Monday, June 20, 2011

Great Studio Lights DO Make A Difference

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after - Copyright Ron Martinsen ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
1D Mark IV and 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM at f/11 for 1/125 sec ISO 160 at 140mm
using the Elinchrom 39" Rotalux Deep OctaBox with RX600 monolights

In December of last year I finally broke down and got my dream lighting setup (Available at B&H). While I’m still annoyed with Elinchrom, you can’t argue that that they make a great product. Great studio lights DO make a difference as you can see from some of the shots in this article (and they are just the tip of the iceberg).

The results I consistently get with the 39” Rotalux Deep OctaBox just continue to make me saw “WOW, did I do that?”. What’s more they really do a great job in camera as well. Hover over the two photos in this article to see the before shots with no processing and the after. As you can see there’s basically some skin softening and background brightening and that’s it. The sharpness of Canon’s hot 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM along with the great sensors on the 5D Mark II and 1D Mark IV create brilliant images that make wonderful prints on my Canon iPF6300 and Epson 4900 printers.

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after - Copyright Ron Martinsen ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 
5D Mark II and 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM at f/13 for 1/125 sec ISO 160 at 88mm
using the
Elinchrom 39" Rotalux Deep OctaBox with RX600 monolights

While my exact lighting layout varies, for these shots I had the Elinchrom 39" Rotalux Deep OctaBox camera left with the model facing into the octobox and a 27x27” softbox camera right. Directly behind the model I had a 14x35” softbox as a hair light which didn’t fire in the top shot due to a mistake on my part, and a bare reflector on a magic arm washing out the background with white. The front lights were powered with RX600’s and the rear were powered with Quadras.  All were set to about the range of 4.0 (+/- 0.3) and the OctoBox just did its magic. I am using the hooded diffuser mainly because its such a pain the ass to add or remove that I’m too lazy to take it off. The advantage it offers is that the light doesn’t spill out so I don’t have flare issues so no flags are really needed.

5D Mark II with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM at f/11 for 1/160 sec ISO 160 at 70mm

If you are to the point where you are looking to make an investment in lights, I can say without question that mine work very well for me. You can read my article on my lighting setup to get an idea of what I have or you can order at B&H.

But What About Alien Bees, Profoto, Speedlights, etc…?

Copyright Ron Martinsen ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Lighting gear comes in lots of big boxes – be prepared and save those boxes!!!

The best photographers say light is light and they can get good results with a flash light if they have to. That may be true for them, but it isn’t for me. I have had decent luck with Alien Bees, but nothing even close to what I’m getting with my Elinchrom kit. Profoto makes what is arguably the best product on the market, but I like the digital doo dads of the Elinchrom kits I chose (and the portability of the Quadra's). The new Einstein's by Paul Buff are supposed to be great, but I haven’t tried them so I can’t compare. In the end I’m not religiously bound to one brand over another, so if you’ve had luck using other things then go for it.

I do know that these lights kick ass compared to all the hassle (and expense) was dealing with trying to use Speedlight's. They may be good for Joe McNally and David Hobby, but in mere mortals hands with only three (at $500 a pop these days) they just don’t give the light needed to do the caliber work you see here. I’m sure someone will beg to differ and show examples, but I’m happy to bow to their greatness and say give me my setup any day of the week.

What about Outdoors?

Copyright Ron Martinsen ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Intentionally Desaturated for Internet Explorer Per Client’s Request

Currently outdoors I’m using my 580EX II’s when possible, but if I need light as was the case in the large group photo above I’m using my Quadras on umbrellas which provide all the light I need to get the shot.

What about a Light Meter?

Been there, done that, didn’t care for it. I use my eyes and my camera settings. I know my lights so generally I just dial in on manual and go.


I struggled for a long time trying to decide if I should get studio lights and if so should I go cheap and get the Alien Bees or should I just go for it and get the Elinchrom system. I’m happy with the results and feel like my investment is paying off so I’m happy I chose the Elinchrom system. I’ve got a few gripes with it, but overall it’s working out really well for me. I’m confident enough with them that I think you’ll enjoy them too. Visit this special link at B&H to see a partial list of what I have in my studio (the most important items are included), and if times are tight consider using Bill Me Later like I did so I could take 6 months to pay with no interest.


