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Elinchrom ELC500 TTL studio flash

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A new generation from Swiss masters of studio flash Elinca SA brings multi-platform TTL, super-fast recycling and flash durations, brilliant LED modelling and many design innovations. David Kilpatrick has been trying out the twin head kit.

The second wave of any innovation in technology is often safer to invest in than the pioneering first generation. Studio flash offering IGBT duration and power control, allowing much the same TTL and high speed functions found in camera speedlights, has been in development for over a decade but whole generations have been orphaned by advances in wireless trigger and camera firmware.

Finally bringing this to their new mid-range ELC TTL heads – one rung below the ELC Pro and one above the BRX – Elinchrom has worked for maturity in the whole technology. So, when the ELC 125 and 500 TTL arrived they worked much like any head with the EL Skyport Pro. Days later new firmware for the triggers enabled TTL operation, across a range of camera platforms already proven with the portable ELB 500 TTL.

The ELC 125 TTL is a little larger than a D-Lite. The ELC 500 TTL is substantial – as expected.
  • New dark grey design with superior handling and balance
  • Pro-sumer price but professional spec
  • True TTL exposure with all major camera systems
  • Standard or high speed flash without changing heads or tubes
  • Robust sequence shooting
  • New bright LED daylight colour modelling light
  • Unique colour-coded logo display to show groups
  • Very large LCD rear info panel easy to see at a distance
  • Skyport and Phottix, smartphone and tablet control
  • Large brolly shaft tube fits third part accessories
  • Elinchrom shot-to-shot consistency of colour and power output
  • Worldwide service, UK support from The Flash Centre
Photoshop composite warning! Alfie dancing with himself, high speed poses with Animal Eye AF on the Sony A7RIII, 85mm ƒ1.8 lens at f/2.8, and Action duration set on the two heads. Main 90cm square softbox on ELC 500 to the right of the camera, 44cm honeycomb rigid softbox on ELC 125 to the left, skimming in from side and behind, near the edge of the background. Dog handling by Assistant Editor Diane E. Redpath; lighting, camerawork and post-production by David Kilpatrick.

Canon, Nikon, Olympus/Panasonic, Sony, Fujifilm and Pentax have all been enabled to integrate into Elinchrom studio setups though the differences between the shoe fittings do mean you need a trigger for each different system you use. For medium format and anything else, the transmitters can be paired with a universal receiver.

The logo on the side changes colour to show the Group set. The stand fitting is simple and appears to be very strong. The centre of gravity and pivot point is better on the 500 when any lightshaper is fitted.

To use functions of the transmitter such as Hi-Sync (up to 1/8000s shutter speed) specific flash heads have been needed – the ELB 400 and 1200 portables with HS heads, or the D-Lite RX4, are needed to use HS. With the new ELC TTL heads HSS rather than Hi-Sync is used with a high speed shutter setting, enabling the ELC 125 to achieve this despite having a standard maximum power flash duration of 1/625s  (t=0.1) which would be too short for Hi-Sync.

The umbrella tube is within the reflector area, as with previous Elinchrom heads, but it’s able to fit 8mm (very common) as well as 7mm (Elinchrom native, and less easily found) shafts.

The ELC heads can achieve either Standard or Action durations for any given power setting, toggled at the press of a button. The 125 can give 1/7750s and the 500 1/9430s at minimum power which is an identical 7 Ws in both cases. It’s a close enough match to mix the heads, you’re not going to see ghosting on super-fast subjects with the difference in durations involved. Since the LED modelling light in these heads is fully variable both manually and with a proportional link to flash power, it is possible to use the 500 within its 7 to 125 Ws range alongside a 125, and match the modelling to the flash exposure easily. There is no function similar to the D-Lite or BRX heads to apply a two-stop differential to modelling power.

Bright daylight LED modelling

The LED is centred on the flashtube and the rear display can show both modelling and flash power. The modelling when measured was sixteen times brighter than our iLux Summit 600E battery powered mono heads.

To give an idea how good the new modelling LED is, it’s a very bright CRI 91 source suitable for most daylight fill-in and video though the intelligent fan cooling of the heads works against movie lighting. It is sixteen times as bright as the LED fitted to competing battery-powered Chinese heads introduced a few years ago and still unchanged in this respect. It’s a 20W LED, which would be perfectly battery-friendly for brief use but can run all day at full output in a mains-powered head. 

