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Light is photography’s essential ingredient. We’ve come a long way since flash powder, and some of the most dramatic changes are taking place right now.
The reduction of size and weight has been driving the design of cameras since the pioneers struggling with big wooden boxes thought that there just had to be a better way. It’s been the same with lighting equipment, particularly since the early days of studio flash and power packs that were so big and heavy they needed wheels. Remember Strobe anybody?
A number of technological stars have aligned over the last few years to drive even greater changes in the design of photographic lighting equipment, especially in the move towards more portable systems. Of course, there are some that claim the ever-improving sensitivity of imaging sensors combined with more sophisticated noise reduction processing is reducing the need for artificial lighting sources, but the reality is that light in photography has never been just about exposure; there’s a creative element that Mother Nature often can’t supply. And having more light on tap has technical benefits too (faster shutter speeds, smaller apertures, etc, etc).
In addition to increased portability, being freed from the constraints of a mains power supply has seen significant changes in the areas of ‘traditional’ studio flash which, of course, is now no longer confined to the studio. In just a few years, battery-powered systems now dominate, especially in monoblocs, but also in the portable pack-based systems which have two or maybe more outlets for flash heads. Advances in battery technology have been the key here, enabling smaller and lighter units which are both more efficient and can be recharged in shorter times.
Consequently, bulky and heavy studio flash power packs are giving way to much more compact units – as largely pioneered by Elinchrom with its original Ranger series and later Quadra models, and now taken even further by Profoto with its ‘crossover’ B2 system which is part studio flash, part ‘speedlight’ kit. Likewise, battery-powered monoblocs are more numerous than the studio-bound mains-powered models, except at the entry-level of the market where low cost is the priority.
The advantages of integrating a battery pack are obvious, starting with increased portability, but also including the elimination of another cable following on from the move to remote triggering and control over some functions via radio frequency. So, for example, the Profoto B1 is fully functional on location with needing any cables at all (including TTL flash control, but more about this feature shortly). It’s easy to see why this also has advantages in the studio situation where a myriad cables snaking across the floor are often a hazard.
Advances in capacitor technology are enabling shorter flash durations with faster recycling, so continuous shooting is possible at frame rates previously considered inconceivable. This is making studio flash equipment more attractive for shooting fast action, especially when battery power and greater portability allow it to be used in outdoor locations such as a mountain bike track or a skate board park.
The ability to freeze high-speed motion is the key advantage that electronic flash still has over the increasingly popular LED-based lighting systems. LEDs (light emitting diodes) have taken over everywhere in lighting – film and theatre, automotive, domestic, personal devices such as torches and, of course, photography especially as the convergence with video continues.
Compared to other forms of continuous lighting, LEDs are extremely efficient – by up to 85 percent compared to halogen or incandescent sources – hence they don’t waste so much energy as unwanted heat and even fairly small displays are still quite bright. Additionally, it’s easier to more precisely adjust both the intensity and the colour temperature (for example, from neutral to warm). Stability is also less of an issue – although the quality of the power supply is still important – and there is no warm-up time. Furthermore, the lifespan is much, much longer – up to 50,000 hours which is typically ten times that of a halogen source.
There are already a number of flash monoblocs which have LED modelling lights instead of the more conventional quartz-halogen lamps. The much higher efficiency of an LED source is particularly beneficial when using battery power as they can be run for much longer rather than on short timer-controlled durations. Of course, it helps here that LEDs need DC power. However, even with mains-powered units, the arguments for switching to LED modelling lights – which can also be used as a continuous source when shooting video – are convincing, and ‘hybrid’ flash/LED lighting products – such as monoblocs – are becoming more common.
1 The Bowens Creo 1200 flash power pack delivers flash durations as quick as 1/5000 second and colour stability from flash to flash of +/-40 degrees Kelvin.
2 Bowens’s Gemini 400 RX adds remote radio triggering to the British brand’s classic monobloc.
3 Elinchrom’s compact ELC Pro 500 monobloc delivers up 500 joules of flash power and has a built-in EL-Skyport wireless receiver.
