Saturday, July 26, 2008

Powering Studio Flash On Location:Tronix Explorer 1200 Ws

I recently received my Tronix Explorer 1200 Ws,which is the name of a fairly lightweight,portable pure sine wave inverter, or in plain English, a portable power supply for studio electronic flash units. The price? An amazingly reasonable $279,with a shipping charge of $45. Last week,I ordered one,and got it within four business days via UPS. It was shipped in a clearly labelled outer cardboard box,with my name and address on BOTH sides of the carton,and inside the power supply was enclosed in a second cardboard box,which was protected exceptionally well by an all-encompassing coating of one inch thick,dense closed cell foam sections,some glued together to form corner brackets. Packed like it was a national treasure,this double-cardboard packaging was the most secure I have ever seen. Again, the Explorer was packaged and padded beyond belief with a well-engineered packaging SYSTEM that was better executed than any I've ever seen.

Here it is during some of its earliest functionality tests. Just a few snapshots

Made in the Phillipines by a company called Innovatronix, the Explorer 1200 is the lighter,lower-powered,lower-cost model the company's website tries to gloss over. Innovatronix also manufactures a dual-battery model that costs more, about $349,not $279, but which has doubled batteries. And doubled weight. And faster recycle times. And which can have a battery added to a piggyback outlet,should one need additional power modules during a shoot. You get the idea. I went for the base model, the original, the one that started it all for Innovatronix.

The Tronix Explorer 1200 Ws gives me fast recycling with the Brown Line D402 power pack,and the unit offers TWO 115 volt outlets,so it can power two monolight strobes, or conceivably two power supplies. There's a slight,audible hum from the unit when it is working, but it's a lot quieter than a Speedotron 102 fan-cooled head is,so... At the lower power levels,like one light at half power in asymmetrical distribution mode with the D402 in the B channel (150 watt-seconds),recycle time is about one second. At full power,asymmetrical in channel 3 or 4, or 300 watt-seconds, it seems like recycle time is about 1.5 seconds, while on 110 volt AC, recycle time at FULL power of 400 watt-seconds is listed by Speedotron as being 1.7 seconds,while the Explorer recycles one head at 400 watt-seconds in about two seconds. My timings are rough,very non-scientific estimates.

Overall, the Tronix Explorer 1200 Ws battery provides a lightweight,portable power supply for the D402. Innovatronix notes that modeling lamps draw a TON of power,and must be kept off to maximize battery charge and to keep flash shot capability up. Somebody noted that four seconds of a 250 watt modeling lamp is the equivalent of one full-power pop of 1000 is supposed to shoot without modeling lights on.

Luckily, Speedotron's M90 flash heads use three fairly conventional bulbs; officially M90's use three 40-watt bulbs, but I've purchased a few Brown Line M90 heads which have three 25 watt Sylvania lamps,and they work quite well. The Tronix Explorer WILL RUN the modeling lamps,but at the expense of a lot of battery life,or so I am told. I'm kind of giddy at the prospect of being able to run a 400 or 800 watt-second power supply,or two monolights, while far from electric outlets. Sure, the thing weighs 15 pounds....but I've been used to 27 pound power supplies for years. To me, the EXplorer feels pretty light when carrying it from room to room. It's not "that" heavy,really. It's a pretty simple,straightforward product. If you Google it,you can find a review or two. Frankly,I am surprised at how little press this unit has received,given its price,and the cost of competing options from Profoto,Speedotron,and Paul C. Buff Enterprises and their Zeuss line,etc.

