When you’re first introduced to flash photography, the phrase “over-powering the sun” has something of a bombastic, super-villain-esque ring to it. Rather quickly you learn that it’s a power to covet, not fear, if you need to blend natural and artificial light and freeze motion.
Elinchrom’s Ranger and Quadra packs have been a go-to source for many photographers in need of those particular superpowers. With the ELB 400 pack introduced last spring and a new HS head and EL-Skyport Transmitter Plus HS announced at the end of last year, Elinchrom has refined and extended this power still further. We teamed with photographer and director David Patiño to test the ELB 400 with a Quadra HS head and a Canon-compatible EL-Skyport Transmitter HS Plus (or Skyport HS).
The heart of the system is the new ELB 400 battery pack. It offers 424 w/s of flash power for up to 350 full-powered flashes on a single battery charge. There are two asymmetric power outlets: One delivers either 100 percent or up to 66 percent of the unit’s power; the second delivers only up to 33 percent. Power is adjustable across a 6.9 stop range in 1/10-5/10 stop increments. Recycle times clock in between 0.3-1.6 seconds at full power in the unit’s fast mode. Recycle speeds ramp up to 0.17 seconds at lower power.
The ELB 400 also offers the three creative flash modes originally introduced in the ELC HD studio strobes: stroboscopic, delay and sequence modes. We’re not sure how much of a role these will play for this flash’s target user, but they’re fun to play with and set this system apart from many of its carry-along competitors.
In addition to the EL-Skyport receiver, the battery has a 3.5mm sync socket and USB port for firmware updates. The removable lithium ion battery takes roughly 90 minutes to recharge and extras cost roughly $390.
There are three different heads available for the system but all offer a 50W tungsten equivalent modeling lamp. A Pro head offers flash durations (measured at t0.5) of 1/1,200 sec. at full power and 1/3,000 sec. at lower power settings. The Action head prioritizes speed with full-power flash durations clocking in at 1/2,800 sec. and low-power speeds up to 1/5,700 sec. Finally, the HS (for Hi-Sync) head we tested has the slowest full-power flash duration at 1/550 sec., the better to work with Elinchrom’s Hi-Sync mode (more on that in a minute). You can speed things up to 1/1,100 sec. when shooting at lower power.
While the new HS head won’t win the flash foot race, it’s built to optimize Elinchrom’s new Hi-Sync technology, which requires the new Skyport HS transmitter to work. That transmitter is sold separately in Canon and Nikon versions for $250. A Sony version is promised as well this year.
Simply put, Hi-Sync is a technology that allows you to push past your normal flash sync (x-sync) mode to shoot at high shutter speeds up to 1/8000 sec. With Hi-Sync, you can use faster shutter speeds to freeze action while shooting with wide apertures and, yes, overpowering the sun. Unlike High Speed Sync, Hi-Sync doesn’t fire a rapid burst of flashes. Instead, it fires one powerful blast and chooses the optimal “slice” of light in sync with the camera for your exposure. Elinchrom had offered similar functionality on its Pro heads in the past using PocketWizard transmitters (a technology marketed as HyperSync), but Hi-Sync is an in-house technology which the company says is more consistent with less banding and is also easier to use.
Any EL-Skyport-enabled Elinchrom pack/head can work with the new HS Transmitter. In addition to Hi-Sync, the new Skyport HS transmitter has a range of about 656 feet outdoors. It has 20 frequency channels so you’re not inadvertently triggering anyone else’s flash (or they, yours) and can create up to four groups of flashes.
The Quadra ELB 400 is a robust package and while the head isn’t as tough as the battery pack, it survived an accidental drop.
The Quadra HS head is more bulbous than, say, a Profoto B2, so it doesn’t pack quite as elegantly. While the battery pack feels tough and durable, the head feels much less so. Still, we (accidentally!) dropped the head from about three feet onto a hardwood floor without suffering any damage. (Whew.) The head weighs 0.62 pounds and the battery 4.4 pounds—that’s just about what Nikon’s 200-500mm lens weighs by itself. Patiño used the ELB 400 and Quadra head for a series of portraits and his assistant, Kelsey Ayres, who held the head and battery for the entire session, tells us it wasn’t onerous at all. In fact, the shoulder strap was “incredibly comfortable,” she says. Photo bag companies, take note.
From a design standpoint, the Skyport HS transmitter is a quantum leap ahead of previous Elinchrom transmitters—you now have a generously sized LED display to view settings on. It also takes readily available AA batteries, instead of the lithium batteries of the previous Skyport transmitter. Our only gripe is that the transmitter sits almost completely level on the hot shoe so you’ll have to peer over it to get a read on the settings (it has to be aimed straight for its AF illuminator but it would be nice if it could rotate up).
There’s a scroll wheel on the transmitter but it’s not used, as you’d naturally expect, to navigate up and down the menu. Instead, there’s a row of smaller buttons for that. Another small nitpick: When you scroll down to the bottom of your settings options, the menu doesn’t reset to the top—instead, you have to scroll all the way back up. It would also be nice to access the creative modes from the transmitter—if you turn on strobo on the battery pack, you can’t switch modes from the transmitter.
Patiño told us that the ELB 400 was a consistent performer, delivering an even light output across multiple exposures during his portrait sessions. The battery was similarly solid, enduring for hours while shooting at lower power settings—more than enough time to complete his sessions on a single charge. On only a few occasions did the Skyport HS lose connection with the ELB 400. It was quickly brought back online either by refreshing the transmitter (there’s a button for that) or powering down one or both.
Interestingly, while Hi-Sync is a major selling point of the Skyport HS, there’s no dedicated button to jump into Hi-Sync mode. You’ve got to dig through the menu to activate it, at least if you’re a Canon shooter. It takes some time to get a feel for what you can do with Hi-Sync—the distance at which the flash will overpower the sun depends on how fast you push your shutter speed (and if you’re using reflectors and modifiers) but 10 to 12 feet isn’t an unreasonable expectation. We saw none of the banding that can plague HS shooting when the shutter and flash aren’t precisely in tandem. The Quadra HS head is too slow to make it your first choice for freezing motion at slower shutter speeds when not in Hi-Sync mode, but its durations make it useful for portraits, so it is quite versatile. If freezing motion with light and not your shutter is the priority, the Action head is your best bet.
With the ELB 400 and Quadra HS head, Elinchrom has built a powerful and feature-rich offering that should satisfy the demanding needs of outdoor action and event photographers. It delivers a combination of performance, speed and durability that’s tough to beat. When you consider that you have a choice of three flash heads, the system is very versatile.
PROS: Durable battery pack; excellent battery life; feature-rich; consistent output; Hi-Sync shooting
CONS: Plastic head; transmitter can be tough to read; not all settings accessible through transmitter