Equipment Review: The Elinchrom ELB 500 TTL

Disclaimer: I am sponsored by Elinchrom and work closely with them on some products. I did not work with them on the ELB 500 but I did see prototypes six months before it’s release. Elinchrom has been kind enough to lend me an ELB 500 TTL kit to test out and shoot with for a two month period so that I can thoroughly test out this exciting new product. Here in this review I will give my honest thoughts about the ELB 500 and how it stacks up against my venerable ELB 400. 

Earlier this year, Elinchrom announced and launched their first TTL strobe kit, the ELB 500 TTL. It was perhaps a bit of a surprise to many, but I know they have been getting a lot of requests for a TTL strobe kit for some time. In Elinchrom style, it was natural that it mirrored the form factor of the ELB 400. At this point I have only had the ELB 500 for about six weeks, but that has given me enough time to get to know how it works and run it through a variety of situations and testing. For myself, I wanted to see how well the TTL technology actually worked and how effective the High Speed Sync (HSS) was compared to the Hi-Sync (HS) techniques I have been using for years.

First off, let’s talk about the technology. Through the Lens metering (i.e. TTL) has been around for decades, most notably in Nikon and Canon speedlights, but it was Profoto who first incorporated TTL into a more powerful strobe when they brought the Profoto B1 to market about five years ago. Since then, dozens of strobe manufacturers have copied Profoto and have brought similar style 500 Ws TTL monobloc-style strobes to market, many of them with similar features as the B1 but at one-third the cost. Until the ELB 500 TTL, Elinchrom had resisted the urge to add TTL to their strobes. This is partly because a TTL strobe uses IGBT flash technology, similar to speedlights, and all of the previous Elinchrom strobes used variable voltage control technology. Variable voltage strobes generate a flash burst by varying the energy (i.e. voltage) introduced into the flash tube and thereby generating different power output levels. In contrast, IGBT technology, which stands for “Isolated-gate bipolar transistor,” uses a high-speed switch to turn the power on and off rapidly. IGBT technology is what allows TTL to work. The IGBT technology allows the camera to register how much light is reflected from the subject and then turns the flash off instantly for a perfect exposure.

Why would anyone want TTL incorporated into a strobe? For years, those manufacturers that didn’t have a TTL strobe on offer cited the various issues surrounding TTL technology like varying exposures from flash to flash. While those issues still exist, the main reason for TTL is the same as it was with speedlights: ease of use. TTL is essentially Auto mode for flashes. Without really having to think much, anyone can post up a TTL flash and take a picture knowing that the subject will be well exposed. For many photographers that makes flash photography a lot easier to learn. I admit, I have railed against TTL in strobes for years now. I just didn’t see why I needed it. But, after using the ELB 500, I have to say, it is quite nice to have the TTL exposure as a starting point because it allows you to get the lighting dialed in much faster than manual flash with a light meter. I can see now why the Profoto B1 has been so popular. A TTL strobe is just plain easy to use.

To get the most out of the ELB 500 TTL, you will have to have either the Elinchrom Skyport Plus HS transmitter (and upgrade the firmware) or the new Elinchrom Transmitter Pro. At this point, there are only Canon and Nikon versions of the Transmitter Pro. I am sure Elinchrom will be adding versions for most other camera brands as soon as possible. As a side note here, I upgraded the firmware on my Skyport Plus HS (Nikon) and it works flawlessly with the ELB 500 TTL. It is nice to see Elinchrom offer the firmware upgrade for those that have long been invested in their gear.

The image below was captured using the ELB 500 TTL in TTL mode. This was shot in a studio against a black background. In my experience so far, the TTL works incredibly well on the ELB 500. It is much better than any other TTL I have used and light years better than the TTL of yore built into my Nikon speedlights. [Side note: While I have shot once or twice with the Profoto B1, I do not have enough experience with it to say how the TTL capabilities of that strobe compare to the ELB 500 TTL.] Of note, the image below was also shot in HSS mode. We will get to the HSS mode here in a bit. I will just say that it was ridiculously easy to get a well-exposed image using TTL and HSS together.

