Having spent most of my life as a control freak, I have reveled in manipulating the manual minutia on set. But perhaps the new Elinchrom ELC 500 and its little brother the ELC 125 will help me and others to “Let it go.”
Elinchrom’s new studio flash adds High Speed Sync (HSS) and TTL to the manufactures compact monolight plug-in-the wall line-up. A technology pairing that was previously only offered with their battery powered ELB 500. The new ELC 500 and ELC 125 replaces the company’s mid-tier BRX units.
I know what you’re thinking, why would you want a light with these features that plugs into the wall. The short answer: recycle time and cost per watt-second. The new ELC 500 will recycle in less than two seconds and you can use it all day without swapping batteries, where as a full powered pop on the ELB 500 takes 2 seconds to recycle and you can only get 400 of them before you run out of juice.
You’re second question: Why do you need HSS indoors? One, to reduce depth of field on environmental portraits when you are mixing flash with ambient light and two, to freeze motion.
A HSS image taken with the Elinchrom ELC 500. 1/2000 f4 ISO 200
Come on, I know you’ve got a third question. What’s that? Does TTL actually work? While there are some limitations and situations where I wouldn’t use it, like a wedding ceremony where clothing and backgrounds could really throw things off, TTL can be a very effective way of working in the studio as long as you understand how your cameras meter works and how to manipulate it.
A TTL image taken with the Elinchrom ELC 500. 1/4000 f1.4 ISO 100
This review will cover all of those topics and more, as I share my experience using three of these lights for the last two months.
The first thing I noticed when unboxing the three units I was sent to evaluate before the product was announced, was its sleek lines and updated color. While past units like the ELC Pro HD 500 were more boxy, the new flash has smooth curves and a dark gray standard reflector. Plus it comes with a matching standard reflector. The dials have been updated and the large LCD seems very similar to the display on the ELB 500, and displays the flash duration in real time at every power setting. I was really excited when I realized the logo on the side of the unit lights up and displays a different color depending on which Skyport group you assign to the unit.
In addition the ELC 500 has a properly attached glass protective dome over the flash tube which will keep your models safe from an extremely rare bursting flash tube and protects those same tubes from melting gel filters. The ELC Pro HD 500 has a glass dome that is secured to the flash by some tabs that really don’t do a good job of holding it in place, which has led to several of mine being breaking over time.
Product photographers and pedantic posers are probably fine with long recycle times, but I have always found long wait times between exposures to be paralyzing. I like to encourage models to move on set and not over think every position and in doing so I need to keep things moving. I am used to using the ELC Pro HD 500 on set and it recycles in a blazing fast .8 seconds. According to the specs the new ELC 500 recalls in 1.9 seconds at full power, but it feels a little faster than that. Reducing power will significantly speed up the recycle time and the flash duration.
Flash duration is the amount of time it takes your flash to fully discharge its burst of light. Normally the volume of light emits from your flash quickly and then trails off. The time it takes to discharge 50% of the light is referred to as t.5 and the time it take to discharge 90% of the light is t.1. There isn’t a formula you can apply to t.5 numbers to make them t.1 numbers so its hard to compare, but in general t.5 numbers appear to be about 3x faster. Slow flash duration speeds can result in unusable images when you are photographing anything that moves, like people.
For example, a few years ago when using a Profoto Acute 1200 at nearly full power, I experienced a lot of motion blur in my portrait images, because the models hands or hair were still in slight motion between poses when I clicked the shutter. The specs for the light say that the t.5 flash duration at full power is 1/560 second. Even if my timing was spot on, often long hair and extremities remain in motion even when the rest of your subject has hit the pose.
In general, when shooting in studio at your cameras sync speed (1/200 on many cameras), I think t.5 flash durations longer than 1/1500 of a second should be avoided when photographing people who are static and I think you should use durations equal to or faster than 1/3000 for subjects with blowing hair or who are jumping.
Now t.5 flash duration and shutter speed aren’t the same thing and that is where the t.5 comes in. That number is the expression of the first half of the discharge. But, the second half of the discharge is often fading and much longer. That trailing light is what leads to motion blur or ghosting. t.1 on the other hand is almost analogous to a shutter speed since it is a measurement of 90% of the beam.
