Elinchrom Ranger Quadra – 32 months on…

Most of the camera equipment reviews that you read are written after using the kit for a few days – or even a few minutes in extreme cases. I know. I’ve done several two or three day reviews myself. I was looking at my kit the other day and thought that it would be very useful to write a few lines about my Elinchrom Ranger Quadra system which I have been using for very nearly three years and which has been used on hundreds of assignments.

Build Quality:

When I wrote my first “mini-review” about the system in June 2009 I had only been using it for a couple of weeks but, after years of using the similarly specified Lumedyne Signature and Classic outfits, I can safely say that the Elinchrom fitted straight into my way of working very quickly. Back then I decided to talk about build quality first:

MAY 2009: The first point is to re-emphasise just how small and light this kit is compared to most other portable flash equipment – even Canon and Nikon Speedlights with external battery packs aren’t that much bigger or heavier.

The second point is that being small and light doesn’t appear to make this gear any less robust or well made than anything else. As a long time user of Lumedyne kit I can vouch that the combined weight of a Lumedyne Signature pack and head is almost identical to the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra. The Elinchrom pack, however, seems infinitely more robust with it’s rubberised edges and properly weather resistant control panel whilst the head is both simple and tiny. Connecting the two is a sensible and nicely made piece of cable with easy to use fittings. I have just been and tried the “heavy winter gloves test” and can report that it is very easy to attach and detach the cable with them on.

At this point I had better introduce a small criticism, lest anyone think that I’m doing a PR puff for the manufacturers. I like to attach my packs to the stand to give a bit more stability in the wind and the Lumedyne packs had very functional ‘D’ rings at either end that allowed you to attach a strap and anchor the pack to the stand. The Elinchrom Ranger Quadra pack has well made but small eyelets through which you have to slot either a large split ring or the small karabiner type ring that was supplied with my kit. Neither is a good solution and I will be on the lookout for a better way of attaching a small strap.

Whilst I’m doing the criticism thing, I have an admission to make: I wasn’t all that keen on the battery catches when I first got the kit. I found them to be stiff and not easy to use. Something has happened and I’m now completely fine with them. Maybe they have loosened off a touch or I have just worked out my technique. Probably a bit of both, but the end result is that the batteries come on and off nicely now and I withdraw my earlier criticism.

Now in 2012, to be completely honest, my opinion has barely changed. The battery clips have eased a little more and the ‘D’ rings still bug me. The screw caps that cover the two power lead sockets have survived all this time and still work very well and are still attached. I know that Elinchrom have made a few design changes since I got my kit but these three things have not changed at all.

The size and weight of the heads was flagged up as a potential issue by a couple of early reviewers but I can honestly say that 32 months on I have not had any problems other than a bad drop of a head which buckled the small ‘spill-kill’ reflector to the extent that I had to replace the reflector. No damage to the head, the flash tube or the modelling light. I had early reservations about the strength of the stand adapter on the heads and for a while I chose to remove the swivel completely and replace it with a brass stud which then fitted into a Manfrotto Light-Tite. In the end, my worries abated and I went back to the original tilt mechanism.

Not long after buying the kit I experimented with ways of attaching a soft box without buying the Elinchrom adapter. You can see my best attempt in the picture to the left. It was a complete fluke that the spill-kill reflector wedged directly into a blank Photoflex Speed Ring and I still use this IF I need two soft boxes on a single shoot. In the end I gave in and bought it and I now feel rather silly that I didn’t do it straight away. The adapter is a decent option and it works very well with my Elinchrom and Chimera soft boxes.

Thirty-two months down the line and the kit still looks great and works like new. I have looked after it, kept it in decent bags and cases and always put it away properly. The few times that I have used it in the rain, I have used plastic covers made from heavy duty PVC and freezer bags to keep the rain off. There are a few bits of paint missing on the pack and the batteries. The one exception, and the main reason that I chose to write this now, is that the two batteries are starting to lose power. I have no idea how many charge cycles they have been through but it is a large enough number for me to start to think about replacing them. Three years is a good life for this kind of batteries and I’m not going to hold any loss of capacity after that time against Elinchrom. The cables are tough and well made and all of mine are still OK.

In Use:

After a few months I fed some thoughts back to Elinchrom via the folks at The Flash Centre in London and those were:

  1. that the digital display was hard to see in bright light
  2. that lining up the power leads with the sockets was difficult in low light
  3. that the Skyport triggers needed a locking ring so that they didn’t keep popping out of the camera’s hot shoe.

I wasn’t the only person making these suggestions and in an upgrade they fixed the display issue and the Skyport trigger issue as well. But what else did I think back 32 months ago?