The head never heats up the way tungsten modelling lamp designs always have, even those with 50W peanut bulbs. This meant my 44cm rigid small soft box, conical snoot, optical spot and reflectors fitted with front diffuser or deep honeycomb could be left with full power modelling, for hours if necessary. For many photographers, the quality and brightness and proportional control of the modelling without any heat penalty will be reason enough to choose the ELC heads.

Songwriter Natalie Bays photographed using a 100cm deep octa softbox on ELC 500 close to the camera, with 44cm honeycomb rigid softbox on ELC 125 as a hair accent light behind to her right. The modelling is bright enough for reliable manual or auto focusing but also very comfortable for the subject.

While the TTL function tests out well, I’m still using a flash meter partly to check the relative brightness of each head especially when one is used for a side/back positioned accent light and one for a main light, as I did with the 125 and 500. I generally add a small amount of rim lighting to avoid dark subjects blending into the typically dark background. The tenth-stop control of these heads, individually or globally from either their very well designed and illuminated rear controls or the Skyport, allows fine tuning to traditional reversal film standards though digital shooting doesn’t need that. Just get the ratio right and don’t overexpose, at low ISO settings (anything under 800 these days) the shadows and exposure can be fine tuned from raw.

Practical photography tests with the Elinchrom ELC 125/500 TTL kit

To test the 125/500 kit we did a shoot with Assistant Editor Diane’s chihuahua puppy Alfie who was up for an extended playtime jumping in the air after toys and running around the fabric backdrop. The modelling was set at full power to let the Sony A7RIII with 85mm f/1.8 FE lens track continuous focus at 8fps (Hi) and AF-C with Animal Eye AF enabled. Short bursts or single frames only were needed, and it was pretty amazing how precise the focus was working out at f/2.8. What may look like static poses were not!

We did a shoot using tomatoes dropped into a long glass of water, just for fun, using the fastest duration on both heads with closer positioning and ISO 640 to allow f/5.6, with manual focus and exposure by metering and test frames. The Hi+ setting (10fps) does reduce the dynamic range to 12-bit from 14-bit, so bright water in these is burned out, but that doesn’t really matter. The Tamron 28-75mm FE zoom used at 75mm had no chromatic aberration (always a risk with bright water reflections), and later on in the portrait below showed its sharpness, aided by the total absence of any exposure duration related shake. That’s a benefit which not all studio flash brings as durations can indeed be in the 1/200-1/500s range – the ELC 500 runs at 1/250s in standard mode at full power (t=0.1). 

Water splash at faster than 1/7000s flash duration on both heads, shot using the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 FE at f/5.6, manually focused, ISO 400. From 10fps Hi+ sequence shots with nearly symmetrical flash to rear and sides. Below, variations on the theme – the bottom right hand shot is a composite of two frames, made possible by working on a tripod. Set-up design and tomato dropping by Assistant Editor Diane E. Redpath, lighting and camerawork by David Kilpatrick.

The longest sequence bursts were only two seconds at 10fps, and the ELCs had no problem keeping up and never lost a frame. Recycling with both 125 and 500 set to 7 Ws is just 0.06s working from 230V mains, so capable of better than 16fps. I didn’t try running the camera at full speed until it or the flash hit a barrier – trying not to use my 500,000 shot shutter life all in one day!

Start where you left off – a memory for the settings in use

One great benefit of the heads is the ‘mains always on’ function with a standby red glow on the rear power switch. The settings last used are remembered, as with most Elinchrom units even when switched off and on again at the mains – common practice with boom or track mounted heads positioned out of reach. The ELC ProHD models turn off completely if you do this and need to be switched on at the head (a service modification can change this). With ELC TTL heads, just switch off and on again at the plug and the heads come alive.

Ergonomically, the new heads are much improved. The bayonet lock is similar to the D-Lite latch but made stronger, and easier to use than a rotating rim. The tilting stand mount is very robust, the reflector centred umbrella shaft is increased to 8mm from 7mm and there’s no external one in the mount. The big grab handle on the top is needed as the barrel of the body is large to hold otherwise. The new standard reflector and other accessories are finished in very dark grey, a switch from the traditional light colour of Elinchrom. Some third party EL bayonet accessories didn’t fit the heads, as the body is tailored exactly to the profile of the genuine products. The new protective cap is compact, reducing overall storage size, but won’t fit heads with conventional modelling bulbs.

