Thursday, January 27, 2011

B&H Hands-On: Quantum QFlash System & Custom Brackets Pro-M Flash Bracket Solution


QFlash System shown with two battery choices

If you talk to anyone who has done wedding or event shooting professionally for a while they’ve probably either invested in Quantum’s QFlash system or they long for the day when they can. However, to those who haven’t seen this magnificent product, you may wonder what the big fuss is about?

When I first saw the QFlash system I laughed and thought what a science project! I thought it was some old dinosaur product that film photographers were still hanging on to, but nobody in their right mind would use this seemingly complicated and heavy system. If you’ve thought the same thing, then read on as I learned that this product is much more intelligent than you think and more importantly it is a workhorse product that quickly earns your respect once you use it.

Quantum Instruments QFlash System

I don’t do weddings and I stay away from doing events when I can help it, so I’ll admit that I didn’t get a chance to give this system the intense workout it deserves. Instead, I evaluated it based on its performance as a flash. This means my emphasis for this hands-on was all about light quality, rapid shooting performance, and battery performance. For all three of these I can say it’s the best flash system I’ve ever used

My biggest regret was that I wasn’t able to test the QTTL feature as everything I read in the manual seems to indicate that you get a much better “auto everything” experience (like I do with my 580EX II and its ETTL) with this feature. With that said I still had great success using this flash in its manual and Program 2 (using factory default settings) modes.

T5D-R (website info)

When using this flash, just like all flashes, I found that it is best not point it directly at your subject. With that in mind I applied what I learned from On-Camera Flash Techniques to bounce the light off the ceiling back down onto my subject. In doing this I found that I got a nice powerful bounce of soft light that I really liked. For this article I used the flash with only its supplied head shown in the picture and no other light modifiers. Typically I pointed the flash up and rotated it to point behind me at a 15 degree angle.

Here’s an example of shot where my son was looking up at me and I bounced the light back down onto him from the ceiling for a nice soft white light (despite the tungsten canned lights being turned on):

 
Unprocessed 5D Mark II Raw (just cropped)
100mm macro – f/2.8 for 1/200 sec @ ISO 160
T5D-R Bounced off the ceiling
and back down onto Kai’s face

Here’s another unprocessed in-camera JPEG shot where I really liked the quality of light and how it lights up the hair without being too much. I think that the power this flash offers makes it great for these bounces because it sends a lot of light up for the bounce but still leaves a nice full amount for when it gets to the subject:


Unprocessed 5D Mark II in-camera JPEG (just cropped)
100mm macro – f/2.8 for 1/200 sec @ ISO 160
T5D-R

Compare the result above to this one which was done using the same exact camera settings and technique but with with the 580 EX II on the camera (and bounced the same way):


Unprocessed 5D Mark II in-camera JPEG (just cropped)
100mm macro – f/2.8 for 1/200 sec @ ISO 160
Canon 580EX II Flash

Notice that despite the camera settings being identical, the blast of light you get with the 580EX II just isn’t as bright and it doesn’t overpower the Tungsten lights like the T5D-R does. There’s also quite a bit more light fall off and the background is significantly darker. Again, the only difference between these two shots is the flash.

I should also note that my wife was a real sport here because I wanted to photograph her without her makeup and a little oil on her skin. You notice how that when the light is less powerful you see more of that skin shine (and it’s not the angle – I have a bunch of shots to chose from).

When I look at the two shots I feel like the first two in this section are taken with a soft box or studio lights, but the last one clearly feels like a on-camera flash. Now I like the warm tone so that’s not a bad thing, but if I’m a wedding or event photographer processing a lot of shots I know which one I want to have as my starting point – The T5D-R shots for sure!

Now the downside to the T5D-R when you don’t have the QTTL feature is that you do need to pay more attention to the flash head settings and you need to be careful that you don’t overexpose the subject. From this standpoint, I found that the 580EX II does better with not over lighting the subject even when aimed head on, but I’d suspect the QTTL module would give the T5D-R the advantage again.

My overall take away is that when bounced and dialed in properly, the T5D-R is phenomenal because it offers a smoother and better distributed light than I can get from my 580EX II. I also prefer its cooler light with when using Auto White Balance (AWB) than I do with the 580EX II, because it can’t overpower the tungsten lights so I get a much warm images indoors.

While I don’t mention details here, the manual (which could use some usability improvements) shows how nearly all of advanced features offered from modern day OEM hot shoe flashes are available for the T5D-R (some require the QTTL feature sold separately).

