In early January I received an email from an up and coming swimmer called Brooke Bartenfelder. Based on Florida, USA, Brooke had seen some of my sports portraits and was determined to do some publicity shots that would stand out from the crowd. She was travelling to London for one week only so we had a short window of opportunity. After some thought I got back to her explaining that I wanted to shoot on location by the Thames as I had a strong idea for the shoot. Then came the reality check, “Brooke, you need to be prepared to suffer a little to get this image. Whoever said that art was easy?” London in January tends to be a little colder and wetter than Florida ‘The sunshine state’. That said, one of the reasons that I like photographing athletes is that they have a completely different attitude to pain. Regular models can often be difficult when it comes to ruffing it but athletes generally relish the challenge.
Now some photographers love to embrace spontaneity. They will turn up at a location or a studio with no previous knowledge of the situation believing this gives them a freshness of vision that is a vital ingredient for the finished image. Three cheers for them but I am a planner. I like to know exactly what I’m doing and can be a little obsessed when it comes to preparation. This assignment had all the hallmarks of a control freak’s nightmare so I was keen to reduce the variables as much as possible in every way. My vision was an image of the dedicated swimmer out in all weathers to maintain her training schedule. I wanted rain but I have experience in this area. I was once waste deep in a bog in Wales shooting for the world bog snorkeling championships with battery powered lighting and I can tell you it’s a whole world of pain when the rain starts to make your flash heads fizz and crackle. I also wanted to capture the feeling of a private moment within a busy city, waking up in the early morning. Location flash was needed to accentuate the feeling of the morning sun and the city lights as well as providing controllable depth, contrast and character to the shot. Backlighting is the building block of most of my images but how do you do that when you need to be placing lighting stands in the middle of a fast flowing river?
I own and work with a mixture of Profoto and Elinchrom lighting systems, in studio and on location and frankly I like them both. I had not worked with the new Elinchrom ELB units but I had a hunch that they might be just the job for this challenging location. I had heard that their weather proofing was superb and I wanted something small and light weight with a reliable remote control transiever to adjust hard to get to lights. The Thames is famously tidal so I decided to find a location where I could position Brooke for the shot I wanted, lighting her with flash units set up on the beach and then shoot the background image when the tide was in so as to give the impression of a high tide river swimmer. I scouted the river at 7.00am to find an ideal spot where the tide was out and quickly drew up a short list of about 4 possible locations. It was only then that I noticed the regular Police boats that chugged past every 30 minutes and had a sudden panic attack regarding permits and legalities etc.
A good friend of mine, photographer Julia Fullerton Batten, had just completed an extensive series of images shot on the banks of the Thames so I gave her a quick call. First thing she explained was just how difficult it was to get permits to shoot by the river. It’s a health and safety nightmare and can take months to organize. Now, I’m not one to break the law but I have a pet hatred for little men in big boots. I knew that if I opened up this conversation it was likely to end in a forest full of paperwork and frankly this was just not the shoot to do that. I resolved to make sure we stayed on the public ramp part of the river and this helped me decide on exactly which location we would use. The other revelation she imparted was that the tides change literally every day. Aaaargh! One phone call had just unveiled a potential disaster for the whole shoot! My carefully timed reccy was completely irrelevant as the state of the tide today at 7.00am is not the same as tomorrow at 7.00am. Julia led me to a handy online tidal chart that is essential for any rower, swimmer or photographer in the area.
I changed the date of the shoot and set about gathering my team, essential for any good location shoot. Two assistants, make up artist and video cameraman to record the day. Brooke brought her own out-fits which I supplemented with a few bits of my own and her mother/manger Laura was an excellent stylist being the owner of a swimwear store in Florida and a formidable athlete in her own right.
I always insist that unfamiliar kit is delivered to me the day before a shoot but having shot with the Quadra units before I found the ELB kit pretty familiar. To be honest they are very obviously a development of the Quadra line so I don’t really get why they are called something different. “Quadra Mk2” would kind of make more sense. This would avoid confusion with the ELC studio units and have the added bonus of a ready made following of enthusiastic location flash fans. It’s worth noting that the ELB is a Quadra update that gives more in virtually every department. It is definitely not just a re-badge.
For those of you that are not familiar with Elinchrom Quadra lights they are stupidly compact battery and head units that pump out around 400ws per pack via 2 sockets that can be used on full power through a single socket or 2:1 ratio with two. The original Quadra Rangers were lead battery powered but are now available using an optional Lithium unit. The ELB comes with a Lithium battery that out performs the lead by 350 full power flashes to 150, weighs 60% less and recharges 25% faster. Its also smaller and altogether just a better battery. The unit itself actually puts out 425ws in total and has a host of great features that contemporary Elinchrom customers will find rather familiar. The ELB offers the same programmable multi strobing feature found on the ELC monobloc heads. Up to 20 flashes per second, which is a faster frame rate than any standard DSLR can deliver…incredible! The ELB also delivers the latest Hi Synch (HS) facility using Elinchrom’s own Skyport Plus HS Transmitter that can be used throughout the majority of the modern Elinchrom range. The true genius of the ELB system is the availability of completely different types of flash head. The photographer chooses the head that most suits his work and he or she has three heads to choose from.
