When you're shooting outside, fighting the sun, using a big modifier and you still need fast recycling and lots of righteous power with each pop. Then you need an Elinchrom Ranger RX.

Late last week, before all the Sony excitement, I wrote a piece about the Profoto Acute B 600 flash system. It's an elegant 600 w/s electronic flash system that provides the user with about 150 flashes. Recycles at full power in about three seconds and is simple and straightforward to use. The interesting feature is that the system does all this while running off its own internal battery. Go back and read that review here.  

So, electronic flash units aren't the same kind of bling that makes forum dwellers salivate, like a cool new camera body or a Zeiss or Leica lens.  You can't wear one around your neck (comfortably) and no one ever asks about them at meet-ups so why would any serious  photographer drop serious cash on something like that? And who in his right mind would own two different battery powered high output electronic flash systems?

Apparently most people in their right minds don't. But I do.  When I'm out shooting by myself and we're going fast from location to location I usually default to my Profoto Acute B system but when I get really serious I turn to the big daddy of photon thrashing, the Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS.  What does it do that the Profoto can't?  How about 250 full power, 1100 watt second flashes with short durations and a fast recycle time from shot to shot? How about pushing power through two heads?  And for all the people who drool over the idea of weather sealing...how about....weather sealing?

The Elinchrom Ranger RX series is Elinchrom's big entry into the world of self-contained electronic flash units. It's built to industrial standards and it's made to take a lot of crap and keep flashing. But since it's also Swiss made it's built to do all of this without accidents, like frying photographers who do stupid things with high voltage lights. 

The main unit weighs about 18 pounds and is, in fact, weather sealed. Every port and socket on the top has the flash equivalent of screw down crowns to keep water and dirt out of the sockets.  Notice also that every cap has its own "minder cable" so they never get lost.

Before I go any further I wanted to show you a fairly typical use (for me) of the flash.  We were basically in a mud pit the day we took this image. It was a hot, humid summer day in a week that saw sun and then torrential rains and then sun again.  We were shooting on a highway project north of Austin. The Elinchrom pack was overpowering direct sun and shooting through a softbox type modifier that was placed six or eight feet away.  If you look at the soft transition to shadows and the smooth tonality you'll see that the modifier was pretty big.  The head was on a stout Lowell stand with a leveling leg and the stand was sandbagged with forty pounds of weight.  We stuck the end of each leg on a bit of board so they wouldn't sink into the soft ground.  The Elinchrom box sat on wet ground and just flat out worked. We probably shot 60 or so shots before I got exactly what I wanted. And every one of those frames was absolutely consistent when it came to flash output.  After we got this shot we nailed five or six more, in different locations, using the same basic set up.  I didn't worry about running out of power. I had an extra, fully charge replacement battery ready to go.  Could I do this with a bunch of speedlights? Sure, give me a long enough lever and a place to stand and I can move the world.  But is it efficient, effective and smart to do it that way? Probably not.  Would clients be impressed if I spent precious time rigging up eight or ten or twenty speedlights, setting them all up with radio slaves, rigging them so they all could fire into the same diffuser? Definitely not.   It's classic: Hobby vs. Work.

Disclosure: This is not "borrowed" equipment. I'm not reviewing a weekend loaner.  I bought this unit and the accessories with my US dollars about three years ago. I am writing from the perspective of having used it over and over again for paying work and for producing images for books. I am writing to praise and demystify the tools rather than to convince you to rush out and buy them for your child's piano recital or to use to augment the light in your quest to capture birds in flight.....  I am not being paid by Elinchrom or any other entity to write this! End disclosure.

The only thing that is less than elegant about the Elinchrom set up is their use of a proprietary sync cord plug.  It's a screw in affair that is hard to find in a quick pinch.  The box has a built in optical slave and you can also get a "Skyport" radio trigger that will offer a lot of controls beyond just triggering the flash.  But I tend to be old school so I've bought five or six of the Elinchrom cords, just in case, and an adapter (shown below) that will allow the pack to be triggered by a conventional quarter inch plug sync cord. This and the use of the 7mm diameter for umbrella shafts are the only two problems with buying state of the art Swiss and Swedish lighting equipment. That and the price....