The ELC 500 has a flash duration of t.1 1/9433 at minimum power, it performs at 1/1000 or faster below 250ws. At full power it’s duration is t.1 1/250, this is probably shorter than the Profoto Acute at full power.
Which means in the real world I would be happy using the ELC 500 for general people photography except for in large modifiers, like the Indirect 190, when shooting around f11 or when trying to freeze a dancer while using a softbox, like my Litemotiv 120 at anything higher than 5.6. When I tested it in a 28” white beauty dish, I was able to power it down low enough to get a t.1 flash duration near 1/6000 while still shooting at f11. If you need to shoot at full power and have a shorter duration, then I would suggest the ELC Pro HD 500, which is positioned a step higher in their line-up.
HS v HSS
According to outdoor photo legend Michael Clark and all around good guy, Hi-Sync (HS) is Elinchrom’s version of HyperSync. It works by firing your flash before the shutter opens so you capture the peak brightness of your strobes burst. You can fine tune the timing with Elinchrom’s Over Drive Sync (ODS).
This can result in a gradient where the bottom of your frame gets darker because by the time the shutter is open over that part of the frame the flashes intensity is dissipating. If you shoot raw this can be fixed in post, but in my experience, it’s annoying to show your clients something that clearly looks wrong in real time.
On the other hand, Clark describes High Speed Sync (HSS) as a technology invented for Speedlights that works by continuously pulsing the flash at incredibly high speeds creating a stroboscopic effect that illuminates the shutter slit as it moves down the sensor. Because it has to output so many pulses of light, creating essentially a continuous light source for a brief period of time, the actual light output of the flash is quite low and can vary wildly depending on the shutter speed.
Shot with the ELC 500 in HSS: 1/4000 f2.0 ISO 100
The first time I tried this in manual mode, something went wrong and I ended up with banding. I have one transmitter with outdated firmware and one with new firmware and I may have tried using Over Drive Sync (https://www.elinchrom.com/learn/setup-hi-sync.html), like you would do with HS, and or the old transmitter and maybe that threw things off. This and a miscommunication with Elinchrom led me to believe that manual wouldn’t work, but now that it’s too late to do another test shoot before the product launch, I realized that manual does work. I have tried to recreate my old problems six ways from Sunday and I can’t recreate it again.
I am so happy using HHS because I get aesthetic results without any banding! For the first time in my career I can reliably shoot with no depth-of-field without using ND filters or without getting banding like with my ELB 400. I can also freeze motion with my shutter speed rather than hoping my flash duration is just right and I can control ambient lighting with all three sides of the exposure triangle.
The first time I encountered TTL was when I bought a Canon 550EX over 20 years ago. I remember the brochure touting that you could use multiple flashes to light portrait from different angles in TTL with different ratios and everything was going to be awesome. Well guess what? It wasn’t. I remember the exposures were all over the place and you would have more luck taming a bucking bronco than repeating the results from the marketing materials. If the 5 second recycle time wasn’t a deal breaker the reliability was. My solution was to use manual almost all the time, even when I just had one flash on my camera.
Elinchrom Transmitter Pro for Canon in TTL Mode
Fast forward 20 years and because of the aforementioned miscommunication with Elinchrom I was thrust into using the ELC 500 in TTL against all of my instincts. And to my surprise, letting go and trusting the technology was quite liberating. I am actually glad it happened this way because it forced me to really learn the technology, plus It was really a joy to use. I just had to dial in my normal ratios, setting how the flashes related to each other in 1/3 increments up to 3 stops in either direction and then fine tune the flash exposure compensation on my camera. Looking at the images on my computer left me smiling because it was pretty easy to set up and it worked, not flawlessly, as I expected, but it worked. The relationship between the lights was always consistent and spot on, but the global exposure had some variance.
At the heart of the TTL system is your cameras internal meter, which wants to make everything 18% gray. So if your subject is on a white background, you’re going to be underexposed. If it’s a black background, then you’re going to be overexposed. So you just need to change your cameras internal Flash Exposure Compensation to correct the exposure for your scene.