I also didn’t have an opportunity to use this as a off-camera flash system, but I can it would do a tremendous job so strobist fans might really enjoy this as a next step product. In fact, the Quantum Instruments David Ziser Make Your Lighting Exciting Kit looks like a great setup for those doing things like executive portrait or press conference shoots on the go.

Turbo 3 (website info)

Okay, so this is the battery that Tim Allen would carry if he was a photographer. For those who don’t get that joke, Tim Allen is a comedy actor who is famous for his super powered power tools in the sitcom Home Improvement.

This battery is big, but fortunately has a very good built-in belt clip that works extremely well. it features two plugs because you can use one for your camera (using the SD7 adapter for a 5D Mark II) and other for your flash (either a Quantum flash or your own speedlite).

I have no idea how long this battery will last because I never charged it the entire time I had it. The factory charge was good for the 2+ months I had it during lightweight usage, so this clearly is a product that is going to work well for heavy duty shooting.

In fact, I can’t imagine anyone needing more than one of these for their entire shooting needs during a full day of shooting, so if you are looking for a solution that makes you forget about your camera and flash batteries so you can focus on the photography, then this is a good solution.

Of course, don’t take my word for it – do your own research and always have a backup plan (hey stuff fails)!

Turbo SC

This is a single device battery that is much lighter, yet seems to last forever as well. It’s got a great clip and could fit in the side pocket of a suit or in the back pocket of my jeans, so if you are going to be running around a lot this might be a better choice.

I love this battery system so much I want to get this kit so I can use it with my Canon 580 EX II for non-stop battery power for the rare times I do find myself doing events. They also make one for Nikon and other flash systems as well.

Additional Accessories

Quantum Instruments makes a ton of accessories for their products which you can find easily here at B&H as well as as through the product finder on their web site.

Custom Brackets Pro-M Camera Rotating Bracket


This bracket helps the most with portrait mode
and it works great with the
580EX II or SB-900 

The surprising thing about this review was that I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with this flash bracket. After all, I had made up my mind that if I was going to get a good bracket it would be from Really Right Stuff, so when when I saw this one arrive I thought it was just some cheap knock off – boy was I wrong!!!

For starters the rotation feature of this bracket is brilliant because I don’t’ need to loosen anything or press some button to switch between portrait and landscape orientation, yet I never once had it accidentally slip out of place either. You just give it a good tug and it unlocks and then you slide until it locks in to the desired orientation. I liked that as it didn’t interrupt my workflow.

I also really loved how the two knobs (shown on the right in the above photo) gave me the flexibility I needed to change the height (bottom) and the angle of the flash (top) – which was especially useful for the QFlash.

This configuration is heavy so the best feature is the fact that there’s these great adjustable feet that allow you to set the camera down while still mounted to the flash for a very stable configuration. It’s rock solid, despite being a bit top heavy, but I never once had it even come close to tipping over.

Other features I enjoyed about this bracket were the comfortable grip and the bar across the bottom which allowed me to grab it and put my elbow into my stomach for a super sturdy hold when I needed to do a longer exposure at a lower ISO.

I should also note that while I have shown it with a 5D Mark II, it worked fine with my pro body 1D Mark IV after assembling the camera body mount a different way (instructions included). This means that if you are using a battery grip you shouldn’t have any problems.

In fact, the only negative thing I can say about this bracket is that it’s expensive and that I wish I wouldn't have tested it because now I am going to hate sending it back! :) I really, really want one of these, so it’ll be at the top of my B&H wish list.

For those with bad upper backs

This whole kit weighs a lot so I’ll admit that I my bad back started to act up and I had some issues with holding it out front for a long time. This is a long-time injury I’ve had as a kid, so most people shouldn’t be impacted by this but I wanted to bring this up for those those who are susceptible to having their upper back throw out (as I am).

Ordering the QFlash System & Pro-M Bracket

I’ll be up front and say this system isn’t cheap and it is a little complicated at first to order all the bits you need to use it, but it’s worth the trouble – trust me. Here’s what I had to get to use this product with my Canon 5D Mark II:

I later discovered that all of this could be ordered in kit form:

To make things easier, B&H has created this page so you can see all of the options in one query.

Overall the cost of the flash & bracket kits that I used ranged from over $1500 with the Turbo SC battery to close to $1700 with the Turbo 3 instead.

