Elinchrom Ranger Quadra review
January 16, 2010
(Photo from the Elinchrom website)
I’d like to add my perspective about why I decided to purchase a couple of the A Speed Head kits in the hopes that it might help other photographers make a more informed decision about this fairly new and relatively unproven system.
First of all, some history about my approach to strobe lighting (if you just want to read my opinions about the Ranger Quadra, then skip down to the Pros & Cons headings below). Most of my client work is done on location, whether business portraits that require an on-location photo studio, to news/editorial environmental portraits that may require fast set up and tear down and numerous locations during a session, to weddings, to corporate functions and events. My approach has been two-pronged: relatively powerful AC powered monolights when there is time and AC power to set up or battery operated hot shoe flash units when high output is not necessary or AC is unavailable.
Back in the mid 1990s I settled on the Photogenic Powerlight 600 (600 W/s) monolight, which allowed stepless power adjustment from full to 1/32 power. Monolights seemed logical to me because they were independent units not tethered to a powerpack, which allowed better distribution of heads in large venues such as conference halls or wedding receptions, yet still worked well as studio lights. It was also a more economical way for me to get into ‘studio’ lighting piece by piece. At the time White Lightning strobes (from Paul C Buff) were also an option, but in the pre-internet era it was more reassuring to buy a product distributed locally in Canada vs. one that was mail order from the USA.
On the battery operated strobe side I used a mix of Canon Speedlites and Sunpak flashes powered by Lumedyne Minicycler style high voltage (HV) battery packs to allow near instantaneous flash recycling times. I found this worked well at the time with film where one was often working at relatively low ISOs (from 100 to 400) and quite frequently needed to use some flash either for fill or to bounce off a wall or ceiling in a small room.
In the transition to digital I found that the ability to work at higher ISOs while still achieving very good image quality meant that I rarely needed to use on-camera or hot shoe flashes at high power settings (thus allowing me to eliminate the bulk and weight of the Lumedyne battery packs and the cords that inevitably tangled up), or I could simply work with available light for a more natural look. But it also quickly became apparent that TTL flash for multi-light on-location set-ups was a big digital post production hassle. No longer was the lab the one equalizing shot to shot exposure variations, it was me sitting at the computer spending a lot of time to do so. Therefore the desire to get things right in-camera quickly became apparent. The instant feedback of the digital camera’s LCD display meant it was very easy to determine lighting ratios and correct exposure, even without a handheld flash meter. Being able to set the speedlites manually was much more desirable than working in TTL because it meant perfectly consistent exposures from shot to shot. It was like going back to the basics but with the luxury of instant feedback.
The inconsistent mix of speedlites with different cords and accessories was not an ideal solution and I decided to standardize on the Sunpak 120J as a speedlite replacement. Benefits included relatively compact size with a body similar to a normal hot shoe flash, barebulb flash tube for more versatile lighting opitons that could also be removed for more compact storage, round removable reflector that gave a more pleasing light quality, manual power settings – though only down to 1/16, an inexpensive Sunpak HV battery system for relatively quick recycling, good light output similar to a Metz 45 series unit, and good value at under $300 US with the HV battery pack. I ended up with four sets (flash & battery pack) that comprised the core of my battery powered system for the past 5 years.
On the monolight side my aging Photogenic units were beginning to wear out (a couple were made in the late 80s). And while they could be repaired, I decided to use the money and opportunity to instead move to AlienBees monolights from Paul C Buff. The AlienBees line is extremely popular and very well documented, so no need for me to go into details other than to say I was attracted by the stepless power adjustment similar to the Photogenic units, but in a much smaller, lighter and more economically priced package. I settled on four B1600 (640 W/s) units in order to achieve a similar maximum light output to the Photogenics.
So then, after being relatively frugal with my Sunpak 120J and AlienBees purchases, why did I spend a considerable amount of money on a two pack, four head Elinchrom Ranger Quadra (RQ) system?