The ‘Action’ head offers a blistering fast flash duration and can only be used in normal 1/200 sec flash synch or ‘X’ mode. This is designed for when the flash is being used to stop action and not the shutter speed. With a duration of up to 1/2800th sec it will make a flying skateboarder pin sharp in the sky. It can even be used with slow shutter speeds when combined with rear or front curtain synch settings to give creative blur followed by pin sharp accuracy. Unlike most other units the ELB delivers its fastest flash durations at the higher power settings which is a great way of ensuring that you get all the power when you really need it.
The ‘HS’ head stops action in a completely different way. Without the need for extensive Pocket Wizard reprogramming the HS heads can synch with your DSLR at up to 1/8000 sec. With the dedicated Skyport HS system there is virtually no banding or vignetting problems and the set up is very simple. It uses a slow flash duration, 1/550th sec, to act as a superfast continuous light source and is ideal to mix with ambient daylight. Inevitably you will loose some of the power as you are still clipping the flash curve but it supplies far less power loss than the strobing option found on your speed lites and indeed on the Profoto B1 or B2. The effect of this is also useful if you want to shoot outdoor fashion or portraiture with shallow depth of field even on a very sunny day.
The ‘Pro’ heads are a combination of both of the above. Offering a good flash duration that can be Hi Synched but not as effectively as the HS head. They are more versatile and closest to a regular flash head with a duration of 1/1200th sec.
Amongst all this techno wizardary it was the ELB’s weather protection system and its compact size that attracted me to them for my shoot. I wanted a powerful unit that I could hide in the scene and know that the wind and rain would not be a problem. Virtually every part of the ELB pack has rubberized seals and caps so they are very well protected.
I shot with Pro heads and hid the first light behind the central pillar in the scene and the other just off camera to her right. Both were set up with standard light shapers and the front fill was produced using my regular Elinchrom one metre square soft-box over the camera fitted to the ELB via the converter ring due to the fact that the ELB has a smaller connector fitting. Shooting with my Canon 5D Mk4 and trusty 24-70 set at 24 mm at f16 gave me the landscape detail and the drama that I wanted. The background was actually shot on the following day when I returned on my own during high tide. I was careful to mark the position and height of the camera but when returning I decided to get a better view on the scene by moving slightly higher on the ramp whilst keeping the diagonal wooden board at exactly the same angle and distance from the camera. I treated the landscape as an HDR image with 5 exposures processed in Photomatix and I mimicked the effect on Brooke using a series of adjustment layers that I have developed over the years in within Photoshop.
My amazing make-up artist Rosie Scott was responsible not only for the face but also Brooke’s legs which, believe me, were turning a strange shade of blue in the cold weather. Brooke will be depressed to hear that I have done shoots like this before when I have shot the model in studio and dropped them into a pre-shot landscape scene. This is perfectly do-able but I find there is something about the combination of ambient and location flash in situ that is very difficult to match so I always prefer to shoot the model within the actual setting to avoid that cut out look (even if it is on another day!).
The rain was very, very complicated. I always like to use the real thing but have developed my technique over the years and definitely added to my box of tricks this time around. We had rain on the day but it was not quite at the level that I wanted so we spent time continuous wetting the cobbles on set to ensure the right level of reflection. I then created multiple layers of scaled rain in Photoshop and very carefully created splashes on the various surfaces. It was finished off with intricately placed water droplets on Brookes body and face. The pigeon and the bus are completely real although the bus was slightly re-positioned. They are the kind of additions that the spontaneity lovers, mentioned at the start of this article, would wet themselves over.
Elinchrom’s ELB lights are a well thought through development of a class leading system. The only real competitors are the Profoto B2 which are lower powered at 250ws or the 500ws Profoto B1 which are monobloc units with different characteristics. Both of these have a fabulous TTL facility and frankly a much better light shaper system (completely compatible with every light ever made with an adjustable, unbreakable rubberized clip…fantastic!) but they lack the power of the ELB in every comparison test. I have used the B1 units many times for fashion shoots and recently for a wedding and I think they are an incredible light unit but for this assignment I really think the ELB is head and shoulders the better light. Whether in regular shooting or in Hi Synch the ELB just gives you more power and more versatility. On the down side for Elinchrom I have always found the light shaper connection ring an annoying piece of design which is made worse by the fact that the Quadra and ELB units actually have a different diameter connector. I also would prefer the two ports to be 50:50 split rather than a fixed 66:33 but may be that’s a personal thing. My final gripe is that on a few occasions I found that the remote power setting from the Skyport was not setting what I told it to. It jumped back to a different power setting as I released the button when adjusting a chosen head so I quickly learned to double check every time. I would also like to see the same technology being applied to Elinchrom’s higher powered units. I have travelled the world with the 1100 Ranger packs and they are still going strong but are very out of date. Come on Elinchrom. I want more power and all of your lovely Skyport Plus HS facilities to play with it!
The final major factor is the price. The Elinchrom 400ws ELB twin head Pro kit comes in at £1655.00. The Profoto 500ws B1 twin head kit is £3210.00 and the Profoto 250ws B2 twin head kit is £1994.00. So make your choice.
Modern compact lighting kits are just getting better and better and in my opinion more than anything else they offer the photographer the perfect opportunity to express his or her creativity in a multitude of ways. Whether you are shooting complex, multi-layered, advertising pieces or fast action one click reality shots it is a golden time for off camera location flash.
I need to thank my amazing team for their dedication on this shoot as a cold rainy morning by the Thames in January is not exactly the photo glamour that we all signed up for. Most of all though I wanted to thank Brooke who was an absolute trouper. At one point she actually apologized for the fact that her leg was shivering. Her only concern was that it might possible effect the final image…top model!