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Elinchrom just released their new flagship: the ELB 500 TTL. A new portable flash unit, to create absolutely stunning photographs. To me it’s just like a dream come true, and in this article I’ll explain why.
Disclaimer: I’m not getting paid to write this article. I think I have the most beautiful job in the world and I want to spread my enthusiasm, to make our world a better place by sharing my experience, knowledge and measurements. Just take the information to your advantage and be happy to live in such an exciting time period.
A flash enables me to accentuate the facial features of my model. It enables me to create beautiful jawlines and I can make the face and body to appear taller or wider by modifying the kind and angle of the flash light.
It also means that the better the quality of the flash light is, the sharper the pictures will be. In studio setting the effect will be more pronounced than buying the best glass: the shorter the flash pulse and/or the camera shutter time, the sharper the image.
With a good flash I can obtain a way better color rendition. Skin colors are spot-on, colors on the clothes are vivid and natural and color casts are gone, without the need of Photoshop.
When my model is in front of a beautiful landscape I can use flash to illuminate my model and I can adjust the camera exposure to darken the landscape. That way, the sky can be absolutely perfect blue and the landscape will be extra saturated, pushing those vivid colors to the viewer without the need of Photoshop.
In addition can the flash give the model a beautiful highlight into the eyes. This enables the model to communicate and to attract the viewer. I don’t like “dead eyes”, I want them to sparkle.
I’ve been waiting for a game changer in the world of flash light since 2006. I had some special wishes, because I wanted to have sharp pictures with perfect colors, with beautiful blurry backgrounds and captured at exactly the right moments: when I press the shutter.
But often I have to carry a lot of heavy equipment with me and I’m with 1m68 not that tall, so I needed to have a lightweight and portable solution. A solution which I can put on a tripod in high winds, without having to worry about it falling down because of the top weight.
The unit had to be powerful so I could work against bright sunlight, and it had to have a certain mode so I could use it during events in the field: TTL, so I could put my camera on semi-auto (Aperture Priority mode for example) without the need to worry about using my Sekonic light meter to measure the exposure of my subjects: on festivals and live events not practical of course.
In the past couple of years I have done a lot of investigation about my wishes and choosing the best flash light. But there wasn’t any flash which could deliver what I wanted. So I decided to test and measure the light quality of a lot of different brands for flash duration (shorter = sharper pictures), color accuracy (the better the spectrum, the better the skin tones for example) and I was also testing the light modifiers. Elinchrom became the brand-to-go for me, because they did something unique with the quality of their flash light, which I will describe later on in this article.
In 2009 Elinchrom released their Quadra unit: a small portable flash unit with a beautiful quality of light. In 2015 Elinchrom released the ELB 400 with an even better quality of light and new functionalities. But unfortunately it still didn’t fulfill all of my wishes unfortunately. Here they are:
But today the time has come. Elinchrom created my dream portable flash unit: in my opinion the flash unit that fits me the best. It has all of the above points and more:
Yes, TTL (through the lens metering) has existed since 1960 and the first TTL light metering SLR was the 1963 Topcon RE Super. TTL enables the flash to auto adjust the flash exposure while taking the photo by measuring it through the lens, enabling me to work more efficient during events and festivals.
But it’s not only TTL, I was in need of a combination of other features: a high degree of color consistency, image sharpness and power. And it must not be top-heavy. Currently the ELB 500 TTL is the only light that gives me that combination, with a lot of other advantages.
It’s easy to use, it recharges quick in-between flashes, it delivers a lot of power, it’s small and it’s portable and all of that combined with TTL. I can’t wait to take it to some special locations, with some beautiful models, beautiful weather and happiness.
The ELB 500 TTL weighs about 1.7 kg (3.83 lbs) and the battery weighs about 0.73 kg (1.60 lbs). It’s easy to carry and the snappy makes carrying even more comfortable. The unit with battery attached measures to 16 x 9 x 18 cm (6 x 4 x 7 inches), so it fits perfectly in the carry-on luggage too.
It has a flash capacity of 500 Ws/J. That’s a lot, allowing me to overpower the sun without problems, creating dark skies and beautifully lit subjects at every time during the day. When I connect the ELB 500 Head and turn it to maximum power on normal mode, I am measuring an exposure of a whopping f/64 on ISO 100 on my Sekonic L-858D light meter – om 1m distance through the 48º reflector. That’s almost skin-burning (I can actually feel the energy of that flash pulse). It’s > 10x more powerful than the most powerful Canon Speedlite flashes.