The LED modelling light in the ELC heads outputs 3000 lumens from a small circular source located dead centre of the ring-shaped flash tube. With the Conical Snoot, top, there’s a significant difference between visual modelling (top left) and flash exposure (top right). This also applies to some reflectors and also honeycomb grids, but not to softboxes with fabric panels, or umbrellas. Lower pair, the preview using the Elinchrom Mini Spot optical spot – which does not overheat with the LED – closely matches the final flash result.

The flashtube is covered by a ventilated pyrex dome. There may be a frosted one available in future to iron out any discrepancy in the modelling light and flash illumination, as previews and as shot. I found the LED gave odd effects with just a few light shapers, notably the conical snoot. Surprisingly, the optical mini spot was very faithful between modelling and flash effect – and naturally any reflected or soft sources worked just as normal. All small modelling sources produce different effects, and Elinchrom’s original Super Leuci large bulbs preview flash tube light better.

Benefits of cool running modelling with video-friendly brightness

With the new LED modelling there will be no bulbs to replace, so that’s a cost of ownership reduced. The flash tube and dome are user replaceable, the modelling LED is a service replacement. Does an LED have a longer life than a flash tube? From experience of LEDs so far, I’d suggest not. Time will tell. We have seen great advances in LEDs over the last few years. Elinchrom must be convinced that the unit they have chosen is a mature design and will have a long production life. It is, after all, the first time they have put LED modelling into an AC mains head and they have waited to be able to get this right.

As for video, each head still has an intelligently controlled cooling fan – even the 125. So they have limited use with sound recording. With any flash able to fire at a 16fps burst rate cooling is needed. For events, school portraiture, fashion or sports action shoots at typical power settings around 30 Ws per head the rate of firing may be slower but photographers don’t want thermal cut-out half way through a day of hundreds or thousands of shots. This is the big difference between the existing D-Lites, BRX, and ELC ProHD models – recommended duty cycle. At entry level you can shoot sessions with hundreds of shots, at the top level with thousands. The new ELC TTL heads have a medium-duty rating similar to BRX.

The standard duration mode, toggled to Action by pressing a button on the back panel marked with a star, offers 5600K colour temperature with a ±150K stability on the 125 head and ±200 on the 500. The LED is 5700K. Unlike flash heads with bright tungsten modelling, you won’t get a warmed-up result by using strong modelling and low flash power with a shutter speed like 1/30s or 1/60s. Photographers today often forget that some of the classic fashion, beauty, figure and portrait work of the 1960s to 90s was taken using studio flash with 650W halogen modelling turned down to minimum flash power to enable wider apertures, on medium format cameras like Pentax 67 or Hasselblad 2000F which synced at speeds like this. With leaf shutters capable of X-sync at 1/500s, speeds like 1/60s were used to allow the modelling to add warmth and enrich the colours on transparency or negative colour film. What you get from the ELC TTL heads and any mix of LED and flash, even with dragged shutter effects to combine movement flow with frozen detail, is a constant daylight colour temperature. The 3000 lumens output is enough to shoot at f/1.4 or f/2 hand-held for subjects like newborns, using no flash.

Our verdict on the ELC TTL system

In the ELC TTL heads, Elinchrom has combined most of the key features of mains studio flash with the functions of the ELB 500 TTL portable kit. The ELC ProHD models remain best for very heavy duty work, high power to 1000 Ws, and advanced programmable functions. For most users a set of ELC TTL heads will be all the studio flash needed for many years to come. The ELC 125, not much bigger than a D-Lite One, is ideal for social studios shooting portraits, groups, babies and small products.

The reliability of the brand, its 30-year history of British-Swiss synergy, and the solid service provided by The Flash Centre in the UK outweigh the cost advantages of buying one of the lesser competitors in the new field of TTL studio flash – makes which might be considered equal cost more. If your existing light shapers and accessories are EL fit, the decision is easy. If you’re moving from the Bowens S reflector fit adaptors are easy to find.

The ELC TTL heads are sold individually and also as kits – 125/125, 125/500 and 500/500. Prices start at under £500 for the single 125 to around £1,200 for two 500s in a well-designed bag, all heads coming with the new 16cm reflector and all warranted for three years.

See: www.theflashcentre.comWhen enquiring please mention Cameracraft’s review! Affiliate links below help run this site if you choose to buy from them.

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