There are a tonne of studio light brands available on the market for every photographer, amateur to professional. You have the low end of the market with the Asian manufacturers to the high end market where the European brands dominate.
I started off my first studio flashes (or strobes) with a Chinese brand called Godox. A lot of us may be familiar with this as being the cheap brand that is not bad. For simple shoots that do not require precision (like for brand advertising photography where colour accuracy is an imperative criterion) and for the weekend warrior photographer who shoots group photography of models with a bunch of other photographers, the Godox or other cheap strobes may be the go to kits because they’re not expensive relatively and they have spec sheets (but only on) that match middle market to high end brand strobes. Nothing wrong with Godox if it fits your current requirements as a photographer. Even if you’re a pro photog and you shoot commercials and advertising work…and your clients are happy with the images that you’re churning out, then that’s great.
The very first time I fired a strobe, I was floored by the amazing pictures that I could create. Don’t you remember that first time you fired a flash and then checked the LCD of your camera and went like ‘OMG SO COOL’. #damnsuakuiknow
I shot a few pictures with it, but not anything paid at the time because I was still serving in the SAF and moonlighting was illegal. I tried shooting a few low key portraits of myself.
They’re not too bad. I even brought it along to a friend’s wedding to try out. This was the Bride and her sister.
But I needed a wireless solution where I could control my lighting output wirelessly for an upcoming shoot. The Godox had a physical knob at the back of the strobe unit itself which controlled the light output. This meant that I had to climb up stools or frighteningly tall ladders to change my lighting power, or switch on or off the modelling lamp. Or if I had a complicated lighting setup, a bit of gymnastics around the light stands, wires and reflective boards.
A little bit of research on the internet brought me to a Swiss Designed brand of lights known as Elinchrom. They were selling some low powered strobes that were about 100ws (or 100 Joules) for photographers who wanna shoot wide open apertures and the best part was they had 2 square 60cm softboxes that came with them. Singapore had a distributor. So I went down to Cathay Photo and made a request to demo the D-Lite RX ONE. Two hours later I rushed off to a corporate shoot with the pair of lights. And with a wallet that was lighter of SGD$800.
A week later, I made an appointment with a French model for an outdoor test shoot. I never had to shoot above half power even with this little power on the strobe. That means what…50ws? 100ws was more than enough for portraits to be honest. Here is a sample. I shot at f8 for this shot. At ISO 100. See how he’s still very well lit.
I shot Mexican top model Manuel Escobedo with them too…in broad daylight. This was shot at Ion Orchard, at the Orchard Road side.
Needless to say I totally left the Godox strobes (had 3 units) aside after using the Elinchrom. The Elinchroms had this ‘punch’ to their lights that I really liked for my people shots. This was from a shoot I did for the command team for an infantry unit in the Singapore Armed Forces Army.
I went on to shoot a lot of images with the D-Lite RX ONE 100ws strobes. They were to become my workhorse lights, both indoors…
I’ve shot a wide variety of stuff with them.
At this point I’ve already heard of Broncolor once or twice in my conversations with other photographers. I didn’t know much, but I just knew that the biggest production studios and most prestigious photographers generally use them. They were my idols like Karl Taylor, Jimmy Fok and Sandro Baebler.
But then I thought… if my clients were happy with their images, then…that’s fine. At that point my clients were still relatively less picky and less demanding with how pictures turn out. They’re not as nitpicky or anal about the technical aspects of a photo as we photographers are. Of course they can tell if a picture is BAD or even TERRIBLE. But I find that as long as your work is decent, you meet or exceed your clients’ creative expectation and they’re happy with what they’re seeing, then all’s good. And the Elinchroms deliver on that. So at that point there was no need to switch to a lighting brand that even I don’t see a benefit that I can derive. I bought two more lights at that point. The D-Lite RX 4s, which were 400ws lights from Elinchrom that allowed you to shoot HS or Hi Sync, meaning going all the way up to 1/8000th of a second shutter speed, bypassing the maximum sync speed of your camera.
I attended ShootSIN 2016, an event organised by Hasselblad and Broncolor. It was sort of like a showcase of the Hasselblad medium format digital cameras (which I would have been using for a year plus at that point already) and Broncolor strobes. They invited some of their photographers from the Hasselblad ambassador programme down…photographers like Karl Taylor from the United Kingdom, Kevin Then, a friend of mine and Hasselblad Master from Malaysia, Sails Chong from China and a few others.