I shot this portrait in TTL and use an exposure compensation of 1 1/3 on my Canon EOS 5DIV. 1/8000 f1.4 ISO 100
My experience was with evaluative metering, but you may need to switch to spot metering if your background is changing between exposures or you may need to jump to spot metering if what you are focusing on is a neutral colored subject on a light or dark background.
Furthermore the exposure compensation between Skyport groups on the Transmitter Pro only lets you have a three stop difference between your lights. So if you want a four stop difference for instance, you would increase your main group to +1, the other to -3 and then change your cameras compensation to -1.
Is this optimal? Not really, I would rather be dialing in each light manually, but it’s very workable if you’re shooting raw and can correct the slight global exposure swings.
The new ELC 500 also comes with a feature called TTL with Manual Lock. If you shoot a frame in TTL and the switch your Transmitter Pro to manual it will keep the automated power level settings for each light from the TTL exposure and allow you to adjust them manually in 1/10 stop increments.
LED Modeling Light
The ELC comes equipped with a 20W daylight LED modeling light (CRI92). This may seem entirely unimpressive to some of you, but being able to use gels and not have to worry about melting them is a big deal to me. Plus you could leave your modeling lights on at full power to get your subjects pupil to dilate without having to worry that you’re going to brown your soft boxes diffusion panels over time. In addition, you could use the ELC 500 as a video light, but not near microphones because the fan will cycle on to cool the unit.
A few months ago I bought a NiceFoto SN-29 optical snoot and using it with the modeling light turned on is crucial when it comes to positioning your subject. I melted the plastic back of the snoot’s lens when using a traditional modeling light, so the ability to keep you modifiers cool with the ELCs LED light is a huge bonus. Similarly, you might need to pose your model precisely when using gels and with halogen bulbs i couldn’t really use them out if fear of melting the gel. I did this about a year ago, there is part of a red gel fused to one of my flash tubes.
I used the new Elinichrom ELC 500 LED modeling light to position my subject in the shadows created by my NiceFoto SN-29
While the ELC 500’s modeling light is the same effective brightness of the halogen bulb in my ELC Pro HD 500, I did find it to be too dim when I tried using it to focus while shooting a 3/4 and full length portrait with my Sigma Art 85 f1.4 at f1.4. I probably needed another stop of light to create more contrast for the autofocus system in my camera. But I could see where having a brighter LED might lead to ghosting for photographers using the modeling light at full power and the flash at low power. Plus a brighter LED could cause heat management issues.
I was able to power one flash with the recycling speed set to eco and the modeling light switched off with a Paul C Buff Vagabond Mini Lithium Battery. However you will need to switch it to eco mode while plugged into a wall as the start up draw in normal mode is too much for the battery to handle. I know this doesn’t sound ideal, but it does give you additional flexibility.
In the process of writing this article I realized there are at least one competing monolight with these capabilities: the Profoto D2 500. Which has shorter recycling times, better flash duration, and a much higher price tag. In fact, you can almost buy two ELC 500s for the price of the Profoto D2, plus the ELC will be better at filling a large modifier, where as the Profoto is really only good in softboxes equal to or smaller than 1-meter. This is one of the reasons why I switched to Elinchrom.
|ELC 125||ELC 500||ELC 500 Pro HD||ELB 500||Profoto D2 500|
|HHS / Yes||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|Flash Duration Min Power||t.1 1/7750||t.1 1/9430||t.5 1/2940||t.1 1/20000||t.1 1/13,500|
|Flash duration Max Power||t.1 1/625||t.1 1/250||t.5 1/2330||t.5 1/250*||t.1: 1/1000|
|Modeling Lamp||LED 20W||LED 20W||Tungsten 300W||LED 14W||Tungsten 300W|
|Cost||$619||$899||$1049||$1899 with flash head||$1495|
LED Modeling Light
Flash Duration at full power
These lights will play an important role in my kit moving forward as they add tools to my repertoire I haven’t had before. I am really looking forward to shooting wide open more often on set and on location, plus I am looking forward to having the flexibility to control both my backgrounds focus and luminance. In addition, I am also looking forward to having the ability to fully freeze models and athletes as they fly through the air.