The idea of powering the versatile three-outlet Black Line 405 and the convection-cooled Black Line 103 head set I bought for $40 to $45 per head on eBay makes me feel pretty glad to be living in an era of such amazing consumer electronics. The Profoto 600B weighs less,and also has a two-outlet,600 w-s power supply for $2,475 for the 600B and then about $700 apiece for two heads. I'm thinking that the Brown Line D402 at $59-$109 used is a pretty good value. I got a Brown Line D604 four-outlet pack for about $100 recently. And M90 heads go for as little as $33 to as much as $55 each on eBay,so I think the Tronix Explorer 1200 and any one of the five current Speedotron power supplies between 400 and 800 watt seconds in either Brown Line or Black line would make a likely candidate for pairing with the Explorer for remote shooting with affordable studio lighting equipment. As far as a small and lightweight power supply, the Black Line 405 is very small and weighs only five pounds,and three fan-free Black Line 103 heads would make a lot of sense with a 405 pack. In Brown Line, the 402,604,and 802 packs all weigh between 10 and 11 pounds,with the 604 and 402 both being smallish. Head-wise, in Brown Line M90 heads make the most sense for lightweight heads with low-draw modeling lamps,but for mounting speedrings, an M11 head makes more sense. MW3U heads are very small,but use 150 watt quartz halogen lamps...but with the modeling lamps off, MW3U heads work great in umbrellas.

The manual for the Tronix Explore states that, "with the battery fully charged most flash units will have recycling times 50% faster than what is stated in this guide", and then goes on to provide what I would call worst-case scenario specifications, which are as follows: At 150 w-s 2,000 flashes at approximately 1-2 sec recycle time. For 300 w-s flash,performance is 1,000 flashes at apprx. 3-6 sec. recyle. With 600 w-s flash, it's 500 flashes with apprx. 8-15 second recycle time. Frankly, I think this battery can do better than 8 to 15 seconds with the Speedotron D604 power supply,even at full discharge of 600 watt-seconds. It powers the Black Line 405 with one 103 light head and 400 or 200 w-s very,very well,and it also powers the D402 power pack with M11,MW3U,or M90 heads with aplomb. I am very,very impressed with how the Tronix Explorer 1200 runs both the Brown Line D402 and M90 or M11 or MW3U light heads, and the Black Line 405 pack using model 103,fan-free heads.

The "1200" part of the name comes from the design parameter of being able to power most 1200 watt second and lower-powered flash units. It is NOT intended for "digital" flash units. And thankfully, most studio flash units are not digital,so many,but not all, ProFoto,Speedo,Comet,Novatron,Dyna-Lite,Elinchrom,Bowens,JTL,Photogenic,Alien Bees, White Lightnings are candidates for use with the Tronix Explorer 1200. Speedotron Force monolights are not compatible with this,since they are digital. The Innovatronix website has a compatibility chart covering dozens and dozens of monolight and box and cable flash units made over the last 20-25 years. What the battery can NOT power are a number of "digital" monolights and one series of DynaLite packs. See for the full list of compatible monolights and flash systems. According to the manual while the 1200 Ws is designed for most flashes up to and including 1200 watt-seconds, "You can still use it with a 2400 Ws flash unit although at much longer charging time, i.e. 20 seconds."

After having had the unit for about a month now, I can say that I am well-satisfied for the $279 + $45 shipping that this is a very,very good battery source for Speedotron Brown or Black Line 400 Watt Second 3- and 4-outlet power packs. It will run the modeling lamps and not break circuits using two 150-watt quart modeling lights,but I have not tested it with any more draw,like 3 x150 or 4x150 watt quartz modeling lamps, but the idea is to set the lights properly,and use the modeling lamps very sparingly,and shoot with them off most all of the time. Recycle times are quite fast over shoots of 45-50 frames,which is the longest duration I've used the battery at one session so far. As per the manufacturer's suggestions, I have left the unit plugged in to an AC outlet constantly when not in actual use in order to maintain absolute battery life and performance. In terms of bang-for-dollar, and in terms of its two-outlet 115 volt AC design, I think this is one of the niftiest,lightest power supplies one could hope for. And, the best part is it will easily turn "studio lights" into "location lights".