That was my first real life brush with Broncolor.
Back then there were some issues I was having with my Phase One IQ260 60.5 megapixel digital back. Cathay Photo helped me out a tonne with this as they’re a distributor for Phase One in Singapore. I told them that after switching on the digital back, the splash screen would come on and then freeze there, not going past it. This happened after reverting the OS to the factory settings. Nothing worked to get around that. Restarting. Removing and reinserting batteries. Leaving the digital back battery-less for a week. Nothing worked. They weren’t too sure. I checked with Capture Integration (super nice guys btw) in America and they were puzzled. I also emailed Phase One directly.
Even Phase One didn’t know what was happening unless they physically had the digital back on an operating table in front of them, scalpel in hand. I sat on it for a month thinking about whether I should just get a used digital back or repair it. In the end I called Michael from Cathay Photo and told him I’d just send it back to factory. It was a really expensive paperweight if it wasn’t repaired and I would have to do it sooner or later. He helped me get the papers done and off it went to Denmark. Michael was really nice too…he constantly updated me on the repairs of the digital back. The preliminary report came back from Phase One. Apparently the chip board inside the digital back was malfunctioning and repairs would set me back about SGD$4600 (could have bought a brand new Canon 5DSR with that) to replace the entire chip board. Burn. Michael called me and asked me whether i wanted to proceed with the repairs.
I closed my eyes and with the phone to my ear, told Michael, “Let’s do it”.
The IQ260 digital back came back 2 months later due to some extensive tests they had to do and I was back in business. Thankfully I had 1 wedding gig that could cover the entire repair cost. Though I definitely wasn’t thinking of anything other than how to recuperate my bank account.
At this point of my career, I was shooting more and more commercial work that required colour accuracy than before. Clients were bedazzled with the amount of details I can pull out from photos of their products or portraits (makeup clients especially). I was churning out 60 megapixel photos for clients with a crazy amount of details and tones that none of their photographers in the past could ever reach with their full frame DSLRs. My clients were impressed and I was getting more calls to shoot banner ads, or ceiling height prints. As my shooting style got more precise and methodical, I slowly started to notice something in pictures that really tipped me towards making the switch to Broncolor.
Broncolor is famous for one thing, among other things. They’ve relentlessly made this an exact science – Colour accuracy. In fact they’ve also patented this technology of theirs. They call it ECTC (or enhanced colour temperature control).
When using my Elinchroms, I notice colour shifts as I go from low power to full power. The colour shifts are slight but noticeable. You cannot see it if you’re not looking for it though. But I noticed during a product shoot of a black and white product when I was scrolling left and right through Capture One with the client during selection. There was purple in the shadows of one and a bit of green in another. In two pictures shot with same power and every camera setting being similar.
It’s not a big deal because you can easily colour correct in post. It’s however, a problem when you’re shooting portraits and one picture in a series looks different from another. Skin is harder to get right in post. It’s also a problem when you’re shooting products that are black and you see a purple tinge in one and a green tinge in another. Nightmare for retouchers. And also nightmarish on a tight deadline.
There also seems to be a slight variance in the exposure between shots even when the Elinchrom strobe is set to a certain power as well. For example, I could have set the strobe to a power of 4.0. Between ten shots with the strobe firing at power 4.0, you’d see a slight change in the exposure between a few shots. Again, this isn’t something noticeable if you aren’t looking for it, but it becomes a huge problem when you want to focus stack (that was my tipping point actually) several pictures together in product shoots or if you’re shooting sequences. I was doing a product shoot of a small device for a client and I had to combine several shots of the device from front to back using focus stacking. Even at f16, I can’t get the product in full focus so focus stacking was necessary. It was nearly impossible because of varying exposures of the shots needed to do so. I had to go back to Capture One, fine tune the exposure for the affected images and then do it again. Another thing is Elinchrom lights tend to have an output that looks like a ‘flash’, whereas the output from a Broncolor strobe looks very much like daylight. I don’t know how to explain this, but you’ve got to see it to really know that there is something different between the two in terms of the light that comes out. A rep of one of the oldest camera stores in Singapore confirms this with me and mentions that it has to do with the way the Broncolor flash tube is coated that outputs that ‘wrap around’ lighting that is uniquely Broncolor. Not sure how true that is, but it reaffirms what I see.
