Generally speaking, I’m a fan of strobist-style lighting, where arrays of small, off-camera flashes are used for on-the-fly portrait sessions and tricky location shoots. Indeed, the whole strobist lighting movement, popularized by photographer and blogger David Hobby, has done much to help make flash photography fun again, especially for all those turned off by the nuked look of traditional on-camera strobes. But there are times when you may need something a little more powerful and of a bit better quality than the collection of Speedlites/Speedlights you’ve got stuffed in your gear bag.
For that, you might want to turn to a battery-powered generator and a couple of professional flash heads. Until recently, however, these types of setups were big, heavy and a lot less practical than advertised. That’s changing, though, and the popularity and competition from versatile, small strobe lighting setups might have something to do with it.
Recently I got a chance to work with the new battery-powered Move 1200 L from Broncolor and it struck me as a lot like strobist lighting except on steroids. I tried out the power pack with Jordan Matter, a photographer with whom I occasionally test gear and, in many ways, he’s the ideal candidate for this type of product.
Matter’s recent book of photos, Dancers Among Us, is comprised of images he shot of professional dancers performing in public locations. For the most part, Matter only uses natural or ambient lighting when capturing these shots, which limits the time of day and locations where he can shoot. With a mobile generator and some basic lighting gear, he might be able to change that approach and get some interesting nighttime or atmospheric indoor shots.
Of course you need more than just a generator to produce lighting and the Move 1200 L is sold in a few different kit configurations with the necessary gear. We tried the Move Outdoor Kit 2, which includes the 1200 L power pack; two MobiLED lamps; one 28 x 28-inch (70 x 70-centimeter) Softbox Flex; one 33-inch (85-centimeter) umbrella; one RFS radio slave two-transmitter set; and one MobiLED continuous light adapter. The kit also comes with a weatherproof case to protect the power pack and an outdoor trolley backpack, which makes the kit easy to move around, whether you’re traveling or on a shoot. (When packed up, the 1200 L will fit in the overhead bin of a commercial airplane.) The Move Outdoor Kit 2 sells for $7,195 while the Move 1200 L generator itself goes for $5,100, which is nearly $3,000 less than Profoto’s comparable Pro-B4 battery-powered pack.
That’s not a bad deal but it’s still a significant investment, equal in price to about a dozen Speedlights. So is it worth it? We found out while shooting with the Move Outdoor Kit 2 in several locations, including in the middle of a busy New York City street.
For the test, we used the Broncolor lighting kit as part of a series of photos Matter was shooting for his ongoing “Dancers Among Us” project. The sequence, which would come to be known as “A Night on the Town,” involved one shot he had been thinking about for some time but could never pull off using just ambient light. The image, as visualized, would be an outdoor city shot at dusk, with an evenly lit dancer jumping in the air and the deep-blue sky behind him or her. Difficult to capture even with good lighting.
To make it trickier, Matter wanted the shoot to take place in the middle of 11th Avenue in Manhattan in front of a bar where we planned to use the Broncolor gear for interior shots. We had no permits for the 11th Avenue street shoot and, of course, traffic wasn’t going to stop for a group of guerilla photographers with lighting gear, so we would have to work fast.
When stashed in the travel pack and looped over a shoulder, the 1200 L power pack is surprisingly portable. An assistant was easily able to carry the 13.7-pound battery-powered generator while holding a MobiLED lamp and directing it at the dancer who would be making his leap—actually a back flip!—in the crosswalk of 11th Avenue and 50th Street. (As a point of comparison, the Profoto Pro-B4 weighs about eight pounds more than the Broncolor pack.)
On the other end of the block at 51st Street, Matter was shooting the back flip with a 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II lens attached to a Nikon D800 he had just purchased. The idea was to get as much of the street scene as possible; capture the deep blue of the early evening sky; and freeze the dancer while getting a sharp shot that would look like it was lit with the surrounding street lamps and headlights of cars.
Again, it was a difficult concept but the Broncolor Move Outdoor Kit 2 helped us achieve our desired result. Despite being all the way at the other end of the block—about 200 feet away with taxis and buses occasionally getting in the way—the RFS radio transmitter did a great job of wirelessly triggering the pack to fire the MobiLED lamp to light the dancer as he did his back flip. We also tried the same crosswalk setup with a female dancer making a leap and two male dancers jumping in tandem; there were a couple of dud shots but a surprising number of keepers. Matter was impressed.