The top panel is sexy and utilitarian at the same time.  The entire control system is touch activated and the entire top panel with the touch buttons is one sealed interface. You could leave it in the rain but I don't recommend using it that way because you'll have to figure out how to waterproof the heads and that is problematic.  Note also the black lug on the right side of the unit just under the sync adapter. It's there so you can attach a carrying strap.  The strap is for your assistant when you find just the right location about a half mile from any navigable roadway...

The Ranger RX has a seven stop power range and it's shown on the LED panel on the top of the box so you can always go back to a fixed output setting.  There's an audible alert signal, a fast/slow recycle control (more shots per battery at the reduced recycle speed setting), an optical slave on/off button and an "auto off" button that powers down the unit after five minutes so you don't waste your battery in case the unit is accidentally activated during shipping.  The smaller port to the right of the flash head sockets is the charger socket. But batteries can also be charged outside the box. 

The batteries are substantial. They weigh around ten pounds each. They are sealed lead acid batteries which is great. They don't have a memory effect and can be charged and re-charged without having to be totally drained first. Batteries have two natural enemies, freezing temperatures and high temperatures.  I store them in my studio and they've lasted and kept their potency for three year's now. If you look at the image just above you'll see a round, black circle on the lower part of the box.  There's one on either side.  These are actually release buttons for the battery packs.  The releases are covered with a rubberized substance that maintains weather-proofing.  You push on both buttons simultaneously and lift the body of the box straight up.  Replacing the battery is as easy as putting the box back down on a fresh battery and making sure the release locks click in.

Shown with a shoe mount flash for scale.

The Ranger RX system comes in two flavors. One version, the AS, is asymmetrical.  With one head plugged in the range of power options runs from the minimum right up to 1100 watt seconds. With a second head plugged in the power is divided asymmetrically between the two heads.  One head gets 66.7 percent of available power while the other head gets 33.3 percent of the power.  If you  power the system up or down the ratio between the heads doesn't change.

A second version of the pack is just the plain vanilla RX pack. It features two flash head capability but the power with two head plugged in is equally divided between the two heads.  I prefer the asymmetrical arrangement because I often use a gridded, direct light on backgrounds and it always needs less power than my main head which is nearly always in a light-hungry modifier.

There are also two different flash heads available for the system.  The "A" heads are distinguished by their fast duration and the "S" heads are the standard duration heads.  If you want to freeze action then the "A" heads will get you there....quicker.  With an "A" head plugged into the lower powered socket on an AS pack you can get flash durations of 1/5000th of a second with a fast attack time and a short "burn" time.  If you don't need that capability (for ballet leaps, freezing champagne cork splashes, etc.) then you can get by just fine with the "S" heads.

All Elinchrom flash heads and monolights come with the same retainer ring collar which snaps into place and then locks with a bayonet ring. The unit above is a Creative Lighting speed ring made out of heavy, cast aluminum and capable of holding up my favorite extra large Octabank.

All of the heads come with a 100 watt, peanut style, tungsten modeling light.  Unlike the Profoto units there's no additional power source to run the modeling lights.  They are engaged by pushing the modeling light touch switch on the control interface.  Push once and you get fifteen seconds of illumination followed by automatic shut off. Push twice in rapid succession and you get thirty seconds of guiding light.

The bottom line is that professionals see advantages in using professional tools. The heads are robust and well designed. For people with special lighting requirements the ability to choose a head designed for fast flash durations is rare and valuable.  The ability to use this pack in bright light, close in, at half power and fast recycle means being able to shoot hundreds of flashes with short recycling times.  Almost a must for fashion work.  The ability to change out relatively inexpensive battery packs in the field means being able to work through long days without ever having to look for a plug.  The weather-sealed pack design means not fearing splashes or puddles.

People ask if there is a difference in the quality of the light output between expensive and finely designed systems like the Elinchroms and the Profotos.  The engineers would tell you "of course." It's really all about precision.  Bigger and more expensive capacitors means better power filtering. That means more duration and color temperature consistency.  Shorter flash durations yield crisper results.  Faster T.01 and T.05 times means less color variation over the burn time of the exposure.  

I spent a few years convinced that I could do my work with a set of Alien Bees units and a couple of Vagabond batteries but it's just not the same.  The work I do with the Elinchroms has fewer color shifts as I reduce or increase power.  The flash tubes seem less prone to causing UV excitation and the general quality of the hardware means I never have a broken stand adapter or detached speedring at an inopportune time.