And, important, it delivers a lot of flashes on one battery charge. It charges the battery to 90% in 100 minutes. After that it will do slower trickle charging to 100%. This enables me to get more than 400 flashes on maximum power and almost 30000 flashes at minimum power. That’s more than I can capture at one day of shooting, but I think I’ll buy another spare battery in the future if I need to go to cold locations for several days, or to locations without good mains power. The battery doesn’t suffer from the well-known memory effect and it also has protection systems against things which always can go wrong with batteries, to get the most out of it. Elinchrom also improved their battery locking mechanism even more.
Every regular camera has an X-Sync speed. This is unique to the type/model of the camera and the value of it is mentioned in the manual of the camera. Modern cameras with a small sensor usually have an X-Sync speed of 1/250s and cameras with a full frame sensor have usually an X-Sync speed of 1/200s. Medium format cameras with leaf shutter lenses have X-Sync speeds up to 1/1600s.
With a simple flash unit without HSS (or other equivalents) it’s not possible to use the flash with that camera on shutter speeds shorter than that X-Sync speed. It’s a technical limitation because of the speed of the movement of the internal camera shutter blades. So, if I want to use my 85mm f/1.2 lens outside in the sun, to photograph a model against a beautiful blurry dreamy background at f/1.2, it’s impossible to do (without the use of an ND-filter), because I need a shutter speed of something like 1/4000s: way too short to combine with a normal flash. I need something different: a flash with HS and/or HSS functionality.
HS lets the flash give a very long flash pulse, to the camera it looks like a continuous light so the camera can capture it without problems. And HSS lets the flash give a long series of very short pulses, with to the camera almost the same effect. Usually HS is a more efficient way, more powerful, but it can give a gradient in the image. But Elinchrom has made HSS as powerful as their HS, currently the most powerful HSS on the market, so HSS will be the way to go now. And there’s no need to think and worry about X-Sync speeds anymore because the Transmitter Pro trigger does the switching automatically.
The flash unit has two ports: A and B. It’s possible to adjust the power of port A and B to 1/10 of a stop, independently. So I can give my main light 80% of the power ad my fill light 20% of the power, for example. That’s neat, because the old units (the ELB 400 and other Quadra units) only have the possibility to deliver the power with a ratio of 66%/33%. And both of the ports deliver the same flash durations too, so I will always obtain maximum sharpness without having to worry about which port to use with which Head.
The unit also works together with the Phottix Odin II triggers. And if I configure the ELB 500 TTL for use with the Odin II trigger I can also assign a separate group to a separate port, for example the Odin Group 1 to port A and the Odin Group 2 to port B. This lets me control the output of port A and B independently from each other, straight from the top of the camera.
It’s nice! It feels even more solid than the previous generation, although that wasn’t bad either. It’s lightweight, sturdy and sweet. There’s no more connector at the back, the cord is fixed immediately to the Head. I think this will deliver better protection against weather conditions and no more need for fiddling with that screw connection which sometimes slightly annoyed me when I was in a hurry.
And, the ELB 500 Head also fits to the ELB 400! It has the same connector and because of that, extension cables also work, I’ve tested it with a 10m extension cable and it worked absolutely fine. Of course the ELB 500 Head will give only 400 W/s of output then, because the ELB 400 can deliver a maximum of 400 W/s.
I measured the (T0.5) flash durations of the ELB 500 Head connected to the ELB 400.
A-port, power 6.0 (max): 1/1560s, power 1.7 (min): 1/850s.
B-port, power 4.4 (max): 1/2660s, power 0.1 (min): 1/2040s.
The flash durations of the ELB 500 Head connected to the ELB 500 TTL unit will be in this chart soon. They are different because of the special HSS pulse the new unit delivers.
The new screen is huge and bright. It’s a pleasure to use, with good navigation and pressing down the rotation knob will take me into the sub menus and accept values. The background color can be black or white, depending on how I feel that day. 😉
The color at the top of the menu changes with the assigned group number of the unit, so it’s easier to tell apart the units while using multiple of them in multiple groups. I only had one minor issue with one color: white text on a light blue color can be more difficult to read in certain situations, but only while using the dark background. So if I select the white background, all is fine. But I can always control the unit remotely through the computer software, or with my iPhone, with my Sekonic light meter or with my Transmitter Pro trigger on top of the camera.
When I take a picture, the camera has to tell the flash to fire. That’s called triggering: the camera has to trigger the flash. Many years ago the only possibility to trigger a flash was using a cord between the flash and the camera. This is still possible, the ELB 500 TTL still has a flash trigger socket. It’s a 3.5 mm port with a sync voltage of 5 volts. It’s safe to use with very old flashes which are using a high voltage too.
