A few weeks back I decided to bite the bullet and invested in a Ranger Quadra system from Elinchrom after a long period of personal dissatisfaction with my lighting equipment. The problem I’ve had with lighting gear is that I love small flash; I’m a big fan of Nikon speedlights for their compact size, light weight, and the fact that they run on AA batteries – all of which makes them perfect for traveling to and working on location – the downside being that they’re short on power and you’re somewhat limited on the choice of available light modifiers. Last year I decided to step up to big lights with some Bowens Gemini Pro 750 watt heads and packs; the Bowens lights work flawlessly and with power to spare, but the heads are the size and weight of a breeze block and the packs aren’t far behind… Plus never having used mono-light heads with battery packs previously I naively assumed that the modelling light would work with a pack which of course it doesn’t because it would drain too much power; this is a small but important point as one of my frustrations with speedlights was the lack of a modeling light – not because I need to see what the light is doing but because I often find myself working in very low light and can’t actually see the subject; I’ve used everything from a bike headlight to my iPhone on past shoots (just one of many reasons I use a Nikon D3; the auto-focus never lets me down). Elinchrom debuted the Ranger Quadra system last year which bridges the gap between small and big flash; significantly smaller and lighter than the standard Elinchrom Ranger system but still capable of using Elinchrom’s impressive range of light modifiers and with significantly more power and better raw light quality than a speedlight. Plus it features an LED modeling light which due to the low power requirements of LED bulbs allows it to be run from the pack; as far as I’m aware this is the first time this has been done and it’s a huge coup for Elinchrom.
I’ve had the chance to do a couple of shoots with the Ranger Quadra heads and packs now so here are my initial thoughts:
I went for the ‘kit’ option as it’s by far the best way to buy into the Ranger Quadra system; you get two heads, one pack, two batteries, Skyport trigger and all the neccessary cables (plus a carry strap for the pack) etc and it all comes in hard case. I chose the S heads as the flash duration on full power is still 1/1300 which puts it way ahead of the already very fast speedlights. Two heads will run off one pack but it’s an asymmetric power output and you cannot control each head independently; it’s split 66%/33% which gives a two to one ratio; this really limits the use of the second head and so I’ll be adding a second pack at some point. The upside of the asymmetric power distribution however is that if you’re using one head then the ‘A’ socket provides maximum power while the ‘B’ socket gives lower power and a shorter flash duration.
The Ranger Quadra pack is compact and lightweight and features an integrated Skyport receiver as well as a sync socket (jack cable type) for using with Pocket Wizards or any other type of radio trigger (or even a sync cable if you want to go old school…) plus there’s a built in photocell for optical slave triggering. There are plenty of options and settings but I certainly wouldn’t want to try and navigate the menu system without the manual to hand; personally I don’t see this being a big issue as I have a pretty set way of working but if you need or like to chop and change then you may find this frustrating (even something as simple as turning the ready beep off requires going into the menu system).
The heads are very small, and very light; the LED modeling light is a huge plus and works well. On the downside the Quadra specific modifiers are limited and you’ll really want the RQ-EL adaptor which allows the use of use of the excellent range of Elinchrom modifiers. The adaptor replaces both the standard reflector and bracket and provides a heavier duty support for the head; this provides support for any Elinchrom softbox, beauty dish, or octabox up to 100cm. I’ve been using the 100cm Rotalux Softbox and the quality is superb. One problem with adding the adaptor is that the head then won’t fit in the hard case which is perfectly formed for the kit as it’s sold; it’s easy to take the adaptor on and off but add in an extra pack (as mentioned in a previous paragraph) and that lovely hard case becomes redundant and so I’m already considering transferring everything to a shoulder bag or wheely case. The heads do feel a little plastic-y and fragile as you might expect; time will tell if there’s actually any durability issue as a result, but the plastic umbrella mount is a bit of a worry and works on friction alone; not sure if I’d trust it outdoors; certainly not in a strong wind.
The Skyport trigger is very small compared to the Pocket Wizards that I normally use and the remote power control is a really nice feature to have; I’ve heard that they don’t have the range or are as reliable as Pocket Wizard however and this was born out when the Skyport inexplicably stopped working mid-way through a short photo-shoot and I had to switch to my Pocket Wizards. Upon investigation later the Skyport worked as normal so the cause of the failure is still a mystery.
I was intrigued as to just how much power the 400 Ws pack would give me in practical terms and fortunately I got to find out pretty quickly; this band portrait was shot at F14 ISO 200 with a single head and softbox at full power and backed up enough to provide an even light across all five subjects. Power can be adjusted by 1/10th of a stop up to one full stop per push via the settings menu, and if you like shooting at large apertures the pack dials down very low via the ‘B’ power output. I haven’t tested it thoroughly at the low end yet but I have taken photos at F2.8 ISO 200 which is much lower than I can dial my Bowens 750W heads down to without backing them up and losing the softness.
So is the Ranger Quadra system any good? Well, yes but that’s not really the point. Lights – like camera bodies and lenses – are just tools and whether they work well can be largely irrelevant; they need to be the correct tool for the job; that’s to say that they need to be best tool for the kind of work you do and the images you want to produce. I have to travel a lot with my equipment; often on planes and trains and usually without an assistant, as well as hiking around on outdoor location shoots so my gear needs to be light and portable, plus I need to be able to set it up anywhere so it can’t be reliant on AC power. Typically I don’t need huge amounts of power. So while the Ranger Quadra isn’t perfect (what is?), it’s a great system that strikes the right balance between small and big flash; and before Elinchrom stepped in with the Quadra that gap used to be pretty huge.