Paul C. Buff Enterprises makes its beautiful Zeuss line of portable powerpacks and flash units, and Speedotron makes the rugged Explorer 1500 watt-second unit ,and Profoto has the 600B, but it's $2,400 for a 2-outlet pack and $700 apiece for light units,making a $3,800 Profoto 2-light head portable flash source exceedingly costly for just two heads that might be modified by umbrellas or softboxes,or used to bring up ambient levels.

I hear that Profoto lighting equipment is very good,but I've seen too much spectacular PHOTOGRAPHY done with mundane flash units made by Norman,Lumedyne,Vivitar,Speedotron,and so on to think that one absolutely MUST have the Profoto brand to get professional quality lighting results. Stick a $700 Profoto light into a 36x48 Chimera softbox with a diffusion baffle in it,and how is the quality of the light emanating from that modifier going to vary from say a Norman or Speedotron light head with a "similar" reflector (or no refl.)? Assuming similar reflector or bare-bulb use inside a softbox, I think most good circular flashtubes will perform similarly,so for softbox use, I can't see spending $700 per light head as being a good value proposition,when a $300 to $150 Speedotron light unit will,I think, provide similar lightquality coming out of the softbox's front.

If the light unit's reflector can fill an umbrella's bowl,then the fit between reflector,light head,and brolly is a good one: I cannot imagine that with a grid and diffuser on any brand's 7 inch reflector that the light output is "that much" different,or that much "better" between any number of good top-level flash systems,and the three main portable powered flash systems (Profoto,Speedotron,and Zeuss from Paul C. Buff) all require owning a particular brand of flash units,and nothing in those three systems is cross-platform-compatible, shall we say. The ability of the Tronix Explorer 1200 Ws to power any of hundreds of different monolights or dozens of power pack and head systems makes it a very good equipment investment since it easily powers studio lights into action far,far from AC outlets. Without needing to buy into any of the several proprietary systems from Speedotron,Paul C. Buff,ProFoto,JTL,Lumedyne,or Quantum.

My feeling is that in terms of bang-for-buck, the Innovatronix Explorer 1200 Ws hits a very sweet spot,and is usable with almost ANY flash unit I've personally ever heard of. It converts the studio flash units I already HAVE into portable flash gear and is brand-agnostic,while allowing me to use much higher watt-second capable gear than even Q-Flash or Lumedyne portable flash units. So,if you want to get in on the newly popular trend of overpowering daylight with flash on-location, the Explorer battery system might just be worth looking into. No matter what brand of monolights or power packs you have, the Explorer batteries do what you want: they create POWER for whatever non-digital flash units you plug in to that squat little 15 pound box and its two AC outlets.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

My 101st Blog Post: Inexpensive Lighting gear

For my 101st blog post, I figured I'd make it a potpurri, from the French word. A mixed bag of things. First off, I've got to say,I've started looking into eBay as a way to find new,different products,at lowball prices. Oh,it takes a while--the good deals are not always easy things to get. And there are a lot of listings to wade through. I've purchased some stuff very affordably,and have to pass along some of these items to people who are looking for "value" items. Here are a few things I have purchased for use with my JTL 300 monolight. These items may or may not be adaptable to all flash heads or all monolights. However,many of the following types of light modifiers have a "universal mount" which is a generic way of saying a one-size-fits-all or generic type of mount that will allow you to mount various flash units to the rear,using either two adjustable bolts, or three bolts, or four adjustable bolts, or two "arms" forming a type of V,with two adjusting screws that tension the device on--you get the idea....a universal or generic adapting system that fits reflectors within a specific range of diameters, like 5 inch to 7 inch, or 6.5 to 7.5 inches.

Here are a few things I have purchased for use with my JTL 300 monolight. These items may adapt to other brands of monolights and flash heads with DIY modification,or by bolting two speed rings together,etc. Similar items are also available from other eBay stores besides the ones referred to here,so look around on EBay.