There were a number of factors. The Sunpak 120Js were beginning to fail and the battery packs were unable to supply as much capacity as when new. The easy solution would have been to buy new batteries and replace dead units, but at some point in the past year or two, something changed at Sunpak and the 120J was discontinued (along with most of their more advanced but relatively old fashion flash units). Being a relatively niche product with a somewhat dedicated user base, I found it difficult to find used replacement units. But that wasn’t the only reason to move away from the 120Js. Over the years I found that while they were good, the inability to work lower than 1/16th power was a drawback with digital when trying to balance low ambient light at high ISOs, or even to work at moderately wide apertures at ISO 100. Certainly the use of neutral density filters was an option, but the lack of a broad power setting range, and only in full stop increments (that in reality were roughly full stop increments), combined with a much bluer (colder) light quality than the AlienBees (when I mixed the systems) and an unbearable ~8 hour battery recharge time, slowly soured their appeal.
The ever reliable AlienBees have paid for themselves numerous times over several years of use, yet they are also a compromise that seems to be in part attributable to their low price point. A significant issue is that like most monolights, as power output is reduced, flash duration actually increases (gets longer) and is less able to freeze movement. While this seems illogical since powerpack systems shorten flash duration as power is reduced (also true for most on-camera flash units), it is a documented downside to most monolights (see this page or Rob Galbraith’s review of the new Paul C Buff Einstein 640 monolight that addresses this issue). I didn’t give this relatively unknown ‘feature’ much weight a few years ago, but after numerous photo sessions it’s become very apparent to me that even in a studio portrait type situation, the longer than desired flash duration could be an issue. I chose the 640 W/s B1600 because it was a nearly straight replacement for the 600 W/s Photogenic and there have been times when I needed all that power. But for average portrait sessions I found that the units were frequently down at 1/8 or lower power. Often the background light was at the minimum 1/32 power. And at the lower power settings the B1600s have a t.5 flash duration of 1/900 (t.1 of 1/300). I work primarily with the camera hand held and even though I try to be as steady as possible, too often the images showed some motion blur (whether it was subject movement or camera movement) with the AlienBees. A solution would have been to add a set of the much snappier B400 units for portraits, but I didn’t want yet another set of lights. The White Lightning X1600 would be another solution. It has a unique dual power mode that achieves faster (shorter) flash duration at 1/4 power. But it’s a relatively large, heavy, somewhat more expensive unit, similar to the old Photogenics, which didn’t appeal to me, and it’s now rendered virtually obsolete by the Paul C Buff Einstein. The B1600’s longish flash duration wasn’t the only issue. Just as annoying was inconsistent flash to flash output. This might partially be my fault as I tend to be a rapid shooter but the end result was always sessions where exposures varied by as much as 1/3 stop. It resulted in more post production work that I rather prefered to avoid. Happily Paul C Buff has addressed this with the Einstein 640 W/s unit (see also the Rob Galbraith link). If it lives up to the promised specs, I will likely consider it to replace the B1600.
Now (finally) the RQ… For the digital location photographer (and who doesn’t shoot digital now?), the RQ system is the first to hit the market that seems like a dream come true, at least for me. It’s relatively small and light, battery operated, has reasonably fast recycle times, reasonably powerful at 400 W/s, powers up to two heads per pack, is somewhat competitively priced with other portable generator & head systems, has a well established accessory range, offers a generous 6.6 stop power adjustment range with up to 1/10 stop adjustment accuracy, fast (short) flash duration with excellent shot to shot output and color consistency, includes a built-in radio trigger system that allows remote power adjustment, etc., etc.
Based on several weeks of use, the RQ system so far lives up to its spec sheet. Here’s what I’ve found so far:
Pros (in no particular order):
– Color quality of the light is very natural and consistent.
– Exposure from shot to shot is very consistent. Because I tend to be a rapid shooter, I find the audible beep (that can be turned off) to be very helpful at keeping me from racing ahead of the pack. Also, unlike the AlienBees, if the RQ is not fully charged at a given power setting and one takes the shot anyway, the flash will not discharge. Initially this irritated me because I missed some shots, but the tradeoff is that the RQ maintains output consistency.
