When it comes to battery powered strobes and off camera flashes, power is a key consideration. I want the greatest amount of power in the smallest and lightest package possible and at the lowest cost. In addition, I want the greatest number of flashes per charge.
My lighting kit for the past four years has included the Elinchrom Quadra with A and S heads and Canon Speedlite 600ex-rt’s.
The Quadra has significantly more power than the Speedlite; however, its downside is the size and weight of the batter/power pack as well as the cords. The Speedlite is much more portable and much lighter.
In general, I have used the Quadra as a keylight for anything outdoors with the Speedlites as fill and accent lights. Indoors I have tended to just use Speedlites because the power requirements are usually smaller and they do a great job. In addition, using just the Speedlites is less complicated because all of them can be easily controlled via the Canon Speedlite ST-E3-RT transmitter. When I use the Quadra with the Speedlite I use the ST-E3-RT to trigger the Speedlites. Those trigger the Quadra via the Quadra’s built-in optical trigger. It works but requires more set up.
This works pretty well except for the fact that I have to carry around different modifiers for the Quadra and Speedlite. With space and weight at a premium I have settled on carrying the 11” Lumodi Beauty Dish for the Speedlite and a 27.5” Rotalux Deep Octa for the Quadra.
In my quest to reduce weight and simplify things for our upcoming Europe trip, I decided to see if I could possibly just carry and use Speedlites. This would reduce about 7 pounds of equipment and free up space.
During a recent trip to do multiple shoots in Las Vegas, I brought all of my usual gear but decided to see if I could get through five days and 13 shoots without using the Elinchrom Quadras. The shoots would require a wide variety of lighting solutions including natural light, mixed lighting, and just strobes/speedlites.
As it turns out, during the first set of the first shoot the answer became quite clear. We were shooting a designer gown with the model standing atop a barrier on the highest floor of a parking garage. We wanted some of the Las Vegas strip buildings in the background. The model was in the shade of a building. The sky was cloudless and the early afternoon sun slightly behind and to the right side of the model.
Some photographers would have simply opened up the aperture or increased ISO in order to properly expose the model and black fabric. The problem with these approaches is the background would be over exposed (blown out). A shallow depth of field would also blur the background (bokeh). Using a narrower aperture to create more depth of field would require a very slow shutter speed or such a high ISO that noise would start deteriorating the image quality.
So the solution was to use a narrower aperture that kept the buildings in sufficient focus to be recognizable and allow an exposure that retained the color of the blue sky and other surroundings. This setting would result in the model and clothing to be underexposed; as such, a flash would have to be used.
For this shot I chose to use the Lumodi 11” beauty dish to create dramatic shadows on the model. The dish reduces the flash’s output by 2.5 stops which is significant. In addition, the flash had to be far enough from the model to not be in the image frame. This distance further reduces the flash’s output.
I shot some test images (I did not have my light meter with me to measure the flash) with the flash on ¼ power. The model was well underexposed. I kept increasing the power until I had the Canon Speedlite at full power. Even then the model was underexposed. The only way to compensate was to slow the shutter speed down without exceeding my ability to hold the camera well enough for a sharp image. I also chose a wider aperture to let in more light. Finally, I nudged the ISO higher.
With all of this done, I shot a series of images. Out of the camera the images worked but was not particularly impressive. Although exposed correctly the background was not sufficiently dark and parts of the white buildings were underexposed. I was able to adjust some of this in post through Camera Raw and Photoshop; however, this is not a good approach. It is best to get an image as close to the intended results through the capture process than in post.
This test showed the problem of not having enough power to allow a photographer to set up and capture an intended shot. For my style of shooting, I realized it was a failure because I love strong backlit images and routinely darken the environment.
A few minutes later we were at another location. The sun was low on the horizon and I wanted to create a dramatically back-lit image with strong shadows. Since the Canon had failed the prior test under better lighting conditions, I decided to use the Elinchrom Quadra with its standard reflector. There was more than enough power to allow me to darken the scene by stopping down the aperture and increasing the shutter speed but still light the model. Here is the result:
In post I did vignette the edges and darken the overall image; however, one can see the ratio between the sun behind the tree and the light falling upon the model.
This simple but important test told me that I would have to just deal with carrying both systems with me to Europe. Although I do not know if I will be shooting backlit scenes or other scenarios requiring a lot of power, having that as an option is important.
The lesson is that if one wants flexibility for lighting solutions, more power is definitely a good bet.