Softbox w Beehive Eggcrate 60cm 4 Studio Flash Soft Box from OEC Camera in League City, Texas. This item actually works pretty darned well,although its metal speed ring fits my already filed-out JTIL monolight a bit tightly,and I found initial assembly of this softbox difficult. Its speedring is beautifully made, but this box uses very short,stiff support rods,and I found the speedring with its pivoting support arm receptacles overly-engineered,and this unit's rotating,lockable speedring added a LOT of weight compared with the other softbox's similar but more traditional and more-simply engineered rotating speedring design. In terms of adding directionality to the light, the eggcrate works wonders,and also cuts the light's output down quite a bit, which is a welcome thing to me. For the amount of money spent, this is a very,very good deal for a 24 inch softbox with eggcrate. It has a highly silvered interior fabric,a removable internal diffusing baffle,a velcro-on recessed front,and a velcro-in eggcrate attachment.

The first thing I shot with this was a quickie demo of how a Nikon to Canon adapter works. The eggcrate takes off a LOT of the spread of the box,and makes the light lower in output by a significant amount.

$24.95 plus about ten bucks shipping. An incredibly worthwhile twenty five buck type of product. Just an incredibly nice little softbox with a difuser inside, a recessed face, AND a well-fitted eggcrate,this is simply a must-have accessory for the JTL 300 monolight user.

This $48.75 item is a 24 inch square softbox,paired with a universal 4-door all-metal barndoor that adapts to many different brands of lights with 6.5 to 7.5 inch reflectors,and which includes a roughly 20 degree honeycomb mounted on a square,and three colored filters which are also square metal mounted,plus a frosted diffuser in a metal frame. So you get a 4-door barndoor set, with a sturdy metal honeycomb grid, a diffuser,and a red-yellow-blue gel on metal square frames, PLUS a snoot with red,green,blue,and yellow small-diameter filters for the snoot, and a small diameter honeycomb grid that fits the small end of the snoot. Shipping was around $11.50,and it came with a metal speed ring that fit my JTL monolight PERFECTLY! I took a few shots of Spencer standing on the cedar chest and siting in the brown chair wearing a new pair of blue shorts,using the JTL monolight,and the lightweight, 24-inch square softbox worked well.

The 4-way barndoors attach using a wire and dual-bolt system that alloww different brands and sizes of reflectors to be fitted to the 4-door barndoor set. On the front of the bardoor frame is a set of three steel hooks or clasps,which secure the grid,or a filter holder,or the diffuser,or all three things on the front of the barndoor's frame. This inexpensive 4-way barndoor unit fits Speedotron 7 inch reflectors very,very well,and although the grid is a bit coarser than I would like for much use, it DOES function reasonably well as a background grid. The 4-way barndoor frame unit does NOT fit the 8.5 inch M90 unit's reflector,but could be gaffer taped into place to make an emergency barn door. The honeycomb in its metal mount frame could however,easily be taped over the 8.5 inch M90's reflector,and that would work okay. In terms of affordable,adaptable stuff to spiff up two or three monolights, this kit could hardly be better. A 24 inch square softbox with a metal speed ring, a snoot with filters and a grid, and then a 4-way barndoor set with a diffuser,a honeycomb grid,and three colored filters on metal frames,for under fifty bucks? A very good value,and priced very fairly.

Another item I bought was a 16 inch beauty dish for $31.95. The most annoying thing about this product was that it did NOT FIT and WOULD NOT MOUNT to my JTL Versalight 300. The dimensions on the three mounting lugs were simply not accurate enough for it to fit,so I removed the mounting faceplace from the light unit,and filed out all three lug receiving apertures, enough so that the beauty dish would fit on-and very tightly at that. The lugs appear to be folded sheet steel rectangles,and I fear that they are hollow inside,and even though they need to have some metal filed off of their tops to get into line with the Bowens 3-lug specification, I'm a bit worried to do that. As it stands, the reflector fits on VERY snugly,and it is difficult to remove. If I were going to use the JTL 300 on a daily basis and wished to interchange light modifiers with any type of regularity, I would not be satisfied with the fit,since as I said, this reflector's 3-lug pattern is simply NOT up to specification. However, once it is on,it stays on,and this beauty dish is a very nice light modifier that could easily be left on all the time. All other accessories I own in Bowens 3-lug fit okay to great, but on this reflector each of the lugs are too wide AND the total outside diameter of the lugs is too large by maybe .0125 inches.