MAY 2009: That’s the construction out of the way. What about actually using them? I have read through the manuals for the head, pack and Skyport remote trigger system and it is all pretty logical. If you buy this kit, I would strongly recommend that you go through a few practice sessions before going live because some bits of the menu system are not too obvious without the book. Changing stuff like the duration of the beep that signifies that the pack has recharged or whether the readout is in f-stops or watt/seconds isn’t too much of a problem but switching Skyport channels for the first time isn’t all that easy. Getting the hang of how the asymmetrical flash output works with two heads attached to one pack isn’t something is obvious either.

The manual is well written and it doesn’t take long to master these functions once you know what goes where and which button to press first. It isn’t second nature yet, but that will come soon. Much excitement has been generated by the LED modeling light and the idea that it can double as a video light. I have a pair of Canon EOS5D MkII bodies and am starting to shoot some video with them. The amount of fill light that these LEDs put out is very useful and I would argue that they give the Elinchrom a really strong market advantage over other systems. The real joy of this system is the light that it puts out.

The light quality is great in every measurable way. Every flash at a given setting gives out an identical amount of light and the colour of the light doesn’t change when you dial the power up or down. The colour temperature of the tubes seems to be about 5300K and so I have set up a custom balance on my cameras for that. The only light modifier that I’ve used with it so far has been an Elinchrom 40″ (100 cm) shoot through umbrella and my gut feeling is that I will use this combination a lot over the next few weeks. The maximum power output is 400 w/s and for my money that figure is accurate. More importantly, it seems to be more than 1 f-stop more powerful than my old Lumedyne 200 w/s outfits. There could be any number of reasons for this but the outcome remains that I have more power at my disposal than I had before. Having the audible charge indicator is great and being able to turn it off is also a bonus. I have already made use of that function on more than occasion. The recycle time is a little slower than the Lumedyne 200 w/s kit and I found on the first couple of shoots that this was a possible issue. It has gone away now and I am getting used to the extra half second delay – especially when using the audible indicator.

The final point that I wanted to make was about the Skyport system. The pack has a Skyport receiver built-in as well as a synch socket (3.5 jack) and an optical slave. My kit came with a single skyport trigger and I have bought a second one along with a receiver that will work with either a Canon speedlight or one of my old Vivitar 285s. The system seems to work very well and I am not missing my Pocket Wizards enough to get them out of the boot and connect them up. My only criticism of the Skyports is that the transmitters don’t lock into your hot shoe and can be knocked out relatively easily. I’d like to see a transmitter with a lever style lock on the market from Elinchrom so that the system is foolproof rather than just very good.

In practice, 400 watt/seconds is quite a lot of power. Whether it is enough for every eventuality is debatable but in 32 months I have only found it wanting (by a stop or two at most) on two occasions and even then I made it work. Most of my work is portraiture and most of that is lit with this system and I have a real confidence in the kit that makes doing my job a lot easier.

If I were designing this system from scratch I would probably have not bothered with the complete miniaturisation of the heads. I think that I would have gone for a larger head with the standard Elinchrom bayonet fit and a stronger tilt mechanism. Of course that is based entirely on the way that I work and what I use the kit for. I have got used to the tiny heads and, for me, it would make sense for Elinchrom to bring out a version of the head built into the larger Ranger housing as well as this small version. That would eliminate any issues with adaptors as well as maximum umbrella size. It would also remove the need to only use Elinchrom’s own narrower shafted umbrellas.

The newer version of the Skyport trigger solved one problem and introduced a different one. It now stays in the shoe nicely but the words are now moulded in instead of being painted on which makes actually changing some settings quite tricky in low light. I’d also prefer a slightly larger version of the trigger with easier to change channels, a battery level indicator, AA or AAA batteries and at least 50% more range.

In my 2009 review I was confident that I would learn all of the functions and not need to bring the manual with me. I was WRONG. I have never completely mastered the menu system and I have a paper version of the instructions in the case as well as a PDF version on my iPhone. I don’t need to consult it often but when I want to do something in the menu it is helpful to have the manual there with me.

Conclusions:

In May 2009 I was “a happy bunny”. Not much has changed there. Actually, nothing has changed there.

I have some minor niggles but I still love using the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra and I would still advise any photographer in the market for a portable battery powered system to strongly consider it. In value for money terms, it is hard to beat. In light quality terms it is excellent and it passes the most important test of all – it is portable enough to actually take with you, even if you are a photographer working alone and a long way from the car.