– The specified short flash duration of the A head seems to hold true. t.5 flash duration at full power is 1/3000 (t.1 of 1/1000) vs. t.5 of 1/1300 (t.1 of 1/433) for the slower S heads. At 1/3 power in the B socket flash duration shortens to a t.5 of 1/6000, which is about the range in which I’ve mostly used the units. It’s a dramatic difference from the B1600s. None of the RQ lit images I’ve reviewed so far have been marred by normal subject or camera movement. Note the hair in the image below. It was moving rapidly yet here it is well frozen:
100% crop, sharpened somewhat:
What does t.5 and t.1 mean? Shawn Cullen, a Sports Illustrated photo assistant and strobe expert wrote an explanation for SportsShooter. There’s also an explanation on the Broncolor site. In a nutshell, the t.1 flash duration is equivalent to the motion stopping power of a shutter speed of that duration.
– Battery capacity appears to be as claimed and the batteries charge rapidly, typically under an hour if not fully depleted.
– I appreciate the ability to change the power adjustment levels from anywhere between 1/10 to full stops. I’ve settled on 1/3 stops since it’s how I have my cameras set and requires a lot less button pressing.
– So far I’ve primarily used the units indoors and have found 400 W/s is more than enough for portraiture. In fact I have yet to use the RQ at full power. With the Elinchrom Deep Octa softbox at normal working distances (1-2 meters from subject) with only the middle baffle for 1/2 or 3/4 length shots at between f/8 to f/11 at ISO 200, the RQ was usually in the 2.5-3.5 range. The power settings on the A port range from 6.0 (full) to 2.0. Each 1.0 power adjustment represents one f/stop, therefore at 3.0 the unit is three stops below full, or at 1/8 power. On the B port power output ranges from 4.4 down to 0.4. Being able to drop down to 0.4 has been welcome, though a couple times when I wanted to work at very wide aperture settings (around f/2) to better mix with ambient light, even 0.4 was too powerful. The image below was at nearly minimum power in order to shoot as wide open as possible to blur the distracting branches in the background:
– The battery charges rapidly and so far always before the second battery gets to an unusable level during fairly rapid shooting. The indicated 110 flashes on full power with the pack set to rapid recycling seems to be fairly accurate. I have not tested this yet myself, but during the several sessions so far with the packs around 1/8 power, it was possible to get to over 500 images before the recycle time became noticeably slower. At 1/8 power the recycle time is around 1/2 second, so it’s easy to shoot at a rapid pace, and the RQs *seemed* to be able to keep this up for extended periods. Once the battery power drops to a certain level the pack will automatically switch over to the slow recycling mode. I did check one pack after a fairly long session and it was somewhat warm to the touch.
– The heads themselves are small and light, which fits well with my travel kit comprised of lightweight Manfrotto Nano stands.
– The LED modeling light is brighter than one expects. In a dark room it is definitely usable as a modeling light, though of course it won’t compare to a 250W quartz lamp. I even used it as a work light in a room without an installed ceiling fixture. It’s possible to keep the LED running for up to 15 minutes at a time (which I think can be extended through one of the settings) and I did so for at least 4-5 15 minute sessions in a row, during which the battery held up very well. The color quality of the LED appears to be good and I anticipate that it could work well as an impromptu video light, or even for available light shooting. In any case, I don’t think one needs to be overly concerned about battery consumption if the modeling light is on for some time.
– The integrated EL-Skyport is a nice added bonus. It saves having to pack an extra set of radio slaves. And being able to adjust power remotely, set groups, channels etc. is very nice.
– The power cables between the pack and head can be daisy-chained to increase length. It’s very nice that the cable is fully detachable from the head and pack, allowing the kit to be packed more compactly.
– Elinchrom needs to design/supply a protective travel cover for the heads. Since first writing this, they have introduced a cover, but it’s not what I expected for $13. The solution seems a bit too delicate IMO.
– It would be more reassuring to have a glass cover over the flashtube. In the manual it states that flashtube life/performance will be degraded if touched and finger oil residue remains on the tube. Needless to say I was not thrilled when the resident dog at one photoshoot stuck his snout into the open reflector/tube of one of the heads… At least unlike other Ranger heads, the RQ flashtube is user replaceable.