Am I suggesting that everyone rush out and buy a set?  If you want to spend years shooting ads and portraits on sun drenched locations then you should really consider the advantages.  If you do this for a hobby and your aren't in the 1% you'd probably be considered crazier than me for buying them.  It all depends on what you have in your mind when it comes to lighting stuff up.

I do know this, in situations where you need f11 or f16 at 1/250th of second at ISO 100 shooting into a 4 foot by 6 foot Chimera softbox from about eight feet away you can't do much better without a good extension cord.  You'll certainly spend more trying to do it with many multiples of shoe mounted speed lights and handfulls of radio triggers.  You'll outperform the Speedlighters and DIY'ers on the number of flashes and the frequency of flashed every step of the way.  And you'll have a better quality of light into the bargain.

I find myself using the Profoto Acute B and the Elinchrom Ranger as studio lights too.  They are so familiar to me know that I barely need to think about them while I'm setting up and shooting.

Final interesting note:  The quality of the light between the Profoto and the Elinchrom is very, very close.  That means on really big shoots I can use the Elinchrom for my main light and the Profoto for a background light.  It's good to have reliable tools when your livelihood depends on getting everything just right... miles from nowhere.  And each, packed into the Honda, can serve as a ready back-up for the other. Buy once, use often.

A short follow up about the nature of blogging my purchase of the Sony Nex7.

Taken with a Sony R1 that I bought in 2005.  Still works just right.  Has an EVF. 

I'd like to get one point right out in front:  I don't blog in order to sell you cameras. If I did I'd have ads all up and down the sides of the blog.  I blog to tell you how I operate as a photographer and as a person. I like buying and using different cameras and, if you read this blog and many other popular photography blogs on the web, chances are that you like new cameras as well.  One thing I think you'll notice over time is that it's rare for me to request a "review" camera from a manufacturer which I then write about for no other reason than to boost affiliate or "click thru" sales. Generally I write about cameras that I've researched and then gone out and purchased with my own funds because I like the camera.  I then use the camera to take images and I write about my use of the camera. When I've wrung all the enjoyment out of a camera I release it back into the wild and re-bait the hook and try again. No one goes fly fishing just to catch fish...if you need to catch fish dynamite and a big net will always be more efficient...

In the past six months we've had lots of new cameras come to market that are very, very popular.  If my sole intention was to maximize sales to Amazon you would have seen "in depth" reviews of the Fuji XPro-1, the Canon 5Dmk3, the Nikon D800 and D800e (lots of fodder there for an extended collection of blogs with links...), the Sony RX100 and, of course, the Olympus OMD.
In fact, if I'd purchased an OMD I could probably have wrung twenty or thirty long blogs about it by now. All with links galore. I could probably make a meager living just selecting the most popular camera on the Amazon sales chart and gushing wildly about it until the next popular camera overtakes it. All sales all the time.

If I wanted to differentiate myself from other reviewers I could go after the cameras from companies with smaller market shares like Pentax, Samsung and Ricoh.  But the reality is that when you come here and read stuff you can be pretty certain that, when it comes to cameras and lenses, I've bought it (skin in the game), I am beholden to no camera company for any income or free product and, at the time, I probably thought the camera or lens was interesting. I'm certainly not seeing much affiliate cash for my many essays on old Pen lenses or the ethics of photographing on the streets....

Some photographers seem to think that once you've  committed by buying into a system that you are locked to that brand for the foreseeable future.  Most blog readers who come here to my site are not in the photographic profession full time.  For them camera purchases are just one of many things they buy from their family's discretionary income. They can't expense and depreciate their creative tools.  And in their business life most things are provided for them by their employers. They don't wake up one day and say, "Oh crap, Windows really does suck so hard. I'm going out today and have my IT department replace my machine with a new Apple MacBook Pro Retina machine!"  Most people either don't have the power to do that or they have become complacent about what they use because it's almost as good.  And it works for the ranges of tasks that are part of their employment.

As several of our fellow VSL members who live in India have pointed out to me more than once there is also an income disparity between the U.S. and a number of other countries such that the purchase of a new camera constitutes scrimping and saving for a good long while before diving in and making a purchase. This is another way of being "locked."