“The challenge with the way I work is that when you go in the middle of the street, you can’t really set up lighting,” Matter says. “But working with the Broncolor gear, I was able to get exactly what I had visualized in my mind beforehand. I was really shocked at how sharp the images came out. You can see a little blur on either side of the arm but the arm itself is still sharp. ”
The biggest difficulty for Matter was getting the D800 to achieve a pre-focus lock on the dark area where his subjects would be leaping so he could anticipate and freeze the jumps. The Move Outdoor Kit 2’s modeling light helped a bit but it was a little like shooting in the dark, which is not a fault of the pack so much, just the conditions.
Recycle time for the Move 1200 L pack at its full 1,200 joules of power is from 0.02 to 1.9 seconds, which is close to what you’d get from a studio pack and well suited for our needs, since the dancers had to perform the jumps quickly and in succession, before the traffic light turned green and cars bore down on them. If you want to freeze something that’s moving extremely fast, the maximum flash time offered by the 1200 L is a blindingly quick 1/20,000 of a second.
Like Broncolor’s excellent Scoro studio packs—we named the Scoro A4 “Power Pack of the Year” in 2009—the Move 1200 L generator uses Broncolor’s ECTC (Enhanced Color Temperature Control) technology, which is designed to keep color and light output consistent across the pack’s entire power range. The 1200 L will also give you a selectable power range across nine f-stops.
This is an area where a pricey battery-powered generator such as the 1200 L and its MobiLED heads trump what you’d get with small strobe lighting: control, consistency and quality of light. Our first shots lit with this setup were as good as our last and the dud images were mostly a result of mistiming rather than a misfire from the 1200 L.
As with the Scoro A4, the 1200 L’s two lamp connectors are asymmetrical, letting you put one head at the highest power setting and another at the lowest, which is great for lighting different parts of a scene at different levels. While the 1200 L won’t give you as many flashes per full charge as Profoto’s Pro-B4—170 versus 220—it is smaller and lighter (and cheaper), as mentioned earlier and, for me, that’s more important for a mobile generator.
The 1200 L’s lithium battery will cut off its own connection during inactivity, so it stops discharging. Since our time with the pack was limited, we didn’t get to test this longevity feature fully but Broncolor reports you can leave the power pack on a shelf for a year and it will have the same amount of charge as when you last used it.
As with Broncolor’s other packs, the Move 1200 L is extremely well designed and intuitive to use. Push the battery indicator button on the generator, and it will give you a visual readout of the total charge left in the unit without having to turn the pack on. As with the Scoro, the Move 1200 L’s dimmable LCD display is backlit with an attractive blue tint that matches the blue of the pack’s handle. Even with the power pack housed in the travel bag on the dark street, the blue glow of the 1200 L let us easily see and adjust settings.
The photo of the leap. © Jordan Matter
The Bottom Line
Battery-powered lighting generators have come a long way in recent years and one of the best on the market is Broncolor’s well designed, portable and extremely versatile Move 1200 L power pack. We tried it as part of the Move Outdoor Kit 2 and the setup provided a great solution for a location shoot featuring leaping dancers on a New York City street. While the 1200 L is, surprisingly, almost $3,000 less than the competition, it’s also smaller, lighter and still quite powerful. It definitely suited our needs, helping my co-tester, Jordan Matter, capture a shot of a back-flipping dancer at dusk without overpowering the gorgeous blue, evening sky. “That was a really hallelujah moment,” Matter says. A ringing endorsement, if I’ve ever heard one.
Pros: Portable and relatively lightweight design; speedy recycle time at full power; easy to adjust backlit controls even in dark conditions; asymmetrical control for both lamp connectors in the entire power range; significantly less expensive than the competition
Cons: Still a serious financial investment; might be more power than you’ll need for some indoor and low-key lighting shoots; not as many flashes per charge as the competition offers
Prices: $7,195, Move Outdoor Kit 2; $5,100, Move 1200 L; www.bron.ch