4 Broncolor’s Move L portable power pack has a maximum output of 1200 joules with the either symmetric or asymmetric power distribution between its two outlets.
5 Profoto’s D4 line-up of studio flash power packs
6 Broncolor’s brand new battery-powered Siros 800 L Monobloc can output up to
800 joules of flash power.
7 The Profoto B1 pioneered the company’s wireless TTL exposure control.
8 LED panels offer the advantages of efficiency, controllability and stability.
Need For Speed
A growing number on-camera flash units (a.k.a. the speedlight) now also incorporate an LED source so they can be used for both photography and video. It’s the upsurge in the use of multiple speedlights as alternatives to monoblocs that no doubt spurred Profoto to put the time and resources into developing the wireless TTL automatic flash exposure controllers for its innovative B1 and B2 portable systems.
In technical terms, though, this isn’t as easy as it looks, which is why there hasn’t exactly been a rush of competitor models, even though the B1 has now been around for well over two years. However, the convenience of TTL exposure control combined with the flexibility of a wide power range (and greater control over effects via light shapers) would seem to make following this route an inevitability for Profoto’s key rivals.
The last time we looked at the professional lighting market, we asked whether the era of the big and powerful traditional flash floor pack was over. As the flexibility and convenience associated with better batteries, high-efficiency LEDs (or a combination of LEDs and a flash tube) and wireless TTL exposure control make the various portable options steadily more attractive for a whole range of applications, it’s hard not to conclude that this is the area of professional lighting that has undergone the greatest change. Of course, the natural habitat of the big pack – the big studio – is also largely gone, except for rental complexes which usually have rental lighting equipment available too. There is always going to be a need for big lighting set-ups, but most photographers now service such requirements via the hire of studio space and appropriate flash equipment. And, in fact, it may not be flash equipment at all, as TV/film continuous lighting – including big LED panels – is a viable alternative when shooting a static subject. Nevertheless, the design of studio flash packs continues to advance too, again with the goals of enhanced portability, speed and operational convenience.
As noted earlier, the pack-and-heads configuration has migrated through to a new generation of very compact battery-powered units which trade on the inherent flexibility of having two or more flash heads powered from the same generator – which also centralises the control operations. Both Elinchrom’s ELB 400 and Profoto’s B2 TTL are good examples of such products and, with maximum outputs of 400 joules and 250 joules respectively, are actually less powerful than many monoblocs. However, because both systems are very compact and use lightweight flash heads; in reality they’re as portable as carrying a couple of monoblocs.
The speedlight option is also an increasingly popular one, not just because carrying even four or five units isn’t especially onerous, but because sophisticated wireless TTL exposure control makes such multi-light set-ups easy to manage. Additionally, there’s now a wide choice of accessories, including light-shapers and softboxes, for such set-ups, helping to overcome the limitations of a comparatively small-area light source. The growth in this market has seen a number of new ‘third-party’ brands – most notably from China – arrive to compete with the established camera brands such as Canon and Nikon, in some cases offering matching features and functionality at a distinct price advantage. This difference starts to become more marked if you’re buying two or more units when the total cost of a camera-branded speedlight system can then start to match that of battery-based studio light kit.
Professional lighting equipment has always been about balancing power and portability, but you generally had to sacrifice one for the other to some extent, especially if you wanted to travel light. To some extent this is still true, but today’s portable systems are much less compromised – especially when combined with the sensitivity ranges of the latest imaging sensors – and, indeed, the various technological developments of the last few years have all contributed to a great scope for creativity and the capacity to solve many more lighting challenges.
Who Sells What?
STUDIO FLASH SYSTEMS
Bowens: C.R. Kennedy & Company Pty Ltd,
Broncolor: Sun Studios Australia Pty Ltd
Elinchrom: Kayell Australia Pty Ltd,
Profoto: C.R. Kennedy & Company Pty Ltd,
LED LIGHTING SYSTEMS
Aputure: Kayell Australia Pty Ltd
Dracast: Sun Studios Australia Pty Ltd
Manfrotto: Adeal Pty Ltd
Rotolight: C.R. Kennedy & Company Pty Ltd