Before getting into HSS, let’s talk about the form factor and how the ELB 500 is in use. One of the things I really appreciate with the ELB 500, and all of Elinchrom’s offerings, is that the flash tube is exposed so that it can fill up a softbox or a beauty dish as it is supposed to. I recently used the Profoto D2 monoblocs on a shoot and those, with the enclosed flash tubes, are a bit of a disaster when to comes to various light modifiers, especially with beauty dishes. Retaining the exposed flash tube, as with the ELB 400 and ELB 1200, allows the ELB 500 to spread the light evenly in any light modifier, which is one of the major advantages of strobes over speedlights.

I am also a big fan of pack and head style strobes. Monobloc style strobes, like the Profoto B1 or the Elinchrom ELC Pro HD which have the electronics and the flash head built into a single unit, seem to be in vogue now but in my experience they can be a pain to use. Having a pack and head system where the flash head is attached to the power pack with a cable allows for making adjustments on the pack, which is usually suspended from the light stand, much easier. It is also safer when hoisting lights high above your subject. With monoblocs, and I have two of the Elinchrom ELC Pro HD 1000 Ws monoblocs, I often find that I have to lower the flash down to eye level just to change a setting that can’t be adjusted from the transmitter. When using heavier monoblocs you need a much heavier light stand to deal with all of that extra weight compared to a simple flash head. I realize that just pulling a monobloc out of the bag and locking it onto a stand is quite convenient. But the few extra seconds it takes to connect the flash head to the power pack in my experience is worth it. Plus, the power pack can act as a sand bag when hung off the stand. In most cases the power pack isn’t heavy enough to be a full-on sand bag (unless you are working with one of the high-end studio strobes from Broncolor or Profoto that weigh in excess of 25 pounds) but it helps secure the stand. As far as I know, the ELB 500 TTL is the only pack and head style TTL strobe on the market, so if that is your preference as it is mine, this is the strobe for you.

One other sweet feature of the ELB 500 TTL is that you can plug it in to an electrical outlet and use it just like a studio strobe. Elinchrom calls this feature “Active Charging” and it works very well. For the photographer that works both in the studio and out on location this is a very exciting feature. Without the active charging, the ELB 500 gets 400 full power pops, which is pretty amazing. That is likely more than you will need on any location shoot. In addition to active charging the ELB 500 has full asymmetry, meaning you can dial the A and B flash heads to any power ratio as needed as long as the two don’t exceed 500 Ws total.

Also, at 3.4 Kg (6.92 lbs) the ELB 500 (with a flash head) is still relatively light weight. As with the ELB 400, you will need to use the Elinchrom Quadra Reflector Adapter to mount the ELB 500 onto larger light modifiers. Unlike the ELB 400, there is only one flash head for the ELB 500. The ELB 400 flash heads will not work with the ELB 500. But, if you have the old ELB 400 flash head adapter it will work on the ELB 500 flash heads.

Now, let’s get into the High Speed Sync (HSS) capabilities of the ELB 500 TTL and how they compare to the Hi-Sync (HS) technology found in previous Elinchrom strobes. For those of you who are not familiar with HSS and HS and how they differ I highly recommend that you check out this article I wrote for the Elinchrom blog, HS vs HSS: What’s the Difference?  One of the issues with Hi-Sync (HS) was that it created a gradation from the top of the image to the bottom since this technology takes a slice of the light emitted from the flash. While the graduation was easy to correct, using a graduated filter in Lightroom, it was noticeable in some situations. With HSS, because the light is pulsing extremely rapidly to light the entire sensor evenly, there is no gradation. Below, the image on the left was shot in HS mode with the ELB 400 and the HS flash head and the image on the right was shot in HSS mode with the ELB 500. The red box outlined in the lower portion of the left image shows that area where the gradation is noticeable, when compared to the right image. While this isn’t that big of a deal, I just thought I would show the difference here.

When using the HSS mode on the ELB 500, the transition to HSS is seamless (at least with my Nikons). When using both HSS and the TTL modes, you can essentially set your camera up however you want and the transmitter will produce a good exposure for your subject if the flash has enough power. As I said above, this is extremely convenient. Switching into TTL mode and out of it is as simple as pressing the TTL button on the transmitter, and when switching to manual from TTL, the last flash output settings are retained so you can easily adjust the lighting as you want.