Conclusion

At a starting price for the proper bracket and flash system, the $1500 investment here is certainly going to be a tough pill to swallow for the many photographers out there today who are struggling to make ends meet. However, if your business depends on getting the shot, which is certainly true of any event or wedding photography, then you’ll be very happy with your investment as you’ll have all the power you need to shoot all day. It’s also great having a super fast cycle time so that your flash is always ready for your next shot. I don’t do this type of work, so no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t even drain the smaller Turbo SC battery.

Given its weight and cost advantage, I’d recommend that those getting into this system consider starting with the Turbo SC unless you wish to power both your camera and flash with the Turbo 3. It is going to be enough power for most scenarios so you’ll appreciate the lighter weight.

The cost conscious might need to forgo the T5D-R initially, but this Canon Turbo SC kit (Nikon) is a good way to get into the system and build it up as your budget allows it.

Overall my take after using these products for over two months is that Quantum Instruments makes very well constructed products that will hold up well in the field under heavy use. I love the performance of the system, even if I was a bit intimidated by it at first. You can learn more about these  products via these helpful tutorials and the QFlash Academy videos.

Custom Bracket Conclusion

While there are other flash brackets out there, you are making an investment in a serious flash system here so your gear deserves a quality bracket to keep it safe. This bracket system feels as solid as a German luxury car and functions brilliantly so I can’t recommend it high enough. In fact, if you can’t afford the QFlash now, I’d still recommend you get this fantastic bracket to use with your existing hot shoe flash. In fact, it’s the first time where Really Right Stuff (RRS) has had a competing product where I can honestly say that I prefer this over the RRS version – this blows it away in my opinion.

I had a great time reviewing these excellent products so I’d like to thank Quantum Instruments, Custom Brackets and B&H for their cooperation during this long review period. I loved them so much that I’m sad to have to return them because I want to add them to my own collection!

Disclaimer

B&H loaned me with the Quantum and Custom Brackets gear discussed in this article for my review. All of the gear was returned and I was not asked to do a product announcement, but rather a fair and honest review of the product.

I will get a commission if you purchase using the links in this article, so I appreciate your supporting the blog by doing that. It won’t cost you anything and helps to create more opportunities to do reviews like this for you in the future.

If you enjoyed this article, please support future articles like this by donating a dollar or saving several dollars by using my discount coupon codes. Either way, your support is greatly appreciated!

Click here to learn more about how this blog is funded.

3 comments:

Jason Mann Photography said...

Ron,
Good review. I have used the Quantum's for many years. I have one T5D-R and one Trio.
The QTTL and Auto Fill modes are very accurate. I like that I have the ability to radio slave my second flash and send TTL info and set ratios right from my camera via the Trio. Because the Q's are battery powered I get instant recycle time and full power out puts each time. I shoot a lot of wedding's so this system is really a useful tool.
I have 2 turbo2x2 batteries and one Turbo 3. To give you a comparison on batteries. The Turbo 3 last over twice as long as the Turbo 2x2.

I also use this system for family portraits and senior work. Its portable(enough), powerful and has a great light output. I sometimes attach a softbox or shoot it bare bulb.
Great product line but pricey. I spent many years building it up piece by piece.
I would highly recommend the Qflash system. Fast, Accurate, Great light.

Nathan Tsukroff said...

I shot with the Metz 60 series for years before switching to Q-Flash in the mid-90's for the "quality of light." Q-flash has a nicer quality of light and allows for quick conversion to bare bulb.
I currently shoot with Canon, using the QTTL feature. A T5D-r on-camera transmits settings via FreeXwire to off-camera T3D-r strobes (upgraded T2s). This provides solid triggering in standard QTTL, but multiple problems when attempting to use ratio lighting.
That being said, I generally shoot a wedding with double-light for all candids and multiple lights for groups and indoors.
You need the power of these strobes - 150ws compared to the effective 50ws of the Canon strobes. Lighting is always consistent, and I get wonderful fill from the large Q-flash head. Substantially better quality of light than is possible with the Canon strobe. You can achieve a similar effective the Gary Fong product, but you still don't have the power.
I carry multiple original Turbo batteries and switch out as the day progresses. I'll switch to the Turbo 3 in the near future.

Ron Martinsen said...

Thanks for your feedback Nathan!

I highly recommend you give the lighter weight SC a try. It still lasts forever, but is a fraction of the weight. Of course it only has one output so if that's a problem then perhaps the Turbo 3 is right for you.