon system. I was going to buy a new trigger which was Nikon dedicated but on the off chance tried the canon one on my Nikon and it worked perfectly!
    Their LED lights are great too.

  22. I went through a similar exercise and ended up with Phottix. The Indra’s have been solid and you can get an Odin II for Canon, Nikon, Sony or Hasselblad (at least the new X1D should work with the Nikon version, not sure about an H5D/6D). If you don’t need remote power control you can use a stratto II trigger to save size and weight. It is one of the few systems you can mix in speedlights with the same trigger and choose between Phottix or LumoPro speedlights as well so you can mix and match size and power output as needed without too much trouble. Oh, and it’s a bowens mount. That being said, I still love my Yongnuo flashes and they will live on as a backup for a while.

  23. leoedwardsphoto2013 says:

    Hang on for these from Jinbei – coming in December – 400w and a metal head about the size of the B2’s – TTL / HSS. 1/4 of the price

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  24. Roger L Bunting says:

    For me a conundrum also, but different reasons.I shoot Nikon and now Fuji X. Mostly my broad interests boil down to events when a strobe is involved. Some event stuff results in group portraits. So I need quickly responding on-camera strobes that will double for extemporaneous group lighting. Mostly the Nikon CLS system is very versatile allowing me to swap my two strobes between 1) single on-camera strobe (flagged and bounced); 2) paired on camera-commander with stand-mounted strobe; 3) two off-camera strobes with SU-800. I use a SB-800 and SB-910 with SU-800 or commander/remote.

    I’m just going to wait a bit longer for Fuji support and let the ISO float into the high range. While the camera will scrape out images that are small viewing tolerable, what really hurts in those venues is the quality of the light. Even on on-camera flagged/bounced strobe an moderately high ISOs would help improve the horrible facial shadows. Fuji seems to be stuck on the philosophy that highISO solves all. It’s a great tool but not a substitute for good (albeit dim) light.

    Were I only location, the Younguo looks very interesting. The RoboShoot may be an (expensive) solution to bridging my Nikon lights to Fuji X but at the expense of some very awkward transceivers.

    So my strobe solution is to hang in there with a Nikon body (the Df) that allows quick, familiar and easy setup for manual ambient exposure, great CLS TTL support for mains and work out the differences with my two SB strobes. Right now for me 16MP on the Nikon with good light is a better solution than 24MP on the Fuji with marginal light.

    Both manufacturers are stuck in the past. Fuji way in the past with their system and Nikon clings to their OPTICAL CLS system. The newer SB-5000 is supposed to be electronic communication between commander and remote but requires adapters on some bodies. This weekend I had a shoot that involved and outdoor group portrait of about 30 people. The Nikon CLS system surprised me when the optical triggers managed everything even in bright noon-day sun. Distances were short, but fortunately I didn’t need any modifiers, I just needed light. But IME this is where the CLS system falls short, outdoors. I know it is just my familiarity with the CLS system, but the user interface that allows almost instant reconfiguration between camera-mounted main, remote and commander really makes this a very productive system with which to work.

    • The closest I think we get are the Profoto B2s, but wireless communication isn’t quite complete especially in manual – there’s no feedback for flash power in manual mode.

      I suspect the other mfgs being stuck with optical slaves have a lot to do with certification as much as anything. Why we’re still forced to deal with sacks of AAs is another thing entirely – why not at least have battery commonality with some of the other cameras in the line?

  25. You concerns are exactly the ones I’m wrestling with. Here is the solution I’m thinking about. It’s the Flashpoint Streaklight: 360W/s, separate battery pack, wireless triggering, and the flash head is light enough to go on the camera or on a flash bracket or on a light stand.

    http://www.adorama.com/fplfsl360nk1.html?utm_medium=display&utm_source=criteo

    JR

  26. gordon frederick.app says:

    have you looked at the godox ? a nice option.

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