After some years optical triggers came: a photo sensitive sensor, which delivers a pulse to a secondary flash when it sees a flash from another flash unit. The ELB 500 TTL also has a sensor for that, at the top of the unit. This enables the unit to act as a slave unit, so it will flash automatically along with other flash units. With Elinchrom units it’s even possible to adjust the sensor to ignore pre-flashes, being able to let it fire at exactly the right moment. The optical triggering distance with the ELB 500 TTL is 15m indoors and 10m outdoors within line of sight.
And then there’s the wireless radio triggering system: Skyport. There are also other wireless radio triggering systems like PocketWizard and Cactus, but I’ve got the best experience with Skyport because of the reliability and range: I’ve used it over several hundreds of meters outside (on normal sync mode). Inside the ELB 500 TTL there’s a Skyport receiver unit and on the camera I’m using the Elinchrom Transmitter Pro (the same as the EL-Skyport HS, but Elinchrom Transmitter Pro is the new name as of today with software version => 2.10).
The Skyport protocol has 20 different frequency channels and 4 groups.
It’s also possible to use the Phottix Odin II radio triggering system. This enables dividing the A and B sockets of the unit to separate groups and TTL also works.
Some of my students were still using on camera flashes: Speedlites. The world of professional larger flashes was too inaccessible and difficult for them, and they knew their Speedlites. Now I can finally bring them the good news: this new Elinchrom unit works just like a Speedlite, since it also has TTL. But it also has more than 10 times more power, a more even and more consistent light quality, a huge combination of light modifiers to enable hundreds of creative options and it recycles much faster than a Speedlite. It also delivers more flashes per charge, and it can be charged while shooting. It has more power for the weight, I like the user interface more and.. it works together with existing Speedlites. Yes, that’s right! Through the Phottix Odin II system. No need to throw the old Speedlites away, they can work together beautifully as secondary lights and also in TTL mode.
There’s a lot of difference in the quality of the colors among different brands of flashes. And it’s not all about white balance: what’s not there cannot be reproduced. Think about the orange colored street lights: a person wearing a green jacket will look as having a dark grey jacket and it’s impossible to recover the green of the jacket: it’s simply not there, because the orange lights were only emitting light in the orange part of the color spectrum.
The same counts for flash lights: some of them emit more of the blue spectrum, causing more difficulties with reproducing red colors. Human skin tones can contain lots of delicate red tints, but certain types of flashes are less good within that part of the spectrum.
Inside every flash light there’s one or more large capacitors. After charging the capacitor discharges into the flash tube.
But we want to be able to adjust the power of the flash – how can we do that? Two ways: by raising or lowering the capacitor charge voltage, or by cutting off the power from the capacitor to the flash tube during the flash.
A flash starts with blue during the max voltage of the flash pulse, and as soon as the voltage from the capacitors lowers at the end of the flash, the flash emits the red tones of the color spectrum. But we want sharp photos so we need short flash pulses: Elinchrom has applied a special kind of gas combination inside their Action flash tubes so the flash will be short while emitting the full spectrum of colors.
Other brands were using the second principle: immediately cutting off the power during the flash. This also delivers short pulses and sharp results, but that’s less efficient and.. it doesn’t emit the red part of the spectrum that faithfully, resulting in different less natural skin colors.
Unfortunately, to apply TTL we need to cut off the power during the flash. That’s one of the principles of TTL. But Elinchrom did something new (to me), by modulating the flash pulse to emit all the parts of the color spectrum as evenly as possible. They confirmed it’s IGBT but with a twist. So now with the ELB 500 TTL we have the best of both worlds.. TTL, HSS, short flash pulses and a faithful high quality reproduction of all the colors. No more compromises.
Inside every Elinchrom flash head there’s a second light: the modelling lamp. This enables me to see how the light shapes the face of the model and how my lights are positioned. It also helps the makeup artist and stylist to make corrections because the result is immediately visible with the right light shaping like the final picture.
The modelling lamp is also useful with video. It emits a beautiful light, and the color reproduction of modelling lamp of the ELB 500 Head is even better than that of the ELB 400. The ELB 400 modelling lamp didn’t emit the red spectrum – it has a low CRI/Ra. So it was less suitable for good makeup evaluation and for video with delicate skin tones. While balance cannot change that, because those red tones simply weren’t there in the image.
But the ELB 500 Head renders also the red tints faithfully and consistent. It’s an ultra bright 14W daylight power LED with timer, free, prop and VFC options – equivalent to a 75W halogen lamp. It’s adjustable in 40 steps (4 stops), from a power level of 2.3 to 6.3.
The shorter the flash duration, the sharper the picture. I’ve written a big article about it already, so I’m not going to repeat it here. But the ELB 500 TTL has some very good flash durations, especially in Action mode and on low to medium power. I have also updated that article with this new product already so you can compare the results, but here are the measurements standalone.
