Off Camera Flash Buying Decisions
Off camera flash buying decisions may seem difficult, but it doesn't have to be like that. I'll walk you through my current lighting gear and tell you why I decided it was time to make a change, and give you the reasons why you may want to consider updating your own gear.
Why Change my Off Camera Flash System?
A lot of photography gear and brands are part of a system. I use Nikon cameras, which also have Nikon lenses, flashes and other accessories as part of the system.
Sometimes you end up buying another brand to fill a function for a few reasons:
- Your current system doesn't include the gear you want
- The cost of the brand name product is excessive or out of your budget
- Something else just works better
Each of those points are tough. I'm a fan of systems, but I'm also someone who likes best of breed choices. In many cases, the Nikon system choices are the best of breed for me. However, Nikon doesn't do everything.
I ended up buying gear that was great for its intended purpose, but was incompatible with other systems that I purchased.
Now I have a goal to create a body of work that I can display in a gallery showing. When I considered my objectives and the gear I have, it became clear that it's time to make a change.
I'll have an easier time achieving my goal with a coherent lighting strategy.
What Gear Do I Have Now?
When I needed off camera flash, I bought a slew of Nikon Speedlights with easy to understand names, such as:
Sure, there are 3rd party flashes available now and back when I bought these devices, but I chose Nikon flashes because of the system. At the time, that was the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS), which is an optical communication system between your camera and the flashes.
It works. In fact, it works better than I expected. It just doesn't work around corners.
When I wanted to move into something more powerful, Nikon didn't have any options for me. After considering my options, I went with Elinchrom BXRi studio lights and mostly the Elinchrom Rotalux brand of light modifiers.
Seriously, who comes up with the names for these products?
You can see descriptions and links to all of this gear on my Resource Page. Please note that some of the links on that page are an affiliate link and I will receive a commission if you buy, but there is no cost to you. In fact, some of the links there will offer you a discount.
My Attempt to Consolidate Systems
Here's the thing.
Within the Nikon CLS system, I can raise and lower the power of my flashes from my camera. It's easy to great groups of flashes that operate on the same settings or instructions from the camera.
I mentioned that the CLS is an optical system that doesn't go around corners, so I bought some PocketWizard transceivers that allow the Nikon CLS transmissions to work over radio signals. Now I can hide a flash around a corner and rest assured that it will get the signal to fire, despite not being in the line of sight of my camera.
So that cost extra money, as if the Nikon flashes weren't already costly enough.
Elinchrom has something similar. I can create groups of studio lights and configure them from the Skyport controller on top of my camera. Fortunately, it's a radio controlled system, so I can hide the lights behind v-flats or walls and they will still fire.
The two systems really don't talk to each other. Not at all.
My next solution was to buy Elinchrom Skyport receivers for my Nikon speed lights. Although these receives wouldn't adjust the power settings of my Nikon flashes, they would fire when the Elinchrom lights fired.
That gave me more opportunities to create specific lighting arrangements, even if it meant manually adjusting the Nikon flashes.
So once again, I bought something to make up for gaps between the systems.
Different Systems Have Different Capabilities
The Nikon speed lights have a lot of flexibility. They operate though the lens (TTL), which means the Nikon system will meter my subject and automatically set the lights for a proper exposure. It's a place to start.
If you don't like what Nikon provided, you can use Exposure Compensation to raise or lower the TTL signal by 1/3rd stops of lights.
In most cases, your camera shutter speed needs to be 1/250th or lower to sync correctly with the flash. Otherwise, the display of light fires at the wrong time and you end up with a dark band on your photo.
Nikon speed lights have High Speed Sync. While this lowers the power output of the flash, it also enables you to use the flash at higher shutter speeds.
Why would you want to do that?
Sometimes you want to use a shallow depth of field to isolate your subject, and still have flash. When you stop down your aperture to f/2.8 or lower during bright ambient light, you let a lot of light onto your sensor. The shutter speed gets faster to reduce that light.
With High Speed Sync, you can use that wide open aperture in bright light and still use flash to give your subject a boost.
Finally, Nikon Speed lights are battery operated. They're small, light and mobile.
Unfortunately, my Elinchrom lights don't have any of those features. They lack TTL and HSS, and they do not operate on batteries.
I actually found a vendor who created a battery system for the Elinchrom BXRi lights. It's the size and weight of a large truck battery, and you get about 200 full pops before it dies.
Still not mobile, but it's luggable.
How Do I Make My Off Camera Flash Truly Operate Together?
As you can see, all of these disparate systems and attempts to cobble together some kind of interoperability have cost a lot of money and don't truly fit all of my needs.
Instead of a cohesive system, I really have two systems and some extra junk.
My Nikon speed lights and the modifiers I bought for them are my current mobile system. Unfortunately, they lack the power to do what I want to do without combining a number of them together. That is an expensive proposition.