– The reflector is made of fairly soft metal that is easy to warp/bend/distort, as I discovered after a 9-hour overseas flight. I packed the case (see below) with a cord coiled over top of each compartment containing two heads, and I assume the connector portion of the cord pressed down on one of the reflectors, warping it somewhat. On the flip side, because the metal is soft it was possible to reshape the reflector by hand so that it once again fit the head properly.
– The EL-Skyports at times seem a bit finicky. From time to time there were brief sequences where one pack or the other wouldn’t fire. Pressing the test button and/or slipping the sender off the hotshoe seemed to resolve the problem. I also learned it’s fairly important to ensure that the antenna is positioned straight up (90 degrees from its storage position beside the body of the sender). Because I’ve mostly worked indoors, range has not been an issue, though the one outdoor shoot I’ve done with the RQ did worry me slightly when the Skyport would not trigger the strobe from about 20-30 feet away. It may have been due to environmental interference (it was in an urban area where there may have been conflicting 2.4 GHz signals). And I have gotten a few random images with black bars along the bottom edge, indicating that occasionally the Skyports didn’t sync properly with the camera. Due to these lingering issues I still bring along a PW set just in case there is a complete failure of the Skyport system.
– It’s too easy to forget to turn off the Skyport sender or for the on/off switch to be accidentally turned on and therefore drain the fairly pricy 2430 lithium button cell. This happened to me while in overseas but luckily it was easy to find a store with 2430s. As a side note, I also did this with one of my PW TT1 senders, which uses the 2450 cell, that the store didn’t stock.
– The requisite RQ-EL reflector adapter for use with Elinchrom non-RQ lighting modifiers does not lock down tightly enough to prevent creep with larger light modifiers such as the Deep Octa softbox. Luckily it’s a relatively easy do it yourself fix with a couple locking washers from the hardware store, which is explained here. Since the fix the RQ-EL has held the Deep Octa with minimal tightening. Update: some say this problem has been resolved by Elinchrom.
– The 20 amp fuses are very fiddly to remove, which I had to do twice for air travel. It’s definitely a fingernail breaking process, therefore I now keep a small needle-nose plier in the case for this purpose. I also wonder where I can find replacement fuses… Update: I found replacement fuses at an automotive store. It seems they are fairly common car fuses.
– A couple of the extended portrait sessions I’ve done so far were fairly intense with many rapid sequences. Late into one of these sessions it appeared that one of the packs was not operating correctly. Though the main display was still illuminated and functional the unit would not trigger from the Skyport. It’s quite possible it was on the verge of overheating, but I’m not exactly sure if that was indeed the problem, or the battery was getting too low, or if the Skyport was acting up. Shutting it down, swapping the battery and waiting a few minutes seemed to help.
– Not my experience but there has been discussion on some photo forums about the usability of the RQ system in humid conditions. Some photographers have reported the units malfunctioning/shutting down.
– A lot of plastic. This point is a catch-22 because in order to save weight it’s necessary to use plastic, but at the same time it feels a bit on the cheap side and gives the impression of less durability. Time will tell if durability is in fact an issue.
– It would be nice if the battery charger was more compact. It’s not too obese, but not small either. BTW, I noticed that it’s the same charger used by the Hensel Porty 1200 system… hmmm…
How does the system travel? (Is it safe to ship by air?)
In a nutshell, very nicely. I was able to pack a Pelican 1560 roller case with two RQ generators, four batteries (two stacked in each compartment, four heads, four cables, two chargers, the EL-Skyports, a couple of the small Elinchrom umbrellas and three Manfrotto Nano stands at near the airline imposed 50lb/23kg limit. With some creative packing it’s possible to get this down to exactly 50lbs. Naturally the 1560 is not a carry-on sized case and it was part of my checked baggage. But careful observers of the photo above will note that the insert I used was actually from the 1510 case, which means other than the light stands, it would be possible to fit a two pack, four battery and four head RQ system in a Pelican 1510 roller.