Either way, I’ve had 4 of them Elinchrom strobes and all 4 of them exhibited the same issues of colour and output variances between shots. I’m not sure what the causes of these are, it could be the lack of a tight QC in the India factory where the lights are manufactured or it could be a ‘copy issue’. From what I understand, Elinchrom used to be designed and manufactured in Switzerland. But they’ve since shifted their manufacturing bases to India, where Photoquip India Ltd. manufactures their lights. With that in mind however, my personal experiences, though measured, may not be a true reflection of all their products in absolute conclusiveness. But it is enough to make me want to look elsewhere. I tend to go through equipment really quickly and if something doesn’t stick with me and my team, we quickly let it go and look for better replacements. Things have to work straight out of the box, and not after a tonne of fine tuning or investigation or servicing. Because clients won’t wait for you to get things right.
So about Broncolor…
Broncolor is famous for creating the world’s first monolight. Broncolor is also famous for their light’s consistency. Especially in terms of colour accuracy, which is important for high end still life and portrait work to me. Weddings, not so much. Most brands can swing those. Especially Godox and Elinchrom. Which the Elinchrom has done so gorgeously for my wedding photography career over the last few years.
But at this point of my commercial photography career, where a well known international makeup brand recently commissioned me to shoot multiple ‘looks’ for their line of products for their billboards and banners, the light has to be perfect.
Every photographer worth his salt will tell you that the quality of light, and not the amount of light, is important in creating a great shot. The landscape photographers will tell you about Golden Hour. The professional commercial and advertising photographers will tell you about Broncolor*. You can have one of the very best camera systems in the world, but it all comes to naught when the light that comes out from your strobes isn’t similar to or better than perfect. There isn’t room to say ‘I’ll process this later’ to the client when the colour looks off straight out of camera. The picture has to be taken, appear on the monitor in the Capture One program for the client to view and it has to look perfect, shot after shot. Especially since half the time, the decision making bosses of the company will not be physically there for the shoot. So the art director or marketing director usually takes a picture of the screen and sends it over to them via Whatsapp or something. If something ‘has to be edited’ before it comes close to the final image, then it might create doubt in clients who might not have the vision you have in mind, or if you cannot sell that vision of the final image to them.
(*I know many well known and professional commercial and advertising photographers who use many other brands of lights. This is not to say anything other than Broncolor is the only choice you should make. If it works for a person, then that’s the one for him/her.)
So this is me switching and my reasons for doing so. If you’re a photographer, you DON’T NEED to switch to a brand like this if your current brand works for you. But if you’re a photographer who demands the very best in Swiss engineering quality (Broncolor is STILL being made in Switzerland) and a brand that has been around making lights since 1958, then this is one way to go. If you’re a photographer who needs that precision in their lighting with no nonsense in the end result, then this is one way to go.
I’ve already acquired a Broncolor Nano A4 Pack that can output 2400J or 2400w/s into one or proportionately two heads.
I’ve got a Broncolor Pulso 4 3200J (of course this means I can only use up to 2400w/s of light since that’s how much the Nano A4 pack outputs) lamp head to pair with the Nano A4 pack that simply creates beautiful light. The following was a test shot in a pitch dark room. At the lowest power setting of the Nano A4 pack, which is 75J I think.
After this, I’ll be adding 2 Broncolor Siros L 800w/s rechargeable lithium (LiFePO) battery monolights to my setup as most of my shoots require at least 2-4 lights and half of them are also on location, outdoors. In the event that I’m going outdoors, the Siros L will be a Godsend because I don’t have to lug a battery pack with me to power my strobes outdoors anymore like in the past. It also helps with not bringing extension cables after extension cables for location shoots with very-far-away power sockets. And with the Siros L monolights, which is 100% wire independant, I can cut down on the wire clutter in my studio during photoshoots. No more navigating around wires like Andy Lau on Shock Wave.
Now I just need to figure out how to sell off my liver to fund the Broncolor purchases.
About the author
Alexcheous Cheng is a professional photographer from Singapore who shoots a wide range of commercial pictures through his brand Paragon Pictures. His notable clients include multinationals like Citibank, Johnson & Johnson and Amcor, to name a few. He believes in doing things a notch better and his passion is delivering the highest quality images because ‘if you do the same thing as everyone else, you will get the same results’. For enquiries for your own photography campaigns, drop him a mail at http://www.paragon.pictures/contact/.