quadra

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.

Modified beauty dish

A couple of years ago I bought a slightly used 14″ beauty dish with a fitting that I couldn’t identify. I used it a couple of times with my old Lumedyne kit and kept meaning to make an adapter so that it was easy to attach and detach without looking like a “bodger”. I never got around to it – largely because the work that I was doing didn’t really call for that kind of light. A couple of months ago I came accross the dish and decided to adapt it for use with my Elinchrom Ranger Quadras.

To make it work properly with the Ranger Quadras I had to remove the orginal fitting. The dish is made out of relatively thin aluminium and it was very easy to use a hacksaw to take the whole of the fitting off. There were three screws holding the wires that keep the dome on position and I removed those to get ready to use the same holes to attach the Elinchrom fitting. This was made from a 13cm reflector which was cut through the reflector bowl in three places, allowing me to spread the metal of the reflector wider so that it could be bent to mirror the curviture of the beauty dish. I then drilled three holes in the modified Elinchrom reflector to match the three existing screw holes in the beauty dish and screwed the whole thing back together. Finally I used some gaffer tape to cover the slightly sharp edges of the Elinchrom reflector where I had cut it.

What you see in the three images above is the “finished” beauty dish. It is lightweight which is great for heads as small as the Elinchrom ones and it puts out a beautiful even light. I have shot some portraits using it but I cannot show them here yet because the client hasn’t used them in the magazine for which they were shot.

The total cost was £20.00 for the secondhand beauty dish, about £25.00 for the Elinchrom reflector that was sacrificed to make the adapter and some gaffer tape. Change from £50.00!

As a footnote, the colleague who proofread this piece for me asked why the cable has two yellow stripes around it. The answer is that I like to be able to identify bits of kit from a distance and the two stripes signifies that it is a two (and a bit) metre cable and that it was bought at the same time as the head. Newer purchases get different colours and a three metre cable would have three stripes. A simple idea but it really helps when you are working quickly and need to set up kit or make changes in a hurry.

Bad weather and batteries

OK, so I forgot to post and say “happy new year”. I’m trying to make my blog posts count and my new year’s blog resolution is to be “relevant, regular and interesting”. The first thing that I want to do is to heap praise on the batteries used in the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra system. The weather in the UK over Christmas was pretty cold and in Perthshire, where we spent Christmas, it was very cold indeed. I had my Ranger Quadra kit in the car boot for well over a week of sub-zero temperatures and the batteries still worked perfectly.

The same cannot be said for the Quantum turbo that was also there. I know that this might seem a small point to most of you but the ability of batteries to keep their charge in cold weather is a big selling point for professional gear. Obviously this wasn’t a scientifically controlled experiment but I am really pleased to know that the gear seems to have this very welcome durability.