Any issues with TSA? No. Any issues with the German authorities? No. Flying out of Buffalo, TSA opened the case and left their inspection note. Same with the Germans, who left a very nice notice signed by two inspectors to indicate the case was found to be in order. After re-checking the case in Philadelphia it was inspected again by TSA but this time they did not leave a note and made somewhat of a mess (seems to be hit or miss with TSA). But overall it was not an issue.
I removed the fuses from the batteries with a small needle-nose plier that I keep in the case for this purpose and the bottom of the batteries are labeled by Elinchrom as conforming to international travel regulations.
I was not brave enough to take one set onboard as carry-on because I wasn’t sure about the reaction to the relatively large sealed lead gel battery, especially only a day after the Christmas bomber.
Compared to four Sunpak 120J units with four HV battery packs, chargers and accessories, the RQ system is only about 10% heavier, though not quite as compact. But the RQ system performance advantages far outweigh this slight weight penalty. Some space and weight can be saved by not needing to bring a PocketWizard transceiver for each unit, thanks to the integrated EL-Skyports. And the integrated umbrella shaft in the RQ head means it’s not necessary to pack a Manfrotto 026 Litetite, which alone weighs nearly one pound. The only caveat here is that like all Elinchrom lights, the umbrella shaft is 7mm and designed to only work with Elinchrom umbrellas. Luckily their compact travel umbrellas are pretty cheap.
I’m still undecided about the asymmetrical power output when using two heads. So far it hasn’t been an issue, but I’ve also primarily used the packs with only a single head on each. It would have been great had Elinchrom made it possible to switch between splitting the power equally or asymmetrically but I imagine that presents some technical challenges. At the moment I value the ability to extend the minimum power range down to 8 W/s instead of limiting it to only a four stop range. Other systems I’ve looked at are definitely much less flexible, with maybe only full, half and quarter power options. As mentioned earlier, with digital it seems that it’s sometimes too easy to have too much light. The ability to dial the RQ way down is very welcome. It’s also too early to know how I’ll typically use the system and whether being tethered to a pack will be limiting for some lighting set-ups. I suspect I’ll more often than not use one head per pack. I’m considering adding a third generator as well as a couple more cables, probably the 3.5m length, to offer more flexibility.
Several of the RQ sessions so far have gone over the 1000 image mark. They were all single or two person set-ups where the Deep Octa light modifier was relatively close to the subject. And I should add these were in Germany where my 120V AlienBees units will not work. Had I been using the Sunpaks, I would have been in trouble due to the relatively poor performance of the aging batteries, not to mention the unforgivable 8-hour recharge period. The RQs allowed me to keep each session going while the second set of partially dischared batteries recharged in under an hour, never having to stop because all of the batteries were dead. But I also haven’t found the need to shoot at full power much either. Were that the case then perhaps there could be issues since the specs state it takes two hours to charge from empty. But it seems the RQ handles indoor portrait sessions very well with relatively efficient light modifiers such as the Deep Octa, negating the need to work at full power. And it shouldn’t be necessary to work at full power given that modern DSLRs work very well up to ISO 400, if not even 800. Given these factors there should be enough flexibility to tailor shoots for maximum battery life without excessively compromising image quality. If I was using a medium format digital system often at ISO 25 or 50, it would be a different story and the similarly priced but more powerful HP 48˚, or Maxi Lite or Maxi Spot should provide more reach. Another option is the new Paul C Buff Parabolic Light Modification system, which is basically a set of umbrellas that have been highly optimized for very efficient light projection.
There’s been some online discussion about the ‘bang for the buck’ value of the Quadra system. It’s a legitimate concern and will depend on each photographer. The RQ is definitely not aimed at the budget constrained Strobist, but let’s take a closer look at some cost comparisons.