I may get a commission if you use the links in this article to make a purchase. Thanks for supporting this blog by using my links.

I am not sponsored by Elinchrom in any way. I paid B&H’s list prices just as any other customer would do when I ordered my lights. B&H is a company I trust so I have no regrets about ordering online and saving myself a ton in taxes and big markups of the local camera stores. I have had a couple returns that went smoothly and without incident. B&H now has a 30 day return policy (effective June 1st) so you can have plenty of time to change your mind if they don’t work to your satisfaction.

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Timothy Lusk said...

Great review, Ron. I was excited when I was able to finally invest in my "dream setup" earlier this year with Profoto and love them so far. I hope to invest in the portable packs down the road, but for now it is well worth investing in studio equipment over just buy Speedlights like you mentioned. (Even though Joe does some impressive work when he has 16 of them firing for one photo) ;-)

Patrick House planet said...

Great article on lights and the use there of. I light movie posters and architectural interiors and have used virtually everything over the past 20 years. (Balcar, Norman, Speedotron, Ascor, Broncolor, Profoto, and Elichrome.) For quality I would put my money on Broncolor. Expensive as heck but not as much as Profoto these days. Would I buy broncolor??? Maybe, but I am just as likely to purchase Elichrome; they just work and have the accessory creativity of Balcar of old.
Keep up the good work.
Patrick said...

Thanks for the comment Patrick.

Yeah Broncolor are the Ferrari of lights. I'd love to give them a whirl but I'm afraid I'd like them too much and I don't have those kind of bucks.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

viscara said...

Oh wow... I think I may have a tear in my eye right now... I need a moment.. LoL Finally someone else who is not afraid to say it.. We dont need pocket flashes for every single job we shoot.. Although I really like Joe McNally as a person and a photographer as well as a over all really nice guy. His preaching of trying to use pocket flashes for every single job is down right wrong and silly.. I commend you for stating what I think is the obvious for anyone that has been shooting commercially or done any real grunt work shooting. That pocket flashes are really for the joe hobby to play around with on occasion or for the small job on location if needed. You also make a very important point about choosing a lighting brand its a personal preference that also depends on the types of jobs one is shooting. What may be right for one guy shooting 99 percent of his work in the studio sure a big bronocolor pack is great but not for the guy shooting on location trying to lighten his load. SOme like the wireless triggers built in some dont some like digital control some could care less. When you get to this level of lights they are all pretty much fine. Whats more important than anything is "LEARNING" how to use them to their full advantage as well as correctly. I see so many individuals debate softbox brands and lights to the nitty gritty then go stick a pocket flash with the flash facing right out the front panel basically killing the way a softbox makes soft light in the first place. I commend you for stating the truth here and not shying away from stating it in this post Strobist fan crazed world. Keep this honesty up as you have a obligation to state facts when teaching others not following a craze or some fad thats popular. If you do this in the long run many will see this and respect you for it. Way to go.

Thom Randolph said...

Ron: I have to completely agree about the Elinchrom strobes being excellent. I ended up with 2x1200, 1x600 and 1x300 and a variety of attachments, and have not once felt lacking in flexibility or light.

My main comment is WRT a light meter. I got a Sekonic L-758DR, and I use that wired to one of the Elinchrom remote triggers. With that you can set the flash power right at the light meter, and it will even tell you the ambient-to-flash mix ratio. Works really well to get exposure spot-on. In fact, it works so well that I have the meter out for only about 5 minutes when I first set up. Sure that's an expensive bit of equipment for just 5 minutes a shoot, but without it, there's a lot less precision, and the meter tells me what aperture my camera SHOULD be set at. Optimize one variable at a time, eh?

Another comment is that shooting tethered using the Elinchrom's is da bomb. Being able to control power and the modeling lights from a central computer, especially when I have an assistant, is so much easier than tweaking a hairlight that's up on a 10-foot pole!

Great review as always, sorry I'm so late to your Elinchrom party.