I am lucky to be part of a group of photographers who still actually work in their field, doing photography.  I don't intend to quit. I'm not trying to become wealthy or famous by blogging. I am not selling a DVD or an endless series of workshops. I'm doing the work.  I'm trying to reach out to like minded people and share the process, sometimes logical and sometimes misguided, that drives my decisions, colors my art and moves my excitement of being involved in the media forward. Part of that is trying new stuff and incorporating what I learn into the not inconsiderable store of stuff I've found out along the way to middle age.  And it's nice to have a certain sense of community...

Someone commented on a forum after I wrote about buying the Sony Nex7 that they "didn't get the whole Kirk Tuck brand."  Well who could? I am not a product. I am not a mission statement and I'm certainly not a cult leader issuing orders about which "holy" camera to buy. Branding is for products and multinational corporations.  I have a reputation instead of a brand.  To clients I am a reliable supplier of content. I work to supply images for their marketing needs.  To my vendors I am a source of income but also a good referral source.  To my readers I hope I am believable as a normal, average, flawed human being, plagued with the same indecisions and foibles as they are when it comes to dealing with the tidal change in the overall application of photography.  If I had all the answers I would be selling them to the highest bidder.  What I am trying to do here at the VSL is share what I feel and what I see in the market place.  I have the opportunity to shift gear around to suit my needs.  I have a great local store that does fair trade-ins and consignments.  The value of recent gear that I elect to shed doesn't drop in value to zero just because I'm no longer interested in it.

I've been playing with the micro four thirds cameras and lenses long before most of the rank and file forum rats discovered them.  I've plumbed the depths and done some nice work with the cameras and lenses. Call it gear ADHD or whatever but I wanted to try something new.  My gear allegiance right now is to the company that makes the best EVF. In my mind that's the change that M4:3 brought to the table (with the Olympus VF-2) and that's what is driving the market.  Sony's EVF's in the a65, a77 and Nex 7 are the best in the industry right now.  That's where my interest lies.

I'm not asking anyone to follow me into the store and do what I do, or like what I like.  That's crazy.  If I gave a crap about high ISO performance, if that was my primary metric, I'd be shooting with a Fuji X Pro-1, and trying to figure out how to make it focus consistently...  If I wanted the best IS in the world I'd join the long line and snap up an Olympus OMD.  If I wanted the ultimate in pixels there's a Nikon D800 at the local camera shop that could be mine within the half hour.  No.  I like the idea of bringing a finder up to my eye and seeing all the parameters of imagemaking beautifully and instantly resolved in the viewfinder BEFORE I snap the shutter.  The ultrafast electronic first curtain shutter. It's an imaging paradigm shift.

You don't need to like the same thing.  I probably won't care about the Sony brand when the other two "majors" finally get dragged into the current century and implement real EVF's in their top tier shooting cameras either.  But I don't think that qualifies me for permanent, online psychoanalysis.  The blog is a form of entertainment, for me and for you. It also keeps my books (which I worked really hard and long to produce) in the public eye.  I love it when they actually get sold.  But I don't flog them in every other blog post, nor do I flog products I don't use in every other blog post.  So, brand addicted gear nuts:  Get over it.

This is a blog, not a buying guide for people who are too something to do their own research and trust their own tastes.

Something interesting about our out of control acquisition: http://www.pixiq.com/article/the-ugly-truth-behind-our-beautiful-cameras

(Full disclosure about affiliate advertising.  I take advantage of Amazon's affiliate program by putting links to products I blog about in the VSL blog. When a reader clicks on a link and buys something from Amazon I get a small commission which does not effect the price a reader pays on Amazon. My total of commissions so far for the first week of August is.......drumroll.......$40 US.  Some weeks are a bit better and some are a little worse.

I am not currently accepting any placed advertising on the blog and have turned down requests from one of the biggest camera stores in the world to join their program.  I am not currently promoting workshops or collateral items.  I am not heading to Creative Live and, as a result, I am not flogging their programming either.

As an income generating venue I hope you'll agree with me that this has been a total loss.  A time sink hole. Financial quicksand. Just thought I'd be really upfront about it. I have one great hope: When I bring out the e-book of my first novel I hope people will read about it here and then buy it.  That's it.  All done.)