Performance-wise, I liked what I saw from this all-metal beauty dish + white nylon diffuser sock when I shot it to make some informal portraits of my wife and son. Its light is soft,since it is diffused first by the baffle,and NO direct light hits the subject from the flashtube,and then that light is diffused by the white nylon fabric. This means that the light is doubly diffused. Since the JTL has a heavily-frosted flashtube shroud (unlike Speedo,which has clear Pyrex shrouds over its flashtubes) and a heavily frosted,large modeling lamp, all of the light leaving the JTL is diffused a 'bit' more than on Speedotron heads and this type of baffled reflector maximizes softening. I made all tests with the supplied nylon diffuser sock. This beauty dish + diffuser creates s nice,white,perfectly round catchlight in the eye. This reflector's output produces deeper,blacker shadows than an umbrella does,and has just a small bit of specularity on human skin. Overall, I think it's a very,very valuable reflector addition to a small monolight such as the like the JTL 300,and I found it easy to aim,easy to lock,and easy to balance on the 300,which allows the photographer to slide the main body of the flash unit forward or back on its dovetailed mounting rail,to balance particularly front-heavy reflectors/modifiers. As an inexpensive beauty dish, I thought this thing was well,well worth the $31.95 price. The fact that it required me to file out all 3 holes on my JTL 300's mounting ring was disappointing,and I just have to say it--the machinist who designed this was flat out OFF, flat out WRONG,on the exact dimensions of the 3-lug Bowens-style mounting ring that is integrated onto this reflector. When you need to take a mill bastard file to your light unit, you know the ACCESSORY'S dimensions are off. And even now,it fits on VERY tightly. I am strongly considering fitting the rear of this with a wooden block and a Speedotron Universal Mounting Plate to adapt it to 102 and M11 light heads.

Despite the poor fit the beauty dish displayed in the Bowens 3 and 7/8 inch 3-lug mount, the light output this thing gives with its supplied white nylon,elastic diffusion sock is pretty good,and I could see JTL 300's being used with this dish and diffuser combo for old-fashioned portrait lighting with good results. I have no problems with the quality of the light or the design or the price point--it's simply that the mounting lugs are too wide AND too large in diameter,compared with four other 3-lug products I own so. I do think this is a candidate for adapting to Speedotron 102 light heads, by way of a $14 Speedotron universal mounting collar simply being bolted onto the reverse of this reflector,and the flashtube of a Speedo unit doing the work instead of the diminutive little JTL's tube. For the money,this is a very,very good product in terms of light quality and construction, but the fit was UN-USABLE on JTL right out of the package,and required modification to my monolight itself. The modifications I made with the file however, did not make the monolight unusable with other 3-lug accessories,so that's a good thing.

For Alien Bee users, check out the 22-inch beauty dish and diffusion sock combo here
This 43-inch white umbrella has a black back,and costs only $13.95. It is a pretty good reflecting umbrella,and the design and construction is worth the money. I would say buy a pair of these,and get combined shipping. This is the type of umbrella I prefer for use with a Speedotron head-an umbrella large enough to diffuse the light quite a bit,and one which helps to control spill. I have very,very little use for shoot-thru umbrellas anymore,and this reflecting umbrella is the type that I have come to prefer. Its relatively large diameter makes it softer than a smaller umbrella,but not so HUGE that it is impossible to work with in smaller rooms.