My Elinchrom studio lights are phenomenal in the studio. They have the power I want, but they aren't mobile or as flexible as the Nikon flashes.
I decided to sit down and make a list of what I truly want for my lighting gear.
- Battery operated for mobility
- TTL and HSS support for creative options
- Good color consistency
- Compatibility with the same light modifiers
- Communication on the same triggering system
- Radio triggers rather than optical communication
- Reasonably prices and affordable for my budget
- Quick flash duration to freeze motion
Now how do I get all of this at a price I can afford?
My Off Camera Flash Buying Decisions Using My Criteria
Keep in mind that I have a lot of Elinchrom Rotalux light modifiers, and I do love them. I'd like to keep using them. That's not impossible, since you can buy speed rings for different mounting types, or you can buy adapters.
The first system I knew that would do what I want was the Profit B1 light. Unfortunately, it's not what I would call reasonably priced or affordable for my budget.
Profoto is ubiquitous among commercial photographers. It's a good system and you can rent Profoto gear almost anywhere in the world. Lest we not forget, I am not a commercial photographer. Rather, I'm a guy who likes taking photos and occasionally gets to sell them to interested corporate buyers.
It's a nice side hustle.
It turns out that the answer to my solution comes from China.
Over the past year, I've read and heard a lot of discussion about Godox lights. I never took a serious look, as I didn't have a serious project in mind. Now that I do and I realize my conundrum, I took a closer look.
It turns out that the Godox line has just about everything I want. There are a series of lights at different levels, from speed lights up to studio strobes.
They all work on batteries, use TTL & HSS, and have a common radio communication system.
Even better, they're almost half the price or less of all the other stuff I ever bought!
There are two places where the Godox lights are less than optimal.
They have a color temperature shift of +/- 200K when taking photos. Not ideal at all, but I decided I could compromise and deal with the circumstances to get everything else.
My other concern was flash duration. At full power, the AD600 studio light flash duration is only 1/220th of a second. That's not really going to stop motion.
On the other hand, there are two factors that mitigate this issue:
- The flash duration at lower levels (where I mostly photograph models) are much higher
- My models are decidedly slow-moving people
Hey, this could work!
My Off Camera Flash Plan
The first thing I noticed is that the Godox lights sell under a few different names.
They're all identical products under different brand names.
The second thing I noticed is that US buyers are getting absolutely NO support from Godox in China. Fortunately, that's not a problem. I bought my Flashpoint lights from the US distributor Adorama, which does provide support.
There are also other vendors who provide support, including warranties up to two years.
I started with a pair of Flashpoint EVOLV 200 with Barndoor Kit lights (another affiliate link). I also purchased the Flashpoint eVOLV Dual Power Twin Head with Bowens Mount (AD-B2) bracket, which lets me use both lights in the same light modifier – like a 400 watt-second, portable studio light with TTL and HSS!
The bracket uses Bowens mounts. Quite popular for light modifiers, but incompatible with my Elinchrom Rotalux modifiers. Fortunately, I found some adapters on eBay from Chinese manufacturers for a small price.
As it turns out, this system even includes a radio adapter to use with my Nikon speed lights. Pop those radio transmitters on your Nikon (or Canon) speed lights and they transmit the native signal to your flash. So the Flashpoint sends its signal and the Nikon gets a CLS signal.
Not only can I trigger my existing Nikon lights, but I can control them on the same radio transmission system!
Finally, I need at least one studio light to go with this setup. The Flashpoint XPLOR 600 seemed like the option, despite its color inconsistencies.
Wouldn't you know that the Flashpoint XPLOR 600 Pro just came out and FIXED the color consistency options, and made some other improvements. It costs more than the older model, but I think it's worth it. Won't get here until mid-March, based upon what I've read.
My plan is to use the EVOLV 200 lights for background, fill lights, and that sort of thing. The XPLOR 600 Pro will be my key light, and I see myself getting another one or two of those.
However, I may not need that much power for other situations in portrait photography. So why spend the money? That's why I'm starting with only one.
I'm Late to the Godox/Flashpoint Party
Photographers knew about Flashpoint & Godox for a long time and I'm late to the party. However, the introduction of the EVOLV 200 in the past year, along with the improvements in the Pro radio trigger and upgrade for the XPLOR 600 Pro really turned my head.
The EVOLV 200 units each have about 2.5 to 3X the power of my Nikon speed lights. The XPLOR 600 Pro is stronger than my Elinchrom BXRi lights. They all talk together, have TTL and HSS capabilities, and they're quite mobile.
It's an exciting time to be a portrait photographer on a budget. This same kind of kit with the Profit B1 and other lights would cost me triple the amount of money, or more.
While I'm not planning on selling off my old lighting gear just yet, it could happen. I'll share more about my Flashpoint journey as I go on my portrait project.
Your off camera buying decisions may take you down a different path than mine, but at least we're looking at the same criteria and making our own value judgments to get what's right for each of us.
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