If the RQ is two stops brighter than the 580EX @ 24mm zoom, then one needs four 580 units to match the RQ. The current rebated price of the 580 at B&H is $400. Therefore four units will total $1600. And we still need to trigger them. One could possibly rig a single trigger solution, but let’s assume one PW Plus II transceiver for each @ $170 = $680 plus another one as the transmitter, brings that up to $850. Then we need to figure out a quick recycling option. We could get a couple Quantum Turbo or Lumedyne Minicyclers with splitter cables for two flashes per battery at about $400 per HV pack, which adds another $800, bringing us up to $3250. Suddenly the RQ doesn’t look too bad at about $1600 for a single head kit, or $2300 for the two head, two battery set. Granted, there are much more economical options to drastically reduce the price of the hot shoe flash set down to true Strobist levels. One could substitute Vivitar 285HV units in place of the 580s for under $100 a piece. One could use high quality MAHA Powerex 2700 mAh NiMH AA batteries and live with longer recycle times, 16 of which will cost about $50, and then there is the Yongnuo RF-602 radio , at about $30 for a sender & receiver set. Total would be $570, which definitely is a lot cheaper than the RQ. The likely compromise is somewhere in between, say if one prefers to use the more proven PocketWizard radios. Even if one splices together some sort of connection for all four flashes, one will still need a sender and receiver, which will bring the total up to about $790. Considering that I was often using the RQ at around 1/8 power, it’s conceivable that one could get away with a single 580 or 285HV, which dramatically reduces the overall cost vs. the RQ. To this all I can say is it will boil down to personal preferences. For me, having gone the semi-strobist way for years with the 120Js and living with some of the compromise hassles, such as having to figure out how to rig several units together to achieve greater ouput with do-it-yourself cords that fail at inopportune times, the RQ offers a simplified solution in an attractive package. And the option is always there for 400 W/s output when needed, such as when using large diffusers. The price point while steep, provides some other benefits, such as nearly eliminating the need for my AlienBees B1600 kit while providing much shorter flash duration and impeccable shot to shot consistency. Then there are intangibles such as the appearance of a professional lighting system. To some degree this factor is not to be underestimated with more discerning clients. If the client is paying a premium for photography, it’s more reassuring for them to see professional looking equipment rather than a bunch of ordinary equipment they might even own, mashed together into a jury-rigged solution. Of course as photographers we know that the final image should be what counts most, but as people we know that first impressions also make a significant impact on the perceived capability of the photographer. I’m sure Elinchrom doesn’t care much about the Strobist comparison since their primary competitors are the likes of Profoto, Speedotron, Dynalite, Norman, Hensel, etc. Compared to the Hensel Porty 1200 system and even Elinchrom’s own Ranger RX line the RQ definitely gives up power for a similar price, but it’s much more compact and much lighter.
The RQ system hits a sweet spot for me. It offers the flexibility and near portability of hot shoe flashes with the power of a small AC studio strobe when needed. So far I’ve found that for indoor portraiture the mid-range power settings of the RQ offer just the right combination of power, short flash duration, quick recycling, and extended battery life.
It’s not a perfect system as I’ve noted in my ‘Cons’ list above, so hopefully Elinchrom will take heed of user feedback and make improvements. Yeah, it’s a risk anytime a new system hits the market. Early buyers will become beta tester, but in my opinion there’s much more to like about the current RQ system than there is to be concerned about (so far). Update: Well it didn’t take long, but Elinchrom have already updated the RQ to the Elinchrom ‘RX’ Quadra. New features include nothing to lose sleep over for pre-RX purchasers: Brighter LEDs (for controlling the unit, not the LED modeling light), “RX” Computer Remote System, Wireless Firmware Update Option.
What future RQ development would I like to see? How about a smaller, lighter 200 W/s generator and battery set. Dual head capability would be nice, but I could also live with a single port. Debates on the net often focus on whether 400 W/s is enough. So far, as I’ve already mentioned a few times, I’ve found I rarely need even 200 W/s for indoor portraiture when using efficient light modifiers. A smaller unit would be even more attractive for location work in place of speedlite type flashes and would be very welcome for photographers who need to travel as light as possible (especially if trying to stay within the current airline baggage allowances). I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.
That pretty much wraps it up for now. Thanks for hanging in if you’ve managed to read this far. I’ll add to this post as I gain more experience with the RQ, but in the meantime if anyone has questions about specific aspects I might have missed or omitted, please let me know and I’ll add it to the review.