For much of my work the last few years, I have been using the HS technology to light up athletes who are far from the flash head. The HS technology has allowed me to overpower the sun from 20-feet away with the ELB 400 and close to 60-feet away with the ELB 1200. Hence, I wanted to see just how efficient the HSS is compared to my trusty HS. To figure this out, I set up both the ELB 400 and the ELB 500, both with the Elinchrom High Performance Reflector mounted on the flash heads, and placed them 20-feet away from the subject, which in this case was a Christmas light in my backyard. [I realize the image below is total crap, but it was just a test so I could understand the differences here.] Both images were shot at ISO 200, 1/2,000th second at f/2.8. Below, the image on the left was shot with the ELB 400 at full power (424 Ws) in HS mode and the image on the right was shot with the ELB 500 at full power (500 Ws) in HSS mode. It is easy enough to see that the image shot in HS mode with the ELB 400 is brighter, and hence there is more light output by HS than with HSS. I have always known that HS is more efficient than HSS but how close they are here is the surprise. When I pulled these two images into Lightroom and equalized the brightness I found there was about a 1-stop difference. When taking into account the power output of each strobe, since the ELB 400 is 76 Ws less powerful than the ELB 500, the difference between the HS and the HSS is approximately 1.3 stops. Personally, I was blown away that there wasn’t a much bigger difference. Elinchrom has managed to make the HSS much more efficient than I would have thought. In their marketing materials, Elinchrom talks about this being the “Most Powerful TTL light ever”and I have a feeling how they have optimized the HSS functionality is what they are talking about. I did not have a Profoto B1X to test how their HSS compares to the ELB 500 but that would be a very interesting test.

After I tested the ELB 500 HSS mode, I sent my results to Elinchrom and was told that the HSS is even more efficient with Canon cameras so your mileage on this test might vary depending on which camera you use. Note that Hi-Sync (HS) also seems to be more efficient on Nikon cameras in my experience. Regardless, the fact that Elinchrom has been able to make HSS so efficient is quite remarkable.

After this test, I wanted to really push the HSS capabilities of the ELB 500 from farther distances. I found that the ELB 400 in HS mode still was able to light up the subject from 30-feet away on a cloudy afternoon whereas the HSS mode of the ELB 500 in the same scenario wasn’t able to match it. That one extra stop for some scenarios is a big difference for my work. I realize that lighting up a subject from 20-feet away, or even 50-feet away with the ELB 1200, is a very specialized lighting scenario that few photographers will ever need. For most photographers, especially those capturing portraits, the ELB 500’s HSS mode will be plenty powerful for just about any scenario they are likely to face.

While reading the FAQs on the Elinchrom website regarding the ELB 500 TTL, I noticed a question about using HSS and HS simultaneously. The answer from Elinchrom was surprising. You can indeed us HS on one pack (like the ELB 400 or the ELB 1200) in tandem with HSS on the ELB 500! To test this out, I shot the multiple-exposure image below with a two light setup using both HSS and HS. The main light coming in from camera right was an ELB 500 TTL in HSS mode and the rim light coming from camera left behind the subject was from an ELB 1200 in HS mode. This multi-exposure image (created in-camera) was shot at ISO 100, 1/2,000th second at f/5.6 with a Nikon D850. The fact that I can use one strobe in HS mode and another in HSS mode is a huge selling point for the ELB 500 in my mind. It means my older gear is not obsolete but can be used right alongside the newer ELB 500 even when shooting in High Speed Sync mode. As far as I know, Elinchrom is the only strobe manufacturer to make strobes that use both HS and HSS flash technologies and they have optimized them both to work incredibly efficiently and in tandem.