If the folks at Elinca came to me with their notebooks and asked me to advise them where to take this system next, I’d be very happy to talk to them. This is a 9/10 product for the kind of work that I do. I have even used my own kit a dozen times when teaching location lighting courses with groups of six to eight people and nobody has managed to break it. I’m glad that the version two pack is better than my nearly three year old one which makes it even easier for me to recommend. There are half a dozen accessories that I would find useful – ranging from an adapter to be able to use a Canon or Nikon Speedlight with the Elinchrom bayonet mount accessories to a properly fitted rain jacket for the pack and a mains AC battery eliminator for when I am using the kit indoors for long periods.

19 comments

  1. Neil,
    You may already know but if not …
    The rumour mill says that li ion batteries are on the way.
    Lighter and with more power. So dont replace those lead acid batteries yet.

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  2. Flash centre mentioned that if the battery is fully charged you can plug the charger in and attach it to the mains and it will run on ac power and not use battery power, got to admit i haven’t tried it yet, ideal if using inside for a while near a plug socket or with an extention lead

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    1. Thanks David. I have tried this and the battery got very warm and so I prefer to shoot with one battery attached whilst charging the other and then swap them out as needed. A decent mains unit would be preferable although it would probably be the size, weight and cost of a cheap mono bloc!!!

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      1. I asked Manfrotto USA about leaving the quadra pack plugged in to the charger while shooting and they said that was absolutely fine to do. But in fact it lead to a massive overheating/meltdown internally and the entire unit needed to be replaced. Do not shoot with the unit plugged into the wall!
        Other than that, my experience with the quadra system has been excellent and it’s a real pleasure working with them on interior portrait assignments. I have struggled in bright sun to get the look I want, even whilst using ND filter on the lens. At some point I may investigate the Pocket Wizard triggers to see if I can tame my ambient better that way.

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  3. Great article… saw a post somewhere the other day, saying about a new smaller, lighter lithium-ion battery coming soon for the quadra ranger rx. Tempted on the first post, even more tempted now.

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    1. I have the older Ranger Quadra and so the Lithium may not be applicable. The news is now official: the Flash Centre in London is taking orders at £275 for the battery + charger and the specifications are now on their website. Smaller, lighter, faster, higher capacity… cool!

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  4. Apparently the lion battery WILL be compatable with all ranger quadras but you do need a new charger. (Supplied with the battery)

    Whenever convenient to do so I have run the (lead acid) quadra with the charger plugged in. I have had no problem. I have shot all day (well 4-6 hours generally but on one occasion about 12 hours) running like this. Generally the format is shoot, review, reorganise set / outfit change, shoot … and aat the end the batteries are at near as matters at full charge.
    I acquired my first quadra 2nd hand about 10 months ago – full two head S kit and liked it so much I added an extra generator. But the batteries are original early units and so far they are fine.

    Typically a sealed lead acid battery has a lifespan of about three – four years provided it is topped up even if you dont use it. If you have an alarm system you will find that the battery in this (which is almost exactly the same type) is going to be replaced on a 3-5 year interval.

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  5. I’ve had my Quadra for about 2 years now and I agree with everything you’ve written. However one question, my assistant improperly threaded the power cords , which ended up shorting out my modeling lights. have you run into this?

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    1. I haven’t had any issues with mine really. I don’t use assistants very often and so my gear is well looked after on the whole. I also rarely used the modelling light and so if that were shorted I might not have noticed.

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      1. I love having assistants, they can do all the leg work! However we will be having a refresher course on cord handling… Sent both lights to manfrotto US. I’ll let you know what they say.

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  6. I struggled to decide whether or not to upgrade my Lumedyne kit for the new Quadra kit. I decided, for what I needed it to do, that it wasn’t worth it. I had played with a Quadra and I was very impressed, but I decided against it. Instead I invested in a set of six Speedlights and the Radiopopper PX system as it allowed me to be a bit more flexible with multi head setups… I don’t need the raw power that the Quadra offers very often(and if I did I have the Lumedyne kit(800 Watt/secs), instead I wanted the flexibility that more heads would offer…

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  7. Unfortunately the new lithium ion batteries are NOT 100% backward compatible. If you bought your set in the first year or so of manufacturer then the flash heads need to be modified or they’ll not work with the new battery. Elinchrom are charging owners of these sets between £20 and £40 per head for the “upgrade” to make them work with the new battery, which is a separate purchase of £300 for the battery and the new charger.

    See http://www.theflashcentre.com/ranger-quadra-lithium-ion-compatibility-modifications-c498.html for details of the incompatibility issue and the costs for the head “upgrade” to make them work with the new battery.

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  8. Thanks for the review Neil.

    I am glad that they are still working well enough to warrant a revisit!

    I am still not quite decided yet mainly because there are too many options and not enough explanations of the options from Elinchrome but this revisit gives me confidence.

    Thanks

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