UPDATE: January 20, 2010
My initial impressions in the review above were based primarily on experience gained while traveling with a very lightweight set of Manfrotto Nano light stands. They fit in a Pelican 1510 or 1560 case but as a result only extend to just over 6 feet high.
Yesterday I used the RQ with my preferred light stands – the 13 foot Manfrotto 307 Stacker. This revealed an obvious limitation of the RQ kits: The supplied 2.5m cable that connects the head to the pack can easily be too short. In a location studio set up with two heads on the subject and two on the background, the 2.5m cables limited the possible distance between the main and fill lights on the subject and made placing one head on each side of a white backdrop less than ideal.
Another problem: if the Stacker stand is extended past about 8 feet, let alone to the full 13 feet, it’s not possible to keep the pack sitting on the floor and must be suspended from the light stand with the supplied strap. It’s not a big deal, but when extended to nearly 13 feet I’d rather hang the pack near the bottom to keep the center of gravity lower instead of hanging it from around 4 feet up.
The obvious solution is to buy the 3.5m cables, which can either be used alone or daisy-chained with the supplied 2.5m cables. As of this writing I’ve only tried two 2.5m cables together and am not aware of any restrictions on maximum cable length, though light output will drop as the length is increased. Elinchrom have since released 5m and 10m cable options.
I suppose monolights aren’t immune from cable dependency either, it’s just a bit different. One would need a relatively long extension cord to run to the nearest wall outlet, but an extension cord is much less expensive and much longer than one of the Elinchrom cables. Also a monolight’s output won’t drop as a pack & head system’s will when the cable length is extended, though when combining a 2.5m and 3.5m cable I didn’t notice any change. It’s probably in the range of 1/3 to 1/2 stop.
On the plus side for a pack & head system, and the RQ specifically, is that the head is much lighter. At only around 300 grams, the RQ head on an almost fully extended 307 stand is like a feather, even compared to the relatively lightweight AlienBees monolights. It definitely feels a lot safer and is more stable.
UPDATE: February 2010
One of the heads failed during an outdoor shoot where the temperature was around -10˚C. I don’t know if the weather was a factor or not. Other than very cold, it was a clear, sunny day. About 70 pops into the session something in the head shorted out resulting in a burnt electrical smell and blew the fuse. The cable was connected properly at each connector and power output was set around 5.0 (200W/s).
I shipped the head to Vistek, the Canadian distributor, and within three days was informed that the repair was complete. This is pleasantly fast turnaround. With the head only a couple months old the repair was under warranty, so no indication of how much something like this would normally cost. The work order stated: replaced main board.
While I’m definitely getting by with a two pack system, there are a few times where a third pack would be nice. The debate is whether to spend $1100 for just the generator, $1300 for a generator and battery, or about $1600 for a one head set. It will be interesting to see how reliability plays out. Getting a one head set would offer the best redundancy protection, though at the highest cost. And along that line, for only around $800 more the full two head kit could be added… where does it end?
I’ve had some mixed experiences with the EL-Skyports. In relatively confined working conditions they seem to be fine, but there have been times I’ve had to fall back on Pocket Wizards, such as for the outdoor shoot noted above. I like the Skyports for the size and ability to change power settings remotely, but just don’t trust them 100% as a sold solution.
UPDATE: March 2010
It took a month or so, but I finally received my 3.5m long cables and they have been very useful. As I mentioned earlier, fully extending my tallest light stands creates issues with the 2.5m cables, I have to hang the pack too high on the stand for my liking, or just not raise the head as high. The 3.5m cables solve this problem. But of course, now that I have them, Elinchrom has announced 5m and 10m cables. Knowing this now, I probably would have waited for the 5m option, but so far I’m happy with the 3.5m and can always combine them. One possible drawback of the 5m and 10m cables is they are heavier and take up more storage space.
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In the meantime, some fairly basic 'studio' images recently done with the RQs, all with the Deep Octa with only the inner baffle installed: