“Can you stand in front of this thatched hut?” I ask Dewi, a friendly Balinese woman I met a few days before. “I’d like to include more background elements in this portrait.” The jungle heat and bright sun are palpable, and my eyes are stinging with sweat. But I am thrilled about this portrait coming together.
Ever since landing in Denpasar, Bali, a week prior, I was on a mission to create portraits of the local people. The Balinese people are warm, friendly and live in a tropical paradise. This island feels like a dream, and the people are captivating. This is one of the most exotic places I’ve visited.
“Okay, Dewi, can you just go through some very slow dance moves?” I’m waiting for that classic, hands pressed together position combined with that piercing Balinese gaze. Dewi, who works at my hotel, also performs as a dancer. She agreed to come dressed as a Balinese performer for a portrait. I had watched a few dance enactments on the island and found them mesmerizing. The unique movement, gestures and costumes seemed to define this magical island and its culture. This was a bucket-list portrait. But it could only happen with one important tool: a lightweight strobe flash. I needed a flash that could overpower the intense tropical sun and recycle fast.
I used a small but powerful 400-watt Elinchrom ELB 400 paired with 53-inch Rotalux Octaboxes for beautiful, soft light. Dewi seemed curious about all the lighting gear; it isn’t every day someone shows up with a huge softbox and asks to take your picture. She patiently posed while I dialed in the background exposure.
I shot with my favorite environmental portrait lens, a 35mm F1.4, at 1/1000 sec. and ƒ/1.4. Shooting wide open morphed the distant palm trees and hut into a creamy soft scene, a perfect “canvas” for this portrait. I was ecstatic. A brief moment in time, a connection, captured in an image that I will contemplate for years to come.
Bringing The Studio With You
Gone are the days of lugging huge strobe packs through the airport and down the trail. Modern strobes are lighter and more powerful than ever before. For years, my lightweight lighting setup consisted of three speedlights, a few stands and umbrellas. Speedlights are very convenient and offer through-the-lens (TTL) flash metering and high-speed sync (HSS). You can’t beat the portability of a speedlight, and I frequently use them on shoots, but shooting through a large softbox in midday sun demanded more power.
For years, the solution was carrying a large, heavy, battery-powered strobe unit. Photographers were begging for a lighter, more portable flash. Lighting companies took notice and started designing compact, powerful flash units. Battery technology improved, and instead of getting 100 full-power flashes on location, you could get 400 flashes. Better still, some of the battery-powered strobe units can be plugged in at the studio and work seamlessly with and without AC power. And most recently, many of the new lightweight strobes have TTL and HSS options.
The one thing holding many photographers back was price for these new, more portable models. An advanced speedlight can cost over $500. Buy three of them, and you were looking at $1,500—the same cost as getting into a more powerful strobe unit.
Here’s the good news. New lightweight strobe units are being introduced every day, with prices starting around $300. If you can afford a speedlight, you can now afford a portable strobe.
Speedlight Versus Strobe Power
When it comes to flash power, more is better, but if you are investing in a portable strobe system, it is confusing comparing power output from a speedlight versus a strobe pack. Speedlight power is represented as a guide number (GN), which represents the output of light from the flash head. Strobe units are rated in watt-seconds, which states how much power is stored in the capacitors and can be delivered to the flash tubes. It is hard to directly compare the two since other variables like ISO setting, zoom setting and flash tube efficiency affect the light intensity. To generalize this comparison, speedlights average around 60 watts of power, so a 500-watt strobe has approximately eight times the power of a speedlight. A side benefit of more power is faster recycling times, which are helpful, so you don’t miss a fleeting expression during a portrait session.
It is easy to understand that more watt-seconds of output allow you to overpower bright ambient light conditions. Extra power is good, especially if you are using a large softbox. But speedlights have a secret weapon—the ability to shoot in high-speed sync mode. This allows photographers to use shutter speeds faster than the 1/250 sec. flash sync speed of many cameras. If you can shoot at 1/8000 sec. and still use a flash, you are going to be able to overpower bright midday light by shutter speed alone.
So, once again, lighting companies rose to the challenge, and many compact strobes now offer high-speed sync. Photographers get the best of both worlds, high-speed sync and more power.
TTL Flash Is For Beginners?
I thought this exact thing when I saw strobe units were using TTL flash. I had always thought of TTL as something I would use in very fluid situations like street and wedding photography. Or maybe a beginning photographer would use TTL flash to eliminate metering flash output and just let the camera and flash figure it out. But then I went to Bhutan.
On this trip, we were photographing Buddhist monks living in remote monasteries perched high in the Himalayans. Every situation was fluid and changing. To keep pace with the dynamic weather, I turned on TTL mode on my Elinchrom ELB 500. My assistant, who was holding the strobe and softbox, would follow the monks around in different scenes, and we never metered one shot. TTL flash nailed the exposure every time. This was an eye-opening experience for me. I couldn’t believe how useful TTL flash was, but it made sense. These new lightweight strobes were about the size of a couple of speedlights, and their portability made TTL flash mode very useful.
What To Look For In A Strobe Unit
The most important consideration in buying a portable strobe is determining what your photo shoots require. A wedding photographer might want a unit that is very light and portable, while a portrait photographer may need more power to deal with bright midday light. Are you going to move a lot during the shoot or set up in one spot?
Portable strobes come as monolights, which means the power source and flash are enclosed in one unit. Monolights are very compact, and there are no cables to worry about. Other portable strobes consist of a power pack and separate flash head. While not as compact as a monolight, these units allow you to use two flash heads with one pack for more versatility and lighting options.
In terms of power, 400 to 500 watts is a good baseline power output; 500 watts is enough power to take on bright, sunny midday conditions. Consider how fast you need your flash to recycle, and check to see what the full power recycling time is on your flash. And don’t forget, TTL flash mode and high-speed sync are very helpful and offer more creative choices with your flash photography.
Elinchrom ELB 500 TTL
Elinchrom is known for beautifully designed, reliable flash units, and they have continued to push the lighting envelope with new products. The ELB 500 TTL flash unit is their answer to portable, advanced flash. Of all the strobes mentioned here, this is the only pack-and-head unit in the group. The ELB 500 TTL consists of a 5.5-pound battery pack that is 6.4×5.4×3.6 inches and offers 400 flashes at full power per charge. The pack has two asymmetrical ports, which allows the added benefit of using two flash heads with one battery pack. The ELB 500 TTL has a built-in wireless transmitter, and, when combined with an Elinchrom Skyport Pro transmitter, both HSS and TTL flash are possible. The price for a one-head ELB 500 TTL To Go kit is $1,899, and the two-head Dual To Go kit is $2,124. Contact: elinchrom.com.
Profoto B10 Plus
Profoto is well-known for its flash systems and used by many photographers around the globe. Its latest compact flash is the B10 series, and the B10 Plus offers 500 watts of power. About the size of a 70-200mm F2.8 lens at 3.9x 9.3 inches, this monolight weighs 4.2 pounds and delivers 200 full-power flashes on one charge. The B10 Plus offers a 10-stop variable power range and both TTL and HSS using the optional Air Remote TTL controller. Recently, Profoto introduced the Profoto app for smartphones, which allows you to use B10 flash units with your smartphone’s camera. The Profoto B10 Plus retails for $2,095, and the optional Air Remote TTL controller is $429. Contact: profoto.com.
Broncolor Siros 400 L
If you need fast recycle times and a strobe that can fire 440 flashes on one charge, the Broncolor Siros 400 L might be for you. Weighing 6.8 pounds and measuring 7.1×5.1×12.6 inches, this monolight recycles in 1.2 seconds at full power. The Siros 400 L has a 9-stop variable power range in 1/10-stop increments and can sync up to 1/8000 sec. using the optional RFS 2.2 Transmitter. Power output is also controllable from your smartphone or tablet using the Broncontrol app. The Broncolor Siros 400 L is $2,158, and the optional RFS 2.2 Transmitter is an additional $118. Contact: broncolor.us.
The Westcott FJ400 monolight offers a full set of features at a great price. Priced comparably to a high-end speedlight at $570, the 400-watt FJ400 has very fast recycle times under one second and provides 480 full-power flashes with one battery. This strobe can run both on DC and AC power and has HSS and TTL capability. The unit weighs 5.4 pounds with dimensions of 11.5×4.8×4.3 inches. One added feature of this system is that the optional FJ-X2m Universal Wireless Transmitter ($99) is compatible with several camera systems, so you don’t need a different transmitter for each brand of camera you use. The only brand that requires an adapter is Sony, and that’s only an additional $20. Contact: fjwestcott.com.
Godox WITSTRO AD400Pro
Godox has been popular with speedlight users for quite some time, offering a full range of competitively priced speedlights and transmitters. They continue that trend with portable strobes and the WITSTRO AD400Pro. This monolight has recycle times under one second, offers 390 full power 400-watt flashes per charge and can use both TTL and HHS modes. This strobe weighs 4.63 pounds and is 4x5x8.7 inches in size. The unit has a built-in transceiver for use with the optional Godox XProC TTL trigger. Retail price for the WITSTRO AD400Pro is $649 and $69 for the XProC TTL trigger. Contact: godox.com.
Interfit Badger Unleashed
When it comes to low-cost value, it is hard to beat the Interfit Badger Unleashed. This unit is slightly less powerful at 250 watts, but it is loaded with features, including both TTL and HSS flash modes. This monolight can fire 430 full-power flashes on one charge and has a 1.5-second recycle time at full power. At 5x5x7 inches and weighing 4 pounds, it’s compact and lightweight. The Badger Unleashed has a built-in transceiver, and using an optional Interfit TTL Remote ($99) allows wireless triggering. The best news? Since it’s priced at just $279, you might even consider getting two strobes. Contact: interfitphoto.com.