At this point in the review, you might be thinking the ELB 500 TTL is the do-it-all strobe solution. But, as with all of these IGBT 500 Ws TTL strobes, there is one chink in the armor that I have found. That chink is flash duration. As with the Profoto B1X, and many of the other 500 Ws TTL moonlights, they have wicked fast flash durations at low power settings. The B1x has flash durations as fast as 1/19,000th second. The ELB 500 TTL has a flash duration as fast as 1/20,000th second. The Godox AD600 Pro has a flash duration as fast as 1/10,100th second. These units achieve these wicked fast flash durations at the lowest power settings. But at full power the flash durations are quite slow. At full power, i.e. 500 Ws, the flash duration of the ELB 500 TTL is 1/250th seconds (t0.5), which is very, very slow as far as flash durations go. At 250 Ws, one stop down from full power, the flash duration is 1/854th second (t0.5) in the Action mode. At 125 Ws, two stops down from full power, the flash duration is 1/1,886th second (t0.5) in the Action mode. The Godox AD600 Pro has a similarly slow flash duration of 1/220th second at full power. Interestingly, the Profoto B1x has a flash duration of 1/1,000th second at full power (t0.5), which is faster than the ELB 500 and the Godox but still not fast enough to freeze motion reliably.

Why am I making a point here about flash durations? For most photographers, this won’t matter at all. If you need to freeze motion then you just jump into HSS mode and shoot at a high shutter speed to freeze the motion. But, if you are trying to freeze the motion with the flash and overpower daylight at the same time the flash durations matter. For a long time now I have shot motion blurs of athletes blasting by me and then froze their motion using a fast flash duration. One of the hallmarks of Elinchrom strobes is that they offer multiple flash heads (for most of their battery-powered strobes) and have the Action flash heads that have fast flash durations even at full power. Hence, with an ELB 400 and the Action flash head, I can use that setup at full power (424 Ws) to freeze the motion of the subject even when shooting with a 1/10th second shutter speed. With the ELB 500 TTL, I would have to drop down to 125 Ws to get a fast enough flash duration to freeze motion reliably. For some photographers this won’t be an issue, for others this will be a limitation for the ELB 500 TTL.

When shooting with leaf shutters, like with my Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi, I can sync at all shutter speeds up to 1/800th second. On other Hasselblad’s, like the X1D and H6D cameras, they can sync at up to 1/2,000th second. But, the catch here is that the flash duration needs to be shorter than the shutter speed. Hence, at 1/800th second (the top shutter speed on my H5D) the t0.5 flash duration needs to be around 1/2,000th second minimum to work with my H5D. Otherwise I would be clipping the flash and/or have issues with how quickly the transmitter triggers the flash. When using the Hasselblad, the ELB 500 TTL is fairly limiting because of the slower flash durations at the higher power settings. I realize for most photographers this won’t be an issue. But with the new mirrorless medium format cameras that incorporate leaf shutters this could be an issue for more and more photographers. In the image below, I had to use my ELB 1200 and the action head to over power daylight and get a fast enough flash duration to work with the leaf shutters in my H5D.

Who is the ELB 500 TTL designed for? In my mind, and as seen on the marketing images put out by Elinchrom, the ELB 500 is designed for portrait, lifestyle, fashion and wedding photographers where the flash head is relatively close to the subject. And by close, I mean that the flash head is not more than 10 or 12 feet (3 to 3.6 meters) away from the subject. That isn’t to say that it cannot be used to shoot sports with the HSS mode, but it may not be as versatile as the ELB 400 or ELB 1200 for that freezing motion at a distance. I realize that 80% of photographers out there are probably using a strobe for portraits of some sort and will have the strobe relatively close to the subject. The other 20% (or less) are trying to shoot action of some sort. So, for the vast majority, the ELB 500 TTL will be their best option for a battery-powered strobe within the Elinchrom line up.

In conclusion, I am very impressed with the ELB 500 TTL. It is so easy to use and setup that going back to my ELB 400 feels slow by comparison. I am not a fan of TTL in general, but I have to confess, it makes life much easier when trying to dial in the lighting on location. Not only that, it also negates the need for a light meter. On location, I typically start in TTL mode with the ELB 500 to get a base exposure and then I push the button on the Skyport transmitter to go into manual flash mode and adjust the settings from there. Flash on location really can’t get much easier. Add in the fact that I can use HS and HSS modes on different strobes simultaneously and that is icing on the cake. So, will I be upgrading to the ELB 500? I will not be selling my ELB 400s because they are so versatile and they are still stellar strobes. Hi-Sync (HS) is still the way to go for the vast majority of my work. The ELB 1200 is still my go to battery-powered strobe because I often need the extra power and versatility that it offers. But with that said, I can definitely see adding an ELB 500 to my kit for those shoots where it will work well and can help me be more efficient.

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