When I’m working outside the ELB 500 TTL makes it very simple and efficient for me to use. First of all (with my model standing with her face in the shadow) I measure the ambient light, pointing the light meter to the direction of the light source (the sun, or the clouds on an overcast day). Usually I do that with a light meter as the Sekonic L-858D, but in a creative process it’s also possible to do it on-camera with Live View for example. Then I dial in that exposure onto the camera. When I take a picture the surroundings and landscape will be dark, smooth and beautifully saturated. My model will be too dark then of course, so I will point the flash to her and I will set the trigger on my camera to TTL mode by pressing the button on the left. For people with dark skin and/or dark clothes I will dial in -1 to -2 stops of exposure compensation on my trigger and for people with Caucasian skin I will dial in half a stop or more than that if the model wears bright clothes.
There’s an even faster way though! Perfect for festival and events photography for example.
First of all (with my model standing with her face in the shadow) I will put the camera to aperture priority mode (Av on Canon for example) and I’ll choose the lens aperture I want, f/1.2 for example. Then I will point the flash to the model and turn it on, with the trigger on my camera to TTL mode and I take a test picture.
Is the ambient light (landscape, surroundings) too dark? Then I dial in more exposure compensation on my camera. Too bright? Less exposure compensation on my camera.
Is the subject too dark? Then I dial in more flash compensation on my trigger. And too bright? Then less on the trigger.
So, with TTL it’s actually very simple: the exposure compensation on the camera controls the ambient light in aperture priority mode and the flash exposure compensation on the trigger controls the exposure of my subject.
If I want to see how the direction of the light is interacting with my model or if I am pointing the light at the right angle, I use the modelling light. I enable it via the Mod button on the trigger at the camera, or by pressing the button at the ELB 500 TTL unit itself.
After taking a shot on TTL I can press the Manual button on the trigger. The ELB 500 TTL remembers the last TTL power value and takes that as manual value. Very handy because then I have already a good starting point.
There’s a possibility to use the modelling light or the flash light as a focus aid. That works great, but the Elinchrom Transmitter Pro also has an AF Assist (red light) to do the same. That works as well and it saves even more battery power.
My favorite modifier to use on location as main (key) light is the Elinchrom Deep Octa ø100cm. It’s portable, lightweight and relatively easy and quick to setup.
When I have more time and people around me to carry stuff, then I like to use the Mola Setti with Elinchrom mount and Elinchrom Quadra adapter so I can fit the ELB 500 Head to it. The Mola Setti gives a beautiful and special kind of light, even more remarkable than the already great Elinchrom Deep Octa.
But the quickest to setup is an Elinchrom Deep Umbrella. And the light quality of the Deep Umbrella can be great too.
It’s easy to see the battery level on the large display of the unit. But it’s also possible to see it directly on the battery unit itself, by disconnecting the battery and pressing the test button at the battery.
In the future there will be a big software update so we can give all our flash units a friendly name. It will be possible to do that with an Elinchrom iOS app and with a new app for the computer.
Elinchrom includes all the necessary documents to show at the airport to the customs. This saves a lot of time and it shows the customs exactly what kind of batteries and equipment you are carrying with you, so it will keep you and the batteries out of trouble.
It’s a little bit tricky to measure the HSS pulse with the Sekonic L-858D light meter in HSS mode. A lot of the difficulties depend on the way of triggering the flash to measure it: there’s a difference between triggering the flash from the camera and triggering the flash from the transmitter. The flash pulse also depends on the camera shutter speed setting (the trigger behaves differently on shutter speeds below and above X-Sync). Please experiment with it and let me know in the comments.
The new Skyport trigger, the Transmitter Pro, while using it in TTL mode only triggers the ELB 500 TTL. The ELB 400 and other non-TTL units don’t fire then, they only fire in manual mode. So if I want to combine the ELB 500 TTL unit with other non-TTL flashes, that’s only possible in Manual mode (at the Transmitter Pro).
When changing the power level to a lower value the unit doesn’t have to do any power transfer anymore, unlike the ELB 400. So, the unit is ready to fire immediately.
The ELB 500 TTL has IP20 humidity protection. It’s possible to use the unit in the cold and the heat, but I keep the unit in the shadow as much as possible. It also cannot swim, but an occasional splash will be fine I think. It’s robust and it can handle a lot of abuse.
Elinchrom has a nice Snappy, I use it to carry the unit on my shoulder or to attach it to a light stand (as low as possible to lower the weight to the bottom of the stand). The Snappy now has ports at the sides (with Velcro to close them) to connect the charger. This way we can charge the unit without removing the Snappy. Time saver.
Let me know your experience below. I love to share my enthusiasm and I like to see if I was able to share it indeed. The days are getting longer here, spring is coming, so (as the folks on DPReview always say in their forums) go out and shoot!