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.

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